Uncovering the Secret of Kona Coffee Roasters

Uncovering the Secret of Kona Coffee Roasters

Kona coffee roasters have gained a reputation for providing what is possibly the world’s best coffee. However, is it really worth the hype?

Yes. Yes it is.

Grown only in Hawaii's Kona region, this delicious coffee is indeed a rare brew. Kona coffee is known for its excellent quality and chocolatey flavor. But finding genuine, high-quality Kona can be tough. So what should you know before going to Hawaii—or buying from Kona coffee roasters online?

What “Kona Coffee” Means

Kona coffee’s story goes back over 200 years. To truly appreciate this coffee, you have to understand its history, flavor profile, and the painstaking production process that Kona coffee roasters follow.

Horticulturist Don Francisco de Paula Marin was the first to attempt growing coffee in Hawaii in 1817. However, these efforts didn't come to fruition.

Missionary Samuel Ruggles was the first to plant and successfully grow coffee in Hawaii, on the island of Kona, 11 years later. Ruggles used seedlings from Manoa Valley, Oahu, to plant the first coffee trees in Kona. At this time in history, sugar was still Hawaii’s main export. The success of Ruggles’s endeavors resulted in several sugar plantation owners switching to coffee as their main crop. Unfortunately, in the 1850s, bad weather and pests ruined many coffee trees on the Big Island.

In 1892, German immigrant Hermann Widemann revived coffee production by introducing a Guatemalan coffee bean type now called Kona Typica. A crash in the global coffee market forced Kona coffee roasters to lower their prices in 1899. This drove some plantation owners to go back to cultivating sugar.

The demand for coffee increased again during World War II, which brought back coffee farming in Hawaii. Then, in the 1960s, skyrocketing post-war tourism led to a surge in coffee production on the Big Island. This created labor competition between Kona coffee farmers.

In the 1990s, there was a scandal in the industry when coffee seller Michael Norton sold “fake” Kona coffee—advertised as 100% Kona—between 1993 and 1996. As a result, the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture must now provide a certificate of authenticity for all coffee exported from Hawaii.

The Kona Difference

But what makes Kona coffee so special? Kona coffee is only grown in one specific place—and it’s carefully curated to ensure that the final product meets the high standards set by the State of Hawaii. Specifically, it’s found in the Kona Coffee Belt on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa in Hawaii.

The volcanic soil on Hawaiian islands is ideal for growing coffee because it's fresh and full of nitrates, phosphates, iron, and manganese from recent eruptions. This helps the coffee plants grow strong on family farms.

The amount of sunlight is important for coffee growth—so the western slopes of Kona, with sunny mornings and rainy afternoons, are a perfect fit. Clouds give shade to protect the plants from too much heat. Additionally, the slopes drain water well, preventing flooding and helping produce good beans at altitudes up to 3,000 feet.

In Hawaii, the coffee harvest is from August to December. Workers pick the beans by hand, remove the pulp, and dry them. After washing and fermenting, the beans are air-dried. Then, before roasting, workers remove the outer layer from the beans. Kona coffee roasters make sure each step is done carefully to meet Hawaii's standards and make the high-quality Kona coffee they’re known for.

Kona Coffee Beans

The average cup of coffee in the US is made with Arabica beans. Arabica coffee is grown around the world and makes up 60% of global coffee production.

Kona is different. Kona coffee roasters typically use beans from Guatemalan Typica trees. These trees are the main coffee source in Hawaii—with some Brazilian Typica too. Some Kona farmers only grow Guatemalan Typica, while others grow a mix of coffees from Arabica beans. In mixed orchards, all beans are processed together and roasted the same way. Different Typica varieties and Arabica types make sweet, mild coffee with low acidity.

Whatever the exact origin, Kona coffee is considered by many to be “the best in the world” for its uniquely delicious taste. When roasted just right, pure Kona coffee has a bright, clean flavor with hints of honey, brown sugar, fruit, and milk chocolate. Additionally, it might have a subtle, spicy, wine-like hint. The flavors are well-balanced, leaving a nice aftertaste of nuts and citrus. Plus, the smell of Kona coffee is great, with hints of butter, cocoa, and caramel.

How to Spot Phony Kona Coffee Roasters

Since Kona coffee is so desirable, it’s understandable that other companies might do what they can to grab some of the spotlight for themselves. So if you’re looking for a genuine Kona coffee, keep an eye out for the “phony Koneys.”

Kona coffee is a special coffee experience you can only truly get from pure Kona coffee beans—and not the cheaper grocery store blends. Obviously, products labeled as 10% Kona are not pure. Instead, they blend Kona coffee with other beans. These sellers do this to benefit from the Kona name.

On the other hand, legitimate Kona coffee roasters ensure they only use the best beans, but they also follow stringent practices to keep the true flavors intact. When buying Kona coffee, always know what to keep an eye on.

“Fair Trade” Kona Coffee

Of course, there are other things to watch out for as well. If you catch a Kona coffee roaster labeling their product as “fair trade”, you should know that there is no such thing as fair trade Kona coffee… because Hawaii is a state, not a foreign country.

To qualify for fair trade certification, coffee needs to meet sustainability and labor standards during production. Many coffee farms around the world aren't fair trade certified. This means that their workers receive low wages and are struggling to improve their farms or lives.

Kona coffee is different. Kona coffee growers get decent wages, as required by US law. In other words, Kona coffee not only meets but exceeds fair trade standards.

Counterfeit Hawaiian Coffee Is a Real Thing

Despite rules against it, the counterfeiting of Hawaiian coffee still happens. To be 100% Kona coffee, all beans in the bag must be from Kona. That’s why you, as the consumer, may have to beware. For example, some companies have been known to sell Ka'u coffee and falsely advertise it as Kona in order to nab a higher price.

Not only is selling counterfeit coffee a crime, but it also hurts honest Kona farmers by lowering prices and trust. In 2023, about 600 coffee farms won a lawsuit against illegitimate Kona coffee roasters, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers for selling mislabeled Kona coffee.

Real Kona Coffee Is Pricey

Every Kona coffee fan is painfully aware of its price point. However, there are good reasons for this. In fact, low-priced Kona coffee should raise your suspicions about its authenticity.

The main reason Kona coffee is pricey is because it's hard to make. Unlike other operations that use machines to pick coffee, in Kona, workers hand-pick only the best red cherries over the course of months.

Mechanically harvested beans might make coffee that costs 3 cents per pound—but in Kona, the same amount will cost 75–85 cents. Plus, Kona beans can be sold right from trees for about $8 per pound without including labor. That means the final price of 100% Kona coffee can go up to $45–$60 per pound after considering land, labor, roasting, marketing, and taxes.

Additionally, Kona coffee is super rare, making up just 1% of the global coffee market. This rarity makes it even more desirable—and therefore costly.

Supporting Kona Coffee Roasters Supports Families

After Norton’s scandal in the mid-1990s, Hawaiian farmers, Kona coffee roasters, retailers, and processors joined to form the Kona Coffee Council (KCC).

The KCC's main purpose is to make sure that people get real 100% Kona coffee, not fake blends posing as Kona. They work for Kona coffee growers and push for more sales of pure Kona coffee—and laws to protect the brand.

Most Kona coffee farms are family-owned and small, around 5–10 acres. They make less than $10,000 in annual sales. A long time ago, after the coffee market crash, Kona farm owners rented out land to workers. This led to the diversity of small farms in the Kona District today. By buying authentic Kona coffee, you support Kona coffee roasters and their families directly.

Kona Coffee Roasters Outside of Hawaii

Of course, authenticating Kona coffee outside Hawaii can be a challenge. In Hawaii, Kona coffee has strict rules—but outside Hawaii, it's a free-for-all. That’s because the strict Hawaiian laws that protect the Kona name don’t extend to the federal level. In another state, you might find non-Hawaiian coffee labeled “Kona Roast” or “Kona Style” that's not from Kona at all.

To make sure you're really getting Kona coffee, check where it's from and make sure a Hawaiian company (like us) roasted it. Be careful if the so-called Kona coffee is under $20 per pound. Farmers sell unprocessed Kona coffee for $19 to $23 per pound—and once it's processed, it's $25 to $35. So if you see "100% Kona coffee" for $18 per pound, it's probably not the real deal.

The “Best” Kona Coffee Comes From…

So which Kona coffee is the best of the best? The top Kona coffee can change each year. However, all the great Kona coffees share similar attributes. They're often grown by family farms that know a lot about coffee, they’re stored carefully in sealed bags to keep them fresh, and they usually cost more than ordinary coffees.

When you're looking for Kona coffee roasters to try, remember this rule: if it's truly 100% Kona beans—and not suspiciously cheap—you'll likely get a taste that's worth the price.

Cheers to Kona

From its rich history rooted in Hawaii's volcanic soil to the carefully curated production process that ensures every bean meets the highest standards of quality, Kona coffee truly stands out. Its unique flavor profile, resulting from the perfect climate and growing conditions, has captured the hearts (and taste buds) of many coffee lovers around the world.

Not only that, but purchasing from Kona coffee roasters supports a sustainable agricultural industry in Hawaii and helps preserve this rare and flavorful bean for generations to come.

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