My last post regarding Kona coffee and espresso failed to cover on key aspect of Kona coffee that’s very important.
First of all I mentioned my first foray into Kona coffee a few months back was actually a Kona coffee blend that I bought on sale at my local Safeway. I mentioned the fact that this coffee was good but wasn’t as good as it could have been but I neglected to mention that this was also due to the beans used and not just due to the age of the roast.
Kona coffee blends tend to be very inexpensive in comparison to the real 100% Kona coffees because they are usually made of only about 10% Kona coffee and 90% cheap coffee.
One can assume the 90% portion comes from a location where coffee is quite inexpensive so as to offset the high cost of the Kona beans.
Kona coffee in a 100% form is actually some of the most expensive coffees in the world and probably the most expensive coffee in the world by region. As you can see above in the accompanying picture Kona coffee is not just from Hawaii but only that coffee that comes from Kona. And to make it even more exclusive it’s not just from the island of Kona but from the small 30 square mile belt known as the Kona Coffee Belt. It is in this ultra small region that conditions are perfect for coffee crop. Anything out of this zone can only be labeled Hawaiian coffee as it is not going to taste as good as what is grown in the belt of Kona.
In addition to a small geographic area geological conditions make this a difficult location to farm and cultivate the coffee crop. Although the conditions favor the growth of ultra fancy coffee it also makes it difficult to work the land. The slopes are steep, the ground is rocky and the cost of doing everything by hand gets very high.
Hawaii is not a cheap place to live and the conditions require Kona coffee growers to do everything by hand. Paying laborers to do the work adds up quickly as it can cost these farmers 20 times as much to pay their day laborers than it does in other cheap coffee producing regions.
Of course the coffee is worth it. If it weren’t so good the costs of producing it would quickly overwhelm the demand and a supply glut would force many growers out of the market but as it is the demand for this region is high enough to warrant the high costs of the beans.
Do some looking around. I can assure you that any Kona coffee “blend” or “style” you come across will be relatively cheap but anything saying it’s 100% Kona coffee will be mighty expensive. If you were to actually taste the difference in the blend versus the real stuff you would know that the blends are simply not anywhere close to the same caliber.
In many cases the price of 100% Kona coffee can still vary widely with some beans reaching the stratosphere in pricing and this is due to a regional grading system that all Kona coffees go through. To be labeled as Kona coffee the bean has to come from the belt but it must also be graded (which adds extra costs in and of itself). The grading process takes the beans and grades them based on size and quality. The best of them all obviously as more desirable and fetch a higher price on the market. The lower grade beans go for less.
This is why you can find 100% Kona beans for $20-$30 a pound as well as 100% Kona beans that are stretching up towards $100/lb. When purchasing Kona coffee be sure to look for the 100% to ensure you are getting what you actually want and then check the grade to understand what kind of price range you should expect.
The grading scale for Type I beans ranges from Extra Fancy to Fancy to Number 1 to Peaberry to Prime in descending order. Prime being the lowest grade and Extra Fancy being the highest (and most expensive).
I am actually kind of regretting my purchase of Safeway Kona blend now that I know more about it. Next time I get it I’ll be going for a regional 100% Kona coffee roaster. Koa Coffee Plantation is currently the roaster highest on my radar.
Also, at the prices good Kona coffee goes for it pays to:
- buy in small batches (to keep it fresh),
- buy it in whole bean form to grind yourself at home,
- and to buy the roast that goes best with your favorite coffee brewing technique.
Why is Kona Coffee Expensive
Before anything else, just how expensive is Kona coffee? Well, you can get a bag of coffee beans for less than $8. Then, you can buy a cup of coffee for about $3. But Kona coffee costs up to $60 per pound! What makes Kona coffee special that you need to pay a premium for it?
There are several factors considered when pricing coffee beans – location, single origin or blend, organic, fair trade, direct trade, among others.
The geographical location from where the coffee beans are harvested plays an important role in pricing coffee beans. As coffee drinkers become more educated and aware of the intricacies of coffee plantation and harvesting, coffee producers now put a premium on location and origin of coffee beans. In return, buyers become more sophisticated when it comes to drinking coffee. They realize that coffee beans are not grown under similar conditions. These unique conditions contribute to the aroma, taste and flavor of coffee.
Single origin and blend coffee
As coffee drinkers discover that coffee beans are unique, they know that single origin coffee tastes so different from blend coffee. Often, single origin coffee preserves the unique taste and flavor of the coffee beans. Therefore, single origin is often more expensive than blend coffee.
Organic coffee beans
Coffee beans are naturally healthy. They are rich in antioxidants, but more “ethical” coffee drinkers and health enthusiasts prefer organic coffee. Because organic coffee farmers do not use synthetic fertilizers or chemicals used in growing or production, this means cleaner beans, air, land, and water. The coffee is grown with only organic fertilizers from coffee pulp or compost.
Kona coffee: why so expensive?
There are three major reasons why Kona coffee is expensive.
Kona coffee got its name from the region where it grows. It grows in Kona Coffee Belt region located in the Big Island Hawaii. The whole region has is 1 mile wide and 30 miles long. It is the only coffee grown commercially in the United States. But it is not produced in the mainland. Kona coffee is grown in the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa.
Hawaii is an island paradise popular with tourists. It has the perfect sunshine in the morning and rainfall in the afternoon, plus the nice elevation all contribute to the rich, bold and strong flavor of Kona coffee. Here are 6 reasons why the Kona Coffee Belt region is the perfect location for coffee production:
- Lots of sunshine which coffee plant loves and a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Lush green foliage and shade to protect the plants from too much sunlight
- Just the right altitude. Kona coffee plant grows in a slope about 3000 feet above sea level, it gives the coffee a mild taste
- Regular rainfall that perfectly balances the amount of sunshine that coffee plant gets
- Good soil drainage protects the plants from over-watering.
- Rich volcanic soil thanks to the volcanic eruptions by Mauna Loa and Hualalai
No other coffee can claim the title Kona coffee. Only coffee beans harvested from this region is 100% Kona coffee. There are other Hawaiian coffee like Ka’u, Puna and Hamakua. But only coffee from Kona is authentic. There are Kona blend coffee but you only get 10% Kona and the remaining 90% is a different coffee altogether.
High labor cost
Since Kona coffee is grown along the slopes of the volcanoes, every coffee bean is hand-picked. Once the berries or the cherries are ready for harvest, laborers pick and process the beans. It requires about 7.4 pounds of cherries to get 1 lb of coffee beans. A coffee tree can produce up to 16 lbs of cherries equivalent to 2 lbs of roasted coffee beans. The whole process from growing, picking, sorting, pulping, fermenting, washing, drying and roasting are done manually.
This labor of love plus the minimum wage cost in Hawaii can easily raise the cost. Just the cost of picking coffee beans in the Kona Coffee Belt region is 20 times higher than in other regions.
Since Kona coffee is only grown in one region, there is a high demand but limited resources. Kona coffee is only 1% of the world’s coffee production. It is rare, to say the least. Then in 2011, Kona coffee farmers had to deal with a Coffee Cherry Borer infestation that destroyed many Kona coffee farms. This led to the making of Kona Blend, 10% Kona and 90% random coffee beans.
A guide to buying Kona coffee
Because of the high demand for Kona coffee, some coffee roasters and producers came up with labels that can confuse buyers if they are not very familiar with the origin of Kona coffee.
Here is a buying guide to know which Kona coffee is authentic:
Kona Roast – This can be misleading because there is no Kona roast. Unless, you take the coffee beans to Kona Coffee Belt region and roast it there, then you have a Kona Roast. Most likely, Kona Roast does not contain any Kona coffee. It is a loose name used to attract buyers.
Kona Style – Another misleading name. What exactly is a Kona Style? Do the producers copy the Kona region soil composition? What style are they referring to? In the same sense as Kona Roast, this Kona Style does not have any Kona Coffee in it.
Kona Blend – This is closer to reality since there are really Kona blend coffee. Due to the limited availability of Kona coffee, producers mix 10% Kona coffee and 90% other coffee beans. At least you get 10% of Kona coffee goodness. Coffee producers put this 10% mark explicitly on their labels.
100% Kona – This is real thing. And you can attest to the authenticity of the coffee beans. Just make sure it is grown and packed in Hawaii. Double check the packaging.