Coffee connoisseurs the world over are well acquainted with the Kona varietal, named after the region in which it is grown on the Big Island of Hawaii. Widely considered one of the more expensive, but competitively flavorful, types of joe on the market, many visitors to the islands (and well-appointed cafes elsewhere) often wonder about the factors driving this luxury item's price, taste, and reputation. If you, too, find yourself curious about this much heralded bean, read on.
Let's begin with some basic, but none-too-well known facts, about this favored agricultural product of the 50th State:
- There are more than 700 producers and more than one million documented sellers (many on the Internet) of Kona coffee, and most grower's cost for infrastructure and inputs outpaces their profit, according to a briefing by the Executive Director of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers in October 2016. (This data points to two things: 1) Kona coffee is no longer the rarity it once was; and 2) even with high retail prices for consumers, the relatively high cost of operations in Hawaii gives farmers a slim, if any, real profit for this fashionable cash crop.)
- Bags of coffee blends containing as little as 10-percent Kona beans can legally use the "Kona" name on labels under current Hawaiian law. (The remainder of the beans are typically imported from other coffee-growing regions of the world, such as Africa, that can produce high-quality product for much less).
- Most coffee on the shelves of Hawaiian grocers comes from other coffee producing countries, like those in South America, and most coffee on those shelves labeled "Kona" contains only 10-percent local grounds. (Savvy buyers in Hawaii must carefully read labels to find pure Kona.)
- In the past several years, coffee grown in other parts of Hawaii--such as Ka'u, Puna, and Hamakua--have become increasingly popular among state residents and non-residents alike, presenting novel, albeit still expensive, competition for the Kona type.
- In Hawaii, most residents' and sellers of coffee beverages (from convenience stores to national coffee shop chains to restaurants) use more affordable, but equally tasty, imported coffees out of sheer economic necessity.
Now, back to our issues at hand: price, taste, and reputation.
Kona's relatively steep retail price is no mystery, really. The cost of living in Hawaii is among the highest in the nation--labor and land prices are likewise elevated--and the remote nature of the Pacific islands translates into high shipping costs for any exports. Also, insurance costs are unique for land that lies in the immediate vicinity of an active volcano that for two decades has erupted and issued forth lava. To live comfortably, Hawaiian coffee farmers must charge more than competitors in developing nations.
Taste? No secret there either. Rich volcanic soils, regular rain fall and mild weather, and plenty of sun prop up Kona's flavor profile; the terroir and climate are exceptional. "And the reputation?," you ask. Clever, often state-subsidized, marketing and local government promotion has allowed the Kona name to spread well beyond the shores where the bean is grown.
So... The next time you are afforded the opportunity to enjoy a cup of Kona, or you are simply grasping for a subject of polite banter at a cocktail party, find comfort in your knowledge of the little understood variables that drive the mystery of Kona coffee's flavor, price, and reputation.