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Behind the Cup |March 3, 2022

What’s The Deal With Kona Blends?

First and foremost, please know that Greenwell Farms does not sell any Kona Blends under our label.  We roast only 100% Kona Coffee from many different varieties of trees and elevations and use different levels of roast to create a host of elegant flavors.

Yet we are often asked about 10% blends and other Kona Blends and so today let’s set the record straight for anyone who wants to know the truth of the situation here in Kona.

What does it mean to be Kona Coffee?

The Kona Coffee Belt is a defined “terroir” on the west side of the Big Island. It is roughly 35 miles long, 1-2 miles wide, and has an elevation range from 500-3200 feet. 

This is the only region on planet earth where Kona Coffee is grown. Even though Kona Coffee has some recognized universal characteristics, (bright acidity, high natural sweetness, subtle complexity of flavors, non-bitter) there is wide variation in flavors even within the Kona Coffee Belt.

Final cup flavors can be greatly influenced by the variety/varieties of tree, farming skills, good harvesting practices, the method of processing(washed, honey, natural), proper resting, quality control (sizing, defect removal), and of course roasting.

So, in this sense, coffee can be as complex as wine. If the bag of coffee that you buy has the word string “100% Kona Coffee” that is a legal bond and you should be able to trust that what is in the bag has been sourced 100% from within the Kona Coffee Belt.

You should also be aware that even the label “100% Kona Coffee” is not always a guarantee of the best coffee Kona has to offer. State law regulates defects and bean size into general quality categories, but Kona has no formal grading system to indicate the quality of final flavors.

What that means is you’d pay the same price for really great 100% Kona Coffee as you would for inferior 100% Kona. That’s why we are proponents of “try before you buy” and encourage comparisons. (Greenwell Farms has set the gold standard for high-quality 100% Kona Coffee for decades. That is a statement I make both as a long-time consumer of 100% Kona Coffee and based on award history.)

The Tricks of the not so Fair Trade

As the name “Kona” coffee is recognized for its quality and uniqueness, sellers of lower grade coffee would like to take advantage of that name recognition and can be sneaky to outright fraudulent in their marketing attempts.

Outside of Hawaii, there is no regulation at all.

In the worst cases you will see things like “Kona Style” or “Kona Roast.” These terms mean absolutely nothing and almost certainly mean there is absolutely no “Kona” coffee whatsoever in those bags.

Next is the 10% Kona Blend. The law in Hawaii currently states that if the word “Kona” appears on the bag, the minimum amount of actual Kona Coffee that needs to be in there is 10%. There is currently no requirement to disclose what the other 90% is. 

What that means for consumers is that when you go to a Big Box Store here in Hawaii you will see beautiful bags with sunsets and rainbows and they will have names like, “Kona Classic” or “Kona Mood” or “Kona Sunrise” but if you examine the bag closely you will find it says, “This bag contains no less than 10% Kona coffee.”

The other 90% is sourced internationally, and driven exclusively by the price of acquisition, not flavor profiles.

This is a buyer beware situation that is set out to dupe unsuspecting tourists to Hawaii who sees only the word “Kona”, a very reasonable price and nice bag and they make the assumption they are buying Kona Coffee. After consumption, most will feel that the coffee was “unspectacular” and wonder why anyone would pay $50 a pound for 100% Kona Coffee. This is how our brand is damaged again and again.

Is Blending Bad?

If I am 100% honest, I have consumed some fantastic coffee blends. Reputable roaster/blenders can see coffee from all over the world the way an artist sees a color palette and create truly delicious and satisfying coffee blends. Most of the time, they will be honest about the coffees that they used and their transparency will be reflected on the bag or description.

That, however, is not the case with Kona blends. In all but the rarest cases, the 10% Kona is used to meet a legal requirement, and the other 90% is determined by the cheapest coffee they can source in that year.  10% Kona blends are an inferior coffee product.

So, there is no “dislike” for coffee blending as an industry involved here whatsoever.  Truth in labeling, transparency, being honest with your customers is really the only things the 100% Kona Coffee industry has been after for so many years.

Many other industries protect their single-origin brands. Why not us?

Summing it Up

So, at last, although there is new legislation working through the system here in Hawaii (Mar 2022), at this moment in time it is up to the consumer to “self-educate” and know what they are getting.

I additionally suggest you read the labels carefully, learn about the farms you are dealing with and really ask deeper questions.

Then try and compare, be open-minded and see if you can find the best coffee to suit your individual needs.

About the Author
Matt Carter is a retired teacher (1989-2018), a part-time musician, farmer, and currently manages Greenwell Farms Tour and Retail Store Operations.

5 thoughts on “What’s the Deal with Kona Blends?

  1. John Herrold says:

    We first encountered Greenwell Farms on our honeymoon in 2005. Our favorite is your 100% Greenwell Macadamia Nut variety. We have taken your tour several times as we return to our timeshare we purchased in Kailua-Kona also in 2005.

  2. Bill Campbell says:

    My long time friend upon retirement started his own coffee farm adjacent to the Captain Cook Living History. It was a hobby . After his passing, his wife continued harvesting but due to health reasons was unable to pick the cherries. He had fought for years to get the government to regulate the amount of Kona beans required to be labeled Kona. He used your company as the roaster. I continue to purchase your coffee after his passing.

  3. Matt D'Atri says:

    We happened upon Greenwell Farms on our honeymoon in 1998 and had an amazing time on the tour. It was the first time my wife and I enjoyed a cup of black coffee (your tour guide was fantastic, fun and informative!)
    Greenwell products have been part of every anniversary present since and we are now planning a return trip for our anniversary with grown children in tow.
    It is rare to find such a quality product as well as such a positive experience with the company. I have referred many friends and family to you over the years and fully intend to continue to do so.

    See you in a few weeks!!!

  4. Janet Luehrs says:

    Thank you Matt for your explanation & comments on 100% Kona Coffee & blends of 10% Kona. It especially noteworthy that you mentioned the “fraudulent” use of the word Kona in packaging as well. I too have heard mainlanders refer to Kina coffee as ‘not that good’ just to find out they’re not even drinking “Real” Kona. Educating the consumer on this topic may well help save the Kona Coffee industry.

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