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Fall/Winter 2006-2007

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Why Those Coffee Labels Matter
The Better the Bean, the Better the Brew
by Sarah Blanchard     

“We grow the most wonderful coffee in the world.” Tom Greenwell, co-owner (with his wife Jennifer) of Greenwell Farms in Kona, isn’t just boasting about his own coffee. It’s Big Island coffee, and specifically Kona coffee, that he’s talking about so enthusiastically. “Customers who really love coffee also care about quality. The Hawaii coffee certification program helps us all keep our quality standards high.” The question of quality, Greenwell emphasizes, isn’t just about the fabulous aromas and the superb flavors and the deep, rich color of a robust brew—it begins way before that, with the tending and harvesting of the beans.

A Little Coffee Country History

The coffee industry in Hawaii has had many ups and downs since the day the first coffee trees arrived on the Big Island in the early 1800s. The plants grew well in Hilo and even better in Kona, especially on the slopes near Kealakekua. The industry boomed during the latter part of that century, then went bust in 1899 as world markets collapsed. Many coffee farms were converted to sugar plantations during the following decades; then coffee made a comeback, often on smaller family estates. In the 1950s, there was another decline in the coffee market; but, after the Hawaii sugar industry died in the late 20th century, coffee trees were re-planted on land that had been previously dedicated to sugarcane.

Grown on upslope lands such as those owned by Greenwell Farms, which was established in 1850, Kona coffee began to gain serious name recognition. To customers, “Kona” meant high-quality, flavorful roasts that carried the added cachet of an exotic, tropical island paradise. Recognizing quality when they tasted it, customers were happy to pay more for anything labeled “Kona.”

But then, in the mid-1990s, customers’ trust in the Kona coffee name plummeted. Over a span of several years, California coffee broker Michael Norton bought large quantities of Central American coffee, re-packed it with a smaller amount of Kona, labeled it as “pure Kona coffee,” and sold it on the market at the much-higher Kona prices. Evidence gathered by the U.S. Customs Service revealed that Norton had raked in nearly $15 million in profits through this scheme. (To read the full details of this story, and view the Justice Department’s original affidavit, see http://www.

Defective beans are tested for in each lot of Hawaiian coffee inspected. Green coffee in Hawaii is inspected for size, density, moisture content, aroma and bean defect count.

Norton went to jail, but the damage to the Kona coffee industry lingered long after the fraud was exposed. Shawn Slocum, Processed Foods and Dealer Licensing Specialist with Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture (DOA), says, “A lot of roasters and re-sellers got burned. U.S. Customs caught the perpetrator, but the Kona name was nearly ruined.” Farmers of 100% Kona coffee were harmed the most by Norton’s scam.

Gaining Back the Trust

So how could Kona coffee growers re-establish their credibility? They couldn’t look to the federal government, because there were no federal government standards for green coffee, and no way of tracking whether Hawaii coffee was grown in Kona or Ka’u or Hamakua or any other district. Coffee is the second most frequently traded commodity on the world market (right after oil), but it’s grown in only one state in the U.S. – Hawaii. That meant that Hawaii would have to create its own industry standards to ensure quality and truth in labeling.

It’s an important industry. Total coffee production in Hawaii during the 2005-2006 season topped 8.2 million pounds, with 5.8 million pounds (more than 70%) of that grown on the Big Island. Coffee growing is solidly centered in Kona, where about 4,000 acres are in production on some 750 coffee farms. Ka’u coffee growers are farming about 400 acres, and Puna and Hamakua districts add another 150-200 acres each. Kauai has about 3,000 acres, while Maui, Molokai and Oahu together add another 1,200 acres.

Since Kona is the heart of coffee country on the Big Island, it’s logical for Kona coffee growers to lead the push for industry standards and certification.

Slocum, who serves as the federal Department of Agriculture Processed Foods Supervisor for Hawaii, has been instrumental in helping Hawaii’s coffee growers create and implement the regulations for grading coffee.

“If the buyers can’t trust the sellers, there’s no market. So,” explains Slocum, “the Hawaii coffee industry, the USDA and the state Agriculture office worked together to create inspection and certification standards. Now all the brokers who buy green coffee from Hawaii know exactly what they’re getting. And consumers benefit because the coffee is being produced to consistently high standards.”

Tom Greenwell of Greenwell Farms smells freshly milled green Kona coffee as it passes over a gravity table.

A brief explanation of coffee production is in order: When coffee ripens on the tree, the red or red-purple fruits are called “cherries.” The cherries are picked and then processed to remove the husk and pulp, leaving the inner bean which is coated with a layer of skin called parchment. This parchment must also be removed; the resulting bean is the “green” coffee, which is then ready for roasting. Brokers buy the green coffee, then sell it to roasters for the final stage in processing. In Hawaii, coffee beans are inspected at the green stage, after the parchment has been removed and before the beans are roasted.

Deciphering the Certification Code

Hawaii’s coffee certification program, drafted in 2000 and implemented in 2001, establishes inspection standards and provides certification for all green coffee sold in wholesale quantities. Cherry and parchment coffee may be also inspected on a voluntary basis, at the request of a grower or broker, but the large majority of all inspection and certification takes place at the green-coffee stage, just before it’s ready for roasting. (The Hawaii Administrative Rules that establish grades for cherry, parchment and green coffee are available at http://

The certification for green coffee is based on quality (grade), origin, or both grade and origin. This is the grading system that’s most important to coffee consumers, because that’s where coffee is classified by the designations that appear on the labels: extra fancy, fancy, No.1, select, and prime.

Coffee grading is an art as well as a science, and it takes several weeks of intensive training for the graders to make the grade. Graders need to be thoroughly familiar with the characteristics of several different types and varieties of coffee, and they also need to know how to measure the beans for moisture content, size, color, aroma, and specific defects.

Grading Standards for Hawaii Coffee

First, all green coffee sold in wholesale quantities must be inspected for grade. Based on the criteria mentioned above, Hawaii coffee is labeled as Extra Fancy (the very best!), Fancy, No. 1, Select, Prime, No. 3, and Offgrade (the least desirable). Peaberry beans (smaller beans produced from single rather than double fruits) are also graded according to these standards. Peaberry commands a premium price because of its intense flavor and rarity, as it generally represents no more than 3-7% of a grower’s crop. (See for a summary of green-coffee grade standards.)

Next, coffee grown in four specified districts can be labeled by grade AND by district. So coffee grown in Kona, Kauai, Molokai, and Maui can earn the right to be stamped as “Kona Extra Fancy,” or “Maui Select.” However, No. 3 and Offgrade coffees don’t qualify to be labeled by district. No. 3 coffee grown in Hawaii can be labeled only as “Hawaii No. 3,” and Offgrade coffee can’t even be identified as “Hawaii coffee” – it must be labeled only as generic “Offgrade Coffee.”

Coffee may also be identified by origin alone. Any coffee grown in Kona, Maui, Kauai, Molokai, Ka’u or Hamakua that also meets the minimum standards for Hawaii Prime coffee can be identified simply by its region—for example, Ka’u Coffee, or Hamakua Coffee. To qualify for these labels, a sample from each lot of green coffee must be inspected for grade, and the grower’s records are examined to check the tax map key so the district of origin can be recorded.

The state Department of Agriculture and Hawaii Coffee Association have also created federally registered trademarks that growers may use to identify the origin of green coffee. (Use of these registered trademarks is optional. For more information, see

Sound complicated? Perhaps, but the two methods of certification—grading for quality and recording of origin—go a long way toward creating a trustworthy industry standard that brokers and consumers can rely on. In the last season, Hawaii Department of Agriculture coffee graders gave full certification (grade and origin) to nearly 5,382,000 pounds of green coffee, and assigned origin-only certificates to another 557,000 pounds.

As for grade, the Hawaii DOA reports that nearly half of all the coffee certi- fied on Hawaii and Maui during the 2006 season was graded as Extra Fancy or Fancy. Only about 3% of the coffee submitted for certification was labeled as No. 3 or Offgrade.

Quality Verification at the Mills

Hawaii’s coffee mills also participate in a self-regulation program, the Coffee Quality Verification Program (CQVP). This helps to ensure that the quality standards are followed by everyone.

Many small coffee growers don’t roast their own coffees; instead, they take the green coffee to a commercial roasting mill, where it’s roasted according to the specifications of the grower. When green coffee arrives at a CQVP mill, the miller inspects the coffee and issues the certifi- cates. of quality. The Hawaii DOA audits the inspection records of the CQVP mills, and can be called in to inspect any lots of coffee that may not meet the standards for grade.

Sherwood Conant from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (Kauai office) inspects green coffee.

The regulatory agencies and the industry are working together to maintain quality, Greenwell notes. “We have to regulate our own business to keep standards high. I try to educate our growers, too.”

Most of the Hawaii coffees sold in mass-market outlets such as drugstore chains and off-price outlets aren’t certi- fied, Greenwell says. “Those coffees are often bought from many small growers and then bulk-roasted. The quality is mixed at best. Customers need to start asking for that certification, they need to look for the labeling that says ‘fancy’ or ‘prime,’ so they know what they’re paying for.”

Is All Hawaii Coffee Certified?

No. The regulations allow growers to sell small quantities of green coffee without going through the inspection process. And if growers have their coffee roasted in the geographic region where the coffee was grown, they don’t have to have it certified. Many small growers sell their roasted “estate coffees” direct to consumers, in gourmet shops or at roadside stands, so they don’t need to have it certified. And the cost of inspecting every lot of green coffee (approximately $100 per lot, no matter the size of the lot) would be prohibitive for the smaller farms.

Jimmy and Lisa Dacalio own Cloud Rest Coffee in Pahala in the Ka’u district, a 7-acre farm that’s planning to expand to 10 acres. “Our coffee is unique in flavor, we produce in small batches, people love it. But we’re small-estate growers— we can’t afford to certify every batch of coffee we grow,” Lisa explains. “We take it in 44-pound batches to a roasting house in Holualoa, they grade it for us there, and then roast it according to our directions.” The Dacalios sell their coffee on their website and at their roadside stand.

Shawn Slocum explains, “There’s a demand from some growers to have 100% of all coffee graded and certified, but many people feel this would be an undue hardship on the smaller growers. If you have a three-acre coffee farm and you only sell roasted coffee at a roadside stand, the cost of having the inspection done would probably put you out of business.”

Greenwell Farms is one of the biggest producers on the island, but Tom Greenwell also understands the position of the smaller coffee farmers. “At our farm, we sell 600,000 to 700,000 pounds of green coffee each year. Probably 85-90% of our business is in wholesale, and we certify everything we sell, by both grade and origin. The lots we produce are so large that paying $100 to test each lot adds perhaps four or five cents a pound to the price. Growers who produce very small lots can’t afford to have each lot tested.

“But the system works well at both levels,” Greenwell adds, “because it keeps the competition fair, especially among the larger producers of green coffee. It’s raised the whole quality level of Kona coffee. So the smaller estate growers benefit, too.”

Raising the Bar

Sample roasted coffee beans at the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s coffee laboratory.

Hawaii’s present coffee certification program has gone a long way toward standardizing the quality of coffee, but some industry spokesmen are recommending changes. “We’d like to raise the standards on a couple of the grades. And it might be easier on the growers if we had fewer grades,” Greenwell suggests, “but the buyers want more choices so they have more room for price negot iat ions. The present program seems to work well, and our buyers like it.”

“There should be an expiration date on the certificates,” says Les Drent, owner of Blair Estate coffee farm on Kauai (and editor of Coffee Times). “At the mill, I’ve received green coffee that passed certification six months earlier, but didn’t meet the standards when it arrived at my farm. This bad coffee was the result of poor storage, or environmental damage. Old certifications on bad coffee only tarnish the quality and reputation of what should have been excellent coffee. And our industry is built on a reputation for quality.”

Richard Dinker from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (Captain Cook office) cups freshly brewed Kona coffee.

Drent adds, “I’ve never been a fan of big government, but I’ve come to see how necessary these standards are. As a certified organic farm, processor, and roaster, as well as a certified Fair Trade coffee roaster, I drag my feet through the application and inspection process, but I’ve come to accept the fact that it’s necessary to deter the unscrupulous people from taking advantage of the Hawaii coffee industry.”

Drent wants to see standards in place for roasted coffee as well as green coffee. He says, “It’s hard to understand why no federal labeling requirements exist on roasted coffee in an industry that highly scrutinizes the grading of its green coffee. In my mind, it is a failure by all in the industry, and government that better labeling requirements were not created and enforced with roasted coffee, right at the beginning of the specialty coffee boom.”

As Drent recalls, “Kona farmers attempted to federally trademark the name Kona back in the mid 1990s but had to abandon their effort because of costly legal depositions initiated by five companies who opposed the trademark, and practice Kona coffee blending. One of them was Kona Kai Farms—Michael Norton’s company. Sadly, that trademark registration never made it to court and, to add insult to injury, neither the state nor the federal government helped the farmers in their push to preserve the Kona identity.”

A major concern for Drent, and others in the industry, is the issue of labeling “Kona blend” coffee. “Why do we work so hard to grade green coffee so strictly, if it can then be roasted and legally blended at 10% in Hawaii, and 0% outside of Hawaii, and still be called Kona blend coffee? Shouldn’t we be interested in protecting the consumer who ultimately buys all roasted coffee bearing the name Kona, as well as those who buy 100% Kona green coffee? To see how completely out of control this mislabeling is, just try a search for Kona blend coffee on Google.”

The State of Hawaii requires the label on a package of Kona blend coffee to disclose that it contains at least 10% Kona coffee. Drent says, “I have yet to see a restaurant or hotel menu, or interisland airline coffee service, state that their Kona blend coffee contains only 10% Kona coffee. It’s a deception that the blenders say they’re not responsible for enforcing, and a deception that our government allows to occur.”

Drent warns consumers not to be fooled. “The purpose of this Kona blend labeling is deception and deception alone, so it is still ‘buyer beware’ when buying Kona coffee.”

Drent concludes by saying, “Unfortunately, these blenders are a necessary evil in an industry that still sells over 50% of its 100% Kona coffee to blenders. If you shut them down, you run the risk of shutting down over half of the farms in Kona.”

Should the Kona blend market be eliminated? The problem, says Drent, “is a double-edged sword. Some say that eliminating the Kona blend market will open new doors for 100% Kona coffee sales. Will it be enough, though, to sustain the market? And if it does not open new doors, are we willing to live with the consequences? This goes to the heart of the debate today.”

So Why Should Coffee Drinkers Care About the Standards?

It’s simple. When you’re buying Kona Extra Fancy (or Maui, or Kauai), you’re paying a premium for what many connoisseurs say is the best coffee in the world. Sure, it’s the roasted brew you’re going to enjoy, but if the quality isn’t there at the green-coffee level, the best roasting in the world isn’t going to make it better.

Coffee growers emphasize the importance of quality at all levels. Drent says, “As a grower, miller, and roaster of organic Hawaiian coffee, I’ve come to realize how important every step of the process is. There are small nuances in every aspect of the process that can alter the unique taste. Where and how the coffee is grown, how it’s harvested, milled, aged, and roasted are all very important steps in the process. But green coffee which doesn’t meet the particular standards of moisture content, defects, color, etc. can only detract from that unique taste. Everyone needs to meet these standards if they’re looking to produce a quality cup of coffee.”

Tom Greenwell notes that the Hawaii coffee industry is really coming into its own. “This is gourmet coffee. This is specialty food. The wine industry has helped us tremendously with marketing and promotion. Sophisticated consumers want the best of everything, and they know quality when they taste it.

“If you’re going to serve a $60 bottle of wine with dinner,” Greenwell adds, “you’ll want to serve a $30-per-pound coffee with dessert. Coffee should be paired with foods, the way wine is. For breakfast, for example, you might want a full city roast. Luncheon or a midafternoon meal would call for a medium roast; and your after-dinner coffee should perhaps be a dark roast or espresso.”

What do coffee customers really want? The coffee growers in Hawaii know: Unique, delicious, absolutely superb coffee, top-quality brews. And, thanks to Hawaii’s coffee industry standards, customers who buy truly graded 100% Hawaiian coffee can enjoy it all, confi- dent that they’re getting the very best Hawaii can offer.

"Readers may submit editorial comments to any of our stories by sending an email to We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest."

Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.

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