LETTER: Kona Coffee, the New Champagne

April 28, 2012, 12:04 PM HST
* Updated April 30, 1:32 PM
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We need to be more like the Europeans.

I’m not saying we need their bloated entitlement programs, dysfunctional currency, or past penchant for intercontinental warfare.

I’m talking about their sales skills. Whether it’s marking up moldy cheese to an exorbitant price, or selling self-esteem via handbags, Europeans “get” high-end marketing.

Their greatest promotional victory happens to come in a bottle. Since the Treaty of Madrid in 1891, the term “Champagne” has been a legal trademark for the bubbly beverage produced exclusively in the Champagne region of France. Today, over 70 countries enforce the trademark, and producers outside of the region often must refer to their products as “Sparkling Wine.”

Strict standards like these have paid off in the form of higher prices. Italy is fighting a similar battle to protect its premier cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano, from the Parma region of the country, and is making progress every year.


Unfortunately, despite the pleas of our own Kona Coffee farmers, the Big Island’s most highly valued crop isn’t getting similar treatment.


Although legislation in the 1990s forced processors to label anything less than 100% Kona Coffee as a “Kona Coffee Blend,” it required that only 10% of the beans in a package be from Kona. While this helped to enhance the value of pure Kona Coffee, it allowed inferior products to carry the Kona name.

Kona Coffee blenders argue that this is fair, since they clearly state the anemic authenticity of their products on the label. But most blends only contain the bare minimum of island-grown beans required, proof that the main reason for blending is to sell the cheapest bag of coffee possible, while still keeping the name “Kona” on it.

Having store shelves packed with blended Kona Coffee is like having car dealerships full of automobiles labeled “10% Ferrari.” While it may sell an extra Honda or two, it ruins the image of a hand-crafted product.


Frustratingly, the Hawaii State Legislature is considering a bill to stop mandatory inspections of Kona Coffee beans. House Bill 280 would make the inspection and certification process for Kona Coffee voluntary. Supporters of the bill note there is a shortage of funding for inspectors, but passing it could be disastrous for quality control. It’s better to pay for inspections through increased fees than to risk the reputation of an entire industry.

If House Bill 280 gets passed in its current form, Governor Neil Abercrombie should veto it. The governor should also take the lead in removing Kona Coffee blends from store shelves.

Protecting our premier crop shouldn’t be a 10% effort.

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