HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – The Naked Truth about the Kona Coffee “Calendar Girls”


By Kelly Moran

Is That Kona Coffee Really from Kona?

Between about 800 and 1,500 feet mauka of the Kona Coast, a lot of folks have been growing coffee for more than 100 years, and their beans enjoy a reputation for delivering a high quality buzz. But right now, growers in the Kona Coffee Farmers’ Association (KCFA) are buzzing like angry bees: they want the words “Kona coffee” to mean just that.

You may not know this, but if as little as ten percent of the beans in a blend were grown in Kona, it can be labeled and sold as “Kona coffee.” The KCFA wants that designation to be allowed only if 100 percent of the beans are Kona-grown; the label of anything else should prominently include the word “Blend,” and list the actual percentage of Kona beans.

Until recently, most Kona coffee beans got a fairly light “American” style of roasting, giving “Kona coffee” a reputation for being on the weak side. That may be why vendors have been blending it with more robust beans from elsewhere, although that, in turn, has made consumers skeptical of anything labeled “Kona coffee.” In fact, roasting Kona beans in the darker “French” or darkest “Italian” styles cancels any perceived weakness.

Almost anyone in Hawaii can grow coffee . . . as an ornamental: it has shiny dark green leaves and bright red berries. But getting a decent cup-a-joe from a couple of plants is far more work than it’s worth. To oversimplify: the berries have to be picked at just the right stage of ripeness, then dried and roasted with expertise. Coffee-farming is very labor-intensive, which helps to explain why a pound of 100 percent Kona coffee typically sells for more than twice the price of supermarket coffees.

But it’s that “premium” status that truth-in-labeling would help to protect.

Kona was not the first place on the Big Island where coffee was raised as a commercial crop. That was in Ola’a – now called Keaau – in Puna. Some coffee is raised there still, and some comes from up the Hamakua coast near Honokaa. But mauka Kona is the Big Island’s major microclimate for coffee. And the KCFA is part of a worldwide movement to ensure the veracity of “local” labeling. “Champagne” has to come from Éperney, France, and anything resembling it that’s made anywhere else has to be labeled “sparkling wine.” Any cheese with veins of azure mold can be labeled “blue cheese,” but only the dairy farmers of Stilton, England can call it “Stilton.”

kcfaTo drum up publicity for this campaign, the KCFA has published a 2009 calendar called “The Naked Truth About Kona Coffee.” Inspired by an English stunt (which was celebrated in a movie called “Calendar Girls”), a dozen women who actually farm coffee in Kona posed for its pages – yes, in the nude. Okay, most of them are … “of a certain age.” And by posing with strategically-placed tractors or farm implements, none of them shows much skin. But hey! They’re really naked!

If you want to help them ensure that calling something “Kona coffee” is more than just a marketing gimmick, you might want to hang their calendar on your wall, or – at least – check the fine print on the label of your next bag of “Kona coffee.”