Kona Blend, Blended Kona Coffee, Estate Kona Coffee... what's the difference? Not much? Or is there really a tremendous difference?
Yes, there is a tremendous difference. If you don't know what that difference is, you could end up being very disappointed with your Kona Coffee purchase. And I don't want that to happen to you.
If you've been reading our past blogs, you will have discovered that we don't much like the so-called Kona blend coffees that usually have only 10 percent actual Kona Coffee, and the rest from somewhere else. Like maybe Brazil. somewhere else. Like maybe Brazil.
If you know anything about me, you know that I've got a lot of issues with the so-called Kona blend coffees. Those... I think of them as fake coffee... usually have maybe 10 percent actual Kona Coffee. The rest of the coffee in the bag is from somewhere else. Like maybe somewhere in South America. I don't know, and they aren't tellin'.
The I tell people that blended 100% percent Kona Coffee can be a good Kona coffee. Not the very best, but it's real Kona coffee at least.
Tremendous difference between Kona Coffee blend and Blended Kona Coffee. And almost no one knows the difference. Sometimes I have to sit down with our new employees and get them straight about this issue, even though they might have lived here in Kona a long time.
So this is what I say to them. If some packer buys coffee from different farms in the official Kona Coffee District, and mixes those coffees together, and then roasts them together, the result is 100% Kona Coffee. Blended 100% Kona Coffee.
But if somebody out for the money has a bunch of maybe not so good foreign coffee, then adds a sprinkle of 100% Kona Coffee to it, then by law they are allowed to call it a Kona blend. But that - I think unfair - final product won't really taste like Kona coffee. It won't have that special, rich Kona Coffee aroma. Because it is almost entirely not Kona coffee.
Blended 100% Kona Coffees are definitely all Kona Coffee, but they vary in quality from year to year, and sometimes even within a single year. Since the beans come from different farms, the blender will probably be using beans from one group of farms sometimes, and other groups of farms other times. The inescapable truth is, some farms simply produce better coffee beans than others. So a 'blended coffee' from the same packer is going to constantly vary, being sometime better than other times. And sometimes worse.
Now this brings up a question. I've had people ask me many times, "Is there any bad Kona Coffee?"
No. The answer is... no. There are different tasting Kona coffees. Some are better than others. But any time people use real 100% Kona Coffee for your roast, it's going to be good coffee. Always.
Well... almost always.
Now I have to go further into the subject and admit there are some exceptions.
There are some large processors of Kona Coffee in the Official District who have been very helpful to the Kona coffee industry. They buy coffee cherry - that's the coffee bean in its husk, straight from the tree - from a hundred different small coffee farmers that have small acreages all over the Kona hills.
These processors give the small farmer a place to sell their raw beans at a fairly reasonable price, because few of these farmers grow enough coffee to market it in the stores by themselves. So the best of the large processors are essential for these farms to survive. They have come to be respected, traditional members of the Kona Coffee community.
I really do appreciate those 'best' processors Some of the kama'aina (ka-ma-i-nah, oldtimers) that started these processing businesses have helped more coffee farmers get started than anyone can count, even if some of those new guys have forgotten who taught them the ropes of the business in the first place.
Maybe the Kona Coffee lifestyle would not even exist without what I see as co-op processors, though no one actually calls them that to their face. Each processor is a distinct company, separate from the farms, whose business is buying coffee beans from a lot of small companies.
Still, some blended 100% Kona coffees have some... issues.
We already talked about consistency. Sometimes that doesn't matter so much, and other times it matters a great deal. Different farms have different soil, different amounts of sun and rain because we have substantial differences between the microclimates here on the Big Island of Hawaii. A farm a hundred feet higher than another farm might have tremendously more yield, bigger coffee cherry.
And then there's the fact that different farm managers and owners make different decisions about how to grow the coffee, like how much to prune the trees at the end of the growing season. And decisions like when to pick the coffee cherry. A thousand little differences.
But the most important issue for a blended 100% Kona Coffee is the graded quality of the beans that go into the roast.
The lower grades of Kona coffee are not generally used for blended Kona coffee. They should not be used. It degrades the reputation of Kona Coffee. But in the mass processing of some large processors, unfortunately lower grade beans can, and sometimes do, get into the mix.
So do the low quality 'irregulars'. Coffee, like every other agricultural crop, has irregulars. Like every other agricultural crop, we just throw them away.
Or at least that's what should be done with them. When the big processors make a blend, the quantity of beans is on a totally different scale than the way it's done at Kona Mountain. In the process, these irregulars sometimes find their way into the batch that eventually gets roasted and put in the bag.
Those irregulars do NOT taste good. You can just imagine.
They DO have an impact on the quality of blended Kona Coffee.
Is there any way of knowing if irregulars have snuck into a roast? Absolutely not, if you're buying ground coffee. Not even I can tell after the coffee has been ground. Or I should say, I can't tell by looking at it. Once it's brewed, once I taste it... that's a different story, and it's not a good one.
Coffee connoisseurs usually go for whole bean coffee. I think that's a good idea. Essential oils are maintained longer. Lots of other good reasons.
But I have to say that it takes a trained eye to be able to correctly judge the quality of a bean by sight, and that takes a lot of years of working with coffee every day. Coffee professionals look for the obvious... for color, for size, for defects... but also some very difficult to describe qualities that a person develops a feel for after a couple of decades of doing it.
Wise people depend on the professionals at the source of their coffee to make those judgments and make sure the coffee they buy will be of the highest quality once it gets poured into a cup.
Now my favorite subject. Estate coffee. Specifically and of course, Estate coffees from the official Kona Coffee District on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Estate coffees are always, without exception, grown on one farm only.
They are not blended with even 100% Kona Coffees from other farms.
Bags of Estate coffee have only the top grades of the coffee grown at that farm. Those grades Extra Fancy and Fancy
The processing of the coffee cherry at that single farm typically uses the highest standards in the industry. In that process, designated workers make sure irregulars are discarded, because Estate coffee farms guard their reputation, just like the makers of a great grand cru wine in the French wine country.
Here's the bottom line: just about any 100% Kona Coffee you buy is a real gourmet coffee. But Estate coffees gives you the assurance that the coffee in every bag you buy will be of the highest, most consistent quality possible. That is what makes the price difference reasonable.
I hope it goes without saying that Kona Mountain Coffee Estate coffee is everything an Estate coffee from Kona should be. We exercise control over the entire timeline of our coffee, from planting the trees by hand, to nurturing them and looking after them every day, to the exact way we want the beans to be picked, everything about the way the beans are handled while going through the mill, the roasting... oh, very careful with the roasting.. to the bagging, to the way the bags are kept once the roasting is done and ready to sell. Everything.
I would not want to have my reputation associated with a bag of Estate coffee that was made any other way. Everyone here at Kona Mountain feels the same way.
However, when I'm talking with customers about Kona Coffee, this is what I always tell them... "If you find a Kona coffee that you like, and you're comfortable with the price, and satisfied with the taste... because no two Kona Coffees are exactly alike... stick with it!
"There's no need to run around all the different coffee companies here in Kona, and there are hundreds of them. Find a 100% Kona Coffee you really enjoy, and stick with it. Then you can turn on other people to the same thing."
And then I give them a taste of my Kona Mountain coffee.