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What is Kona Coffee and Why is it So Expensive?

Posted by Bean & Bean on
What is Kona Coffee and Why is it So Expensive?

Kona coffee is praised by coffee enthusiasts across the globe for its full-bodied flavor and amazing aroma. But like many quality ingredients, Kona coffee comes with a price tag. What exactly makes Kona coffee so expensive? And is it worth spending that much on a bag of coffee beans? Read on to find out what makes it so expensive and whether it’s worth it the splurge.

First, What is Kona Coffee?

What is Kona coffee bean and bean coffee roasters

As the name suggests, Kona coffee is coffee that is from Kailua-Kona in Hawaii. The microclimate in the Kona district provides the ideal conditions for growing coffee beans. It experiences both sun and rain, as well as warm tropical temperatures that give beans the ideal environment to grow. It also contains volcanic soil that is rich in minerals which nourishes the plants and gives Kona coffee a distinctive taste.

The Kona Coffee Belt along the western coast of the big island of Hawaii stretches only 30 miles—a very narrow strip of land. (Source)

Hawaii is the only state in the United States to grow coffee, and each island has its own distinct flavor. This video explains the difference between Maui and Kona Coffee:

How Much is Kona Coffee?

Kona coffee’s average retail price is around $20/pound for a non-organic roast, while a 100% organic roast averages upwards of $30/pound. Kona Extra Fancy coffee is upwards of $60/pound. Kona Extra Fancy Coffee is the highest grade of Kona coffee available, which explains the premium price. In comparison, the average price for coffee at the grocery store is about $10/pound.

Now, you might ask is it worth it? Take it from this Kona coffee farmer, Brandon Damitz (Source):

"Is it "worth it"? That's up to you and you alone.

Is it "warranted"? ABSOLUTELY. In my humble opinion...

Allow me to put price in perspective:

If you pay $32 for a pound of coffee, it will cost you about $4 to brew a 32 oz serving, or $1 per 8 oz. If you drink 2 cups / 16 oz per day, that $32 pound will last you about 2 weeks of yummy wake-up juice and cost you $2 / day.

If you buy a bottle of wine for $10 and you drink 2 glasses (about 12 oz) per night, it lasts 2 days and costs you $5 / day.

Now, what's your valuation of a $10 bottle of wine? Is that expensive, moderate, or cheap? What's your valuation of a $32 / lb coffee? Is that expensive, moderate, or cheap? Does the length of enjoyment ever factor into your perceived value?

Do you see what I mean?" 

Some specialty coffee stores sell their coffee beans at higher prices, ranging from $13-17/pound. But altogether, Kona coffee is significantly more expensive than both the grocery store and specialty coffee.

So, Why is Kona Coffee So Expensive?

Kona coffee producers bean and bean coffee roasters

There are multiple factors that influence the price of Kona coffee, including but not limited to land, equipment, and labor.

The land that Kona coffee grows on is extremely limited. A small 30-mile strip of volcanic soil makes up 1% of coffee in the entire world. Since Kona coffee’s growing region is limited, it makes its retail supply limited. The average Kona farm size is 3 acres, whereas farms in other countries are average 18 acres. Each harvest could be considered an uber microlot, meaning that more care is put into each tree.

Kona coffee is highly sought after by coffee enthusiasts and drinkers alike, meaning the demand outweighs its supply making it more expensive. Its growing region also can’t be expanded because it grows on the sloping terrain of two volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Hualālai. Unless you could replicate thousands-year-old volcanic soil overnight, it’s impossible to expand the growing region. (Source)

Secondly, Hawaii is an island, meaning that almost everything needs to be shipped in via ocean barge. Transportation costs are expensive, which make the product expensive. Equipment includes machinery, bags, tools, fertilizer, and more. Compared to other coffee-producing territories, Hawaii needs to import a majority of its equipment that results in a higher-priced coffee. 

Lastly, is the cost of labor. Kona coffee is grown on volcanic slopes, making it nearly impossible to harvest without human labor. Machines would not be able to pick the coffee cherries because they cannot traverse the volcanic terrain. Additionally, since Hawaii is a part of the United States, it also needs to follow US labor regulations. Other coffee-producing countries don’t have the same labor regulations, and workers are paid much less than coffee pickers in Hawaii. (Source)

What is “Extra Fancy” Kona Coffee?

“Extra Fancy” Kona Coffee is the highest grade of Kona coffee. The Kona Coffee grading system came about in the 1980s when the Kona coffee label was placed on any coffee. As a result, the Hawaiian agricultural society created an inspection system, which to this day is upheld by the Department of Agriculture. (Source) The system is as follows (in order of highest to lower):

  1. Extra Fancy
  2. Fancy
  3. No. 1
  4. Select
  5. Prime.

The system inspects the coffee based on coffee bean size and the number of defects it contains. Extra Fancy includes the largest beans with the least amount of defects, commanding the highest dollar value.

Our Extra Fancy Kona coffee comes from a family farm, Kona Earth, that we have been buying from for 12 years. They are a computer programmer and librarian turned Kona coffee farmers that has been growing Kona coffee since 2005.

Is Kona Coffee Worth the Price?

That’s up to you to decide! We’ve provided insight into why Kona Coffee is priced the way it is so that you can decide whether or not you’d like to purchase it. Fun fact: we’re one of very few coffee retailers on the East Coast that sells Kona; it’s hard to find in stores! One of the reasons why Kona Coffee is so sought after is because of its exquisite taste. It is extremely sweet and complex while being consistently mild and smooth, lacking in intense overwhelming flavors and makes an extremely balanced cup.

We also recommend reading this perspective from a Hawaiian Kona Coffee farmer, who believes that the price is warranted and that Kona coffee is valued at the true production and living profit.

Hopefully, this gives you a better understanding of why Kona Coffee is “expensive” and whether it’s worth the price for you!

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