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Thu, Mar 04, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Hawaii's Kona coffee thrives in a declining market

TOP-CLASS CUP Coffee consumption is declining in the US, but connoisseurs of the brew are willing to pay a premium for the limited supplies of Kona coffee

REUTERS , HONOLULU

In a coffee world inundated with frothy cappuccinos and creamy lattes, more java junkies are turning to the rare and expensive Hawaiian coffee known as Kona.

US demand for the brew, grown only on a narrow 32km stretch of land on the Big Island of Hawaii, has surged since the late 1990s.

Giant coffee retailer Starbucks Corp will begin carrying the beans in its 4,176 company-owned North American stores in April after a seven-year absence; the Seattle company had been unable in recent years to arrange for sufficient supplies.

"We get long-time customers that'll say `When are you going to bring back that Kona coffee?'" said spokesman Chris Gimbl. "The name Kona itself has a certain recognition" among coffee drinkers, he added.

Kona's popularity with coffee drinkers and retailers alike has not waned despite an overall drop in US coffee consumption.

According to the National Coffee Association, about 108.3 million Americans turned to coffee for their daily caffeine fix last year, sipping an average of 3 cups a day -- down from 109.4 million regular drinkers downing 3.5 cups daily in 1999.

But don't tell savvy Kona growers the coffee market is declining.

"Our coffee is sold out each year before the next crop comes in," said Christine Sheppard, vice president of the Kona Coffee Council. "Nobody is wrong if they don't like Kona coffee; but once you do, nothing else quite satisfies the same way."

Kona plantings during the last decade have surged 175 percent as demand has increased. After harvesting 1,336 hectares this year, Kona farmers are expected to boost plantings by more than 10 percent annually during the next several years, according to industry officials.

Kona, which many devotees say has a rich flavor enriched by a mild roast, is one of the world's best-known and higher priced coffees, along with Jamaican Blue Mountain.

"A big part of the mystique is there is only so much of it," said Jim Wayman, chief executive of the Hawaii Coffee Co, which buys and roasts about 17 percent of the total Kona crop each year.

According to the US Agriculture Department, the 2002/2003 Kona harvest totalled 1.5 million kilograms, only 0.2 percent of the world's entire coffee crop.

Kona coffee is grown along Big Island's west coast, mostly by 650 family farmers who each have between three and eight acres of land. Some roasters offer key growers cash bonuses and even fertilizer to keep them from taking their coveted product to competitors.

"You deal with these people sort of like family," Wayman said.

The coffee's full taste is cultured by warm temperatures, an even distribution of rain during the year and porous volcanic soil that filters the moisture.

Bright-red Kona cherries, which often house two coffee beans each, are hand-picked about six times a year between October and early February, allowing riper beans with better flavour to be harvested at their peak.

But with richer flavor also comes a richer price.

A pound of Kona coffee purchased from a US retailer can command more than US$35 -- compared with US$10 to US$12 for a good Colombian or Mexican coffee.

To make Kona coffee more affordable, Hawaii Coffee and other roasters also offer "Kona blends" that contain only 10 percent Kona coffee and are about 70 percent less expensive than their pure Konas.

Starbucks, which purchased a substantial "premium lot" of Kona that it will distribute in pre-packaged bags, will sell a half pound for US$19.95. The coffee chain will look at the Kona crop next season to determine whether it will continue to sell the gourmet beans at its stores.

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