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My search for Organic Kona Coffee,
preferably peaberry, in the summer of 2009
(I learned so much, I created this page so I wouldn’t forget it!)

As you must know by now, coffee is important to us!

When we bought our current coffee machine three years ago, an Impressa E8 which grinds the beans right before it brews them, we tried almost every bean available, from every online and local source I could find, looking for a medium roast which was rich enough for our palates (the machine clogs up if the roast is too dark).

We had a lot of trouble finding one which, I discovered, is due to the fact that dark roasts can mask defects in the beans and, since most coffee is less than perfect, dark roasts are preferred by most people. Especially in the grade of coffee sold in supermarkets, medium roasts are almost impossible to find! The ones we did find, we didn’t like. We finally settled on Jacob’s Kronung, a specialty coffee imported from Germany, which I would order online.

When I was looking for coffee to bring back from Kaua’i, I found lots of Kaua’i-grown beans but none labeled “Kona”. I brought back two bags of something labeled “Private Reserve” which I paid a small fortune for ($15 for 8oz!) but we weren’t thrilled with it and, consequently, I don’t have the label. Why was I unable to find Kona in Kaua’i? (When I started researching it, I found out why (duh!), and there will be more on that later.)

When we returned from our trip, I started looking for Kona coffee beans. First, I went to our local Starbucks, hoping to get the same beans we’d enjoyed in Kaua’i. No dice – Kona isn’t one of Starbucks normal varieties – it’s only sold in a few select markets, like, for instance, Hawaii. The only place I could find Kona beans locally was Trader Joe’s so, even though they were MORE expensive than the German beans I was getting online (and these were from Trader Joe’s, known for their reasonable prices), I bought a pound and we tasted it. It wasn’t as good as the stuff we’d had in Kaua’i, but it was as good as the Jacob’s and it was a nice alternative so we alternated it with the Jacob’s until it came time to reorder the Jacob’s.

I asked KC whether I should replenish the Jacob’s or switch entirely to Kona. It didn’t take him long to tell me to make the switch!

About the same time, KC’s father gave me a new book, The Hundred Year Lie , which advocated that coffee drinkers should be drinking organic. Huh? That was news to me….

Those of you who know me, know that I have integrated as many organic items into our life as I can because, in addition to MSG which I KNOW is a trigger (I’ll have a migraine 2 hours later, guaranteed), the migraines I have suffered from since we moved to the US may also be caused by the chemicals in most of the food sold here.

Until now, I used the data provided by the Environmental Work Group as my guide to which products we should buy organic (a large percentage of chemical residue is retained after harvest), and which were not that important; coffee is not on their list. So I went online and discovered that if you drink a lot of coffee, as we do, especially if it is medium roast, it IS advisable to buy organic. The higher temperatures reached by the dark roasts burn off some of the chemical residue. Press here for a list of pesticides commonly used on coffee.

Of course, I immediately initiated an online search, using Google, for an acceptable replacement for the coffee that we had been drinking….

Wow! Did you know that certified organic Kona STARTS at $30/pound???

Never one to let price get in my way, I tried to determine which of the 20 or so organic suppliers I had found online offered the best quality/price ratio. If I was going to be paying that much for our coffee, I was going to get the best one available! In order to determine which one was best, I read every word on every website (and some of them were VERY wordy) to learn as much as I could about how this coffee was grown. The best distillation of information was found here, at Pendragon Hawaii, and I have quoted them in several places below.

Coffee cultivated in the North and South districts of Kona, at the foot of Mauna Loa and Hualalai mountains on the Big Island of Hawaii, an area that is roughly only two miles wide by 26 miles long, is the only coffee that can truly be called Kona Coffee (so THAT’s why I couldn’t find it in Kaua’i!) It is traditionally grown from Kona Typica variety coffee trees, an heirloom tree descended from the original plantings of Arabica Typica. The Kona weather pattern of bright sunny mornings, humid rainy afternoons and mild nights creates favorable coffee growing conditions and produces a brew known for its “exquisite aromatic quality. The flavor of the best grades is straight forward, clean and bright, and may display a hint of chocolate. The body is full, smooth, yet delicate with a lingering finish.”

However, the Kona terrain makes automatic picking impractical, and hand-picking makes Kona coffee farming less attractive to larger agricultural interests that might otherwise create bigger farms. Therefore, the majority of farms in Kona are family owned and operated. The Internet has made it feasible for these farms to sell their entire year's production either directly to tourists or via the Internet.

According to Coffee Review , the ‘World’s Leading Coffee Buying Guide”, “Kona farmers get enough per pound for their celebrated coffee to pay them to custom roast their coffee to order. And since they do not have to deal with any export-import rigmarole, shipping directly to consumers is relatively easy. Most Kona coffees bought directly from the farm arrive fresh and usually very skillfully and sensitively roasted.”

It was from these farms that I culled the 20 or so which offered an organic product. But, which one was the best? And, since many people jump on the organic bandwagon for the money, with no intention of providing an organic product (see here and here ), I also needed to insure that I was truly getting organic beans.

While reading all these coffee articles, I discovered something called a peaberry bean. In a nutshell, there are normally two coffee beans in every coffee cherry. When only one of these beans develops, instead of the normal two beans, that one bean has a very concentrated flavor. This oval shaped bean (as you know, normal coffee beans are flat on one side) is known as a peaberry and coffee brewed from these beans is, supposedly, exceptionally good with a low level of acidity. Peaberry beans are not unique to Kona but the Kona peaberry was described as having “a powerful, heavy, robust flavor and smooth consistency, medium bodied with a smoky, rich aroma” and, since Kona was what I was after, peaberry became my grail. Unfortunately, at only 5-6% of an already small crop (only 30 organic farmers) it’s about a rare as the grail and no one had any for sale!

OK. Since I couldn’t find peaberry, what would the next-best thing be? I remembered a review I’d read a few years ago, written by America’s Test Kitchen, in which they described a rogue bean, known as a quaker , which could “wreak havoc on the coffee's flavor profile, imparting a spoiled taste to the brew. So desirable is quaker-free coffee that beans are graded based on quaker count, and buyers are willing to pay a premium for beans that come up clean in spot tests.”

Further research revealed that this is generally called Grade 1 or ‘Specialty Grade’ by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, SCAA. There are other standards that Grade 1 coffee has to meet, zero quakers is but one of them. This article describes how quakers are created and how to eliminate them (fascinating article!). Since “the main cause of quakers is the picking of unripe beans” and Kona is hand picked, the incidence of quakers SHOULD be lower than in mechanically harvested coffee. However, while “all sources agree that under-ripe picking is the principal cause, climactic and/or soil conditions and poor field care may also result in quakers.” Because coffee trees are VERY susceptible to an imbalance in the nutrients they require, and organic farms are not allowed to adjust the nutrients in the soil chemically, there WAS a possibility that organic Kona had a higher incidence of these rogues.

I decided that, for $30+ a pound, if I couldn’t have peaberry beans, I would at least insure that I was getting quaker-free Grade 1 beans. But, I discovered, Kona beans aren’t graded that way! They’re graded by their shape and size. In the Type I bean the grades are Extra-Fancy, Fancy, Kona #1 and Prime. In the Type II bean the grades are Kona #1 Peaberry and Kona Peaberry Prime.. I was going to have to determine the SCAA grade myself by determining how each farm processed their beans. (For comparison sake, I looked at the Kona beans I was getting from Trader Joe’s and, while I found no quakers, the beans were very small and many of them were broken and quite dark. I would say they are the lowest grade allowed to be sold as “Kona”. Grades lower than ‘prime’ must be sold as “Hawaiian”.)

After several days of sifting through all the information on every website which offered organic Kona for sale, I narrowed it down to three primary and one secondary. These are not listed in order of preference as, right now, I have no preference. This is the order I discovered them:

Kona Rainforest Coffee offers “Kona’s Most Pampered Beans” and, although they do not mention it on their site, they were the third place winner of the 2008 Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition . While they do not advertise that they sort out the quakers, they assured me that their shaker table removed all defective beans and that the color of their roasted coffee was consistent (visually, quaker beans are distinctly lighter/pale in color after roasting; regardless of the degree of roast, quakers will stand out obviously among roasted coffee beans.). As they were the only site selling 100% organic Kona peaberry at the time I discovered them (albeit out of stock), and they offered to put me on their waiting list, I ordered one pound of their “Extra Fancy Grade” to determine whether it could be used to tide us over. They roast and ship to order and my treasure is already on its way!

The second contender for our business is Mountain Thunder Coffee which has won numerous awards. THEY SORT OUT THE QUAKERS! In fact, they have three machines that sort by size, by weight, and by color so they also sort out any other weirdly colored or shaped beans (which do affect taste) but they don’t offer a 100% Kona peaberry. After reading, and re-reading, the pages and pages of information on their site, I was able to determine that they do not sort the peaberries out of their Cloud Forest Reserve so I ordered one pound and it is on its way to me. I am hoping that this will be good enough to tide us over while we wait for our turn to come up at Rain Forest. Who knows, it may even be good enough that we won’t need 100% peaberry (which is more expensive, of course).

I have to add that I was concerned Mountain Thunder Coffee might not be truly organic, because they also grow and process non-organic coffee, and I had a bit of trouble getting them to address my concerns – they aren’t used to consumers like me, apparently, who NEED information for health reasons – but they did eventually come through with a gentleman who answered every one of my questions in such detail that I was struck dumb! I literally had no more questions! Thank you, thank you, Graysen! I am now certain that the organic coffee I ordered is, truly, organic. (By the way, Mountain Thunder’s website has a plethora of information, both on growing Kona in general, and on how they grow it. I learned a lot from them.)

Mountain Thunder’s owner, Trent Bateman, directs the Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition at the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and his mill was the official mill and roaster from 2003-2007. It bothered me somewhat that the coffee is put through their gravity sorter and roasted at the competition, something that will NOT happen when I order directly from the winning farm. So, the winning bean is exactly that – the green bean – not the sorted and roasted bean I would get if I bought it from the winner. I don’t know if this is standard for coffee competitions but it makes the results more relevant to people who roast their own than to people like me.

Nevertheless, I looked at the winners of the 2008 competition, and found another one that was certified organic, Kuaiwi Farm, the second place winner in the Classic division. I did not order anything from them but I may try their coffee at a later date. None of the other winners (in 2007 or 2008) sells organic coffee. I have to say here that just because a coffee has not won an award does not mean it is not award quality. You have to enter competitions to win and some people just aren’t interested. I understand that. It IS just coincidence that the first two brands I chose did win awards. I selected them for other reasons.

At this point in my search I had learned so much that I decided to create this web page so that I wouldn’t forget any of it. A web page was also a way for me to consolidate all my links. We entertain quite a bit and a web page would be an easy way to share information on our coffee if any of our guests expressed an interest in it.

My search for a description of the Kona taste profile turned up Pendragon Hawaii, the site with the best concise write up I mentioned above. It took me a while to realize that they are an organic farm because there was no certificate displayed. Although they are not certified – they told me they qualify to be certified but the cost of certification was prohibitive for such a small farm -- they grow their coffee using organic standards and described to me some of their practices. I was skeptical, at first, but when I learned they were featured in the Cultivating New Farmers article in Mother Earth News Feb/March 2007 issue, in a sidebar describing the experiences of the WWOOF interns they hire to assist them (see page 5), my concerns were mitigated.

They told me they sort their coffee using a gravity table and then hand cull whatever the machine didn’t get. They don’t grade their coffee but they do sort out the peaberries and sell them separately. THEY ARE WILLING TO SELL ME THEIR PEABERRY!!! I’ve placed my order and the beans should be on their way to me shortly! I ordered some of their regular beans, as well, for comparison sake.

One reason I am so interested in the peaberry beans is that some people find Kona coffee too subtle – probably because it is best when roasted medium -- and I think the peaberry may overcome that. In fact, until we got our new machine we, too, preferred the darker roasts (but not Starbucks, their coffee is normally too dark for us; their Kona was the first one I would have been willing to buy if it had been available). I’m hoping that the intensity of the peaberry bean will emulate the concentrated flavor of the darker roasts without the accompanying bitterness. IF what I’ve read about the peaberry is true…. Will I finally be able to brew a cup of coffee which tastes as good as it smells with a strong coffee flavor and no harsh aftertaste? I can’t wait to find out…

Since this page is, technically, an offshoot of our trip to Kaua’i , I need to add that, as I now know, Kona coffee is not grown on Kaua’i; but, I did find one website offering an organic Arabica coffee grown on that island, Blair Estate . His trees are the same variety as those grown in Kona, and he is also cultivating a variety found growing in the wild. His coffee is not graded in the traditional way, either, but in his description on how to grow and process coffee he states that, “If you are careful picking only ripe coffee and you do a good job separating floaters before or after you pulp you will not have to really grade your coffee to produce a quality cup.” I am including his coffee in our cupping (coffee-speak for ‘taste test’) as I would really love to find a good Kaua’i-grown coffee. I want to support the industry on that island.

Once all my coffee arrives I will post the cupping results here. Remember, whatever the results are, they are PURELY OUR OPINION and reflect all our prejudices including the fact that we like our coffee with either sugar and small amounts of cream (KC) or in a cappuccino/latte (me). We will, of course, ask our coffee-loving friends and family members for their opinion and report that as well.

The Results!

Method: we brewed each brand for one week to determine how it tasted right out of the bag, and also how it tasted after the beans have been in the machine for a week, which is how it will be consumed.


Pendragon Hawaii: peaberry medium-dark roast,

The peaberry medium-dark roast coffee was the richest and most flavorful of all of the coffees we tried. It had lots of coffee flavor, no astringency and no bitterness. It was as good as Jakob’s but is organic and grown in the US. In short, PERFECTION! Although it is visually the darkest of the three, and the beans look ‘weird’ because they are all peaberry and don’t have the traditional flat side, there were no broken or quaker beans and it didn’t taste burned or spoiled.

We took some up to our friend’s cottage on the lake, ground it right before brewing in a standard drip coffee maker, and it was just as good as what we’d made at home. So, it looks like we’ve found our “house brand” at last!

(We also tried their peaberry medium roast, which was too light for us, and their non-peaberry medium-dark which wasn’t as flavorful.)

The Runner Ups

Mountain Thunder Coffee: Premium with peaberries.

Visually, coffee is beautiful: huge beans and uniform color with a nice aroma. KC’s described the taste as “good, very good, with a slight bitter aftertaste. Not as good as Jakob’s Kronung.” I thought it was better than the Rain Forest, not as bitter or astringent, but not as rich or flavorful as either the Pendragon or the Jakob’s Kronung.

Kona Rainforest Coffee: Premium withOUT peaberries

Visually, coffee is beautiful: huge beans and uniform color with a nice aroma. My mother-in-law thought it had chicory in it! KC’s description was, “very similar to the Rain Forest, very good flavor with a slight bitter aftertaste, not as good as Jakob’s Kronung.” I thought it was very astringent, quite bitter with not much coffee flavor. This coffee does not have peaberries in it -- Is that what happens when you remove the peaberries?

Blair Estate: not Kona but with peaberries

This coffee was good but milder than and not as flavorful as the Kona or the Jakob’s Kronung.


According to the Starbuck’s website one pound of coffee will brew between 35 and 45 eight ounce cups. Determining how much we consume was difficult because KC travels so much. Since we limit ourselves to 2 cups of caffeine per day and I also drink tea (see note at bottom) I am guessing that we go through one pound of coffee every month when he’s traveling and two pounds when he’s working from home. We use a bit more when we entertain so I’ll probably arrange for a two-pound-per-month ongoing order to start and adjust it if necessary.

P.S. The Hundred Year Lie also advocates drinking organic tea, and we have switched over, but that quest was easy: the Golden Monkey tea I had been buying from Adagio Teas was replaced with organic Golden Monkey from Teas Etc. This tea took 2nd Place in the 2009 World Tea Championship Hot Tea, Yunnan Class, and it is OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD DELICIOUS!

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