Cup of pure Kona likely to cost more
By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
Kona coffee, already among the world's most expensive brews, is about to get even pricier.
Heavy wind and rain late last year and last spring cut into this season's harvest and is likely to cause retail prices to jump as much as 20 percent starting in January.
"We're going to have to boost prices," said Trent Bateman, owner of Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation in Kailua, Hawai'i.
The price of a 7-ounce bag of 100 percent Kona coffee could rise from $10 to as much as $12.
Coffee is Hawai'i's fourth-largest export and the distinct taste of Kona coffee has made it the most sought after local variety. This would be the first meaningful increase in Kona coffee prices in about six years. Whether it would cut into demand remains to be seen.
"Historically in the past when prices go up consumption, to some degree, goes down," said Jim Wayman, president of Hawai'i Coffee Co.
But with demand for the strong, full-bodied Kona brew rising among coffee aficionados, it seems unlikely a rise in price will lead to any sizeable drop in demand.
This year Kona beans have found their way back onto the shelves of Starbucks all of the nearly 4,200 company-owned stores in North America. It's the first time in seven years the coffee giant has offered Hawai'i's choicest brew, and its reappearance can mean only one thing, farmers say even more demand.
Coffee has been grown in Hawai'i for nearly two centuries, with the Kona variety commanding the highest prices due to the quality of the soil and the ample rainfall.
The total acreage of Big Island coffee fields rose from 2,800 in 1998 to 3,500 last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, with 93 percent of that in Kona. Industry sources say the number of plantings in Kona will continue to rise because all the coffee grown is being sold.
As of August the Big Island's coffee crop was expected to meet or exceed last season's yield of 4 million pounds, according to the Hawai'i Agricultural Statistics Service.
"It probably looked like it was going to be a pretty good crop (in August) and it just didn't materialize," said Wayman. "The season is not over yet, but at this point it does appear to be a smaller crop."
With a smaller crop has come an increase in cherry prices from about 90 cents a pound to $1.15 a pound, which should lead to higher post-holiday retail prices. It takes about 5 1/2 pounds of cherries to produce one pound of green coffee.
The key question now is whether the coffee season, which typically ends around February, will be more drawn out, officials said.
At this point though, it's unlikely a longer season will boost production enough to drive down prices, Wayman said.
During the 2003-04 season, farm-level coffee sales on the Big Island fell 5 percent to $15.2 million. Still, coffee industry sales rose 4 percent to $24.1 million on increased production on Kaua'i, Maui and O'ahu.
For farmers, higher prices are fine, if you have more coffee to sell. However, with production down, "it's almost a wash," said Lita Schooler, president for the Hawaii Coffee Association and owner of Schooler Farms in Honaunau.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Sean Hao at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8093.