Or, to be more specific, is the actual coffee experience inside a Kona bag worth around $30 per pound, three to four times the price of the coffee experiences contained inside other bags?
Most coffee professionals dont think so. Kona bashing is less prevalent in the specialty coffee industry than it was some years back, but you can still detect the barely concealed sneers behind the deliberately vacant looks when the subject of Kona comes up (infrequently) during pre-trade-show cocktail parties and post-show dinners.
Essentially, the Kona-bashers position is that Kona is a perfectly decent but hardly exceptional coffee so lacking in distinction that many of the Americas leading cuppers failed to distinguish it from much cheaper Central America coffees during the recent scandal in which a green coffee dealer regularly sold Costa Rica and Panama beans inside Kona bags. Hence, Kona is wildly overpriced and consumers are being duped either by memories of trade winds or by simple name-dropped snobbery.
Very Good But Not Distinctive
For what they are worth, here are my observations on the Are-Konas-Worth-It issue:
Kona is not overpriced, other fine coffees are under priced. Entire societies are being torn apart by the current obscenely low prices for green coffee. Coffee fine coffee should retail for at least $15 per pound, which would enable roasters to pay growers what the growers need to get by and to continue to improve their production, thus giving us coffee lovers more pleasure. And, at $15 per pound, fine coffee still would be a wildly under priced beverage when compared to wine or micro-brewed beer. For consumers on a budget there always will be bland supermarket robusta-packed blends for under $5 per pound. By the way, even at Konas current high prices a family working the land itself would have a hard time making ends meet on the sale of green coffee alone. Most Kona farmers have day jobs.
Konas can be very, very good. See this months main article, Cupping with Ken Davids: Konas and Other Hawaiis. They can be good because they are produced from typica, one of the great traditional cultivars of Arabica, and because the boutique Kona growers on their little farms do a splendid job of processing and drying their coffees. I have yet to cup a Kona coffee with a taste defect owing to mistakes or shortcuts in processing. It is true that some of the larger mills do not coddle their coffees like the owners of the smaller farms do. These are the price Konas that add their pathetic 20% to Kona blends or fill the bags of the half-stale 100% Konas for sale at airport shops. But small-farm Konas are consistently both good coffees and interesting coffees. And they are not low-altitude coffees. Owing to Hawaiis latitude, farther north than most coffee growing regions, and perhaps to the cooling impact of the trade winds, a Kona grown at 2,000 feet is equivalent in cup character to Central America coffees grown at 4,000 feet. For example, coffee grown in Kona above about 3,500 feet is subject to freezing, just as coffees grown above about 6,500 feet in Central America are pushing the limits of cultivation.
That being said, even the best Konas are not among the worlds most distinctive coffees. They are not wildly floral and citrus-saturated like Ethiopia Yirgacheffes, or fruitily acidy like Kenyas, or redolent with forest-floor notes like the best traditional Sulawesis. They are very much like Guatemala coffees: an origin that produces a variety of classic coffees that range from sweet, round and nuanced to big, austere and acidy.
The Crucial Point
I realize that all of the preceding leaves me something of a fence-sitter on the question of the intrinsic value of Kona coffee. I guess for me the crucial point about Kona is that, from a coffee connoisseurship point of view, the higher price this coffee commands enables a lot of passionately committed, often innovative small farmers to pursue both quality and distinction and get paid something resembling fair prices for their efforts. Would that were true right now elsewhere in the world of fine coffee.