Understanding Kona Coffee Grades and Rating System
You might have spotted the word ‘Kona’ on a (rightfully) more expensive bag of 100% Kona Coffee or next to an exotic picture of Hawaii on a cheap Kona blend (we’re crying internally).
By understanding the official Kona coffee grades, you’ll not only up your coffee game even more than the barista in that hipster café in town, but you’ll spare yourself from falling into any Kona coffee scams.
What is Kona coffee?
Many coffee connoisseurs consider Kona coffee beans to be amongst the very best in the world, so companies were bound to jump on the gravy train and turn ‘Kona’ into a marketing buzzword.
Kona is a district on the Big Island of Hawaii that, unlike most Hawaiian islands including Maui and Kauai, is blessed with a microclimate that is ideal for growing coffee. Planted, grown and harvested by farmers on the volcanic slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa exclusively since the 1800s, you can see why Kona coffee is unique, more expensive and the most famous coffee from Hawaii. Plus, some shipping costs will obviously be involved, unless you’re lucky enough to live in the area (in which case, we’d be very jealous).
Technically, though, Kona coffee is not just any coffee from the Kona area (1):
Kona coffee means green coffee processed from cherry coffee which is grown in the geographic region of Kona and which at least meets the minimum requirements of Kona Prime green coffee.
Why did Kona need a coffee grading system?
To cash in on the reputation of Kona coffee, many companies used to market their coffees as ‘Kona style’ even when the beans had nothing to do with Kona’s farms. To protect the farmers’ labour and the authenticity behind the true Kona beans, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture compiled this grading system to ensure that only beans that meet certain requirements are sold as Kona coffee.
As for blends, only those containing at least 10% Kona beans can be sold as ‘Kona blends’ (2). When you do the math and consider that most companies cut costs by using cheap, low-quality beans for the remaining 90%, you can see why they’re not really worth it. If you want to truly experience some Kona coffee, go for a single origin.
BONUS TIP: When you buy estate Kona coffee, you’re buying beans that come from the same farm or estate, meaning they will definitely be 100% authentic.
The Kona coffee grading system
Here’s an easy guide to understanding the Kona coffee rating system.
What are the criteria?
The HDOA (Hawaiian Department of Agriculture) looks at four separate factors when awarding Kona coffee grades.
The bean’s shape and size (which, in this case, does matter: the bigger the better), colour, moisture content (which means more flavour), and the number of defects present.
The Kona coffee rating also considers roasting quality (meaning that the beans must possess uniform colour and brightness when roasted) and final aroma and flavour.
Before looking at the characteristics that will determine their rating, beans are classified by seed. Type I consist of two beans per coffee cherry, whereas type II beans (also called peaberries) are an anomaly consisting of one round bean per cherry.
Type I beans
The most common Kona beans can have 5 different ratings, depending on the standards they meet.
1. Kona Extra Fancy
This is the best cup of Kona coffee you can get: gourmet beans for true coffee connoisseurs. (3)
Quality 100% Extra Fancy Kona Coffee is clean and well balanced with a medium body and cheerful, bright acidity yet often exhibiting spicy and buttery qualities with subtle wine tones, intensely aromatic, with a wonderful finish.
Yes, they’re going to be more expensive, but they’re incredibly pure and rare, consisting of only 20% of each crop.
These beans are the largest (they can’t pass through a 19/64″ round hole), have a uniform green colour, high moisture content (9-12%) and a maximum of 8 imperfections per 300g.
2. Kona Fancy
Beans that meet the Fancy grade standards make high-quality coffee: they’re still very large (won’t pass through an 18/64″ round hole), have a uniform green colour and 9-12% moisture like the Extra Fancy grade, but are allowed 12 imperfections per 300g.
3. Kona Number 1
The fact that they’re called no 1 but are actually the third best is a bit confusing, but they make pretty awesome coffee, so we won’t argue with that.
Kona number 1 beans are medium-sized (won’t pass through a 16/64″ round hole) and are allowed 18 defects per 300g. They’re still green and uniform in colour and have 9-12% moisture.
4. Kona Select
The last two grades don’t have any colour or size requirements, so the beans are usually quite small. They’re allowed 5% defective beans but must still have 9-12% moisture.
5. Kona Prime
Kona Prime beans are usually the smallest. The only difference between the higher grade is that they’re allowed 20% defective beans.
There are two more grades, but these do not classify as Kona coffee: the “X-3” (with 35% defects and 9-12% moisture) must be labelled as ‘Hawaiian coffee’, whilst the “OFF-Grade” includes beans that don’t meet any of these criteria and must be labelled as generic coffee (#SadLife).
Type II beans
As mentioned before, Type II beans are known as Peaberries. They are the result of a genetic mutation that causes a single bean to grow inside the coffee cherry instead of two. This causes Peaberries to grow to be rounder, fuller beans with more evenly concentrated flavours.
Type II Kona beans are also referred to as Peaberry coffee. It’s rare for a single bean to develop inside the coffee cherry, so Peaberries make up only 3-5% of each harvest.
As Shakespeare would say if he had experienced the rich, concentrated taste of Kona peaberry beans: ‘though they be but little they are strong’.
1. Kona Peaberry number 1
Just like the Type I Extra Fancy, these are the very best of their kind and, when roasted, are bound to give you a memorable cup of joe. They won’t pass through a 10/64″ hole, must have 9-12% moisture, and a maximum of 18 defects per 300g.
2. Kona Peaberry Prime
Again, no size requirements, which means they’re usually smaller. They still need to have 9-12% moisture but are allowed 25% defective beans.
Now you know Kona’s true value!
Whilst the price can be shocking at first, now that you’ve discovered its special location and the amount of care that goes into each crop (from the growing process to the harvest, to the assessment of each bean), we’re sure you can understand the value of real Kona coffee beans. If you’d like to taste this exotic gourmet delight yourself, check out our favourite brands.
Now that you’ve read our guide and are a Kona coffee PRO, the power of the ‘Kona style’ buzzword used by blends and scam coffees won’t affect you. You know what the real thing is. Just make sure to learn the best method for brewing Kona coffee and you're good to go.
The best Kona coffee is made from type I beans that meet the ‘Extra Fancy’ requirements or from type II beans that meet the Peaberry number 1 standards. These are the highest quality beans in both categories, meaning that only the beans that meet the strictest requirements of size, colour, moisture and amount of defects can be labelled as such.
Kona is a kind of coffee that comes from the Hawaiian district of Kona, is cultivated in the farms on the volcanic slopes of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa, and meets at least the minimum requirements of Kona Prime green coffee. All the coffee beans harvested in Kona must go through a thorough assessment and grading process to ensure that they’re labelled in the correct way.
Peaberry Kona coffee is coffee made from type II beans cultivated in the Hawaiian district of Kona. Peaberry is another name for type II beans, which occur when a single bean instead of two develops within the cherry. They’re of smaller sizes but are more concentrated than regular type I beans.
Featured image credit: Coffee Geek
- AHAWAII Administrative Rules. (2012, December). https://hdoa.hawaii.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/AR-143.pdf
- Hawaii-grown Coffee Law. (n.d.). https://hawaiicoffeeassoc.org/Hawaii-Labeling-Laws/
- Galland, A. (2017, December 7). Need a Vacation? Extra Fancy Kona Coffee Baby!. https://weaverscoffee.com/blogs/blog/need-a-holiday-gift