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Andrew and the Coffee Berry Borer
18 August 2011

Andrew

This is Andrew.  He is an avid coffee drinker.  He is also a grad student that has been staying with us over the summer.  He has been working with the University of Hawaii on a study of the effects of heat treatment on the coffee berry borer beetle.

The coffee berry borer is a potentially devastating pest that has recently been officially identified on several farms in Kona.  It is a tiny bug and difficult to spot so many farmers think they don't have any infestation yet but in my experience every coffee farm in Kona has at least a few of these bugs and some farms have a very severe infestation.  If left unmanaged, the berry borer can destroy 100% of a coffee crop.  So far Kona Earth has only a few of the bugs but I am actively managing the problem to make sure it stays in check.

Picking coffee The berry borer is possibly the most harmful coffee pest worldwide and it affects nearly all coffee growing regions.  Being in the middle of the ocean, Hawaii had been spared until recently.  Kona is the most famous coffee growing region in Hawaii but not the only one.  Other islands also grow coffee and they do not yet have a problem with the coffee berry borer.  As a result, the state has implemented a quarantine requiring strict controls when taking Kona coffee outside the Kona region.

This quarantine only applies to unroasted coffee being shipped from Kona to other parts of Hawaii.  Roasted coffee does not have any quarantine requirements as there is no way the little bugs could survive the roasting process.  Proper drying and storage will kill the bugs too.  In my opinion the quarantine isn't really necessary for properly dried green coffee beans but that is a different issue.

The quarantine requires that unroasted green Kona coffee being shipped to other parts of Hawaii must be fumigated.  Fumigation of coffee is nothing new.  Even if there was noticeable residue from the fumigation, it is destroyed when the coffee is roasted.  Still, most people would prefer to avoid fumigation if possible.  If nothing else, fumigation adds significant cost.

The only fumigation currently available to Kona coffee farmers costs $1000 per batch plus various handling fees.  The maximum batch size is whatever fits into the 20 foot container used for fumigation.  The minimum batch size is whatever the farmer is willing to pay for.  The cost per bean is lower if several farmers coordinate to ship together.  Unfortunately that's not always possible and I personally have spoken with several farmers who have lost lucrative accounts on other islands because of these new quarantine expenses.

Kona coffee is already a high priced coffee.  It is a very expensive coffee to produce with little profit margin for the farmer and the additional cost of fumigation is a significant burden.  Needless to say, it gets political quickly and the quarantine and fumigation process isn't exactly as streamlined as it could be.  An alternative would be very helpful.

Coffee Experiment

That brings us back to Andrew.  By investigating an alternative to fumigation, Andrew's work could potentially make shipping coffee safer, easier and less expensive.  Heating unroasted coffee too much can affect it's flavor.  The hope is to heat it just enough to kill the bugs without adversely affecting Kona's delicate roast profile.  The berry borer is actually a feeble little bug, only safe when living deep inside it's protective coffee bean.  Adding some heat may be just enough to kill the little varmint.

Heating up coffee beans then checking for dead beetles sounds easier than it is.  The first challenge is finding beans that are infected.  On a farm with a high infestation it is relatively easy to find infected cherry still on the trees.  It is much more difficult to find dried green beans with a live beetle still inside.  To simulate this Andrews starts by finding a tree with infected cherry.  Then he extracts an adult beetle, drills a tiny hole in a dried green coffee bean, inserts the adult beetle and tapes the hole shut.  He repeats this many, many times.  After heating the beans to various temperatures and times he can then check to see if the beetles are still alive.

Being a formal experiment with the university, there are a lot of strict guidelines and everything must be done just right.  Andrew takes a zillion data points then logs them carefully and creates graphs and charts to analyze the results.  The details can get complex but the short version is that with enough heat and time, the bugs are indeed killed.  Some day heat treatment may be an approved alternative to fumigation.  Unfortunately, the formal approval process may take awhile.

Andrew has repeated the experiment again and again.  In fact, it was getting to the point where repeating it yet again was rather pointless.  Still, official channels don't move fast and Andrew's job was to perform the experiment so that's what he kept doing.  Until the dogs came along.

Destroyed

One morning Andrew got a phone call about his experiment being destroyed.  For some unknown reason some dogs had decided to rip apart the styrofoam insulation and spread it everywhere.  Other than making a huge mess, they didn't cause and major damage.  Their timing wasn't all that bad either as Andrew's summer was over anyways.  This experiment may be rebuilt and revised as part two but for now the dogs have determined that part one is completed.

I am hopeful that we will find an alternative to fumigation.  Other ideas including freezing or pressurizing the coffee.  It will take time to figure it all out and get any potential solutions approved by the state.  In the mean time, green coffee being shipped to Hawaii gets fumigated.  Green coffee being shipped directly to the mainland only needs to be certified, inspected, double bagged and sealed tightly.   Roasted coffee is not affected by the quarantine and can be shipped as always.

We wish Andrew luck in his future studies and thank him for the work he's done so far concerning the coffee berry borer.




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