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Green Coffee Certification
9 January 2012


Imagine a cafe owner that wants to purchase several hundred pounds of unroasted green coffee beans.  This cafe owners wants the best Kona coffee possible at a reasonable price.  There are several Kona coffee farms that all claim to have the best coffee so how does the cafe owner decide which coffee to purchase?  The obvious answer is to get a sample from each farm and taste them.  This is a very important first step but does not tell the entire story.

Some farms may overcharge for shipping, or take weeks to fill an order, or don't have reliable quality or supply.  Maybe one coffee is fresher than another so it will have a longer shelf life.  Maybe two coffees cup the same but one has a more consistent bean size and lower defect count so it is easier to roast.  Sometimes even subtle differences like these can prove to be very important.  Less scrupulous farmers can take advantage of these subtleties.

Green When a large wholesaler asks for a sample, it would be possible for a dishonest farmer to send the best coffee as a sample then mix in some cheaper coffee later on.  If the farmer is clever enough about it, only very experienced and attentive shop owners will be able to spot the difference.  Even more devious, a farmer could sell the coffee at a high moisture content.  The unroasted green beans will look and taste almost identical but a higher moisture content means each bean weighs slightly more which means it takes slightly less coffee to make a pound.  Over the course of several thousand pounds, this can add up to a significant amount of coffee.  Most buyers don't have the fancy gizmo that measures coffee bean moisture content.

As a consumer, it is difficult to keep up with all the possible scams out there.  As a farmer, it's frustrating to lose sales to less scrupulous merchants.  What we need is some sort of unbiased industry expert.  We need some kind of official that can inspect all the coffees and label them all appropriately.  We need some laws and government oversight to protect us from fraud.

The Commodities Branch of the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture has exactly this sort of government oversight.  Legally, all unroasted coffee grown in Hawaii must be inspected and certified before it can be sold outside its area of production.  The state inspector checks all the paperwork then measures the coffee's moisture content, bean size, defect count and cupping profile.  If everything is within the legal tolerances then the coffee is labeled with the appropriate grade and receives the official stamp of approval.  Only the consumer can decide if a coffee is good or bad because everybody's preferences are different.  It's not up to the inspector to decide good or bad, the inspector is only supposed to ensure that the coffee is what the label says it is.

300g These inspections are required by law but that doesn't mean they're free.  It costs me a couple hundred dollars for each inspection.  I'm fine with that since certification laws like this are the only ways to stop fraud.  The more valuable and rare a product is, such as 100% Kona coffee, the more important it is to have government protection.

This system works great as long as the state inspector is fair, consistent and unbiased.  It is important for all farms to be inspected equally.  If some farms work to stay in compliance while other farms willfully disregard the laws, that gives the cheaters an unfair advantage.  Unfortunately, the state has cut the budget from three inspectors down to one.  With fewer inspectors, the honest farms are having a difficult time getting timely inspections while the dishonest farms are having an easier time getting away with it.  To make matters worse, the one remaining inspector seems to have re-interpreted the grading standards all on his own and there is no way to challenge his decisions.

There are several different grades of Kona coffee:  Extra Fancy, Fancy, Number One, Select, Prime and Number Three with Off Grade being coffee that doesn't even meet minimum standards.  Only coffee of Prime quality or better can legally be called Kona coffee.  Being a natural product, it's impossible to get totally perfect coffee but most Kona coffee is pretty darned close, especially when compared to coffee from many other origins.

Bean size is the main difference between the grades with the higher grades having the larger beans.  Moisture content is the next most important measurement.  The allowed moisture limit is 9%-12.2% which is a surprisingly narrow range.  The grading sheet used for certification also has a list of different possible defects which includes things like broken beans, moldy odor, debris or insect damage.  Obviously coffee with a bunch of rocks, mold or bugs in it should be downgraded.  The previous inspector had examples of all the less obvious defects and talked about how to prevent or minimize them.  Kona Earth coffee has always had exceptionally low defect counts so it has always been easy to make grade.

Label Recently, I've started to hear other farms complaining about having their coffee unfairly downgraded.  One farmer almost had his entire crop downgraded below prime which would mean he couldn't legally sell any of it as Kona coffee.  Any other inspector would have passed it no problem.  Still, I wasn't too concerned because I know my coffee is so clean.  Then I got this most recent certification back and saw that my coffee had been downgraded.  The moisture content was perfect (11.7%) and there was no problem with the bean size.  The number of defects was extremely low too.  At least the number of standard, pre-defined defects was low.

Looking at the score sheet, some of the standard defect categories had been crossed out with new categories written in beside them.  Adding up the standard defect categories, our coffee scored very well.  Adding up these newly created categories and our coffee is over the limit.  Thus I am now required to label this batch of Extra Fancy beans as Fancy even though it has no Fancy beans in it.  The Fancy and Number 1 (mixed together into what we call Estate Grade or Select) has to be labeled as Prime even though there are no Prime beans in it.

There are no state certification requirements for roasted coffee so none of this affects our retail customers, it only affects the wholesale customers trying to buy unroasted green beans.  For our existing wholesale customers that know and trust our coffee, grading is not an issue.  For new wholesale customers, the ones we need to grow our business, explaining all this makes me sound like I'm trying to hide something.  I did the math and this downgrade has already cost us $1650 in lost income.

One of the newly invented categories is labeled "shrivelled" [inspector's spelling].  I had to ask what that meant and have the miller show me what the inspector was looking for.  Really, instead of shriveled, I think it should be labeled "beans with slightly bumpy texture."  It is extra frustrating because there is no way to prevent these "shriveled" beans, they are a natural part of the way coffee grows.  The texture occurs whenever we have a dry spell during the growing season and does not affect the flavor in any way.  In some parts of the world, nearly every single bean is shriveled to some extent.

Extra Fancy In a drought year, the shriveled beans can get more severe, deformed enough that the coffee cherry will float.  We call these floaters and they are easily separated by the gravity table.  The grading sheet also has a category for quakers.  Quakers are an industry accepted term for beans that do not roast correctly.  However, the inspector crossed out the quaker category (since we didn't have any quakers) and replaced it with "poorly developed."  I don't even know what that means.  There is no definition for shriveled or poorly developed in the Hawaii state law (I checked) yet out of a 300 gram sample (about 1200 beans), apparently we have 2.4 "poorly developed" beans.  That's only 0.002% even if it were a real defect.

Below is a picture I took of these beans  I didn't Photoshop, modify or sort these beans in any way, that's simply 300 grams straight out of the bag.  Can you find the 4.6 shriveled beans?  How about the 2.4 poorly developed beans?  For comparison, here's an old article with a picture of good beans that received a near perfect score and bad beans that still passed inspection with the previous inspector.  Looking at those pictures again now, I see several beans that this new inspector would call shriveled.  Keep in mind that those beans received glowing reviews from several expert cuppers.  It's pretty obvious to me that the new inspector has decided to reinterpret the certification laws with his own set of rules.

If you get an unfair speeding ticket, you can refute it in court.  It's not always easy but at least there's that option.  I know of no way to refute the inspector's decision.  Even writing about it here, I'm worried that word will get back to the inspector and suddenly all of my coffee will fail completely.  Everybody knows that arguing with an inspector only makes things worse.  Unfortunately that means that nobody is willing to fight this.  What bothers me even more is that otherwise honest farmers will now be forced to sell their coffee without certification.  This opens the door for fraud.

I haven't decided yet what I'm going to do.  Despite the lost sales (possibly several thousand dollars per year) I'm confident that I will be able to manage this problem.  Most of our customers know our coffee is good and don't care what the inspector says anyways.  It would be easy for me to keep quiet and hope that someone else fixes the problem.  Still, keeping quiet is not in my nature.

Click for full resolution image.

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