Coffee calamity

Check the source of your coffee beans

(Photo by Victoria Cockriell/The Press)

(Photo by Victoria Cockriell/The Press)

As the poor, hungry and sleep-deprived students that we are, there is always one instrument we can rely on to get ourselves to tomorrow, and hopefully, convocation: coffee.

However, there’s more to the life-saving liquid than the obvious pick-me-up effects we rely on.

As everyone has likely heard, coffee roasters from certain regions aren’t all treated as equals. It’s certainly atrocious, but it’s not news. 

What consumers fail to realize, though, is ethically sourced and fair trade coffee, while important to support, is only one side of the ethical dilemma surrounding our favourite beverage.

Kona coffee, grown on the mountainside in Hualalai and Mauna Loa in Hawaii, and one of the world’s most expensive coffees, commonly reaching $40 or more per pound, falls into that category.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with Kona coffee itself, in fact, you should try it if given the chance. The issue comes in the form of Kona coffee blends.

Hawaii’s packaging and labelling laws are too lenient in the sense that a “Kona blend” can contain as little as five per cent Kona beans. Yes, five per cent.

“The remainder might easily be sweepings off the roaster floor,” says Rick Garbutt, a Kona coffee enthusiast and film and video production instructor at SAIT.

“[This is] fraud, or, at least, deceptive packaging practice, if ever I heard of it.”

Garbutt first experienced Kona coffee at family Christmas dinners, where he says it was a special treat.

After searching for a reputable source to purchase his own beans, Garbutt discovered Hawaii’s questionable labelling practices through discussions with a grower.

Unfortunately, growers are able to get away with this without causing insatiable outrage due, in part, to Hawaii’s lacklustre laws, but the issue truly stems from consumers lack of interest in the source of the drink.

“Most folks don’t know the difference between Arabica beans and the much cheaper, rougher-flavoured Robusta,” suggests Garbutt.

According to barista and SAIT travel and tourism student, Via Basit, Garbutt is correct in his estimation.

“Forty per cent of my customers a day care about what type of coffee they have,” remarks Basit.

“I have had customers come up to me and say they prefer ‘real coffee’ [to] something that tastes like bitter water.”

When that’s all the consumer knows about their morning pick-me-up, it’s not surprising in the slightest that these shady blends are able to slip past.

Basit says she believes the everyday consumer knows only a fraction of all to be known about coffee, and those who know anything are generally aware of a bean’s basic taste and, sometimes, smell.

“They probably don’t care, because, at the end of the day, they only want coffee as a source of caffeine,” she indicates. 

“I think they should care, because a lot of this coffee [comes] from people who work day and night, and customers need to have more appreciation for that.”

While it’s irrefutably naïve to expect consumers, particularly skint students, to know all the ins and outs of each bean and its respective producer, they should certainly be informed of the source and nature of whatever they’re consuming, because, as one can likely assume, ethical issues don’t revolve around a single coffee varietal.

“So, it might be an idea to flag lovers of good coffee to read their labels carefully, and give ‘Kona blends’ a very wide pass,” says Garbutt.

“Kona is but one bean, I suspect there is all sorts of caffeinated flimflammery [that] goes on.”

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