Kona Coffee Claims GET Litigated
On the volcanic slopes of Hawaii’s Big Island, hundreds of farmers in the Kona region produce one of the most expensive coffees in the world.
Those farmers recently won a series of settlements — totaling more than $41 million — after a nearly five-year legal battle with distributors and retailers that were accused of using the Kona name in a misleading way.
In 2019, Bruce Corker, who owns the Rancho Aloha coffee farm in the Kona district, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kona farmers against more than 20 companies. At the center of the complaint was a chemical analysis performed at a private lab in Salt Lake City by James Ehleringer, Distinguished Professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah who ran the analysis and who said that standard tests depended on the amount of water in each sample. That wouldn’t have worked on the variety of Kona products at issue.
“As you go from green beans to roasted beans, you’re changing the water content,” says Ehleringer. So he borrowed an approach from geology that instead looked at the relative concentrations of rare, inorganic minerals in the beans. These ratios, he said, stay constant even at roasting temperatures.
After testing coffee samples from around the world as well as more than 150 samples from Kona farms, Dr. Ehleringer’s team identified several element ratios — strontium to zinc, for example, and barium to nickel — that distinguished Kona from non-Kona samples. “We were able to establish a fingerprint for Kona,” said Dr. Ehleringer, who described the general method in a 2020 study. “It’s the characteristics of the volcanic rock.”
Those chemical signatures, he found, were largely absent from samples of coffee labeled “Kona” sold by the defendants.