When you pick up a bag of Kona blend coffee how much Kona coffee do you think is inside? I would guess most folks would guess around 80%. How about 50%? 10%? It may interest you to know at Safeway for years it has been an honest 5%. I say “honest” because apparently there is no real coffee blend percentage regulation.
Kona coffee farmers complained. They feel that the product bearing their origin name on it should be labeled with a percentage breakdown. Last year, Safeway voluntarily agreed to a Hawaiian Department of Agriculture request and pledged to increase the Kona percentage in their Kona Blend to 10% and reflect it on the package. Kona farmers weren’t thrilled with the change, but at least it was in the right direction. Their latest complaint is that nothing appears to have changed at Safeway. The farmers claim Safeway is not keeping their word and that consumers are still buying coffee that’s only 5% Kona and 95% commodity blender quality coffee in the old unmarked bags.
Safeway’s answer? Safeway vice president of public affairs Brian Dowling says, “Given the product shelf life, packaging used before the (changes) may still exist on store shelves or elsewhere in our distribution chain,” then added that that the company doesn’t plan to destroy or dispose of those products. I am surprised to hear anyone at a food supplier say their company doesn’t plan to destroy or dispose of old perishable products. I guess my followup question to Mr Dowling would be, “Ever?” So, the 5% Kona blend is still on their shelves because it’s still well within the freshness range they accord the product. To me their defense is more alarming than the original charge. They agreed last year. Does this means that all these bags on the shelves were packed and labeled before 2012? That seems like a long time, even by a supermarket’s standards.
What kind of coffee flavor can there be in a product this old? Just to give reference, coffee is best consumed within 2 weeks of being roasted. Assuming it is packaged in an oxygen-free environment in proper packaging, some large-scale roasters in the industry claim it can preserve its flavors for up to six months, although there’s dissention even within their ranks. I would argue after twenty years of personal tasting that coffee is good for me for about a month after roasting, regardless of packaging. Only freezing significantly slows the staling of coffee beans and this is still controversial.
So Safeway is saying, relax we’ve still got plenty of coffee so old it predates our year-old pledge right there on our shelves. Nice.
None of this is about safety, so I’m not pushing new laws. This is about taste, a company’s in-house freshness standards and their word. I don’t blame the farmers for asking for more, but I’m going to offer a quick guide to getting your money’s worth when you shop for coffee.
Blend Buying Tips
• Buy 100% Kona, not Kona blends. Kona coffee can be excellent, but there’s no magic ingredient in Kona coffee as a blender. If you’re going to drink Kona, find a roaster who’s snagged some of the best and prepare to pay for 100% Kona. At its best Kona is a truly unique coffee, its terroir (earth) right up there with the best coffees in the world. It’s the only made-in-America coffee. If you’re a patriot and have the dough, buy it. It has never been economical.
• If you buy coffee from any supermarket, look for roast dates, not “freshness” dates. Safeway executives apparently have no idea what freshness is, or they’ve bought a sales pitch that sealed one-way valve bags are coffee flavor museums. Avoid any supermarket’s coffee such as one labeled Abe Lincoln’s blend. If you’re in Safeway it just might be true.
• Buy only low cost blends that smell and taste great. A blends can be a good way to buy coffee with a personal stamp of the person who blends it. But they save the roaster lots of money and the price should reflect the savings. Avoid names like Java Blend, Kona Blend and Jamaica Blue Mountain Blend, especially if they are pricey. They likely contain 10% of a renowned coffee… 5% at Safeway stores. How would you like to know your Chardonnay wine was just 10% Chardonnay grapes? How about discovering a Napa Valley winery was trucking in 90% of the grapes from Arizona? I’m sure you get my meaning.
The original blend was Mocha Java. It was developed by the Dutch to teach a business lesson to the Yemen farmers who got uppity and wanted to start feeding their families from growing coffee. The Dutch simply planted a few trees on the Java Islands where labor costs were lower and created a competitive price war. Meanwhile, the roasters made more money than ever selling a blend. But it was usually 1/2 Yemen Mocha to 1/2 Java. The sneakiest coffee roaster in town made it a 1/3rd to 2/3rds blend. This was all B.S., Before Safeway.