Wake-up call for coffee fans Consumers: Connoisseurs of a high-priced Hawaiian brew are dismayed when an indictment purports to spill the beans about an alleged fraud.

November 15, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

Is there deceit in your coffee? Do your beans have integrity? Or is your cup of joe just one big lie?

Coffee lovers are not sparing their favorite drink from the Major Ethical Questions this week as they learn they may be victims of the worst kind of coffee crime: Bean fraud.

Although for years they have raved about their expensive Kona coffee -- an exclusive java from the lush mountains of Hawaii -- coffee lovers may have been slurping a regular old cup of mud all along.

Last week, one of the nation's biggest distributors of Kona coffee -- a supplier who has served everyone from Starbucks to Baltimore supermarkets -- was indicted on suspicion of secretly replacing his Kona with cheap Central American beans.

Now, folks are coming off their coffee buzz.

"We've been taken for a ride," said Nick Constantinides, president of Baltimore-based Eagle Coffee Co., one of the biggest importers of the suspect Kona on the East Coast. "We've been in the coffee business for 75 years, and this is the first time anything like this has happened."

To save its reputation, Eagle is recalling roughly $15,000 worth of Kona from Giant supermarkets in Maryland, Washington, D.C., Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, in coffee houses across the area, people aren't just asking for cream and sugar with their coffee -- but certificates of authenticity.

After all, why pay $25 a pound for Kona -- a pricey coffee made valuable because of its relatively scarce supply -- if it actually is a regular Colombian roast worth $12 a pound?

"All day long people have been saying, 'I need to know. Is it authentic?' " said Rosemary Thompson, a co-owner of The Coffee Mill, a retail and wholesale shop. Thompson pulled out the certificates from the Kona bags and showed the official-looking seals to her customers. "They trust us because we've been around for 23 years."

But during those 23 years, The Coffee Mill probably has sold the suspect Kona Kai Farms coffee. And why not? Kona Kai was the Budweiser of Konas -- a top-selling, ubiquitous coffee supplier led by California businessman Michael Norton.

"That's the guy who's in trouble? He's the biggest name in coffee -- he pretty much raised the consciousness on Kona coffee," said Tom Thompson, the other half of the The Coffee Mill partnership. "That's the kind of guy you're supposed to trust."

One of The Coffee Mill's bean suppliers, First Colony Coffee and Tea, expects to be subpoenaed as a witness in the Kona fraud case because of the amount of Kona Kai it sold.

"This is really ruining the trust in an industry built on long-term relationships," said Joseph Breslin, president of First Colony Coffee and Tea in Norfolk, Va. Although his company tested the coffee frequently, the purpose was to determine freshness -- not whether a cheap bean was masquerading as something expensive.

Now, folks are getting some serious coffee jitters.

"I'd venture to say this is Kona, but I wouldn't put my life on it," said Peter Nobel, owner of the Coffee Cafe in Baltimore whose distributor is Eagle, one of the companies given the controversial beans. "I'm not surprised by anything in the coffee industry. It's a big industry just like the oil cartels."

Indeed, coffee is the second biggest commodity in the world after oil.

Roughly two-thirds of all Americans drink it, with an average 3.7 cups per day (up from 3.6 cups last year). With all this coffee for sale, surprisingly few ways exist to determine whether a coffee is what it says it is.

Even the experts say they might not be able to tell the difference between Costa Rican and Panamanian coffee -- the two cheaper BTC brands allegedly passed off as Kona.

Even the purest beans can be hard to identify, because coffee flavor often varies with changes in water, roasting, crops and seasons.

Louis Pfefferkorn, who tests his stock by "cupping" it -- sloshing, savoring and spitting a la wine sampling -- says it is extremely difficult to identify a coffee just because the label says it's Kona.

"I have been in the coffee business all my life and I am almost 72 years old and I can tell you that would be a very monumental task," said Pfefferkorn, an owner of Pfefferkorn's Coffee Inc., a Baltimore coffee wholesaler since 1900.

And even though Costa Rican coffee is much more heavy and acidic than the mild Kona, the two coffees vary in taste and blends, so there's room for confusion.

Growers can play tricks that further complicate the coffee's identity -- such as growing a Kona plant in Hawaii, where the volcanic soil is rich in nutrients, but then planting it elsewhere.

But even with the latest coffee controversy percolating, some coffee drinkers remain faithful to their brew masters.

As owner Nobel attended to his cozy coffee shop, customer Polly Connor showed no signs of giving up her daily visits.

"I don't worry when I come here about this cheap bean business," said Connor. "I've always trusted Peter's beans."

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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