Los Angeles Times

Whenever Suzanne Shriner left Hawaii to visit the U.S. mainland, she didn't have to taste the Kona coffee sold at Costco, Walmart and other big-box stores to conclude it was fake.

She just looked at the price of the beans — significantly less per pound than it cost to produce on her farm on the Big Island.

"There's a lot of money in counterfeiting, and it happens in every industry, but we're not nameless, faceless corporations," she said. "We're small farmers who are directly impacted by this."

She and fellow growers believe that passing off cheap, commodity beans as Kona has depressed prices for the real stuff and damaged its reputation as a sweet, smooth, slightly nutty brew.

Shriner is one of more than 700 farmers now eligible to receive the first settlement payments in a federal class-action lawsuit filed against 22 big-name retailers and suppliers.

The growers said that the money — which after attorney fees works out to roughly $14,000 apiece — is less significant than commitments from 11 of the companies to abide by new rules about using the Kona name.

Blenders must say on their packages what portion of the beans are from the Kona belt — where rich volcanic soil, tropical sunshine, gentle breezes and jungle rain give them their distinctive flavor — and refrain from using the Kona label at all if that figure does not meet a minimum threshold set by Hawaiian law.

That threshold has long been 10%, but the state had no way of applying it to coffee sold outside of Hawaii.

The hope of the growers is that Kona will be regarded legally more like Champagne, which French vintners define as sparkling wine produced in the region by that name, or like Gucci, a brand with a trademark.

Roasted Kona beans fetch about $33 a pound when farmers sell them directly to consumers. They hope the settlement raises that price. Shriner, who runs Lions Gate Farms, which has belonged to her family for three generations, said $40 a pound would provide Kona growers a fair living.

One question is whether consumers will be willing to pay more to support that price.

Kona coffee dates to the 1820s, when missionaries started planting the crop. Immigrants from Portugal and then Japan bought up the land, dividing it into small plots that they ran for generations as family farms. Contemporary farmers are a mix of their descendants and newcomers.

Not all the growers care about the lawsuit.

Asked whether he would accept a payment, Jon Biloon launched into a stream of invective that turned into a lecture on the health effects of herbicides and the anti-capitalist writings of the late economist Thorstein Veblen. He grows his Kona organically and blames neighboring farmers for applying chemicals that reach his land.

"Great, they get their 10 or 15 grand while the whole world goes to hell in a handbasket," he said. "I really don't want their money. Get a life, man, go grow a garden."

Over the years, growers have tried to get Hawaii's law changed to boost the minimum content in Kona blends to 51%.

But as powerful blending companies applied political pressure, bill after bill died in legislative committees.

The defendants that reached settlement agreements include Costco and Boyer's, Cameron's and Copper Moon coffee companies. All have denied wrongdoing, and their attorneys declined to comment.

The holdouts include some big players: Amazon, Albertsons, T.J. Maxx, Kroger Co. and Walmart.

Their lawyers did not comment.

The case could still wind up before a jury if more settlements are not reached.