Kona Coffee - The Perfect Brew

Coffee has become as iconic in America as apple pie. Almost every street corner has a coffee shop, every hand holds a custom-made cup of brew and every person has a specific coffee persona. “Cream and sugar” or “black” have now been joined by countless multi-syllable, lifestyle-defining order preferences. But the one true correlation between Americans and coffee can be found right here in the form of one of the most prestigious and elite gourmet coffees in the world—Kona Coffee.

Well before Hawai‘i was a glimmer in the eye of American statehood, coffee was grown as a reputable crop on the Big Island. During the mid-1800s, whaling and sugar were the two major export industries in Hawai‘i, though coffee soon developed as a consistent and valuable crop for island farmers. The first coffee cuttings were brought to Hawai‘i by Samuel Reverend Ruggles in 1828, used solely as a decorative plant. It was some 25 years later, after the crop deemed extremely adaptable, that Henry Nicholas Greenwell settled in the plantation lands of Kealakekua and established coffee as a commercially viable harvest.

After purchasing a substantial amount of acreage throughout South Kona (following the legal allowance of foreigners to purchase land in Hawai‘i), Greenwell began to cultivate his own farms, perfecting his Kona brew. In 1873, the entrepreneur gained notoriety for launching Hawaiian Kona Coffee into the European market after receiving the “Recognition Diploma” by the President of the Kaiser’s Exposition for his participation in the World’s Fair in Vienna, Austria.

It was just a few years later in 1899 that the world coffee market took an unexpected hit and crashed, forcing many Kona farmers to divvy up their parcels and lease out their land. Over the next 100 years, migrant workers—primarily Japanese immigrants—cultivated small five to twelve acre plots, producing sizeable quantities of quality Hawaiian Kona Coffee (as it was known until the 1970s when the “Hawaiian” was dropped). Through struggle, the crop managed to forge ahead in what would become the island’s most cherished agricultural product and economic mainstay for the next five generations.

Kona CoffeeDue to increasing popularity and its ability to thrive in many parts of Kona (the Kona Coffee belt alone runs 22 miles long and 2 miles wide, located on the slopes of both Mauna Loa and Hualālai), the next historical step for Big Island coffee farmers was to establish a central and focused processing center.

“The concept of keeping the process in the hands of the farmers themselves flourished and a processing cooperative developed shortly thereafter, explained farmer Colehour Bondera, owner of Kanalani Farms in Hōnaunau and president of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association (KCFA). “Kona coffee has now, for well over 150 years, allowed farm families to offer a globally renowned and unique product to coffee drinkers around the world.”

Today, Kona Coffee farmers transcend all ethnic boundaries. Joining the original Japanese-Hawaiian families throughout North and South Kona are approximately 800 small-scale coffee farms by families of Chinese, Filipino, American mainland and European descent, maintaining the tradition of producing a high quality product and perpetuating Kona’s living history. 

But the family-run operations and high demand are only a part of what makes Kona so alluring to specialty coffee purveyors—taste is what places Kona Coffee in a league of its own. The distinctive flavor is a direct result of the plant’s isolated and extreme growing conditions. The young Guatemala typica, the variety of coffee Arabica that is predominate in Kona, grows exceptionally well in the geographically young, organic, volcanic soil and thrives under the critical nature of the Big Island’s weather cycles—wind and the lack of damaging frost at high elevations with daily cloud coverage. All of these factors have resulted in producing a delicious product worthy of its very own varietal distinction. In the 1990s, the Kona-adapted plant was given its own classifications of Coffea arabica and Kona typica, established by law to protect the product and its name to ensure that coffee can only be named Kona Coffee if it’s authentic to the growing region. Enthusiasts already establish it as a discernibly distinctive product.

“It’s simple,” says Tom Greenwell, great grandson of Henry Greenwell and fourth generation coffee farmer at Greenwell Farms in Kealakekua, as he describes his ideal cup of coffee. “It’s very well balanced. The aroma, flavor, acidity, body—not one part overwhelms the other. It’s mellow, smooth, easy to drink and has a nice flavor.”

Greenwell, who has been growing different varieties of coffee in the pursuit of new blends, explains that another characteristic of Hawai‘i’s unique climate enables coffee to grow in just two years; elsewhere a plant takes at least three to four years to flower and produce the fruit referred to as the cherry.

Although the plant has only a short growing cycle, the entire process of planting and harvesting requires a tremendous amount of attention. Generally grown at an elevation of 800-2,500 feet, Kona Coffee goes through a 6-step process from beginning to end. It first starts with the harvest of the red, ripe coffee cherry beginning in July (months can vary depending on weather and elevation). Following the harvest comes the pulping phase that takes place over a 24-hour period and uses a basic pulping machine to separate the fruit’s skin from the two coffee beans inside (five percent of most coffee cherries have only one bean inside, known as a “peaberry” that is much more concentrated). The third step is the fermenting and rinsing process that removes the slimy, fruit-like layers of coverage that protect the actual beans. Step four is the drying phase in which the beans are dried on large racks, raked and rotated regularly. The beans are precisely dried at a moisture content of 9.5 percent to 12.5 percent before being stored. The final step consists of removing the parchment (two protective layers of skin on the bean), which must be done before roasting. The entire process is a meticulous task but the result is only the finest in gourmet coffee.

For years, though, many farmers in the Kona Coffee community have been struggling to secure more stringent labeling laws for their product. Many imitators have tried to capitalize on the local name and farmers feel that the 10% Kona Coffee Blends—labeled with the prestigious Kona title but containing 90% of coffee from elsewhere—devalues the genuine geographic distinction that is Kona Coffee.

In October of 2010, Bondera, on behalf of the KFCA, received the honorable Parmigiano-Reggiano International Award at the Slow Food Foundation’s biannual Salone del Gusto event in Turin, Italy. “The international award is about recognizing that when something comes from a specific geographic origin, it needs to be recognized as special and be given effective (legislative) protection,” states Bondera. The award has acknowledged KCFA’s struggle to protect Kona’s unique terroir (geographic origin), processing regimen and name. The debate over the benefits and detriments of 10% blends is a controversial topic amongst those in the coffee industry. Yet, regardless of point of view, all coffee farmers agree that a 10% blend is nowhere near the same as 100% Kona Coffee.

“The blends are deceiving and confuse the customer,” explained Malia Bolton, Director of Operations of The Kona Coffee and Tea Company and a member of the next generation of young coffee farmers. “It meets the need for cheap coffee but keep in mind you get what you pay for. So hopefully the 10% consumers are aware of sacrificing the quality of 100%. Buying local and farm direct gives you the opportunity to know what is going into the products you consume.”

Purchasing coffee direct from the farm is genuinely the traditional way to enjoy the best of the island’s liquid treasure. With an abundance of family farms to choose from, the Big Island’s coffee heritage is never more than a sip away.

Furthermore, coffee’s local forefathers are honored every November with the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival (KCCF). The event celebrates the perpetuation of the island’s oldest gourmet agricultural product. This year, the 41st annual KCCF is from November 4-13 throughout Kona.

“It’s a great celebration to honor the community of all its hard work. It’s also public awareness for a thriving industry that continues to grow,” says Bolton. The festival is a 10-day affair filled with pageantry, cupping competitions, awards, and parades. It is a vehicle for honoring Kona’s cultural heritage by commemorating the present-day lifestyle and future of this industry. With all of the festival romantics, don’t forget to take the time to indulge in Hawai‘i’s agricultural history. Enjoy a fresh brewed cup of 100% Kona coffee—anyway you order.

This editorial was published in the Sep-Dec issue of Big Island Traveler magazine

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