August 16, 2011

Going to Origin: Kona

Travelling back to Australia from San Diego, we had planned four days in Hawaii. Our goal? Coffee and volcanoes, staying at Keauhou in Kailua-Kona, on the Big Island in the heart of the Kona coffee growing region.

At first glance you might think that coffee and volcanoes have little to do with each other, but it is the fresh volcanic soil of the Kona region that produces some of the best coffees in the world. Around 700 registered Kona coffee growers squeeze onto the side of Mauna Loa, a large volcanic mountain situated just behind the coastal Keauhou Village. In Kona, coffee plants grow on a 24 mile (38.6 km) strip of land between the heights of 800 and 2,500 feet above sea level (244 m to 762 m). Any lower, and the climate is too dry; any higher, and it’s too cold.

It’s this very competition for land that produces some of the current dilemmas facing Kona coffee growers. There are very few large farms here. Most coffee farmers have a plot of land somewhere between 3 and 7 acres (1.2 to 2.8 hectares) in size that is worked by the family. Largely, this is a legacy of 3 acre (1.2 ha) government grants of land to former sugar plantation workers, after the collapse of the sugar cane industry in Hawaii. To survive, these small farmers need to work hard. Many process the coffee by hand and sell their produce at markets or other small retail outlets. Others sell the fresh coffee cherries just after they are harvested, so that they don’t need to process it as well.

A glitch in the food labelling system enables coffee blends with only 10% Kona coffee beans to be labelled as ‘Kona Coffee’ and marketed as such in mainland USA. Some of the coffee cherries sold by small farmers end up in these blends. Often these 10% Kona blends are filled with inferior coffee beans from other countries, resulting in a low quality product. Most Kona coffee growers are very concerned that this harms their reputation and are keen to preserve the high quality produce labelled as Kona coffee. The Kona Coffee Farmers Association and the Kona Coffee Council are actively trying to change regulations to stamp out this practice. Both organisations support growers who produce and market 100% Kona coffee beans.

On our first day in Keauhou, we visited Greenwell Farms, one of Kona’s largest coffee growers and processors. They proudly promote that their products are all 100% Kona coffee beans. Currently, they process 20% of all the coffee beans grown in the Kona region. This includes coffee grown on some of the smaller farms. Daniel, our guide, explains that Henry Greenwell and his wife Elizabeth established the farm in 1850 and developed a successful business exporting Kona coffee to America and Europe. The Greenwell coffee orchard was established in 1900, when Typica Arabica trees were imported from Guatemala. These 111-year-old trees are still surviving and produce seedstock for all of the trees planted on the farm. The saplings are transplanted from the nursery into the orchard at the age of 2 years and produce the best quality cherries between the ages of 5 and 35 years. Currently Greenwells have 65,000 coffee trees on 200 acres (81 hectares) of land.

All of the coffee cherries in the Kona region are picked by hand, including those at Greenwells. Each plant can flower about 8 times a year between the months of February and July, with cherries produced at each flowering. This means the fruit ripens at different times and during each harvest, only the ripe cherries can be picked. Greenwells try to use all parts of the coffee cherry. They use the pulp for compost, the sugar water is refined and concentrated into an energy and anti-oxidant ‘super-fruit’ drink marketed as ‘Kona-Red’.

On Saturday morning, we walk up the hill to check out the Keauhou shopping centre. In the car park, a local farmers market is underway. Quite a few stall holders are small coffee growers selling 100% Kona coffee beans. These farmers are keen to distinguish their quality product from the inferior blends filled with cheap coffee beans. They support a call for better labelling regulations, explaining that some small farms just need to sell the coffee cherries, and after that, don’t really have any control over what happens to their beans.

The coffee at the Keauhou farmers market is mostly very good. Prices range from $11 to $20 for an 8 oz (250 g) bag. A range of medium to dark roasted coffees are on offer, but primarily dark roasts, which are preferred by the USA market. All of the stallholders offer tastings of filter coffee dispensed from Airpots and give away small samples of their coffee. We chat to a few growers, while we sample their coffee. One man is a former accountant, who dreams of setting up a coffee shop on mainland USA; another tells of the long days, hard work and small rewards. One woman calmly states her reasons for disagreeing with the current labelling system; and another is keen to promote her range of spiced nuts, that sit neatly alongside her bags of coffee. Macadamia nuts, or ‘mac nuts’ as they are called in Hawaii, are plentiful. Many coffee orchards are co-planted with macadamia trees, to provide additional shelter for the coffee trees.

Donna Woolley, President of the Kona Coffee Council, is also a coffee grower, producing coffee under the name Island Sun Coffee. She and her husband Al have a 6-acre plantation on the volcanic slopes overlooking Keauhou. Their plantation has mainly Typica Arabica trees, but also some Red and Yellow Catura. The Woolley’s coffee is classed as ‘shade grown’, because of the 10 metre Monkey Pod trees on their block of land. Right now the orchard of coffee trees is in full blossom – a brief event that lasts for only two days. Our timing is fortuitous, as coffee trees are related to Gardenias, and the perfume of a coffee orchard in full flower is simply glorious.

It’s interesting to get a glimpse of the hardships some farmers face. While the grass is green, the sub-surface moisture is so low that the Woolleys need to drip-irrigate the orchard. The soil is great in patches, but the lava base is fresh enough to mean they have to jack hammer holes to plant individual trees. The root system is so shallow, that before Donna and Al installed fences, wild pigs could dig up the trees to eat the juicy roots. Hand picking coffee cherries in steep terrain requires small trees with only a few ‘verticals’ to bear fruit. This is called ‘stumping’ or coppicing (about 30 cm from the ground) and means that until the new trees are mature, the farm could be 20% down on production at any one time. Like many other small farmers, the Woolleys are planning on building a roastery to value add on-site, rather than have their coffee processed by one of the island’s coffee processors. The roastery will have spectacular views over approximately 20 miles (35 km) of coast and the city of Kailua-Kona.

Finally, we travelled to the Kilauea volcano on the other side of the island. This volcano has been active since 1983. While it might be physically removed from the Kona coffee farms, the clouds that form from the expelled gas and ash drift over the Kona region each day, providing an ideal climate for coffee growing. Each morning is sunny, then the clouds form, protecting the coffee trees from the harsh afternoon sun.

On our way to the airport, going home, we finally found the Kona Mountain Coffee outlet, where we absorbed our first Kona espresso – perfectly made. Heaven!

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