Coffee With Aloha Spirit:
The 32nd Annual Kona Coffee
BY AMELIA C. LEVY
If you are lucky enough to find your way to Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island, and you take a drive past the crystal blue waters and lush trees bursting with succulent fruit and brightly-colored flowers, delicate breezes blowing through your hair - take a deep whiff. You’ll discover that the delicious scent of roasting Kona coffee is in the air everywhere here, as there are over 650 estate and commercial Kona coffee farms whose beans are being roasted to perfection throughout the area. Kona is some of the most sought-after and expensive coffee in the world, a gourmet and specialty coffee item relished by honeymooners and coffee connoisseurs alike.
Awareness within the specialty market is what has helped Kona coffee explode in the past decade, and the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, held each November to promote the coffee by celebrating its annual harvest, has grown over the years as well. What began over 30 years ago as a one-day event is now a 10-day festival which includes more than 40 events including parades celebrating local culture and community, a Kona coffee recipe contest, cupping competition, coffee picking contest, coffee farm tours, a symposium and much more. It is the state’s oldest and most active food festival, and the oldest coffee festival held in the U.S. Local residents, coffee growers, importers and roasters from around the world, as well as tourists, flock to the event each year. A two-dollar button gets you entrance into many of the events, and by the time you leave, you will have learned more than you ever thought there was to know about this unique origin.
Before we take a look at this fun and informative festival, let’s take a journey through the long history of this celebrated coffee.
KONA COFFEE: Past, Present and Future
The first coffee seedlings to reach Hawaii arrived in Honolulu in 1813. In 1828 an American missionary transplanted a Coffea arabica cutting to Kona, leading to the establishment of this western coastal area’s first farms. The first coffee laborers on the island were from China, but after they fulfilled the labor contracts to which they had been committed, many immediately left their jobs for urban centers, or started their own farms. Then, says Sheree Chase, curator, Kona Historical Society, “there was a push by land owners to recruit American and Europeans to take up the coffee land during a short boom around 1870s. It attracted a few for a while until the end of the boom, and there was an exodus.” Then, Portuguese immigrants who had come to work in Kona’s short-lived sugar industry stayed to work coffee as landowners and small farmers. After about 10 years of satisfactory production, major pest and disease problems and labor shortages arose, and Kona coffee’s first planters abandoned the land. The native Hawaiian people stepped in and continued to harvest the coffee, and were thus responsible for keeping this special coffee alive for the next 20-30 years. It was during the late 1800s that a man named Henry Nicholas Greenwell from England began to export Kona, and was thus responsible for bringing it to the lips of coffee drinkers outside of Hawaii for the first time.
|Most Kona Coffee is dried in the sun on patios called hoshida, which means "drying shelf" in Japanese.
Large coffee plantations had their ups and downs in Kona until the world coffee market crashed in 1899. The crash caused European and American landowners to rethink coffee as a plantation crop in favor of breaking up into small farms that could be farmed by single men or families. Japanese immigrants, many who had come to the island as contract laborers for sugar plantations, could afford to lease the failing lands in 3- to 5-acre parcels. For over half a century, the Japanese immigrants’ livelihood depended on the coffee crop. “It was the Japanese immigrant who made coffee their own, partly because of the sheer numbers - 185,000 people between 1885 and 1924,” says Chase. “Within 30 years they were the dominant ethnic group in Kona. And they all farmed coffee.” Farms were run by the entire extended family. “The reason the Japanese were so successful in coffee was because they were the first immigrant group to farm on small parcels, they were willing to live modestly, and they had large families - child labor was crucial to the survival during this period,” says Chase.
After this time, life as a coffee farmer was hard, but a living could be eked out from the magic bean. Agricultural research was carried out to make the coffee crop as strong as possible. Whenever there was a natural disaster in Central and South America, Kona’s coffee prices went up. But by the late 1960s, pests began to proliferate again and this, along with the rise of the tourist and construction industries, became an impetus for many of the Japanese planters’ children to look elsewhere for less backbreaking and better paying work. They began to leave the plantations that had been passed down from generation to generation. “The industry was deemed dead many times,” says Chase. The abandoned farms were taken over by people from the mainland, as well as others in Hawaii in search of work from places like the Philippines, Vietnam, and China. Thus, throughout its history, Kona coffee helped shape the multicultural population that exists in Kona today.
A new crop of planters were to play an important role in Kona coffee’s history. “The most recent and longest boom in the coffee industry began slowly when young haole [white] kids began arriving in the Kona district in the early 1970s,” says Chase. “Coffee land abandoned in the 1950s and 60s were taken up by these young counter-culture folks. Many Issei (immigrant generation Japanese farmers) were still alive and shared their knowledge with them. Overgrown lands were restored and coffee shacks remodeled...Slowly the face of the new coffee community was established.”
|A float of "coffee pioneers" rides through the Kona Coffee Festival's parade each year.
In 1980 Douglas Bong, who would later establish Bong Brothers coffee with his brother, Tom, shipped the first coffee outside of Hawaii (aside from the Farmers Coop) in 25 years, to Thanksgiving Coffee Company in California. “With little help from the established industry, this small company [Bong Brothers] would launch a 20-year boom with the highest and steadiest prices directly to the farmer for the first time,” she says.
The competition between early independent companies like these, and the revival of coffee land, sustained the boom. Kona made a comeback, beginning in the late 1980s and culminating in the early 1990s. In 1985 the Kona Coffee Council was formed as a non-profit, volunteer organization of coffee farmers, processors and others involved in the Kona Coffee industry to promote, protect and educate about the rediscovered origin.
Kona made national news when the Kona coffee scandal broke in the mid-1990s, when Michael Norton fraudulently sold Central American coffees under the Kona name, at the Kona price. But those involved in the industry recoil at the mention of it: the last thing they want is the name Kona to be known for this tiny blip on its long time line, when it has so much to offer coffee drinkers in the present. Soon after the scandal, the Kona Coffee Council and the Hawaii Coffee Association obtained a federal trademark for Kona coffee. “Although the scandal caused some uncertainties temporarily, it did give our government the incentive to grant us the trademark we had been requesting for many years,” says Christine Sheppard, president of the Kona Coffee Council.
Today, a new mandatory certification program that guarantees origin is in place for all of Hawaii’s coffee. And this year, a landmark labeling law will also go into effect for all Hawaiian coffee, which will allow consumers to clearly distinguish a 100% Kona coffee from a blend. Any coffee containing less than 100% pure Kona coffee must be labeled a “blend,” and the exact percentage by weight of Kona coffee must be specified on the package. At least 10% Kona coffee must be present for a coffee to be called a “Kona Blend,” and that percentage also must be specifically stated.
Indicative of the industry’s strength to go on, the past decade has seen an explosion in the development of Kona coffee farms. In 1997 Kona coffee was estimated at 2,290 acres, with 600 independent farms, and a green bean production of around 2 million lbs. In 2002 it grew to an estimated 3,000 acres, 650 farms and 2 1/4 million pounds of green beans, according to the Kona Coffee Council.
While Hawaiian coffee has not been immune to the hit that the world coffee market has taken recently, Kona has proven to be somewhat insulated from the crisis because of its well-established niche in the specialty coffee market.
A Best-loved Coffee
What makes Kona so special?
Kona coffee, or “Kona Typica,” is of the Guatemala variety, and is grown along the western volcanic slopes of Hawaii’s Big Island, in an area two miles wide and about 25 miles long. “Typica in this particular environment happens to make good coffee,” says Chifumi Nagai, PhD. Biotechnologist and Coffee Program Leader, Hawaii Agriculture Research Center. First of all, Kona’s coffee belt lies between 500 and 2,500 feet of elevation. In Colombia, for instance, coffee grows at an average of 3,900 feet of elevation. However, the higher latitude of Hawaii eliminates the need for that kind of elevation. More beneficial for the plants here is Kona’s climate. Rainfall is light here during flowering, heavier while the coffee is ripening, and lighter when coffee is drying. The sunlight that tourists relish here is also ideal for coffee plants: consistently sunny mornings give the trees the sun upon which they thrive. But cloudy afternoons protect the coffee from overproduction, which can kill trees, with a natural shade that makes the growing conditions comparable to that of shade-grown coffee. This and a lack of pests and plant diseases contribute to a consistently healthy crop.
|Melanie Bondera, owner of Kanalani Ohana Farm.
Rich, well-drained volcanic soil is said to be another factor contributing to Kona coffee’s appeal. The Big Island, Hawaii’s southernmost and newest island, is still in its birthing process, and has been entirely formed by volcanic activity. The Kona name only applies to beans grown on the western slopes of the active Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes - a narrow strip extending from the Holualoa to Honaunau areas. The world’s most active volcano, Kilauea, is also located on the southeastern tip of the island. It has been continuously erupting since 1983, oozing 130,000 gallons of molten lava every minute. Organic matter caught between all the ensuing crumbled volcanic rock, called a’a by the Hawaiians, acts as natural fertilizer. “Young volcanic ash is particularly suited to coffee production due to the level of soil acidity and availability of nutrients,” says Mario Serracin, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hawaii Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. “There is better water retention and the mineral feeding could almost seem to be specifically designed to help the soil develop with its perfect combination of minerals and biological soil foods.”
Farms in Kona are generally small-sized - planters typically own about 5 acres or an average of 2-10 acres. This ends up being beneficial because, for one reason, on larger farms it is more difficult to have consistency of crop. Also contributing to the personal touch is Kona’s coffee picking method. Since the terrain is so uneven in the hills where coffee is grown, picking cannot usually be mechanized. Kona coffee pickers make as much as 50 cents a pound plucking off the red cherries at their ripest. Thus, labor makes up a major portion of the cost of Kona coffee production.
The processing of Kona coffee may also contribute to a hand-made taste. Most Kona coffee is wet-processed, then dried like the Japanese have done for hundreds of years - in the sun on patios with sliding roofs to protect against rain called hoshidanas, which means “drying shelf” in Japanese.
Kona also has a very high grading standard for its coffee. The highest grade, Kona Extra Fancy, can have no more than 10 defects per pound. Of course no one knows exactly why coffee here tastes so good - just that it does. John King, Harold King & Co., a coffee importer describes its general taste profile: “A classic Kona has a floral, fragrant aroma with a hint of winey-ness,” he says. “[It] has good acidity, not as sharp as an east African, but on the mellow side. It is not as heavily bodied as Sumatra, but it should have a better-than-average body. Flavor should be a mellow sweetness with a lack of bitterness.”
Like with all coffees, many agree that it is the roast that can “make or break” a cup of Kona. At the Pacific Rim Symposium held as part of the Kona Coffee Festival for the first time this year, Bob Yap of UCC Ueshima, production division manager, cautioned attendees: “When people say Kona isn’t worth the price, often times green coffee is not the problem, but the roasting and brewing that is disappointing.” Kona is a denser bean, he says, which creates the challenge of keeping consistency of roast changes. “Remember to roast your coffee as Kona coffee,” he says.
A Diverse Industry
Already packing your bags to run away to make your fortune as a Kona coffee farmer? You might want to do some research first. “Kona coffee farms provide nothing but a subsistence living unless supplemented by another small form of income,” says Sheppard. “Latecomers wanting to jump on the boom bandwagon began arriving in the early 1990s and, true to history, overplanted and drove prices up for them and down for farmers,” explains Chase. “This was a disaster, and so we are now in a bust. Unless they take their coffee up to roast, small producers struggle. There is no money in cherry farming any more.”
|Arianna Farm's Sharon, Robert, and Arianna Wood and Mario Serracin.
Coffee farmers usually fall into several categories: cherry farmers, who sell the crop to the processors; added-value farmers who process their own cherry through to parchment and sell it to processors or millers; and estate farmers who roast the beans they grow and sell it under their own label. “There are currently more than 150 private label estates in Kona,” says Sheppard. “The further along the line a farmer takes his coffee, the more profit he can realize, otherwise he is limited by the very low rates that the processors pay for cherry.” Cherry currently goes for 90 cents a pound, which, minus the average picking cost of 45-50 cents, does not leave much left for the cherry farmer to pay his rent, fertilizer, pruning and other farming expenses.
Farmers in Kona must also consider the best methods for growing in this part of the world, and agricultural research has played a critical role in Kona’s coffee production over the years. “There is a long history of research on coffee by the University of Hawaii and a long relationship between the University and the coffee industry,” says Virginia Easton Smith of CTAHR (College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resource) of the University of Hawaii. “Some of the topics have been fertilizer requirements for optimum production, harvesting and processing for top quality coffee, best methods to use for starting a coffee orchard, nematode symptoms and management, and many other topics.” Smith gives a monthly “Coffee Talk” for the farmers on cultivation, and farmers come to her and the CTAHR when they have a problem or a question.
A popular method of pruning in Kona, called Beaumont-Fukunaga technique, was developed in part by Edward Fukanaga, superintendent of CTAHR’s Kona Research Station in the mid-20th century. Very recently, an important research development has come out of the CTAHR at the University of Hawaii as well. Its researchers have developed a selection of Liberica coffee called the Fukunaga Coffee Rootstock for use in areas in Kona where a certain nematode harms the plants. “When this rootstock is grafted with Kona Typica...the resulting plants have a good yield, moderate nematode resistance and excellent cup quality,” reads a report by CTAHR. Kona grown with this rootstock on a farm called The Other Farm won first place in the famous Cupping Competition at the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival in 2000.
Mario Serracin, as an agronomist and fellow farm manager, is helping Robert and Sharon Wood, owners of Arianna Farms, plan a thoughtful, sustainable strategy for this 40-acre farm overlooking Kailua Bay. Serracin hopes that continual research can help Kona coffee grow in as a sustainable way as possible, but he cautions that farms must be looked at on a case-by-case basis. “There are as many growing methods as there are farmers,” he says. “In general, the production models range from Pure Certified Organic, In Transition to Organic, Ecological Coffee, Low Input Systems and Conventional (when growers add fertilizer, water and herbicides to control weeds.) The truth of the matter is that there are certain areas in which these models will work and other areas in which it will be difficult (for instance, weeds are worse at low elevation, versus high elevation).”
Organic farms are only about 10-15% of the farms here and only 18 are certified organic by the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association, but many are very close and there is a growing and strong interest, especially as they are part of a specialty market that gravitates towards organically-grown products. The lack of pests, the ideal environment, and the gourmet niche of Kona creates many more natural choices towards organic. “Hawaii has a commitment to sustainable agriculture,” says Melanie Bondera, co-owner with her husband Colehour of Kanalani Ohana Farm, a five acre certified organic coffee farm in Honaunau in South Kona. “The Big Island has a thriving organic community.... Coffee as a crop really lends itself to going organic and many farmers are halfway there,” says Bondera. “In recent years, out of the top three winners of the Kona Cupping Competition, one of those has always been organic. I have a lot of farmers approaching me, who are unhappy with the high chemical use on their farm where they and their children are living, or are concerned about the environment or have realized that organic farming is not harder. They ask me about the nuts and bolts of switching to organic.”
Kona’s commitment to sustainability has led to a loud movement in the most recent Kona coffee news. Many Kona coffee farmers have been pushing the Department of Agriculture for an embargo on field testing of genetically modified (GM) coffee in Kona. They fear there is a danger of GM coffee in Kona cross-pollinating with their crops and thus reducing their value as part of their specialty niche.
Several coffee and agricultural organizations in Kona have requested a moratorium on GM coffee being planted anywhere in the Kona region from the Hawaii County Council (HCC). The HCC recently voted to support the development of a protocol before any release or planting of genetically modified coffee in Kona. The protocol is to be established in collaboration with government agencies, the scientific community, and those in the Kona coffee industry.
A Sunny Future?
Despite the challenges of being a Kona coffee farmer, no one seems to have too many regrets, living off the land in paradise. Says Bondera, “The land is incredibly beautiful... I love the diversity of people in the community and that there are flourishing small family farms....” She adds, “This crop also allows me to stay home with my children while they are young.”
Paradise or not, the experts predict there will be issues Kona coffee will have to face in the near future. Says Sheppard: “[A challenge will be] maintaining the high price point in the face of the glut of cheap coffee from other growing regions. A lower price point would mean the demise of the entire Kona coffee industry as it is a subsistence crop now - farmers would abandon the orchards, or turn them over to more profitable crops, such as nutraceuticals.” Says Smith, “I think the greatest challenges will be the availability of labor, particularly for harvesting, and expanding the market for Kona coffee.”
“One of the biggest challenges for Kona is also world wide - acceptance and utilization of applied research and development,” says Robert Wood of Arianna Farms. “As problems arise that attack coffee cultivation, farmers will need to compare prior answers with new research findings.” He adds, “A second important challenge for the Kona Coffee industry is to maintain itself. Often we are told by larger roasters and retailers that they would love to buy Kona coffee if they could get enough of it consistently....The challenge is that we need to join together to do this, which isn’t easy for a large group of independent thinkers. Otherwise, each farmer will continue to have to make contacts and market smaller amounts, sometimes vying for the same accounts.... In so many areas of the world, small farms have become extinct and many are an endangered species. Kona coffee country is a special place because of the farmers, who will invite you in for a tour of the farm and a cuppa.”
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