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The Hawaiian Gem:
A One-of-a-Kind Bean with the Setting to Match
By Alexis Rubinstein

When one thinks of single-origin specialty coffee, the region of Kona, Hawaii should definitely come to mind. With its interesting history and exciting future, Kona Coffee is making strides towards protecting the crops, farmers and its reputations.

While there is no denying that the Hawaiian Islands are capable of producing high quality coffee, there is something about the Kona bean in particular that has the industry abuzz. The pairing of Kona and coffee is far from a new discovery, but one that dates back hundreds of years and has been the foundation of many communities in the region and the financial means of many local families. According to the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, a volunteer, non-profit, community-based group, “The coffee belt occupies ancient Hawaiian agricultural lands that for at least a thousand years supported thousands of Hawaiians on staple crops of taro, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, sugar cane and bananas. Coffee was introduced to Kona in the 1820s.”

What’s truly special about the Kona coffee belt is how apparent the history and cultures are to each farm, farmer, family and worker. Bob Nelson of Lehuula Farms (www.lehuulafarms.com) was eager to speak of the transitions his farm, as well as others in Kona, has been through. “This land has been farmed for quite some time now. The Hawaiians farmed the land many years ago and grew taro. In the 1800s, the attempt was to grow sugar cane, and I strongly suspect that it was tried here on this property as well. Because of the lack of water, this plan didn’t pan out and they started growing coffee in the mid to late 1800s. We do have trees on the farm that I’m sure are in excess of 100-years-old,” says Nelson.

Quality Not Quantity
“Because of several historical collapses of world coffee prices, and because the steep rocky terrain is laborious to cultivate, capital-intensive plantations have not prevailed in Kona,” states the Kona Coffee Farmers Association. “The coffee crop has for a century come from small family holdings. Today’s specialty coffee boom has encouraged more investment in farms where powerful excavators have smoothed the wild lava surface. But, 50 acres remains an exceptionally large farm in Kona, and most of its 700-odd farms comprise fewer than five acres.”

Whether a comparatively large Kona coffee farm or small, the goal is identical: to provide premium product and promote Kona coffee consumption. The McLaughlin family has been in the coffee business since the 1970s. Steve McLaughlin first worked for E A Johnson & Co., a coffee-importing firm, before starting his own firm Cal Trading in 1974. After being past president of the Pacific Coast Coffee Association and serving on the Board of Directors of the National Coffee Association, in 2000 McLaughlin and his family become the owners of Captain Cook Coffee Company, one of the oldest coffee companies in Kona. “Captain Cook Coffee Co. purchases coffee cherries from over 450 private estates in Kona,” McLaughlin explains. “Additionally, they have a five-acre farm, an 11-acre farm and a new 50-acre farm, with 27.5 acres planted to date. They will continue to plant another 20 acres during 2008/2009.” For the Kona coffee belt region, Captain Cook Coffee Co. is one of the “coffee giants,” and must process their beans accordingly. “With their state-of-the-art wet mill and first automated dry mill in the state of Hawaii, Captain Cook is one of the largest processors and exporters of 100% State Certified green Kona coffee,” McLaughlin states. Because of the size and loyal following, the Captain Cook Coffee Co. has numerous ways to sell their products. We “sell the roasted product to the many tourists that visit our mills, as well as e-commerce business that continues to grow annually,” describes McLaughlin. “About 75% of Captain Cook’s green coffee is shipped to the West Coast for further distrubution to medium size and large roasters. Additionally, the green coffee is shipped to various European and Japanese ports. The balance of the coffee is sold on Island to various small roasters who cater to the tourist trade.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum are family-owned and operated farms, growing coffee in their backyards and outsourcing as few responsibilities as possible. Pauline McGrath is owner of Buntin Bean Company, producers of “supernatural bean” coffee, and oversees her small two and a half-acre farm. A self-proclaimed “experimental farm,” their production this past cycle was a little less than 5,000 lbs. of cherries, yet they have managed to “become fully integrated, with the exception of milling and roasting,” says McGrath. “Our intention, however, is for our farm to be from seed to cup.” When asked about employees on the Buntin Bean Company farm, McGath replies, “People get together for the picking; it’s a social event. But I can honestly say that outside of the picking we do 80% of the processing ourselves…lifting bags, putting things through the new pulper, which we purchased this year.” With a limited amount of land on the Buntin Bean farm, supernatural bean coffee is unfortunately not readily available. “Currently, I have only a couple of clients on the Internet,” says McGrath. “Mostly it’s been word of mouth, although we just signed a five-year lease with the Kona Hospital selling them our coffee.”

Like the Captain Cook Coffee Company, Pele Plantations also processes, roasts and sells Kona coffee from throughout the region while maintaining their own, personal farm. Gus Brocksen, “head bean” of Pele Plantations takes pride in his company’s success in both these areas. “We started Pele Plantations in 1993 with the intention of furnishing the best Kona coffee possible to our friends and customers. We decided at the outset that we would offer single estate coffees and not co-mingle them,” Brocksen explains. “Since each estate has qualities distinctly different, we would maintain those differences. We are selling the flavor of the farm as opposed to offering only generic Kona coffee. We started with two farms in 1993, ours (BrocksenGate Estate) and a long time friend’s (Day’s Keauhou Estate). Today, we deal in coffees from nine different estate growers, including five of which are certified organic. We do all of the production work after the cherry is brought to us, and keep each estate separate during the entire process on its way to customer’s cups.” While Pele Plantations deals with large amounts of cherries from other farms, ranging from 2,500 to 20,000 lbs., their personal farm is only three acres.

Lehuula Farms, also “small” by comparison sitting on 3.8 acres has increased from about 1,000 trees in 1990 to about 4,000 trees presently. Even with the increase in production, Nelson is faced with the problem of getting his coffee out into the public. “The Internet has been a very useful tool for small farms like myself, where we can market our own coffee” says Nelson. “We would have had to sell to a big buyer before the Internet. Now, this has allowed us to get out and sell our product directly to the consumer.”

Colehour Bondera shares Nelson’s sentiment about the help of the Internet. On their 5.4-acre farm, Kanalani Ohana, about half of which is coffee, they “grow, harvest and do all the steps of processing our own coffee all the way to roasting for the sake of quality at each point.” Because their farm is also limited in acreage and resources, they too rely on the World Wide Web to help get their product into the homes of consumers. “Since the early 1990s and advent of Internet marketing, fully one-third of the 650-plus Kona coffee farms sells at least some of their crop under their own label in roasted form,” says Bondera. “This has required quite a bit of helping each other out to process and set up websites and do direct marketing.”

Weather Perks and Climate Concerns
Although the Kona Coffee belt is a relatively small region with mainly the same weather throughout, the climate has been perceived differently from the various farmers. Some believe the unpredictable weather to be detrimental to the condition of their crops, while others find the weather to be “not much different than years and decades before.” Why the differences in opinion?

Jim Wayman is heavily involved in the Hawaiian coffee trade. His dual positions include holding the title of president of the Hawaii Coffee Association, as well as being president of the Hawaii Coffee Company. Here, Wayman purchases Kona coffee cherries from over 200 farmers then processes them into green coffee. The Hawaii Coffee Company also roasts and packages coffee under the Lion Coffee and Royal Kona Coffee brands. With his experience in the industry, Wayman can attest to the negative effects Mother Nature has had on the cherished cherries. “For the last two seasons our weather has been drier than normal, causing a smaller crop size,” he explains. “In particular, it has been dry from January through August. The flower set has been good but development of the cherry has been retarded.”

Lehuula Farms has also been dealing with the consequences of lesser rainfall. “The volcano that’s within close proximity to the farm is actually an active volcano. As of the last month or so, its begun pouring sulfur dioxide into the air. But before this, it had still been a non-stop eruption. The rainfall between 1931 and 1982 was 67 inches annually,” Nelson states. “From 1983 to present, the rainfall has dropped close to 20 inches. The volcano started the non-stop eruption around that same time. Now, I can’t point total blame on the volcano, but it is obviously having an impact.” Aside from acid rain that the coffee trees of the Lehuula Farms must endure, the lack of rainfall has forced Nelson to irrigate his farm - a procedure that had never had to be done before. “As far as the actual bean, its not deformed by any means, but if you don’t get adequate water during bean formation, your result is usually light beans. A lot of farms don’t have the luxury of an irrigation system, so they suffer greatly.”

Pauline McGrath and the Buntin Bean Farm have avoided the irrigation conundrum with an environmentally friendly solution. “We’re in the attempt to be biodynamic,” she says. “We have a 20 by 30-foot Koi pond that we use to irrigate.” Aside from recycling her own water on the property, McGrath also creates her own fertilizer and found multiple purposes for keeping 24 geese and 4 ducks on the grounds. “I’ve learned that if you don’t use a lawnmower frequently, the battery will die. I’ve actually had to change the battery twice, because the ducks and geese do such a fine job with keeping the grass down. Because they’re free ranging, they’ve also eliminated the need for speed bumps on the road in front of the farm and my house. They wander out into the street forcing cars to slow as they pass,” jokes McGrath.

It seems as though not everyone is weary of the rain the past few seasons, or lack thereof. “Kona climate is perfect,” says Brocksen, “dry winter, rainy summer before picking. A little dry spell right now, but not unusual. Global warming? Humbug!”

Whether the weather can be attributed to natural cycles or a larger environmental problem, the climate of Kona and the “magic” it works on coffee is far from debatable. According to the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, “Kona faces the sun. It lies on the western slopes of the enormous volcanoes of Hualalai and Muna Loa. Kona is sheltered by the mountains from the spanking northeasterly trade winds that dominate the climate of the rest of the state - the Kona mountain rains fall from clouds borne on local sea breezes.” The volcanic and porous soil also helps produce the superior quality beans.

“The Kona coffee region is unique in the coffee world with almost year round morning sun and afternoon rain showers,” says Bondera. “The terroir creates an amazing mellow flavor in the bean. Research is now in place to look at the place of shade coffee in Kona. Our university has always said we don’t need shade, as we have afternoon clouds. However, an overstory of trees provides much more to the coffee than shade. Our upper story of avocado trees mine nutrients from way below the coffee tree’s roots and pump them up into the leaves, which drop as mulch around our coffee trees, feeding them. They also provide a habitat for native bird species.” Even the larger farms are making sure that the land that delivers them premium cherries is protected to the best of their ability. “Coffee production has been friendly to the environment and is not negatively affecting the land,” assures McLaughlin. “Coffee has been grown in Kona since the 1800s and generally speaking, most coffee farmers today are very concerned about the environment and future of Kona coffee.”

Giving Back
Most obviously, Kona coffee farms provide jobs and financial stability for many people throughout the region. Nelson tells me of “the little towns throughout the coffee belt, that wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for coffee. Even today, our court system, main hospital and other major facilities are all on the hills of Kona.” Therefore, the larger farms and family-run properties, such as Buntin Bean Company are “completely embraced by the local community,” as McGrath describes it.

“Captain Cook Coffee Company supports many of the local schools and other agencies that require additional funding for their operations,” says McLaughlin. “Donations of Kona coffee is the usual way of donating for their school auctions. Starbucks Coffee Co. donated $15,000 to Captain Cook Coffee Company and Greenwell Farms to support the Start Now program in Kona, an early drug awareness program for elementary grade students.”

Aside from philanthropic involvement and community participation, some farmers have become more visible in the “Kona Coffee debate,” an ongoing controversy about truth in labeling, mentioned in Part two of this article. “We do community volunteer work to strengthen the agricultural community,” says Bondera. “I have worked on fighting against the introduction of GMO coffee into Hawaii, specifically the testing of GMO strain of Kona coffee in the growing region. I have been a board member and head of the Educational Committees for the Kona Coffee Council and Kona Coffee Farmers Association, and focused on hosting educational workshops that teach other farmers quality Kona coffee growing and processing with an emphasis on organics.”

It is encouraging to see such a tight-knit community formed around Kona coffee and the individuals that partake in every step of the process. It is not the size of the farm that matters, but what they do with the land provided to them. Unfortunately, dry spells and steep volcanic slopes aren’t the only challenges the Kona coffee professionals must endure. In fact, the industry has been in turmoil for quite some time. Controversies over truth in labeling are still being debated, a topic that will be discussed in part two of this article in our June issue.

Tea & Coffee - May, 2008

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