State of the Bean Address
by Les Drent
It was the Japanese family
style of farming that pioneered and created the
coffee culture in Kona.
The sweet smell of freshly pulped coffee cherry stagnates
in the morning air as coffee shacks of decrepit weathered
wood and their patchwork of tin roofs sit low in the
shade of tropical foliage. Woodrose creeps in the foreground,
up crooked telephone poles and out across weeping lines.
Along the mountain side are farmers hidden in groves
of coffee, their fingers rapidly plucking the cherries
from a twisted and gnarled system of branches. A bursting
autumn sun begins to shed its tropical light over the
countryside. Connecting the steep passageways to the
coffee farms is Mamalahoa Highway, a nearly two lane
bumpy mountain road that winds its way through the districts
of North and South Kona. The road was first built as
a foot path by ancient Hawaiians to travel the mountain
route around the island and revised later in Kona for
donkey and horse travel before being widened for the
transportation of coffee by jeep.
To understand why and how coffee grows the way it does
in Kona you have to allow your thoughts for a moment
to be consumed in the environment that it grows in.
What does this mean? Well, to begin, picture what the
weather looks like on your average summer day in coffee
country. It begins with a clear blue sunny morning before
clouding over at noon to create a greenhouse like effect
that follows with a light shower around mid afternoon.
The day finishes off with a brief exodus of light including
an orange and hazy sunset around dusk. Throw in some
fair weathered humidity and a high air moisture content
that has the power to make every piece of clothing,
if not often used and washed weekly, thicken with mildew.
And so you begin to understand the climate of Kona coffee
country. This weather pattern holds true more often
than not in the summer months of longer daylight but
is not uncommon in the winter months when the upward
growth of vegetation slows and browns a bit due to a
lessening of rain. With this endless summer, so to speak,
winter and summer temperatures maintain a mellow equilibrium
between the dry arid heat of Kailua and the snow capped
tops of Hawaii's two largest mountains, Mauna Loa (13,679')
and Mauna Kea (13,796). Low temperatures in the coffee
belt hardly ever drop below fifty degrees Fahrenheit.
In the dead of winter and as you go up over the coffee
belt, just above the three to four thousand foot mark
in elevation, it is not uncommon to see or smell ohia
smoke coming from someone's wood furnace.
How are you doing now? With this picture in mind imagine
the descendants of age-old coffee trees with outstretched
roots in the porous and rocky mountain slopes consisting
only of lava rock and a thin layer of dark decaying
acidic soil. The first coffee seedlings were planted
in Kona in 1828, thanks to reverend Samuel Ruggles,
who indirectly acquired thirty or so cuttings from coffee
trees grown in Brazil. This early variety of coffee
came to be known as "Kanaka Koppe", or Hawaiian
Coffee, and is still prevalent throughout Kona today.
Later coffee introduced at the end of the nineteenth
century was of the Guatemalan strain. This strain of
coffee came to be known as "Meliken Koppe",
or American Coffee, and was first introduced by Albert
Horner from Hamakua, a northeast region of the Big Island.
The Meliken Koppe became the choice strain in planting
and now constitutes the major variety of coffee trees
found in Kona today. To get a better idea of the mystique
that surrounds Kona coffee we trace its roots even further
back in history to learn that this strain first originated
in Ethiopia, where it grew wild on the high plateaus.
It is believed that coffee was first discovered by tribal
goat herders that first used the raw but sweet coffee
cherry to enhance their strength and endurance during
times of hard work or struggle. The neighboring Persians,
who upon raiding Ethiopia, brought back the coffee and
started planting on the southern tip of the Arabian
Peninsula. This was the first cultivation of coffee.
Around 1,000 AD, these Persians began brewing their
coffee into a drink, coffea arabica, making its consumption
a daily part of their culture. Thus the beginning of
the drink we now know as coffee. Sultans of the land
did not allow the magical coffee beans to be taken off
their lands, but colonizers, missionaries and merchant
traders found ways to smuggle the beans out of their
kingdoms. These events marked the beginning of numerous
adventures of coffee contraband staged throughout history.
In 1683 treasured sacks of Arabian coffee beans were
left outside the gates of Vienna by a fleeing Turkish
army whose attempts to conquer the city failed. Subsequently,
Vienna's first coffee house, The Blue Bottle, opened
in that same year soon to be followed by many others
all across Europe. The arabica coffee beans found their
way across the Atlantic ocean by way of the Jesuits
who were often travelling to South America by this time.
Wide spread planting in Brazil, especially in the mountainous
regions around Rio de Janeiro occurred often. It was
there that an English agriculturalist named John Wilkinson
acquired the coffee that would be brought to Hawaii
and planted at the home of chief Boki, then governor
of Oahu. The reverend Samuel Ruggles of Kealakekua took
cuttings from this Oahu estate and planted them at his
home in Kona. So you see, coffee has had an incredible
journey before ever reaching the mountains of Kona back
So, how did the coffee culture in Kona evolve. Even
though coffee was in Kona in 1828 it wasn't until many
years later that it was seen as a viable crop.
Through the later part of the 1800's and into the 1900's
the situation in Kona was constantly changing and the
industry experienced many booms and busts, never making
Kona coffee an easy commodity to bank on. Many today
who have experienced the ups and downs with Kona coffee
over the years will warn the unsuspecting investor of
the risks involved with the industry. Recently the price
per cherry pound in Kona reached a high of one dollar
in 1989 before falling to sixty five cents four years
later in 1993.
Many Japanese who were in Hawaii as contracted workers
on the sugar plantations during the boom years of the
1880's fled the sugar industry to work on the Caucasian
owned coffee plantations in Kona which were experiencing
a rapid rate of growth. But with a crash in the world
coffee market in 1899 many of the large plantations
were forced to lease their land to their Japanese laborers
in parcels averaging from five to fifteen acres per
lot. The lease agreement in most cases was in exchange
for one-half of the farms output in coffee. It was the
Japanese family style of farming that pioneered and
created the coffee culture in Kona.
The tenacious work ethic of these Japanese farmers
and their usually large families seemed well suited
for life in Kona as their ingenuity created some pretty
industrious ways of producing a bountiful and vibrant
crop of coffee. One case of this ingenuity came in the
form of a moving roof system that operated on wheels
to protect sun-drying coffee from the onset of afternoon
rains. If you have the chance, look closely at many
of the old coffee shacks along Mamalahoa Highway and
you can still see wheels and tracks under many of these
roofs, which the Japanese called "hoshidanas".
"It was always fun to observe the bewildered reaction
of an outsider when they witnessed the spectacle of
a moving house," recalls Mr. Inaba, an early coffee
pioneer, at last year's Kona Historical Society's Kona
Coffee Pioneer's Day.
Because coffee developed into a family run operation
in Kona, a strong sense of community centered around
the Japanese in Kona. An independent mill was begun
by the community for those who were seeking to establish
their own autonomy in coffee production, and in the
fall school was even postponed or put off so children
could help their families with the picking of coffee.
Many of these ideals, whether obvious or not, sustain
independence among farmers in Kona today.
The modern coffee market demands new ways of thinking
among its farmers. Many areas of coffee production have
changed and new struggles face those who operate within
Kona's present coffee industry. Farms and mills today
are owned by people who first started coming to Hawaii
from the mainland United States in the late 1960's.
A considerable number of Japanese still operate their
farms but many as growers and pickers that only sell
their crop to local mills and have nothing more to do
with the industry. Because many of the children of these
coffee ancestors moved away from Kona to pursue dreams
outside the farm, this era in Kona coffee history seems
to be slowly drawing to a conclusion. It's interesting
to note that the satire of the urbanized city child
returning to the coffee farm has been played out more
than a few times on local theater stages around Kona.
The counter culture that is on the rise in Kona is one
that is creating new and much needed inroads to today's
industry and focuses on strengthening the reputation
of Kona coffee and continuing its road to farmer independence.
For years Kona coffee saw its role in the world market
as only a master blend that made inferior coffee taste
better, and for years farmers in Kona were subservient
to an industry that relied on the fine and superior
characteristics of coffee grown in Kona. With the changing
times in Kona, the rise of land and production costs,
and the influx of mainlanders arriving from the United
States to take advantage of all the riches a tropical
paradise has to offer, Kona coffee faces the threat
of extinction at the hands of corporations that intend
not only to use Kona coffee as a master blend but the
name "Kona" to sell a coffee which contains
no more than ten percent Kona coffee. How this can be
allowed to happen is the most often asked question by
those outside of the industry. The answer is actually
quite simple, it is allowed!
Because we live in a world filled with product names
that associate very little with the actual contents
of products, Kona was an easy target for marketers looking
to exploit the name "Kona" on a package of
coffee that quite simply didn't contain Kona coffee.
Today, the detriment of these blends and misuse of the
name "Kona" is great. Commercial coffee companies
operating in Hawaii and around the world continue to
place their emphasis on the name "Kona" rather
than on the actual contents of the coffee they are selling.
Kona's coffee lands barely reach two thousand acres,
and when compared to the nearly six thousand acres reported
to have been in production at the turn of the century,
and the nearly seven thousand that were reported in
1958 something is apparently wrong, especially when
considering we are in a period of time when the gourmet
coffee market is booming in our fellow forty nine states
of the Union.
At this point if you are upset with where we are in
the State of the Bean Address and the survival of Kona
coffee in the world marketplace I apologize because
I haven't told you the whole story.
We can guarantee you that in the quiet hills above
the now sprawling world of mass development, better
known as Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, there is a healthy new
breed of coffee farmers operating with their own ingenuities,
much like their early Japanese counterparts. In an effort
to protect the name "Kona" from fraudulent
use the local Kona Coffee Council, a nonprofit coalition
of independent farmers and processors in Kona, has spear
headed an effort to federally register the name "Kona"
with a certification mark that would protect it from
counterfeit and fraudulent use. The Certification mark
confers powerful enforcement remedies including confiscation
of counterfeit goods, a maximum of treble damages for
intentional infringement, as well as court costs and
attorney fees. To this point the determined Council,
chartered by the State of Hawaii, has had to fork out
nearly twenty thousand dollars in legal fees to fight
opposition in Washington by companies who stand opposed
to the certification. Local merchants, banks, millers,
farmers as well as the local public have contributed
the funds needed thus far to wage this legal battle
of federally registering the name "Kona" which
would have cost, if not for opposition, only time, effort
and an insignificant filing fee. The total cost of the
registration could reach nearly sixty thousand dollars
when all is said and done.
Certification will be available for everyone's use
as long as the basic industry standards are met which
means that when a coffee bears the name "Kona Coffee"
it contains only 100% Kona coffee of Prime grade or
"It's obvious that the registration will occur,
but not without a significant cost to the farmers,"
one twenty year independent farmer remarked to me last
September as he proudly pointed to the spot on the ground
where he first roasted coffee over an open fire using
a rotating metal barrel. It's this kind of spirit of
perseverance that will guide the registration process
Great care and concern for the future of Kona coffee
is wide spread throughout Kona. As one farm proudly
hangs a banner in support for the certification mark
others open their farms to public tours and stories
of the struggles of coffee farming in Kona, it is plain
to see that this is just another step in the long road
to coffee independence.
Today, coffee farms in Kona are active with both ancient
and modern methods of coffee production. In all cases
the coffee is still handpicked at the picker's average
rate of one to three hundred cherry pounds per day.
From the fields the coffee is transported in everything
from old station wagons to heavy trucks to the mill
where farmers can collect an average of eighty cents
per pound for their efforts. In the past donkeys called
"Kona Nightingales" were used to transport
coffee up and down the hillsides but were later replaced
by small farm jeeps that weren't quite as stubborn as
the donkeys. Once at the mill the coffee cherries are
husked and the beans undergo a twelve hour soaking period
before being spread out to sundry for fifteen to eighteen
days. At larger operations rotary driers may be used
to speed up this process but it is believed by many
farmers that a finer tasting bean is produced when the
coffee is sun-dried slowly. From the drying decks the
beans are usually stored in what is known as parchment
(a thin shell membrane that surrounds the coffee bean).
Storage in parchment usually helps preserve the freshness
of the bean. When the beans are prepared for shipment
or roasting they are removed of their parchment and
graded on a gravity table that separates the beans into
grades according to their size and weight. The minimum
size and grade of Kona coffee is called Prime with the
highest grade being labeled extra fancy. One rare and
round grade of Kona coffee is called peaberry, which
is the result of single bean growth in the usual two
bean coffee cherry. Peaberry is regarded by some to
have distinct cupping characteristics because it is
believed to retain all the flavor of two beans in only
one. Many independent farms that operate solely on their
own produce a grade of coffee known as an estate grade,
simply meaning that it is coffee grown exclusively on
that farm and is of a prime grade or higher. Organic
coffee farming is coming of age in Kona as well and
constitutes the last variety of coffee in Kona. Farmers
who have perfected the natural fertilization process
have themselves created a more natural coffee that carries
a distinct taste as well as having a positive impact
on the environment.
Many large and small farms around Kona now grow, mill,
roast and sell their own coffee by the pound to island
visitors or through mainland accounts and mail-orders.
The modern age of desktop publishing and data bases
have outfitted the Kona coffee farmer with important
marketing tools by which they can operate their operation
entirely from their farm.
All this self initiative sweeping through Kona, despite
a local and mainland marketplace wrought with the perils
brought on by neighborly competition, the industry and
reputation of Kona coffee will continue to benefit and
grow from its continued spirit of independence. And
such is the positive state of the Kona coffee bean in
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