Coffee Farming in Kona, Hawaii

by Les Drent

A donkey loaded with coffee

The majority of the coffee in Kona is harvested between the months of July and December and many of the small mills that process the raw coffee cherries swing into full operation during this time of the year. At many coffee mills around Kona visitors are welcome throughout the year to a unique opportunity to view first hand the operations of a working coffee farm and mill. Much of the coffee processed during the fall season arrives at these mills from many different farms around Kona. Carried inside burlap sacks this freshly picked coffee cherry is purchased by the pound from the farmers at a price commensurate to the industry standard.

An average picker on these farms can pick between one hundred to three hundred pounds a day depending on the time of season and is usually paid by the cherry pound for his effort.

When the coffee arrives at the mill or one of its outside cherry stations it is always inspected for freshness and color before it is sent down the chute into the coffee pulper. This process is known as wet milling and occurs at the end of each day when all the cherry has been brought in. A cherry pulper is basically a metal cylinder with stripping knobs that squeeze and remove the husks from the coffee beans. The beans are then soaked in giant holding tanks of water for a period of about 8 to 18 hours, usually overnight. The husks are sent out of the mill and into a waiting truck that will take it back into the fields for use as fertilizer. The morning after the soaking tank is drained and the beans are carted out onto drying decks to be sun dried. This natural drying process usually takes about a week. In some cases the beans are finished off in large rotating drying drums powered by household heating oil. The sun drying of the beans takes both space and time but is believed to be the best method for retaining more of the coffee's flavor. Many of Kona's older farms are built with "false pitched roofs" which actually slide back on rollers to receive the sun light and close up to protect the drying coffee from the afternoon rain showers that frequent this region. These false roofs or hoshidanas as they are called were developed by the Japanese farmers during the 1800's and are still widely used in Kona.

Coffee cherry

During the sun drying period it is essential the beans be shifted or raked every so often to assure thorough drying. Once the beans have been dried a thin membrane exists almost like a shell around the coffee beans called parchment. Parchment is important if the coffee is going to be stored for a long period of time and can greatly increase the bean's storage life if preserved properly. In Kona that storage life is rarely necessary because of Kona's high demand in the world marketplace.

The next step in the milling process is removing the parchment and taking the coffee to what is called the "green stage" simply meaning the state of the bean before it can be roasted. When the parchment is removed from the green bean the coffee undergoes a stringent grading system that classifies the beans according to size, weight and number of defects. These steps are completed by two different machines. The first screening for size and the later for weight on what is known as a gravity table. This grading process is important because it is a product assurance program that is designed to maintain the integrity and distinction of quality in the different grades of Kona coffee. Defected beans are usually hollow, deformed or chipped and weigh considerably less than what a true bean would weigh. These defects if not separated from the rest have the ability to spoil a cup of coffee with bitterness or a sharp unpleasant aftertaste. Therefore it is always important to know your grade of Kona coffee when purchasing.

The primary grades of Kona coffee are Peaberry, Extra Fancy, Fancy, # 1 and Prime. Peaberry is the result of single bean growth in the usual two bean coffee cherry and is regarded by many to produce a different taste in the cup as a result of its weight. Extra Fancy is the largest and heaviest of the grades and is considered by some to have the best cupping characteristics of any bean grown in Kona. The cupping qualities of this coffee are noticeably higher than that of the lower grades but most often can not be noticed by the casual coffee drinker. In retrospect others in Kona will claim that the Fancy and #1 grade yields the best cup of coffee as a result of a slightly smaller yet denser bean. The Prime grade is the minimum grade of Kona that is legally allowed to be called Kona coffee. Even though this coffee bean is smaller and contains a higher percentage of defects many consumers find the cupping characteristics adequate and the price right. Prime can be hard to find though because much of this grade is bought up by mainland coffee roasters and used as a master blend.

Detrimental to this process and Kona's high standards are those renegade coffee companies that abuse the name Kona by using it to sell coffee other than Kona. If you are interested in acquiring the real thing it may be worth your while to investigate the source of your Kona coffee. For now, this is the consumers only protection against buying a fraudulent product. Remember, Kona coffee only constitutes less than one percent of the world's total coffee supply.

The graded green coffee is usually bought and sold by roasters as is any commodity and kept until roasting which should be done as near to point of sale as possible to assure freshness of product. Once the coffee has been roasted it should be kept in whole bean form and stored in an air tight container to assure freshness for months to come. Besides storing the roasted coffee as whole beans, grinding the coffee just before brewing always yields the best results.

When you tour any of Kona's coffee farms visitors are able to see first hand how the entire process of producing Kona coffee is performed. If you are interested in a tour of a coffee farm while you are visiting Kona refer to Coffee Times magazine for hours of operation and locations.

And, in most cases there will always be someone there to greet you with a freshly brewed cup of 100% Kona coffee and some warm Aloha.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.