Coffee Times 1994 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 in 1828.

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 higher.

"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 to success.

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 1994.

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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.