Coffee from Kona stands above the rest — almost!


By Norman Bezona

University of Hawaii

Cooperative Extension Service

We just returned from an international palm conference in Thailand. What a great time to come back home, since it is the month of the Kona Coffee Festival.

We also had the opportunity to visit Cambodia and ended up in Bali, Indonesia, where we visited the producers of Luwak coffee. That is the coffee that is processed through the intestines of civet cats.

With the tourist industry booming in Bali, the marketing method seems to be a lot like that for our Kona coffee. Local folks there seldom drink Luwak coffee because it costs about $300 per pound retail. Sold mostly in 4-ounce bags, it is a “must-have gift” to bring home for friends and relatives.

As far as the good old USA goes, Kona coffee has made its mark as ichiban, or No. 1. According to some top coffee marketers, Kona coffee is now considered to be the world’s most sought-after gourmet coffee except, perhaps, for Luwak coffee.

Now, let’s focus on our own unique Kona coffee. This year looks like a bumper quality crop and to celebrate, the Kona Coffee Festival started this weekend with the Sugai Kona Coffee night and will be celebrated through Sunday, Nov. 11.

If you missed the Holualoa Village Coffee and Art Stroll, you can visit the village at any time to enjoy this beautiful community. During the rest of the week there will be picking and recipe contests, quilt show judging, farm and mill tours, cupping contests, educational classes, cultural activities including Bon dance and a big Saturday parade.

Of course I would be remiss in not mentioning that we do have other fine coffees produced in Kau, East Hawaii and the Hamakua coast as well as Kauai, Maui, Oahu and Molokai.

Since we are celebrating Kona coffee, it a perfect time to take a casual drive through mauka Kona. It is a beautiful sight, especially when our coffee is in bloom or fruit. We now have more than 8,000 acres statewide. More than 2,000 acres are found in Kona. This expansion of Kona’s coffee is not the first time we have had a boom but now that our coffee is considered gourmet, we are working together to avoid the boom and bust syndrome.

The Kona coffee industry was born with a few coffee trees brought over from Oahu. They were first planted in 1828 by a missionary-teacher, Samuel Ruggles. These were descendants of plants which came to Oahu from Brazil a few years earlier. Over the next 150 years, Hawaiian coffee has had many ups and downs, but creative marketing and cooperative efforts have insured a bright future.

Coffea arabica is the species grown here exclusively. Other species of any commercial importance, but not grown here, include C. robusta and C. liberica. Kona coffee is comparable to the finest of Central American mild coffees. The beans are heavy and flinty, with relatively high acidity, strong flavor, full body and fine aroma. It has been in demand as a blend, and in recent years as 100 percent pure Kona.

Although coffee can be grown in many areas of Hawaii, the Kona district is ideal. Being situated on the western leeward slopes of the central highland mass of the Big Island, it is protected from the prevailing north-east trade winds by Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes.

The rainfall pattern is characterized by a dry period from November through January and rather frequent, almost daily afternoon showers during the remainder of the year.

The average annual rainfall within the relatively narrow “coffee belt” of Kona, which follows the contour of the Mamalahoa Highway between 600 to 3,000 feet elevation, is 60 to 70 inches. Afternoon cloud cover and rainfall combine to create the perfect environment for top quality. Even though good coffee is being produced elsewhere in the state, it does not yet have the international recognition of Kona coffee.

Coffee has a long history in Kona. It has persisted despite many adversities, overcome economic depressions, and for many decades was considered to be the economic backbone of the Kona District.

The late Edward Fukunaga, a well known and respected coffee expert in Kona, pointed out to me that when he first became Kona County Agricultural Agent in September, 1941, the coffee industry was in a terrible state. The farmers were deeply in debt, yet world coffee prices continued falling. Debt adjustments and government relief were the order of the day. Over 1,000 acres of coffee were abandoned in 10 years following the price crash. Another 1,500 acres were to be abandoned before 1950.

Perhaps the most tragic thing that took place during the coffee depression was the exodus of the younger people from Kona. Only the aged were left to tend the farms in many families. However things perked up after the war as world coffee prices rose and farmers thrived through the fifties.

During the sixties and the seventies, fields were again neglected and coffee beans wasted for lack of harvesters. Tourism was the new kid on the block and everyone wanted to work at the fancy hotels and restaurants.

The awakening of today’s vibrant and romantic coffee industry is complicated, but the key was teamwork. The concept of gourmet coffee, according to Curtis Tyler Jr., who was manager of the American Factors Coffee Mill in Kailua, came up as early as the 1950s, but it took years to bring the concept to fruition.

Wing and Mayflower Coffee companies were the first to roast and package the highest quality Kona, but it was tourism that ultimately exposed Kona coffee to the world.

Pacific Coffee Cooperative, led by Yoshitaka Takashiba, and Kona Farmers Cooperative, managed by Les Glaspey and Bill Koepke, were active in revitalizing the Kona Coffee Council. Tom Kerr, as chairman of the council, was instrumental in bringing all the diverse interests of the industry together.

Today we have a new breed of coffee farmers producing world-class estate coffees. Some original farms have survived the years and are thriving. Others are owned or operated by entrepreneurs from the mainland, Japan, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

We cannot be sure of what the future will bring. Judging by the commitment and stamina of coffee farmers and processors coupled with production of one of the finest coffees in the world, the outlook is very promising despite the newest challenge by the coffee berry borer.

This little creature has affected the quality yields on some farms from as little as 1 percent to as much as 80 percent. Orchard sanitation, insect traps and spraying with a fungus that attacks the borer seem to be making the infestation at least manageable. All considered, the future looks good, so enjoy that cup of Kona coffee and celebrate this unique and historic bit of history in Kona this week.

 

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