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A Taste of Paradise

Kona Coffee is more than a world-renowned taste sensation; it's a window into the heart of Hawaii
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

It all began one morning at Starbucks. "A latte, please."
"Grande, venti or tall?"
"Uh, grande.""Soy milk or regular?"
"No-fat, low-fat or whole?"
"Uh, no."
"OK, one grande latte. No foam, no frills. Next."

How far we've come from the good old cup of joe. How far we've come even from the days when a coffee lover's biggest conundrum was espresso, cappuccino, latte or mocha. Today, on any given morning at Starbucks or its like, people order concoctions such as almond espressos and hazelnut lattes, vanilla macchiatos and mocha Irish creme frappes. Now, to each his own. Best of luck to the millions of people across America who love those tarted-up flavors and soda-fountain treats. But I am not among them.

On this particular morning, I just lost my patience for Starbucks and its brand of rigmarole. Call me cranky if you like. Or even a curmudgeon. But as I sat there, watching, listening, sipping my latte, one thought alone kept gnawing to the fore. Amidst all the pomp and glitter of what I call today's "high coffee chic," amidst all of Starbucks' marketing brilliance and pizzazz, where's the respect for the original bean? In their shops and packaging, Starbucks and its ilk love to seduce us with enticing labels and exotic locales: Sumatra. Ethiopia. Costa Rica. Jamaica. These regions do produce magnificent coffees. Like their counterparts in the world of wine--Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Napa--these regions and their coffee growers have labored for generations, to work the soil, tend their plants, refine their craft and bring forth beans of the highest quality, character, delicacy and nuance of taste. But then what happens?

In countless shops across America, those prized beans, the fruit of all that labor and love, are being blended with syrups and tossed into milk shakes. Gad! To my mind, you might as well take a Margaux and mix it with Coke. Yes, call me cranky or even a curmudgeon. But in today's world, what's a coffee purist to do? Well, I thought, let's head to Hawaii.

The sight is stunning. From the air, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, two of the volcanic mountains that form the the Big Island of Hawaii, thrust up out of the ocean, godlike in their grandeur. Along the southwestern slopes of Mauna Loa and Mount Hualalai, hidden somewhere in all the volcanic mountain's lava and greenery, is a coffee lover's paradise: a group of farms that for more than a century have hand-cultivated pearls, small crops of gourmet beans that are among the most treasured in the world. "I think the Kona coffee has a richer flavor than any other, be it grown where it may and call it by what name you please," Mark Twain wrote in 1866, and his judgment holds firm today.

The Hawaiian islands, with their warm, moist South Seas clime and rich volcanic soils, are the only place in the United States where coffee grows and thrives. While the islands of Maui and Kauai produce some very good coffees, Kona is clearly the best. Among professional coffee traders and true aficionados, and in "cupping contests" held around the globe, Kona always comes out ranking among the chosen few--in price, too. Though its cost varies according to the caprice of the coffee market, Kona in its pure, unblended form often sells retail for upwards of $25 to $30 a pound. Only Jamaica's famous Blue Mountain and a few reserve coffees consistently command as much, or a few dollars more.

So for coffee purists, what makes pure Kona so special? What kind of craft and artistry go into the creation of an exceptional bean? And in the art of making a great cup of coffee, how much is in the style of roasting and the mode of preparation, and how much is in the quality of the original bean? The whole point of this journey, of course, was to search for some answers--and have a great time as well.

The plan was simple: By day, I would meander through the farms and roasteries of the Kona coast, exploring, tasting, talking with growers and seeing their work firsthand. By night, I would go out and get a taste and feel for the island and its people.

To me, these were not separate endeavors; they were intimately linked. Both led to larger questions I wanted to explore. As you come to understand when you spend time in Bordeaux, Tuscany or the Napa Valley, the finest grapes and the finest wines are not just taste sensations. They are eloquent expressions of their climate and soil--and of the character of the people and culture from which they spring. So, now as we touched down, I couldn't help but wonder: Is there something equivalent for the finest of coffees? Does the soul of Hawaii make its way to the cup?

Norman Sakata has a marvelous face. He is small and wiry and amazingly fit, and his presence is a sprightly combination of seasoned wisdom and childlike humor and delight. He was born and raised on the Big Island--the biggest of Hawaii's eight primary islands--and lives in the beautiful hills above Kailua-Kona, the main town of the Kona coast. Sakata, 73, worked for 32 years for the state of Hawaii, seeing to various regulatory matters and administering state vocational exams. But he maintained a deeper passion: coffee. He runs the family coffee business. So if you're looking for an ideal pathway into the history, lore and defining culture of Kona and its coffee, if you want to find someone who has lived it all right down to the roots, Norman Sakata is the man to see.

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