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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

(continued from page 2)

The rallying point is coffee, but the real cause for celebration is the American Dream, Hawaiian-style. "To improve the festival, I suggested about 20 years ago that we recognize the people in the hills, the small farmers who have devoted their lives to Kona coffee," Sakata says. "Everyone on the festival board said, 'OK, Norman. You run it.' So the following year we chose a 99-year-old Japanese-American to be our parade master. He was the first farmer ever to be so honored. The idea was a great success and we made it a tradition. Then we had a 98-year-old Japanese man and then an 89-year-old woman, a Filipino who'd picked coffee here for 66 years. Without people like them, there'd be no Kona coffee. They're the real pioneers."

From the coastal town of Kailua-Kona, you make your way up the foothills of Mauna Loa and soon arrive at Coffee Belt Road. Marked Highway 180 on the map, the road is home to more than 500 coffee farms, most of which are small, family-owned operations on three to five acres with modest facilities and equipment. The majority of the owners have invested their whole lives in this land and in the growing of Kona coffee.

People such as Desmond and Lisen Twigg-Smith. The Twigg-Smiths own and operate the Holualoa Kona Coffee Co., on the northern end of Coffee Belt Road. On Desmond's side, the Twigg-Smiths, quintessential Haoles, have been growing coffee here since the early nineteenth century. Their farm is idyllic, with row upon row of coffee plants lining the hillsides facing the Pacific. On this late summer day, the coffee plants were nearing their full pre-harvest richness. The coffee leaves were a lush green and their branches were loaded with coffee "cherries," bright red housings, each with precious beans inside. Stroll around the farm, imbibe the raw natural beauty of the place, and you can't help but think: "Ah, this is the life." But you soon discover that the reality is a bit more complicated.

"The profit margin is skinny in coffee," Lisen explains. "From the outside, it may look like the contrary. But no. The capital investment is big. Labor costs here in Hawaii are very high. And one run of bad weather can ruin an entire year's crop." For farmers like the Twigg-Smiths, the mainland phenomenon of high coffee chic has been a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the new coffee rage in the United States has pushed consumption--and prices--up. For the past several years, wholesale buyers have been paying top dollar for Kona coffee. Prices are down somewhat this year, due to increased supply and slackened demand. But high coffee chic has brought to Kona something more pernicious than price fluctuations. It's brought in a new wave of "immigrants": giant corporations, cash-rich speculators and coffee powerhouses eager to corner the market--and set the price.

"Now everybody and their brother is planting Kona coffee," Lisen says. "And Starbucks wants to come in and buy entire crops. Of course they want to set the price for years to come, via extended contracts. If we went down that road, it would wipe out our mail-order business and our direct sales here at the farm." High coffee chic, and the soaring prices it helped engender, also brought Kona another major headache: fraud. One coffee supplier, Kona Jai farms of Berkeley, California, allegedly took huge shipments of inferior coffee beans, from Costa Rica and Panama, and labeled them "Kona Coffee from Hawaii," then sold the bogus beans at top-dollar prices. The reputed scam was sniffed out by U.S. Customs officials, two people were indicted, and the matter is pending in federal court. But here in Kona, and in the international coffee world, it was a high-profile scandal.

In the beginning, people here feared it might taint the entire Kona coffee industry. But everyone banded together and worked hard to tighten the regulations surrounding Kona coffee, using a kind of appellation control system similar to those used by many winemakers. Now state and local authorities make sure that any coffee labeled "100 percent Kona" truly is what it claims to be. Those marked "Kona Blend" have to be at least 10 percent pure Kona. In an effort to insulate themselves from these unsettling influences, the Twigg-Smiths and other growers and processors now place great importance on selling direct to consumers. Toward that end, they have developed Web sites for direct sales.

But they also focus on the thousands of tourists who come to the Big Island each year. Borrowing another page from Napa and Sonoma, the growers provide maps of coffee country, tours of their farms, and tastings of their coffees. Like the wineries, the farms see this as good public relations and good business (by selling direct to consumers, they avoid paying hefty commissions to middlemen for distribution and sales). But there the comparison to wine country tourism ends. Kona's farms have no marketing glitz, no stunning architecture, no fancy tasting rooms. They're hard-working farms--no frills, no foam. If you want luxury and chic, go to Napa. If you want authenticity, come to Kona.

Tommy Greenwell has a touch of the prankster. Greenwell's family is five generations deep in this soil, going back to his great-grandfather, Henry Nicholas Greenwell, an Englishman who left the British Isles in the late 1840s to seek his fortune. He went first to Australia, where he bought a shipload of supplies, and then set sail for San Francisco, during the boom days of the California Gold Rush. According to Caroline Greenwell Cowell, Tommy's sister, her great-grandfather hurt his back unloading the ship and came to Oahu for his treatment and recovery. In 1850, he settled on the Big Island, giving birth to what is still known today as Greenwell Farms. Henry gave birth to far more. He was a postmaster, a teacher and a resourceful entrepreneur.

Now, next to the family farm on Coffee Belt Road, a preserved country store dating back to those early days bears the Greenwell name. Adjacent is the Kona Historical Society, and that, too, is steeped in Greenwell lore. Nearby, the society has restored a turn-of-the-century coffee farm, once the home and livelihood of a Japanese immigrant family named Uchida, a poor family very much like Norman Sakata's. The juxtaposition shows an important dimension of the Kona story: the Uchidas and the Greenwells, two families, two cultures that were once worlds apart, now bound together by the strong, unifying twine of Kona coffee. The American melting pot, at its very best.

For Greenwell and his neighbors, growing coffee is a very complicated and sometimes risky endeavor. As Greenwell explains over lunch and a beer, Kona has only about 2,000 acres of planted coffee, which annually yields 2 million pounds. That may sound like a lot but it isn't. Brazil, the world's largest producer, accounts for more than a billion pounds of coffee a year. In a good year, Greenwell Farms produces about 300,000 pounds of cherries, and 60,000 pounds of green beans for roasting.

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