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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 3)

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.

"My grandfather left Japan and came to Hawaii on June 19, 1885," Sakata says, with that ever-present twinkle. "He came as a contract laborer to work on a sugar plantation. Many, many Japanese worked on the sugar plantations back then. Very, very few, if any, ever went back." For these migrant workers from Asia, life on the plantation was miserable. According to Sakata and many others on the island, the workers spent long hours in the sugar fields, doing backbreaking work for very little pay.

"My grandfather worked 10 hours a day, 12 months a year, with no letup," Sakata says. "They paid him $15 a month. They paid him another $10 a month because he had a wife. If you had a child, they paid you another $1 per month per child. They also paid overtime: 12.5 cents an hour. My grandfather spent two years working on a small plantation on Maui. Then he moved to Kona in 1887 and started to raise coffee."

The story of Kona coffee, if you distill it down to its essence, is, in large measure, the story of immigrant families just like Sakata's. That story is ably and admirably set forth in a book entitled The Kona Coffee Story: Along Hawaii Belt Road, an account researched and compiled under the auspices of the Los Angeles-based Japanese American National Museum. Kona coffee, the book notes, comes from the coffea arabica plant, which was discovered in Ethiopia more than 1,000 years ago.

The Arabs were among the first to brew and drink coffee and enjoy it's stimulative qualities. It was introduced into the American colonies around 1668 and, according to the book, coffee replaced tea in popularity after the Boston Tea Party. "Drinking coffee," the authors say, "became a patriotic duty in America, a gesture of defiance against the British."

Coffee didn't make its way to Hawaii until 1813. That year, King Kamehameha the Great, the islands' ruler, imported a ceremonial coffee tree into Honolulu. Fifteen years later, coffee plants finally arrived in Kona, in the hands of an American missionary named Samuel Ruggles. He planted the arabica plants in Kona and they quickly flourished. Coffee plants are finicky--they don't thrive just anywhere--but they loved Kona's rich volcanic soil and its warm, sunny mornings and the cool, cloudy afternoons.

By the 1890s, world coffee prices were soaring, the Kona coffee industry began to boom, and the demand for capable farm labor jumped. Thus began several successive waves of immigration to Kona, including Portuguese farmers and Chinese and Filipino workers. But the majority of the immigrant workers were Japanese, many from southern Japan and most from poor families like Sakata's.

"When I was a child, we had very little money. I still remember the house I grew up in. We had a dirt floor," he recalls. His family may not have had a lot of money but he says that what it had was much more valuable: "We were a family of six. But we all worked hard and it kept the family together. Tell me, what do you have now that keeps the family together?"

Seeing through the eyes of Sakata, you quickly realize that for him Kona coffee is not just a commodity to be grown and sold; it's his family's roots, it's the lifeblood of the Kona community, it's the twine that binds and draws together the multitongued, multihued descendants of those original immigrant families from Japan and across the Pacific. Despite its size, the Big Island is sparsely populated, with about 30 people per square mile. As a result, in both feel and spirit, the entire Kona coast is like one extended small town, but one that is amazingly rich and varied in its ethnic diversity.

In the shops and restaurants and streets of Kailua-Kona, you can see the full mosaic of the Big Island today: native Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Samoans, Thais, and the "Haoles," the term the islanders use to refer to Caucasians with roots deep in the Hawaiian soil. Among the residents, no matter what their ethnic origins, it seems that everyone knows each other, has gone to school or to church together, or works together. In amazing harmony. Sakata tries to express this ethnic harmony and cultural richness through the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival held each November.

Sakata has been intimately involved with the festival for 25 years and has directed the celebration--an annual fete for coffee lovers and traders from around the world--for the past seven. Part of the festival is centered around coffee, with seminars, cupping contests, and discussions of crops, market prices and the like. But the heart of the festival reaches far beyond coffee. Parades, ethnic food, dances and music enliven the festivities. Each year the festival pays tribute to Kona's roots, to the hardworking men and women who left their homes and villages across the Pacific and set out to create a better life for themselves and their families.

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.

That means that when the harvest is on, Greenwell and his crew of four are handling 4,000 pounds of cherries a night. By hand. And therein lies one of Kona's secrets: hand-cultivating, hand-picking and expert attention to each individual bean. In springtime, the coffee trees burst into bloom, covering the Kona landscape with fragrant white blossoms. From then on, teams of skilled workers tend each plant. They prune, they water, and they manage soil content, pest control, and the exposure to sunlight of each branch loaded with buds. During the growth period, each plant will receive ongoing personal attention and grooming. And that's just the beginning.

Kona's coffee berries are harvested one berry at a time. Beginning in the late summer, the picking teams inspect every plant, every cherry. When the cherry is ripe, with the proper color of deep, rich red, only then is it deemed ready to be picked. Even on the same branch, the cherries will ripen at a varying pace. The teams of pickers spend days evaluating and selecting each cherry until all the cherries are in. This individualized attention continues into the processing.

After picking, a procedure called pulping removes the outer red skin and brings forth the precious seeds inside, usually two seeds to the cherry. Pulping is a key step, and Greenwell has been fussing over it for years, trying to refine his equipment and methods. In pulping, there is another round of inspection and selection.

"We spread the cherries out and look them over," Greenwell explains. "In the process that I use, we put them into a large pan of water. This separates out 'floaters' [cherries that are empty or too light] and those that are too green." Peaberries--hulls with only one seed inside--are also separated out and then treated separately; they are considered a delicacy by many coffee purists.

The seeds are dried, and what emerges is a stiff white skin called parchment. The parchment is then removed through a process called milling. The result of all this scrutiny and care is a smallharvest of highly cultured pearls, green beans of exceptional quality and character. Before the beans can be sold, however, they must undergo stringent grading standards.

The Kona Coffee Council and Hawaii's Department of Agriculture have developed strict certification standards that must be applied to every bean. The standards are designed and enforced to protect the integrity of the Kona product and to protect consumers, so that they will have an additional way to measure the quality of the beans when they buy them.


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