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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)

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.

The rankings cover only pure Kona, not the blends, and here they are, with the highest-quality beans ranked first: Kona Extra Fancy, Kona Fancy, Kona Number 1, Kona Prime. Among the peaberries it's Kona No. 1 Peaberry and Kona Peaberry Prime.

After talking with the Twigg-Smiths and Greenwell, you have a pretty full understanding of the time, energy, expertise and artistry that go into the care and grooming of a world-renowned Kona bean. And you have some idea of the cost: steep. The process demands workers with enormous skill, patience and experience. The workers in Kona have all those qualities--and paying them costs.

"Quality is our game," Greenwell says. "That's our calling card and our pride. Still, sometimes it gets to me. The average coffee drinker hasn't a clue what goes into their cup." All along the Kona coast, you can meander, explore and follow your nose to coffee farms where you can see all this first-hand. And, of course, you can sample the fruits of Kona's unique blend of culture and tradition, artistry and care. But Greenwell's place has a flavor all its own. Here, the process culminates in Greenwell's picturesque little roasting house.

There, in a small, gas-fired roaster, so lovely it belongs in a museum, the beans are given their final toast and luster. There's the medium "American" roast, the medium-dark roast known as "Vienna" and the dark roast, "French." With beans of such exceptional quality, almost no one in Kona dark-roasts them for espresso or cappuccino. And no one would dream of flavoring the roast with vanilla or hazelnut; that would be considered heresy.

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