Visiting Coffee Plantations on a Trip to Hawaii
While most people don’t associate coffee farms with Hawaii, it is the only state in the Union that has the climate and soil where coffee plants can flourish. Rich, slightly acidic volcanic soil, sunny mornings with cloudy afternoons and over 60 inches of rain during the summer months provide the perfect environment to grow primo coffee.
There are numerous traditional Hawaiian coffees cultivated in the Hawaiian Isles, but for this trip, I chose to visit the Big Island of Hawaii to tour the agricultural region where Kona Coffee is farmed.
To further experience the real “aloha” of Hawaii, husband Shaun and I opted to kip at two very distinctive Bed & Breakfasts nestled in the Kona Coffee Belt instead of the typical resort hotel where most palm tree smitten tourists go.
Roger Diltz, proprietor of Aloha Farms Bed and Breakfast formerly A Place of Refuge B&B, gave us crucial directions to find his home (elevation 800 feet) in between Kealakekua Bay and Puuhonua O Honaunau National Park (City of Refuge). When trying to find any location in this region, it is wise to drive during daylight as the roads are not well marked and street signs that not so easily discernible during the day are almost invisible at night.
Prior to our arrival at this eco-tourist B&B, Roger, off fishing for the catch of the day, left his dog Koa and a note on the door to greet us. Disarming at first, this Rottweiler/Lab mix became our companion for an early walk of the grounds before breakfast at 7:30 a.m.
We thought an alarm might be necessary. But as daylight broke, the sounds of the “jungle” began as single twitter and within 20 minutes the birds had orchestrated their calls into a full blown crescendo of tweets, cackles and whistles.
The aroma of Kona coffee wafted through the house as Roger prepared a rib-sticking breakfast complete with Jaboticaba syrup over coconut hotcakes. The view during breakfast from the lanai (covered porch) was exactly as you would imagine, a tropical forest of exotic flora backdropped by an indigo ocean as far as a person could see.
The evenings at Aloha Farms were quite amusing. We were invaded by hordes of nocturnal Geckos as they arrived in full force sticking to the walls like gum to a shoe. These timid chartreuse lizards kept the mosquitoes at bay as did the potted Citronella plants. In the distance, the echoing thump of five-pound avocados dropping from over-burdened tree limbs would usually lead Koa to investigate just in case it might be a wild pig.
Still each morning we didn’t plan the normal tourist diet of snorkel, kayak or swim-with-the-dolphin excursions. Instead, we tediously tried to map out the hidden farms nestled in this region that is only two to three miles wide, twenty miles long and spans the southwest coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. We wanted to find out how Kona coffee was grown, picked, pulped, fermented, dried, milled (hulled) and roasted. (You didn’t realize that there were so many processes to get that eye-opening cup each morning, now did you?)
Our itinerary took us first to Langenstein Farms where manager Darcee Lucas met us for a non-traditional cupping.
As we entered the roasting room, Darcee had placed three china cups starkly alone with a pot of freshly brewed coffee on a corner table; no cream or sugar in sight. Shaun, an instant coffee drinker, frowned; I got the “How am I going to drink coffee without milk?” look.
As Darcee poured, she said, “Now take your cup and look at the oils floating on top of the coffee. Notice the colors. Smell the coffee. Now, drink the coffee.” We sipped this classically delicate, cleanly fruity, floral Kona cup of coffee. I could see a sigh of relief from Shaun. “I can actually drink this coffee black, it almost tastes sweet and without the sugar,” said Shaun.
My ulterior motive had now been exposed; I wanted to get my instant coffee drinking Brit of a husband down the path to enjoying a proper brewed cupper. Its mild taste appeared to have won him over.
Our trek took us on to Pele Plantations, overlooking Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands. Owners Gus and Cynthia Brockson were busily roasting and packing online orders ready to be shipped.
Their Kona Coffee farm is Certified Organic, which means that the coffee is grown using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment. These organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture.
According to the Brocksons, it is not enough to have a certified organic coffee farm: “In order to call Kona coffee ‘organic,’ it must also be processed at a facility with equipment and procedures that are certified organic. We’re proud to be one of only four processors in Kona to have received this status.”
Heading up Koa Road, we visited KOA Plantations, which is situated at an elevation of 2,500 feet on the slopes of the Hawaiian volcano, Mauna Loa. Located in the small town of Captain Cook, this is the only farm where we were able to see Kona blossom as well as green and red cherry all on the same plant. The sweet smell of the blossom — fondly dubbed “Kona snow” – reminded me of its sister plant, the Gardenia. During May, the blossoms give way to the green coffee fruit; it is a rare sight to see red cherry at the lower elevations this time of year.
KOA Plantations has a state-of-the-art wet mill facility from Colombia, a dry mill from Brazil and their entire parchment/green bean is temperature and humidity controlled.
In the roasting room, we watched the beans being roasted in a large commercial roaster. The temperature and time were carefully monitored so as not to burn the beans. “The most important thing is to listen for the first crack,” said tour guide John Langenstein. After about 15 minutes, the coffee beans literally “pop” as they expand. This first “crack” signifies the first roast, which a mildly roasted coffee commonly referred to as American roast. The second “crack” is a much darker roast of coffee.
Tired and hungry, we made our way down the highway to Old Tobacco Road, which is an old farm road and rough enough to suggest that a four-wheel drive vehicle might be necessary. It is a mile long drive up to our next digs through orchards of coffee and macadamia nuts. We arrive at the upscale Aloha Guest House owned and operated by Johann Timmerman and Greg Garriss along with resident artist Lino Laure.
The grounds at Aloha Guest House were impeccably manicured for a tropical estate where the vines and foliage grow at an accelerated rate! Exotic flowers and fruits thrive in this volcanic rock.
We are greeted by Lino and pooch Mango, who, as it turned out, liked to scratch her back – every morning — on a chair just outside our room’s private entrance creating quite a commotion. (She became our onsite alarm clock.)
Aloha Guest House — located 1500 feet above the Kona coast where the climate is tempered by the cool ocean breezes — features such amenities as a seven-person Jacuzzi spa, HDTV, WI-FI, a shared guest kitchenette and a 24-hour coffee and tea bar serving up freshly brewed 100% Kona Peaberry coffee – their own private label grown and roasted by Kena Coffee Farms.
Breakfast, prepared by Johann, was usually a simplistic version of haute cuisine and was served at a grand dining table with elegant table settings; exotic flowers included.
Throughout the B&B paintings by Lino Laure are showcased. Lino’s natural talent is apparent; he paints the wonders of the Hawaiian Islands taking into account the minutest details only an artist would note.
Yet, daytime beckoned us to leave all this luxury behind in order to complete our eco-tour.
A trip to Greenwell Farms in Kealakekua, Hawaii, took us on a historical familial journey that dates back to 1850 when Henry Nicholas Greenwell left England and first set foot on the fertile soil of rural Kona.
Together with his wife, Elizabeth Caroline, Henry spent the next forty years farming, ranching and perfecting his Kona Coffee, soon exporting it to Europe and the Americas.
Today, the farm is managed by the descendants of Henry and Elizabeth, and grows its own coffee on 150 acres of the most productive land in the Kona District. Greenwell Farms offers walking tours of the coffee fields and processing facilities that run continuously from 8 a.m. through 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
A stone-throw away is the Kona Historical Society’s Living History Farm Tour. This seven-acre farm was homesteaded in the 1900’s by Japanese immigrants. The tour is an interpretation of the daily life of coffee farmers in the early 20th century brought to life through the use of historic buildings, artifacts, authentic landscapes, live animals, working machinery, and producing gardens, orchards and fields.
David Bateman, owner of Heavenly Hawaiian Farms, observed that the process is much the same today: “Because not all the cherry ripens at the same time there usually are four to six pickings during the picking season. Pickers manually pick the red cherry fruit containing the coffee beans. A good picker can pick 400 pounds of cherry in a day. Some pickers have picked as much as 1,200 pounds per day, all by hand, bean by bean.” The standard ratio of cherry to produce a pound of roasted coffee is seven to one.
Nearby at Lehuula Farms, Owner Bob Nelson readies his equipment for a batch of cherry that needs to be pulped and dried. Besides owning a pulper, Bob – a transplant from Alaska — has one of two unique apparatuses in the Islands that dry the coffee bean through a dehumidifying process that he uses to speed up the drying process. Most farms – including Lehuula — still sun-dry their beans on large decks to a moisture level between 10 and 13 percent.
This four-acre coffee farm – sited at 1400 feet on the western slope of Hualalai Mountain — currently supports more than 4,000 coffee trees many of which are 90 or more years old and are said to provide an exceptionally tasting coffee that cannot be found in younger trees. “The cherry is as good as it is ever going to be,” said Bob about the picked cherry, reminding us that there is always a way to spoil it through the many steps that it takes to process coffee.
Dr. Joe Alban explained that on his coffee farm he produces 35 percent more cherry than at other coffee farms due to his unique vineyard style coffee groves. Sold at $65 per pound, it is the world’s first trellised coffee plantation owned and operated by Dr. Joe Alban and wife Deepa.
Kona Joe® Trellised Coffee holds USA Patent 6,449,898 B1 for “Method and Apparatus for Enhancing Coffee Bean Production” and has been recognized for adapting fine wine growing techniques to coffee production. “The inspiration for adapting traditional viticultural practices to coffee growing came from our family vineyard, Alban Vineyards, an award-winning vineyard and winery located in the Central Coast of California,” said Joe.
Kona Joe Coffee will sponsor the first-ever Barista competition to be held at this year’s Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, a 10-day festival that takes place in early November when the harvest of Kona Coffee is well underway.
I came to Kona to see how coffee was grown and what an education I received. Anyone can go on this journey to see the workings of a coffee farm, without a passport and without apprehension about traveling to a foreign country.
Each morning as I grab my freshly-brewed cup of java, I have a deep respect for the labor intensive process it takes to produce coffee and the farmers that who work tirelessly to bring us this commodity we can’t seem to do without.