Family Farms Grow Great Coffee

Tropical region produces the finest hand-picked beans for a perfect cup of java.

Coffee Beans

Cecil Hicks

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Mention Kona coffee to a knowledgeable coffee drinker, and his or her eyes light up. The coffee bean grown by just a few small family farms on the volcanic mountain slopes of the Kona region on Hawaii, the big island, is known for brewing great-tasting coffee.

Microclimate for flavor

On the leeward slope of Mauna Loa Volcano, between the elevations of 500 feet and 2,800 feet, lies a narrow agriculture strip of land approximately 22 miles long by 2 miles wide. Within this Kona belt, some 630 farmers tend coffee trees on 3,500 acres. In fact, 90 percent of the Kona coffee beans are grown on independent farms with orchards of 3 acres or less. This unique region is blessed with near perfect coffee-bean growing conditions – a combination of rich, dark volcanic soil, gentle slopes, sun and rain.

While not every coffee farm offers tours to visitors, one that does is Greenwell Farms, located in the heart of the Coffee Belt. Greenwell Farms is family owned and operated – currently run by the fourth generation – and has been growing coffee beans since 1850. The 35-acre farm is near the town of Kealakekua, south of Kailua Kona.

Greenwell guides like Erika Borge, a local part-time student employee, lead informative walking tours that pass among some of the original plantation orchard trees and stop at the mill processing plant.

The Kona coffee bean’s growing season runs from August through February. According to Borge, a coffee tree will produce about 25 pounds of cherries (ripe beans) per tree per year, and it takes about seven pounds of beans to make one pound of coffee.

She says that while Greenwell Farms will grow about 120,000 pounds of its own coffee beans each year, Greenwell also purchases another 300,000 pounds of beans from other small coffee growers in the area who don’t do their own processing.

Borge says, “They only put the Greenwell Farm coffee brand label on beans they grow and produce. Beans bought and processed from other orchards will be sold to other coffee companies and labeled with another brand.”

Premium Kona roasted coffee prices range from $16 to $50 per pound, and the Kona Coffee Council suggests consumers buy coffee packages with a Kona coffee seal that reads “100 percent grown and roasted in Kona.”

Making coffee

Borge says their coffee trees blossom seven to eight times per season. Since the cherries don’t all ripen at the same time, a team of seasonal workers is kept busy scouring the orchard for ripe cherries, and each tree is picked several times during the season.

Once the beans are picked, in order to maintain the best coffee flavor, they are placed in a water pulper that removes the hulls within 24 hours. Next in the coffee bean milling process is fermentation, with the beans left in water tanks for several hours to ferment a slick coating (mucilage) off the beans. The next step is traditional sun-drying on large wooden outdoor decks. By now, the soaked beans look like shelled peanuts. The beans are raked and turned every half hour for even drying. Greenwell Farms gets regular light rain in the late afternoon, so a retractable covered roof is rolled out to keep the beans dry.

After drying, the beans are machine milled. The resulting green beans are sorted, graded, roasted and packaged in air tight tin foil bags to preserve freshness. Greenwell Farms employees custom roast coffee beans three times a week, a process considered by people in the trade as the most important element in coffee making.

In addition to the visitor plantation stand, Greenwell Farms roasted coffee beans are sold on the Web site at www.GreenwellFarms.com, or by telephone at 888-592-5662.

If you happen to be in Hawaii in November, you may want to attend the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival held at Holualoa. Festival events include coffee tasting, coffee plantation tours, coffee roasting classes, a coffee bean picking contest, musical concerts, parades and a Kona coffee cupping competition. For more information, check out the Web site at www.KonaCoffeeFest.com.

Where’s Kona?

The big island of Hawaii is about 100 miles long and 85 miles wide – slightly larger than the state of Connecticut. Two huge volcanoes separate the east side from the west side of the island. Centrally located, each peak rises about 13,700 feet in height.

The east side of the big island, or the windward trade wind side, is noted for an abundance of rain (averaging around 140 inches annually), and the region is surrounded by a tropical rainforest. As much as 300 inches of rain fall at the volcano summits.

The west side – the leeward, or Kona, side – of the island, on the other hand, averages
10 to 80 inches of rainfall a year. The Kona region is renowned for its sunshine, tourist destinations, resorts and gourmet coffee.