From the Volcano, the Rarest Brew: Kona Coffee

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from February 28, 2001

By R. W. APPLE Jr.

Sweet Maria’s note: R.W. Apple Jr. is a great veteran journalist who happens to love coffee …so much that he was invited to be the Keynote Speaker at the 2000 SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) conference in San Francisco. His speech was a collection of annecdotes from is many travels through coffee lands, usually covering political news stories. Many of the coffee growers and farms in this articles are ones we are familiar with or have had the pleasure to cup…

A couple comments: Kona is not necessarily the finest coffee produced in the United States …there is also the Yauco Selecto coffees of Puerto Rico which had a couple tough years in 99 and 00 but are back in form for 01. Also, it is difficult to separate the cup quality of coffee and the story behind it. The lure of the islands sells a lot of Kona. Everyone wants to support small farmers, but it must be done based on the quality of coffee they can produce, not based on romance. Yes, Kona can be an excellent coffee; a soft, mild cup with varying degrees of compexity, and one of the finest within that mild island coffee cup profile …but not the acme of all the worlds coffees. The best Konas are small farm offerings that come from family farms. But even 100% Kona is no guarantee of quality, and even small farms have off years, and some simply do not have ideal coffee land …especially in terms of adequate elevation. The best small farm coffees are worth it. The low grown and a majority of other Hawaiian island coffees simply ride on the coattails of the reputation of the best small farms.

Photographs by Peter French for The New York Times: Kona coffee beans on the tree, top, may eventually wind up under Mike Clark’s rake in the drying shed of his Rooster Farms, above.

CAPTAIN COOK, Hawaii — AS you drive south along the west coast of the Big Island, you can’t help smelling the coffee roasting. With that, and the slopes of Mauna Loa on your left, bathed in the sumptuous sunlight of a Hawaiian morning, and the whales cavorting in the blue Pacific on your right, who needs roses?

You are smelling the pride of the Kona coast, the best coffee produced in the United States. It comes from trees growing in the slowly decomposing lava flows that stripe the hillside along a milewide, 25-mile-long piece of land stretching from Holualoa south to Honaunau. One of the most prominent growers in Captain Cook, John Langenstein, calls these 2,500 precious acres “God’s gift to the coffee bean.”

Coffee is grown on most of the Hawaiian Islands, but Kona’s well- drained basaltic soil is perfect. The climate pattern is perfect, with sunlight in the morning, which is beneficial, and cloud cover in the afternoon, a natural canopy that blocks out the day’s most intense heat, which is not. And the rainfall is perfect ó 60 to 90 inches a year at 1,100 feet, compared with 2 inches on the beaches only a mile away.

Whether brewed in a drip pot or in an espresso machine, pure Kona produces a cup of coffee with a creamy head and a magnificently full body. Its taste is winy and multidimensional, with enough acidity to give it balance. The first time I tasted it, almost a decade ago, I knew it was something special, and I’m no kind of coffee connoisseur. My choosy wife, Betsey, agreed.

At a retail price of $20 a pound or more, growers here concede, Kona is one of the world’s costliest coffees. Yet no one is getting rich; Mr. Langenstein estimates that he cleared about $20,000 last year. His mill, a ramshackle apparatus made of plywood and galvanized steel, with handmade pulleys and belts, is 100 years old. He sticks at it, he said, because he loves the climate, having grown up in Newark, N.Y., near Rochester, where winters can be brutal, and because “it’s such a great place to raise kids.”

Mike Craig, another grower, summed it all up in four pithy words: “Life’s great, work stinks.”

For the dozens of small growers, economies of scale and hip marketing campaigns are beyond reach. So most sell mostly on the Internet. The only producer of pure Kona who seemed to be making it big turned out to be a fraud. Officials of Kona Kai coffee were convicted in 1996 in a $20 million swindle in which cheaper Central American green (unroasted) coffees were put into bags marked “Kona.” Not all French bread comes from France, one of the miscreants argued; “why should all Kona coffee come from Kona?”

There is, in fact, no need to flout the law. A perfectly legal way to make money on Kona coffee is to blend it with less expensive coffees and sell the result as Kona.

That’s what big roasters do. They benefit from the name while bypassing most of the cost that goes along with using only carefully hand-tended, handpicked beans from the Kona coast. They must label their stuff “Kona blend,” and the purists can call theirs “100 percent Kona,” but the word “blend” somehow ends up in smaller type.

A University of Hawaii study a couple of years ago estimated that 20 million pounds of Kona coffee are sold annually, although only about 2 million pounds of Kona beans are produced. Legally, a blend containing 10 percent Kona can be called Kona coffee.

“We have a terrible marketing problem,” said Merle Wood, a big- time corporate lawyer turned small- time coffee grower. He said it with the air of a man who has spent a lot of time trying to roll boulders up Mauna Kea. Well he might. As the president of the Kona Coffee Council, an alliance of small growers, he and several colleagues, led by Mr. Langenstein and Mr. Craig, have struggled in vain to establish a certification mark for coffee grown in the Kona district.

Such trademark protection exists for Maui and Vidalia onions and for Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, as well as for many wine regions, but the growers’ efforts have been blocked by the big coffee companies.

“Our market is on the mainland,” Mr. Wood said. “Starbucks has taught people there about good coffee, but it’s a very long way away, and convincing them to insist on pure Kona is a very difficult proposition. This is a poor island, where nobody but the tourists can pay or will pay 20 bucks a pound for coffee. But what tourists take home, if they take food at all, is chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.”

Coffee trees (Coffea arabica, mostly of Guatemalan origin) grow to 20 feet tall in Kona, and they sometimes live for a century or more, developing trunks up to six inches thick. As is often the case with grapevines, the old trees yield the best fruit.

Actually, the trees look more like bushes, with heavily ridged leaves and long whiplike branches that bend toward the ground when heavy with fruit. Members of the gardenia family, they produce amazingly fragrant, brilliantly white flowers that coat the hills 8 or 10 times a year, usually beginning in December or January. “Hawaiian snow,” the locals call it.

The fruit that follows is a berry about the size of a cherry tomato, which gradually turns from green to scarlet as it ripens. But this is not an accommodating fruit like the apple or the peach. With so many flowerings a year and a ripening period of seven to nine months, there can be no single harvest.

So the pickers, mostly Mexicans, have to make their laborious way down the rows of trees as many as a dozen times a year, steadying themselves on the steeply sloping mountainside as they pluck the ripe berries from the trees. They squeeze the berries, and out pop the seeds ó fresh coffee beans, coated in a sweet mucilage-like substance. Usually, there are two; when there is only one, it is called a peaberry. (Some growers argue that peaberries make a superior cup of java, but others dismiss that as hype).

At this stage the coffee is known as “cherry,” and a lot of arduous processing lies ahead before it is ready for the roaster, let alone the grinder, the pot and the cup. The foamy covering is removed in a pulping mill. Then the beans ferment overnight before drying, either in a gas oven or, preferably, on what the early Japanese farmers here called a hoshidana, or drying deck. This is a series of concrete pads with retractable corrugated steel roofs that can be left open to the sun and closed when it rains. The beans are raked repeatedly during daylight hours to keep them from spoiling.

When the moisture content is reduced to 11 or 12 percent, the beans develop a papery covering called “parchment.” At this stage they can be stored for fairly extended periods.

Many small operators among the 600 growers here, lacking the capital to install expensive machinery, are forced to sell their cherry to the big processors for whatever price they can get, which in bad times is not much, rather than waiting for the market price to rise. Others pay a fee to have the raw beans processed for them.

The final stages involve grinding off the husklike covering, grading the beans (Extra Fancy, Fancy, No. 1, Prime) and, of course, roasting.

Mr. Langenstein, who produces 8,000 pounds of coffee on his 8.3 acres in a good year, ages some of his beans for as much as 12 months in parchment. A onetime wine-and-food man at Hawaiian hotels, he thinks this mellows the coffee and brings out subtleties in its flavor, the same way that storage in oak barrels helps mature wine.

Coffee growers, fierce individualists all, disagree about almost everything. Is gas-drying or air-drying better? Should roasted beans be kept at room temperature, in the refrigerator or in the freezer? And perhaps the most contentious question of all: light roast or dark? Mr. Langenstein thinks dark-roasting caramelizes the coffee too much, thus increasing the caffeine concentration and making it harder to taste the nuances in the brew. Mr. Craig, just a few miles up the road, thinks lighter roasts taste wimpy.

Choose your poison.

A missionary named Samuel Ruggles brought the first coffee trees to this island in 1828 ó for their ornamental value, not to produce a cash crop. But by 1845, the first exports were on their way to California, and starting about a hundred years ago, Japanese farmers came to dominate the growing of coffee in Kona. Some came directly from Japan, but many escaped from slavelike conditions on Hawaiian sugar plantations before their contracts expired, rode here on donkeys along narrow cliffs and changed their names.

Living frugally in tiny frame houses, often without electricity or running water, the farmers were constantly in hock to the stores owned by the big mills. In an exhibition at the Kona Historical Society, a farmer named Yosoto Egami recalled, “The store advanced merchandise for your family . . . and at the end of the year, in return, you had to give your crop to the store.”

Restricted by geography to the small zone near Mauna Loa, the Kona coffee industry, and indeed the coffee industry in the islands as a whole, never approached the size of the giant Brazilian, Costa Rican and African plantations. It was plagued by economic collapse in its main markets, the United States and Japan, and later by price volatility. One old-timer recalled the price of cherry falling to 33 cents a pound, from $1.37, in two or three weeks.

Most remaining Japanese-American growers are getting old, and some, like the mother of Eddie Sakamoto, the nonpareil wine waiter at the Canoe House hotel, grow coffee only part time now. They sell their output to the Kona Pacific Farmers Co-Op, which processed about 1.5 million pounds of cherry (from about 300 farmers) last year.

Recently, the historical society acquired and restored the former D.†Uchida farm, established in 1913, as the Kona Coffee Living History Farm, which still produces coffee the old-fashioned way. Think you know something about frugality? Then check this: ceiling panels sewn from cotton rice sacks. (Small groups are given tours, by advance reservation only, by costumed guides. Detailed information on the World Wide Web at

It was the arrival in the 1980’s and 1990’s of retirees and others from the mainland, known here as haoles, that transformed coffee-growing. Striving for maximum quality, more than 40 of them now market their own estate coffees ó those grown on a single farm that is owned or leased by the farmer, with careful records kept to establish its origin. Five of these estates have been grouped together for greater marketing efficiency as Pele Plantations (www, but most have stubbornly gone it alone.

The new growers are a varied bunch, to put it mildly. One of them, Gus Brocksen, who heads Pele Plantations, hands out business cards identifying himself as “Head Bean.” Another, Mischa Sperka, is a voluble former museum curator of Central European origin who farms 10 acres and processes his own coffee and that of 25 neighbors. Nikki Ferrari, who runs a sizable non-estate mail- order business under the name Hawaiian Mountain Gold, says he is a distant relative of the Italian automaking family.

And then there is Mike Craig. I found him at the end of a steep, stony, rutted, twisting road, well up the mountain, where he lives with his family in a kind of treehouse, with its sides open to the breezes, surrounded by towering Norfolk pines and orange-flowering African tulip trees. A burly, bushy-haired man who used to teach and coach at a high school in San Diego, he came here after watching a Pacific Southwest Airlines jet crash there in 1978.

“It was an omen,” he said. “When planes start falling on your house, it’s time to try something new.”

Eight years later, he became the first all-organic producer of Kona Coffee, substituting weed-whacking for herbicides and compost for chemical fertilizer, and enriching the soil further with glacial rock dust. He found in short order that his product, now sold under the Rooster Farms label (, could command a premium price, he said, “just as it ought to.” He charges $25.95 a pound, with shipping extra.

“It’s twice as much work,” Mr. Craig’s wife, Lindy, added, “but it’s not near twice as much money.”

Like the others, they depend heavily for sales on the Internet, word of mouth and a mailing list built up over the years. Like the others, they do most of the work themselves, and do it well enough that they have a contract to supply coffee to Merriman’s, the Big Island’s top restaurant.

Mr. Langenstein weighs each bag of
coffee he sells on a tiny Directo postage scale, seals it with a gadget that looks like a curling iron and signs it by hand, “so people know what they get.” His coffee, labeled Langenstein Farms, sells for $25, shipping included (www.kona-coffee .com).

But the big guys may be coming. A few days before Christmas, a 1,570- acre ranch on the Kona coast, once owned by the actor Jimmy Stewart, was sold to a local investor for $7.4 million. The investor, Guy Cobb, said he planned to replace the pastures, forests and macadamia groves that now cover the land with coffee trees.

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