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Kona Coffee 101: An Introduction


We have all heard of Kona coffee, but I knew little about the coffee growing process, and specificlly how labor intensive it is. We spend the day at a local coffee plantation and this is what I learned.

Greenwell Farms is a fourth generation coffee plantation started back in 1850 when Henry Nicholos Greenwell left England with his wife, and relocated to Kona to start a cattle farm. Coffee was a sideline business for the family, with only a few acres of trees dedicated to it on the land and the majority of the area was used for cattle ranching.  He would export some to relatives back in Europe. In 1873, Greenwell's coffee won a recognition diploma at the worlds fair in Vienna, and his Kona Coffee was now on the world map.

When he passed, his wife, who had no interest in continuing to cattle ranch, slowly converted the farm more to coffee and other fruit trees. Today, the fourth generation runs the 90 acre farm and has about 70 acres of coffee, 10 of macadamia nuts and 10 of random fruit trees, to include avocado, apple banana's, pineapple, and island oranges. - needless to say it would be hard to starve on this island.

Coffee trees are a pretty hardy bunch and grow like weeds, in very little or no topsoil, but they like the very rich volcanic rock. Taking a page from viticulture, in order to be 'Kona' coffee, it has to be grown in this terror, a section of the island about 20 miles long and only 1000 feet or so wide (in elevation). Not unlike a  vitas vinifera varietal, pure Kona coffee must contain at least 90% Kona Typica plant. In another interesting parallel to wine, a 1990 infestation of the rodi-knot nematode damaged many trees in Kona, and was solved using root grafting to a resistant strain. 

A coffee tree left alone will grow to 20 feet high, and mechanical harvesting still has not resulted in an adequate solution, due to the steep terrain and difficult landscape. As a result most Kona coffee is harvested by hand. Another reason its prices command a premium. To help facilitate this, coffee trees are cut - a process called 'stumping' ever three years or so (photo below) After a tree is stumped, it will not fruit the next year so usually a third of a farms coffee trees are not producing in a given season. Reason two its expensive.

A tree will bear fruit three or four times during a harvest season - from October to February. Fruit is harvested when the cherry is red. Wait too long and the result is bitterness.

These trees were harvested last a couple of moths ago and are just now beginning to show buds of flowers again. When in full bloom, the flowers are white and completely cover the trees - hence the term Kona snow.

 A typical tree will yeald about 15 pounds of fruit, which results in about 2 pounds of coffee, once all the multiple layers of the cherry are stripped away.

Once the cherries are harvested, they are 'wet processed' in a pulper that removes the bean from the cherry pulp.

As an interesting side note: this pulp used to be returned to the ground, but has recently been found to have extremely high levels of antioxidants. As a result t is now typically sold off to companies that will then juice the pulp, and turn it into a health drink such as Kona Red.

Once the coffee beans have been through the pulper, they have a green slimy surface layer on them called the pectin layer, that is full of sucrose. If they are not processed in a day or so, they will mold (yuck) and the flavor profile will be put off. In order to accomplish this, they travel down the PCV pipes, and get an overnight soaking in a big vat. This process is called fermenting.

Another interesting side note that I did not know: most coffee cherries contain two beans, and look similar to the two halfs of a peanut. Occationally (about 5% of cherries) however, contain only 1, smaller whole and round bean. This is called a peaberry. Initially thought to be 'runts' and discarded, the peaberries are now separated from the rest and when roasted correctly, produce a very good (some consider premium) coffee. - so its sold at a premium! I never knew where the "Peaberry Coffee' name came from…. now you do too.

Back to our little coffee story. Once the beans are done in their tub, they move to drying. they are laid out on large slabs and the sun kicks in and is allowed to naturally dry the beans. every couple of hours the workers use a rake to turn them and the moisture content is slowly reduced. - It''s pretty labor intensive to do it this way rather than use a mechanical drier. Reason number three Kona coffee is expensive.

Greenwell uses these cool little houses to dry their coffee beans. When the trade winds bring a shower, the roof of the building can be slid on and off (shown here in its closed position) to keep the rain off of the drying beans.

Finally, when the beans are dry enough, they head to a mill for processing. Here the beans are graded, and separated by size into several size classifications, that produce different flavor profiles. The peaberries are also separated at this point and the last couple of layers (the parchment and silver-skin) similar to a peanuts red skin is removed. 

Once processed and separated, the 'green' beans are then shipped to cofee suppliers who will roast them and possibly add other flavors, based on their particular specifications.

Our fantastic tour guide Keko, let us know that only about 1% of the total coffee market is comprised of Kona coffee. for Greenwell, they ship 90 percent of their beens wholesale to coffee roasters such as Starbucks and reserve about 10% to roast themselves and sell on the farm, so you won't see the name in stores, but yo can order it online from their website.

Our personal favorite is their chocolate macadamia nut. An A-M-A-Z-I-N-G blend produced with what else, local Kona chocolate and macadamia nuts.

Keko said that their farm produces about 250,000 pounds of coffee annually. If I'm doing the math right - at an average retail of $18-$20 a pound, - that farm is doing just fine, thank you very much.

Overall - a very interesting way to spend an afternoon in my new home, here in Kona. I would highly recommend the (free) tour, and the (not so free) coffee if you're in the area.

More random photos below.


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There is one section of the farm that still has very old coffee trees on it. These are about 110 years old. a coffee tree will last about 125 years, but apparently its yield will significantly reduce after about 25 years or so. As a result most are replaced at that time.

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these trees were 'stumped' last year and will not produce anything this year.

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Shot of the Greenwell Farm

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In the fall, during harvest season migrant workers from mexico also head here. its backbreaking, not very fun work so no one here wants to do it, similar to agriculture on the mainland. These are their bunkhouses. It takes 30-40 of them to harvest this farm.

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this is the old processing house on the property - very cool

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one of my new favorite things to eat on the island are these apple bananas. A local grown little dude thats about a third the size of a regular banana, and incredibly good.

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There are several different varieties of avocado here also - some as big as a melon

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A little baby pineapple growing near the old mill house

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This has nothing at all to do with coffee - but the hibiscus on this island - just growing wild and in random places is absolutely beautiful. 

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It comes in many different colors and we often find them just lying on the side of the road after falling from their plant. All you need is a hair clip and you're all set.

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I also like the fan palms in several places here. They are pretty cool.

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Again - nothing to do with coffee or the farm - this was just a random old dump truck that is sitting on Ali'i drive about a mile from our condo. Looks like it has been there quite a while!

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Aloha! - another great day in paradise.

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