Something's brewing on the Big Island

Toronto Star

Kona country offers a taste of history and the chance to savour some award-winning coffee

HOLUALOA, Hawaii–The coffee pot is always on here along the Kona Heritage Corridor on the Big Island of Hawaii, where producers of prized Kona coffee beans are turning up the heat on competition to develop award-winning brews.

Visitors can sample different roasts and estate labels as they drive for more than 30 kilometres through the heart of Kona coffee country on the island’s west coast.

Hawaii’s rich volcanic soil, tropical weather and optimal elevation (420 to 1,100 metres) create the perfect growing conditions for Arabica coffee with superior quality and taste.

A number of the Big Island’s 700 Kona coffee farms and coffee cooperatives offer guided tours and free tastings year-round.

Every November, the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival fires up enthusiasts with a cupping competition, picking and recipe contests, colorful parades and a smorgasbord of food.

The 10-day event, which started yesterday and runs to Nov. 15, engages nearly 50 communities in honouring the multi-ethnic heritage of Kona’s coffee pioneers and their decades-long tradition of growing and producing some of the world’s best beans.

These days, newcomers to the coffee business are experimenting with improved varietals of coffee plants and innovative bean processing and roasting techniques in order to take Kona coffee to new heights.

“Only recently have people begun to think about crafting fine coffee,” says Miguel Meza, the roastmaster at Hula Daddy Kona Coffee. “We’re a few decades behind wine in that respect.”

Hula Daddy owners Lee and Karen Paterson bought a cow pasture near Holualoa and turned it into a coffee farm in 2002.

“After practising law for 42 years, it was time to do something new,” says Lee.

“There’s something special about growing coffee. The greatest satisfaction is when people tell me they’ve tasted our coffee and it’s the best. That makes my whole day.”

As we step into Hula Daddy’s garage-sized production room, Meza stands in front of four or five cups of coffee that have been infused for four minutes in 90C water.

One by one, he slurps, swirls and spits out the rich-brown liquid to compare the relative acidity, sweetness and flavour of each brew.

“I’m like the winemaker,” says Meza, who performs this “cupping” procedure at least once a week to control quality and test out experimental batches.

Achieving a coveted, record-setting 97 rating for Hula Daddy’s sweet natural Kona coffee in December 2008 was not a slam dunk, however.

“There are dozens of steps where you can screw up coffee,” explains the 27-year-old roastmaster, who shepherds his estate-grown beans through the many critical stages of production.

The process begins with hand-picking the bright red coffee “cherries” one berry at a time at the peak of ripeness and then mechanically removing the outer pulp and fermenting the beans.

Fermentation gives so-called “wet-processed” coffees their characteristic bright, clear flavour.

Afterward, the beans are sun-dried and milled to remove the parchment and silver-skin layers.

Selection of the highest-grade green beans, climate-controlled storage and custom roasting at just the right temperature for the optimal amount of time help to ensure that the final product will be full-bodied and aromatic.

The proof of Meza’s long, hard labour is evident up in Hula Daddy’s tasting room where we inhale the rich aroma of fresh-brewed coffee and savour the differences among select, fancy, extra-fancy and prized peaberry Kona.

“We both like coffee, and since we started drinking Kona, we’ve fallen in love with it, so we wanted to see how it’s made,” say Theresa and John Banks, residents of Marysville, Calif., who are taking a self-guided coffee tour as they wind up their holiday on the Big Island.

The couple finds similarities between Hawaii’s Kona coffee belt and California’s Napa Valley wine country.

“If you go along the back roads, you often find smaller farms where you can ask questions and have more personal interactions,” John says.

Other coffee farms and tasting rooms beckon to coffee aficionados along the Kona Heritage Corridor, aka Mamalahoa Highway (Route 180).

Kona Blue Sky Coffee Co. offers complimentary guided walking tours and tastings daily.

At Kona Le’a Plantation, the home of Holualoa Kona Coffee Co., owners Desmond and Lisen Twigg-Smith invite visitors to tour their family orchards and mill before enjoying a steaming cup of fresh-roasted Kona coffee in their roasting room.

But to discover the origins of Hawaii’s worldwide coffee-export industry, visit Greenwell Farms, which owes its existence to an ambitious young Englishman who left Britain in the 1840s to seek his fortune abroad.

“My great-grandfather, Henry Nicholas Greenwell, arrived in Hawaii in 1850, bought up property and established this farm,” says Thomas Greenwell, a fourth-generation member of the Greenwell clan and company vice president and chief operating officer.

“From the very beginning, Henry was involved in the coffee business. By the 1860s, he was shipping coffee around the world. And in 1873, he sent coffee to the World’s Fair in Vienna and received a certificate of excellence from the emperor of Austria. I still have a copy of it.”

Today, Greenwell Farms is one of world’s largest exporters of green coffee beans.

In addition to their processing and distribution operations, the Greenwells roast 10 per cent of their own coffee beans, which are sold on-site at a small tasting room or through mail-order sales.

For all the modernization, however, the family-run operation is still steeped in history and tradition.

“Mark Twain was here years ago and mentioned my father’s orange groves in his writing,” Tom says.

Leading the way to a small stand of gnarled coffee plants, he says, “Great-grandma (Elizabeth Caroline Greenwell) planted these trees in 1900 and they are still producing.”

The former Greenwell country store, where native Hawaiian growers once traded their coffee beans for Henry’s staple goods, is now a living museum adjacent to the Kona Historical Society.

Tom’s 80-year-old mother, Jean, retains ownership of the farm and is recognized as a local historian. His 19-year-old son, Benjamin, who early on gained the nickname “Coffee,” works with his father. Tom’s wife, Jennifer, runs the retail and mail-order side of the business.

At the conclusion of our stay on the Big Island, we are careful to tuck several bags of 100 per cent Kona coffee into our luggage.

Some people, however, find the allure of “brown gold” too strong to resist and succumb to its powerful attraction.

Like the Patersons, they never leave. Article Source: Toronto Star —

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