Kona Knows Coffee

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on September 24, 2009
Stuart Englert Norman Sakata harvests Kona coffee beans by hand.

Tom Greenwell plucks a ripe, red piece of fruit from a century-old tree and squeezes the "cherry" into his palm, revealing two oval beans that, when processed and roasted, will produce some of the world's premium coffee.

"My great-grandmother planted these trees in the early 1900s," says Greenwell, 50, general manager of Greenwell Farms in Kealakekua (pop. 1,645), on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Established in the 1850s, Greenwell Farms is one of the oldest, and at 200 acres, among the largest farms in Kona, a 25-mile-long, 2-mile-wide coffee-growing region renown for its tropical climate and lava rock shores, and for producing a quality cup of the caffeinated beverage.

"Coffee is the crop for Kona," says Greenwell, who assumed management of the family farm in 1992 after his father died. "The weather and soil type are perfect."

The seeds of Kona's coffee industry were sown in 1828 when the Rev. Samuel Ruggles, an American missionary, brought cuttings from Chief Boki's coffee trees on the island of Oahu to Kona, planting them in his yard for his viewing pleasure.

Over the last 180 years, the Big Island's numerous ethnic and immigrant groupsthe English, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and native Hawaiianshave nurtured, preserved and expanded coffee into one of Hawaii's most important cash crops.

"If it had not been for the Japanese farmers, Kona coffee would not exist today," says coffee grower George Fike, 75, explaining how tenant farmers from Japan sustained the crop through price slumps in the last century.

With 790 farms, the Big Island today produces about 3 million pounds of coffee annually, about half of the state's crop. Kona coffee, which is savored for its smooth, well-balanced flavor, sells for up to $40 a pound after it is harvested, processed and roasted.

"Kona coffee is the most labor intensive crop that I know of," says Donna Woolley, 57, president of the Kona Coffee Council, which promotes the crop and assists its growers. "It is not harvested just once a year; it's handpicked four or five times a season" as the fruit ripens from August through January.

Each November, farmers celebrate the harvest during the weeklong Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. The celebration features parades, a coffee tasting and art stroll, a Miss Kona Coffee competition, farm and mill tours, and coffee picking contests for both professionals and amateurs. Last year, farm worker Eric Mendez, 35, of Kailua-Kona (pop. 9,870), won first place and $200 for harvesting 9.7 pounds of coffee in three minutes.

The festival culminates with a "cupping" competition, in which expert tasters from around the world judge dozens of Kona coffee brands for their fragrance, aroma, taste, acidity and body. "The mellow taste is specific to Kona coffee," says Willy Pettersson, 68, a retired master taster for Gevalia Kaffee of Sweden.

In its 39th year, the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, scheduled Nov. 6-15, is as much an observation of the Big Island's multicultural heritage as it is an opportunity to recognize one of Hawaii's top agricultural crops.

"It touches my heart to be involved in this festival," says event chairman Norman Sakata, 83, whose grandfather Yajiro Nakagawa began growing coffee in Kona in the 1890s. "We need to honor the pioneers in this industry."