Kona coffee stands above rest — almost


We just returned from an international palm conference in Thailand. We also had the opportunity to visit Cambodia and ended up in Bali, Indonesia, where we visited with producers of luwak coffee. That is coffee processed through the intestines of civet cats. With the tourist industry booming in Bali, the marketing method seems to be a lot like that for our Kona coffee. Local folks there seldom drink luwak coffee because it costs about $300 per pound retail. Sold mostly in 4-ounce bags, it is a “must have gift” to bring home to friends and relatives.

As far as the good old USA goes, Kona coffee has made its mark as No. 1. According to some top coffee marketers, Kona coffee is now considered to be the world’s most sought-after gourmet coffee, except perhaps for luwak coffee. This year looks like a bumper crop and to celebrate, the Kona Coffee Culture Festival started Friday with the Sugai Kona Coffee Talent Night and will run through Nov. 11. The Holualoa Village Coffee and Art Stroll was Saturday, but you can visit the village at any time to enjoy this beautiful community. The festival includes picking and recipe contests, quilt show judging, farm and mill tours, cupping contests, educational classes, cultural activities and a big parade.

With the festival going on, now is a perfect time to take a casual drive through mauka Kona. It is a beautiful sight, especially when our coffee is in bloom or fruit. We now have more than 8,000 coffee acres statewide. More than 2,000 acres are found in Kona.

The Kona coffee industry was born with a few coffee trees brought over from Oahu. They were planted in 1828 by missionary-teacher Samuel Ruggles. These were descendants of plants that came from Brazil a few years earlier. Over the next 150 years, Hawaiian coffee has had many ups and downs, but creative marketing and cooperative efforts have ensured a bright future.

Coffea arabica is the species grown here. Other species of any commercial importance, but not grown here, include C. robusta and C. liberica. Kona coffee is comparable to the finest Central American mild coffees. The beans are heavy and flinty, with relatively high acidity, strong flavor, full body and fine aroma. It has been in demand as a blend, and in recent years as 100 percent pure Kona.

Although coffee can be grown in many areas of Hawaii, the Kona district is ideal. Being situated on the leeward slopes of the central highland mass of the Big Island, it is protected from the prevailing northeast trade winds by Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes.

The rainfall pattern is characterized by a dry period from November through January and rather frequent, almost daily afternoon showers during the remainder of the year. The average annual rainfall within the relatively narrow coffee belt of Kona, which follows the contour of the Mamalahoa Highway between 600 to 3,000 feet elevation, is 60 to 70 inches. Afternoon cloud cover and rainfall combine to create the perfect environment for top quality. Good coffee is being produced in Ka‘u, East Hawaii and on the Hamakua Coast, as well as on Kauai, Maui, Oahu and Molokai, but it does not yet have the international recognition of Kona coffee.

Coffee has persisted here despite many adversities, overcome economic depressions, and for many decades was considered to be the economic backbone of the Kona District.

The late Edward Fukunaga, a well-known and respected coffee expert, pointed out to me that when he first became Kona county agricultural agent in September 1941 the coffee industry was in a terrible state. The farmers were deeply in debt yet world coffee prices continued falling. Debt adjustments and government relief were the order of the day. More than 1,000 acres of coffee were abandoned in 10 years following the price crash. Another 1,500 acres were abandoned before 1950.

Perhaps the most tragic thing that took place during the coffee depression was the exodus of the younger people from Kona. Only the aged were left to tend the farms in many families. Things perked up after the war as world coffee prices rose and farmers thrived through the ’50s.

During the 1960s and ’70s, fields were again neglected and coffee beans wasted for lack of harvesters. Tourism was the new kid on the block and everyone wanted to work at the fancy hotels and restaurants.

The awakening of today’s vibrant and romantic coffee industry is complicated, but the key was teamwork. The concept of gourmet coffee, according to Curtis Tyler Jr., who was manager of the American Factors Coffee Mill in Kailua-Kona, came up as early as the ’50s, but it took years to bring the concept to fruition. Wing and Mayflower Coffee companies were the first to roast and package the highest quality Kona, but it was tourism that ultimately exposed Kona coffee to the world.

The Pacific Coffee Cooperative, led by Yoshitaka Takashiba, and Kona Farmers Cooperative, managed by Les Glaspey and Bill Koepke, were active in revitalizing the Kona Coffee Council. Tom Kerr, as chairman of the council, was instrumental in bringing all the diverse interests of the industry together.

Today, we have a new breed of coffee farmers producing world-class estate coffees. Some original farms have survived the years and are thriving. Others are owned or operated by entrepreneurs from the mainland, Japan, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

We cannot be sure of what the future will bring. Judging by the commitment and stamina of coffee farmers and processors, coupled with production of one of the finest coffees in the world, the outlook is very promising despite the newest challenge — the coffee berry borer. This little creature has affected the quality yields on some farms from as little as 1 percent to as much as 80 percent. Orchard sanitation, insect traps and spraying with a fungus that attacks the borer seem to be making the infestation at least manageable.

All considered, the future looks good, so enjoy that cup of Kona coffee and celebrate this unique and historic bit of history in Kona this week.