Notes From The Kona Coast Coffee As Good As It Gets

Kona coast coffee is not only the best coffee that is grown in Hawaii; it is also one of the most sought-after coffees in the world! While in Kona I was lucky enough to tour two family owned and operated coffee plantations. Dard Roast Farm and Alii Pride Coffee Farm.

There are many factors that contribute to the superb quality of Kona coffee. The climate and location are the most obvious factors in the success of really good coffee. In the case of Kona, climate, soil and elevation come together creating a perfect coffee growing environment. But the fact that most of the excellent coffee grown along this coast is produced by small farms plays an even more important role, in my opinion. Because small farms like the two I visited take a very hands-on approach and produce limited quantities of artisinally cultivated beans.

The cultivation process has 5 phases:

  1. Growing
  2. Harvesting
  3. Processing
  4. Grading
  5. Roasting


Kona coffee CherriesThe growing phase begins when the coffee plant blooms and small white flowers appear. This starts in late January.  Each tree will bloom at slightly different times, adding to the terroir element of good coffee. As the flowers are pollinated small green coffee berries develop. The green coffee berries will eventually turn red and are then referred to as cherries.

The harvesting phase begins when the ripened coffee cherry is handpicked and placed into a container; waiting to be processed. Each plant is picked at several times during the harvesting phase, ensuring a perfectly ripe cherry.

The processing phase begins approximately 24 hours after the coffee cherry has been harvested. The pulp is removed from the coffee cherry and the remaining bean is placed into a tank to ferment about 18 hours. After the fermentation period, the mucilage (which is an exterior membrane green coffee beansnot unlike a fava bean) is removed. The remaining bean is rinsed then put on a screened shelf-like hoshidana to dry.

The grading phase begins when the parchment coffee is put into the huller and the parchment is removed. After the coffee bean has gone through the huller, the coffee is sorted by size, then by density to ensure quality and superiority. The density is determined by once again putting the beans into water where the floaters are discarded.

The roasting phase, is perhaps the most fascinating to me (being a cook I suppose). I was taken through the roasting process step-by-step by Dard Aller of Dard Roast Farm. It was a great way to spend some time while I was in Kona and suggest you take his tour if you are in Kona. Information on Dard Roast Farm tours can be found here.

coffee roasting chartBut until you find yourself in Kona. I’ll introduce you quickly to the process.

The processed beans are put into a roaster. The roaster I saw looks like a great big rock tumbler with gas flames heating the metal cannister from below. The beans go into the cannister and a thermometer is inserted into the open end. Coffee is roasted by temperature, not time so the thermometer is a vital piece of equipment.

As the roaster spins and the beans “cook”, various temperature levels are  carefully monitored. These temperatures determine the roast of the beans and will be labeled light, medium, dark and French accordingly. As the higher roast levels are reached the beans will crack and pop and sound not unlike a popcorn popper!

When the appropriate temperature is attained the beans are cooling roasted coffee beansremoved and fan cooled. Any bits of left-over chaff is blown off by the fan as well. The pound I went home with was the darkest roast. It resulted in a nearly black, oily and very fragrant bean which was packaged and sealed right before my eyes.

But the Kona coffee experience is much more personal than this LA-based food-obsessed yacker can properly convey. Because as I said, good coffee is cultivated on land that is worked and loved by farmers committed to bringing the best product they can from their fertile soil. So I thought I’d bring you a few words from an actual Kona coffee farmer. Please read on and learn first hand from Louise Winn Alii Pride Coffee Farm what living in paradise, chasing your dreams and making a perfect cup of coffee (from the ground up) is all about. You’ll never look at that cup-a-joe the same way again!

Being a coffee farmer in Kona, Hawaii is not for the faint of heart. As with most farming we deal with too much rain, too little rain, little bugs, big spiders and a fluctuating ripening season which may start in June or maybe October, depending on all those factors.

However, it is the most fun you can have most of the time.

Alii Pride Coffee FarmMost of the 600+ coffee farms along the Kona coast are under 10 acres and family owned and operated. The Kona Typica tree has been here for over a hundred years and there are still 100 year old trees producing good coffee. There was a time when the school year didn’t start until November as children were expected to pick coffee full time. That is no longer the case, but children still pick, sort, rake (and grumble) just like the old days.

The volcanic soil has just the right amount of acidity to produce a unique taste, quite different (and we, of course, think better) from other coffees around the world.  With the right weather conditions, correct pruning and fertilizing, a small farm such as our 1 ½ acres can produce 1,500–2,000 pounds of ripe coffee (cherry) each season.  After pulping, drying, milling and sorting this will translate to about 500 pounds of roasted, useable coffee.

The process for small estate farms involves picking only the ripest beans which may require revisiting each tree 4–5 times during the season. The drying process may take 4–7 days on the drying racks, depending on temperature and amount of sun. We store the dried coffee (parchment) in a dark, humidity controlled space until it is time to mill it to green, hand sort for imperfections, and have it roasted. By this time, we know every bean by heart and could give them names!

Here at our farm we mill to the green stage only when we have orders so we can ensure the freshest roasted taste.  And we are so spoiled we bring our own coffee when we travel!


Greg Henry

Sippity Sup