KONA coffee

Hawaii’s prized crop elevates the standard cup of joe

The aroma of freshly ground coffee beans, followed by a steaming cup of joe, is a satisfying morning ritual to jump-start the day. Coffee connoisseurs know one of the best brews hails from Hawaii, where it’s mountain-grown along the Big Island’s Kona Coffee Belt.

Several factors are attributed to Kona coffee’s rank as one of the most sought-after coffees in the world. One is rarity. Indicative of its location, Kona coffee is cultivated only in the North and South Kona districts on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa. The approximately 25-mile stretch is home to backyard growers, small boutique farms and larger estate operations that control everything from seed to cup. According to USDA Hawaii statistics, the entire Big Isle produced only 4 million pounds of coffee during the 2008-09 season – a mere drop in the global coffee cup.

Other hallmarks of Kona coffee include growing conditions, handcrafted processing, unique flavor and price. It also boasts being made in the USA.

“Kona’s convection weather pattern, which produces shady afternoons to protect the coffee from the hot sun, provides favorable growing conditions for premium coffee,” says grower Mike Renner of Hualalai Mauka Coffee Company in Holualoa. He has 1,200 trees in cultivation at a 2,000-foot elevation. Renner adds that Kona has rainy summers, when the trees are laden with growing beans, and that timing helps yield robust plants with the desired larger and heavier coffee beans – factors that determine premium grade.

Raising the bar for Kona coffee is the prestigious annual Gevalia Cupping Competition during autumn’s Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. While judges take into account bean size, shape and other factors, criteria for the blind tasting mainly focuses on fragrance, aroma, taste, nose, aftertaste and body.

“The mellow taste is specific to Kona coffee,” says Willy Pettersson, a retired master taster for Gevalia Kaffee of Sweden and a past Kona cupping judge. Names of current and past winners can be found at www.konacupping.com.

Justifying the price of Kona coffee, which ranges from $18 to $60 a pound, is easy for Dr. Marian Solomon of Hualalai Mauka.

“I tell customers that nobody thinks twice about paying $40 for a fine box of chocolates, and coffee lasts longer,” Solomon notes. “Like any other handcrafted product – whether fine chocolates, cheese or cigars – the quality makes it worth it.”

Solomon details that Kona coffee is hand-picked, so only the ripest, full-flavored beans are plucked when ready for processing. That typically happens from August to January. “We also air-dry the beans in the sun, which initially requires raking them eight to 10 times a day by hand,” she says. The labor-intensive process continues with milling, roasting and packaging.

With all the attention to detail, pride in the product is evident among Kona growers who market their own brands as “100 percent Kona Coffee.” To get 100 percent Kona coffee, read packaging closely. Coffee labeled as “Kona Coffee Blend” is legally required to contain only 10 percent Kona coffee. Also, “Hawaiian coffee” is grown elsewhere in the state.

To enjoy the total Kona coffee experience, which dates back to the 1820s, take a drive along the Kona Coffee Belt. A free brochure, the Kona Coffee Country Driving Tour, has a map detailing 56 coffee attractions open to the public, where samples are on the house. Perking with info, it’s available at Kona-Kohala activity desks and at the Big Island Visitors Bureau. Call 808-885-1655, or to receive a copy by mail, phone 808-326-7820.

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