Hand Picking Kona Coffee

Established on the lush, and volcanic western slopes of the Big Island, Coffee Times owner, Les Drent, roasted, and sold his first pound of Kona coffee in 1993. Five years later, Les moved his Coffee Times roasting operation to the beautiful island of Kauai, and established the Blair Estate shade grown, organic coffee farm in 2001. While his passion for farming is now deeply rooted in the Kauai soil, he continues to be a strong proponent for the preservation of 100% Kona coffee. Marta Lane lives on Kauai and authors the Coffee Times blog.

January 7, 2011

An experienced coffee picker being very selective with her harvest.

A superior cup of Kona coffee starts with perfectly ripe hand picked coffee cherries. Kona coffee farmers invest in this time consuming and labor intensive technique of hand picking to insure the smooth, clean and sweet flavor profile Kona coffee is famous for, thus ranking it top among the world’s specialty coffee market.

Picking a coffee cherry before it becomes fully ripe results in less than optimal sugar levels; while the sugar levels of over ripe cherries have started to decline. Mechanical harvesting, known as stripping, saves time but adds unripe berries, over ripe berries, pest ridden berries, leaves, twigs, and other debris into the final product. Inferior cherries and extraneous organic material contribute to coffee that is bitter and off tasting. Hand selecting perfectly ripe coffee cherries is the only way to guarantee the world-renowned flavor of Kona coffee.

In an interview for the Discovery Channel’s How Stuff Works, Ric Rhinehart of the Specialty Coffee Association of America says, “Coffee is going to taste best if it’s picked when its ripe.” For the ultimate cup, Rhinehart says, “Good pickers have to be selective and pick coffee that’s just at the right stage of ripeness.”

In the late 1800s, many Japanese immigrants helped pioneer a flailing Kona coffee industry. Unable to overcome Kona’s rocky slopes with mechanical harvesters, sugar plantation owners relocated to flatter terrain. Out-of-work entrepreneurial plantation workers leased land from the retreating European landowners and helped to create the quality standards Kona coffee now enjoys.

Historic photo of a coffee picker in Kona, Hawaii.

Since inferior beans were unacceptable and motorized farm equipment was impractical, Kona coffee farmers turned their hands to picking coffee. Back breaking work drove the determined newcomers courageous and independent spirit. Small family farmers soon took over the Kona coffee industry and make it what it is today.

Kona coffee berries begin emerald-green in color and slowly mature on the shady slopes of Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano; maturing from yellow to orange and finally bright, cherry-red before becoming a prime coffee cherry ready for harvesting.

Coffee cherries begin to ripen around the end of August and continue to ripen until about February. Harvesting prime coffee cherries in a systematic manner; each picker moves from tree to tree, row to row across the entire orchard. Coffee shrubs are meticulously picked four to six times in a single season.

Harvesters strap baskets to their waist when picking; these baskets can weigh up to 25 pounds before they empty them into 100 pound burlap bags. Bees, centipedes, spiders, wasps and other stinging insects add a creepy and sometimes dangerous element to a long day.

A typical coffee shrub produces about 25 pounds of cherries and an average coffee picker can collect about 100 pounds in a day. An exceptional picker will harvest 400 pounds in a particularly abundant season.

With the recent infiltration of the Coffee Berry Borer, government recommendations have quadrupled the Kona coffee farmers workload. Officials suggest picking coffee cherries at weekly intervals to eliminate the spread and re-infestation of the devastating pest.

The time consuming nature of carefully selecting and hand picking perfectly ripe coffee cherries, Kona’s craggy mountainsides and a long harvest season make Kona coffee one of the most labor intensive agricultural industries in the world.

Extraordinary coffee begins by taking extraordinary measures. Hand picking Kona coffee protects its unique flavor profile; intensifying the flavors and bringing you a cup of 100% pure Kona.

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