in Kona, Hawaii
by Les Drent
A donkey loaded with
The majority of the coffee in Kona is harvested between
the months of July and December and many of the small
mills that process the raw coffee cherries swing into
full operation during this time of the year. At many
coffee mills around Kona visitors are welcome throughout
the year to a unique opportunity to view first hand
the operations of a working coffee farm and mill. Much
of the coffee processed during the fall season arrives
at these mills from many different farms around Kona.
Carried inside burlap sacks this freshly picked coffee
cherry is purchased by the pound from the farmers at
a price commensurate to the industry standard.
An average picker on these farms can pick between one
hundred to three hundred pounds a day depending on the
time of season and is usually paid by the cherry pound
for his effort.
When the coffee arrives at the mill or one of its outside
cherry stations it is always inspected for freshness
and color before it is sent down the chute into the
coffee pulper. This process is known as wet milling
and occurs at the end of each day when all the cherry
has been brought in. A cherry pulper is basically a
metal cylinder with stripping knobs that squeeze and
remove the husks from the coffee beans. The beans are
then soaked in giant holding tanks of water for a period
of about 8 to 18 hours, usually overnight. The husks
are sent out of the mill and into a waiting truck that
will take it back into the fields for use as fertilizer.
The morning after the soaking tank is drained and the
beans are carted out onto drying decks to be sun dried.
This natural drying process usually takes about a week.
In some cases the beans are finished off in large rotating
drying drums powered by household heating oil. The sun
drying of the beans takes both space and time but is
believed to be the best method for retaining more of
the coffee's flavor. Many of Kona's older farms are
built with "false pitched roofs" which actually
slide back on rollers to receive the sun light and close
up to protect the drying coffee from the afternoon rain
showers that frequent this region. These false roofs
or hoshidanas as they are called were developed by the
Japanese farmers during the 1800's and are still widely
used in Kona.
During the sun drying period it is essential the beans
be shifted or raked every so often to assure thorough
drying. Once the beans have been dried a thin membrane
exists almost like a shell around the coffee beans called
parchment. Parchment is important if the coffee is going
to be stored for a long period of time and can greatly
increase the bean's storage life if preserved properly.
In Kona that storage life is rarely necessary because
of Kona's high demand in the world marketplace.
The next step in the milling process is removing the
parchment and taking the coffee to what is called the
"green stage" simply meaning the state of
the bean before it can be roasted. When the parchment
is removed from the green bean the coffee undergoes
a stringent grading system that classifies the beans
according to size, weight and number of defects. These
steps are completed by two different machines. The first
screening for size and the later for weight on what
is known as a gravity table. This grading process is
important because it is a product assurance program
that is designed to maintain the integrity and distinction
of quality in the different grades of Kona coffee. Defected
beans are usually hollow, deformed or chipped and weigh
considerably less than what a true bean would weigh.
These defects if not separated from the rest have the
ability to spoil a cup of coffee with bitterness or
a sharp unpleasant aftertaste. Therefore it is always
important to know your grade of Kona coffee when purchasing.
The primary grades of Kona coffee are Peaberry, Extra
Fancy, Fancy, # 1 and Prime. Peaberry is the result
of single bean growth in the usual two bean coffee cherry
and is regarded by many to produce a different taste
in the cup as a result of its weight. Extra Fancy is
the largest and heaviest of the grades and is considered
by some to have the best cupping characteristics of
any bean grown in Kona. The cupping qualities of this
coffee are noticeably higher than that of the lower
grades but most often can not be noticed by the casual
coffee drinker. In retrospect others in Kona will claim
that the Fancy and #1 grade yields the best cup of coffee
as a result of a slightly smaller yet denser bean. The
Prime grade is the minimum grade of Kona that is legally
allowed to be called Kona coffee. Even though this coffee
bean is smaller and contains a higher percentage of
defects many consumers find the cupping characteristics
adequate and the price right. Prime can be hard to find
though because much of this grade is bought up by mainland
coffee roasters and used as a master blend.
Detrimental to this process and Kona's high standards
are those renegade coffee companies that abuse the name
Kona by using it to sell coffee other than Kona. If
you are interested in acquiring the real thing it may
be worth your while to investigate the source of your
Kona coffee. For now, this is the consumers only protection
against buying a fraudulent product. Remember, Kona
coffee only constitutes less than one percent of the
world's total coffee supply.
The graded green coffee is usually bought and sold
by roasters as is any commodity and kept until roasting
which should be done as near to point of sale as possible
to assure freshness of product. Once the coffee has
been roasted it should be kept in whole bean form and
stored in an air tight container to assure freshness
for months to come. Besides storing the roasted coffee
as whole beans, grinding the coffee just before brewing
always yields the best results.
When you tour any of Kona's coffee farms visitors are
able to see first hand how the entire process of producing
Kona coffee is performed. If you are interested in a
tour of a coffee farm while you are visiting Kona refer
to Coffee Times magazine for hours of operation and
And, in most cases there will always be someone there
to greet you with a freshly brewed cup of 100% Kona
coffee and some warm Aloha.
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