Kona, Hawaii - America's Coffee Destination
This post is LONG overdue, because, well, I've been busy!
Back in April my husband, Zach, and I took our belated Honeymoon to Hawaii. The first leg of our trip took us to a little area on the Island of Hawai'i (the Big Island) that many coffee drinkers may have heard of before, Kona. We hadn't planned anything for our trip except where we would be staying and we had a short list of things we definitely wanted to do - take surf lessons, go deep sea fishing, and visit a coffee plantation. Little did I know how much more there was to do, and how spectacular of a trip it would be.
On the mainland Kona Coffee is known for being outrageously expensive and hard to find, other than that, I knew very little about what to expect from Kona, Hawaii. The high price, ranging anywhere from $20-$70+ per pound, can mainly be attributed to the fact that Hawaiian coffee farmers have to pay their employees minimum wage, something the consumer doesn't have to pay for with coffee coming from Columbia, New Guinea, El Salvador, etc... But frankly, for many who have tasted true, 100% Kona Coffee, of the highest quality, straight from the plantation, that price doesn't hurt so badly when the flavor crosses your lips and you taste what it's all about.
Coffee is a crop, just like grapes for wine, hops for beer, fruit trees, etc. The terrain that coffee cherries are harvested from effects the taste and there's just something about the soil, the weather, the spirit, something in Kona, that makes this coffee spectacular. I can honestly say, for the first time in my life I didn't have to add cream, sugar, or anything else to my coffee, doing so just felt like a crime.
Anyways, on to the trip.
Our first glimpse of the Big Island was disheartening to say the least. We landed at a little cluster of huts (also known as an airport in on Hawai'i) and from there took our rental car down a road lined with palm trees, surrounded by desolate looking plains of black rock and dingy brown "weeds", all under a haze of ominous looking clouds - not the tropical paradise I was expecting. It got better, I swear. As we got closer to the water things started to look up, we reached a little town called Kailua-Kona which was a bustling little strip where we would later find that the cruise ships liked to dock for their passengers to visit all the little shops. A few miles later we found our condo, overlooking the ocean with a gorgeous view of the sunset, and a broken air conditioner (ok, it wasn't all perfect, let me think it anyways, ok!).
I won't bore you with EVERY little detail, so I'll jump to the important part for the purposes of this blog - the coffee plantations.
We didn't waste any time and headed straight to our first plantation on our first day there. It was a beautiful drive, about 15 minutes from our condo, and we left the ocean, went through the black rocky plains, and up the mountain into a tropical forest, in just 15 minutes. Our first plantation was called Hula Daddy, and they had my absolute favorite coffee of the trip (also the most expensive). Their shop was little and they were sold out of some of their best coffee, but we got to try it and it was fantastic. Our tour guide there walked us through the lower area of their farm, explaining the process that they use to pick the coffee cherries, showing us the "snow", or white blooms on the trees, and then taking us to their roasting room where they had samples of the beans at various temperatures throughout the roasting process. The Hula Daddy sipping room was a quaint little kitchen where they poured various batches of their coffee, along with a very rare tea that they make using the dried "cherries" from their coffee. If you're interested in tasting the coffee tea, which is more fruity in nature, and has almost no coffee flavor but still boasts some caffeine, stop into the Comfort Zone and order a cup!
A few days later we visited another coffee plantation, Kona Joe's. This plantation is well known in the Kailua-Kona area because they offer somewhat affordable 100% Kona coffee to the local diners to serve to their patrons, so we thought we better check it out. The cool thing about Kona Joe's is that they are perfecting a new method of growing coffee trees, called Trellising, just like you see grapes grown for wine. They claim that by growing the trees this way the cherries are exposed to more sun and therefore taste "sweeter" and to some, better. Unfortunately, they were completely sold out of their trellis-grown coffee and were selling beans that they had purchased from other farmers and roasted there. Oh well, I guess we'll have to test out their claims on another trip!
We did sample some coffee from a local farmers' market which was significantly cheaper, it was 100% Kona coffee and we thought, gee, maybe at $18/lb this might be something we could bring home. Nope - it wasn't even worth bringing home what we had left on the plane, we left if for the next people who stayed at the condo. It was explained to us that the coffee you find outside of the plantations is usually made from the "junk" beans that the plantations are not willing to use in their premium coffee. Meaning that the $18/lb Kona that we bought in a random market was likely filled with under-ripened, rotten, or bug tainted beans that didn't make the cut for the good stuff. I'm glad we left it behind.
On the last day of our stay in Kona we visited a VERY small plantations called Dragon's Lair. We were personally invited to the plantation by the owner after Zach met him at a Masonic Lodge meeting the night before (that's right, my husband went to a lodge meeting while we were on our Honeymoon, how nice of a wife am I?!). After an hour or so of sipping on his private stock of Peaberry and chatting about how he came to own a coffee plantation on Hawai'i we got the grand tour. Their very small operation is also a bit old-fashioned. They function with a small staff, just during the harvesting season (there was no one there working while we were there), and they do much of their work manually, or on out-dated, simple, but functional equipment. Our hike down the mountain to the equipment involved stepping around goose poop, ducking under a pomegranate tree, and trying not to step on baby chickens, but once we got their it was really interesting and informative. Probably the most eye-opening piece of information from the trip can be seen in the photo to the right, showing that for every 100lbs of coffee cherries that they pick, they yeild 12.8lbs of roasted coffee. I will never question the price of a cup of coffee again after learning what it takes to get that pound of coffee into my cupboards (Read my post entitled "For the Love Of..." for a full description of the journey coffee makes from tree to cup).
We did try several other local coffees while we were in Kona, including one named after Buddha and the one we brought home for our customers to try - Kona Pony. We found the owner of Kona Pony at a different farmers' market almost across the street from our condo (just past us so we didn't see it until the day before we left!), he was a very nice gentlemen, married to a school teacher, who is making a go of it in the coffee industry. He explained that they've set-up shop in the farmers' market because their plantation is too small to house a tasting room or visitor center. We tasted their "Rainbow Roast" just as they were trying to close down and decided that it was one of the best we had tasted (ranking just behind Hula Daddy) and one of the most affordable, at about $27/lb including shipping if you bought 5 pounds. We called home and Cindy told us to go for it - so when you happen to stop in on a day that we're brewing Kona, it's Kona Pony coffee that you're tasting. And yes, there is a real pony that the logo was modeled after, her name is "Send more money honey"!
Overall, our trip was amazing. We managed to squeeze in everything that we wanted to do, plus a whole bunch that we didn't know we wanted to do! From climbing a volcano, going deep sea fishing, attending a luau, eating shrimp along the shores of Oahu, and visiting Pearl Harbor, it was an experience worth every penny. And heck, I got to cross off at least three things from my bucket list, including visiting a coffee plantation!