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Tropical Gardening: Colombian coffee OK, but Kona coffee no ka oi

  • Photo courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE Medellin, Colombia, once infamous for drug cartels, has become the City of Eternal Spring and a city of gardens. Major landscaping efforts have made it a great tourist destination, thus opening markets for high-value specialty crops such as coffee, cacao and floral products.

We are in Medellin, Colombia, participating in the International Palm Society meeting. The coffee is OK, but we miss our Kona fix.

We also will be looking at their coffee and cacao farming. Since the crackdown on coca production, farmers have been encouraged to grow other crops, and cacao looks very promising. With government incentives and assistance in marketing, we might have some competition when it comes to these crops, but it is hard to beat our specialty products. Tied in with tourism, we can ask higher prices for better quality and limited supply.

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Kona coffee made its mark as “ichi ban,” or No. 1. According to some top coffee marketers, Kona coffee is now considered to be the world’s most sought after gourmet coffee.

The Kona coffee industry was born with a few coffee trees brought to Hawaii Island from Oahu. They were first planted in 1828 by a missionary-teacher, Samuel Ruggles. These were descendants of plants that came to Oahu from Brazil a few years earlier. Throughout the next 150 years, Hawaiian coffee has had many ups and downs, but creative marketing and cooperative efforts ensured it a bright future.

Coffea arabica is the species grown here exclusively. Other species of any commercial importance, but not grown on the Big Island, include C. robusta and C. liberica.

Kona coffee is comparable to the finest of Central American mild coffees. The beans are heavy and flinty, with relatively high acidity, strong flavor, full body and fine aroma. It has been in demand as a blend, and in recent years as 100 percent pure.

Although coffee can be grown in many areas of Hawaii, the Kona area is ideal. Being situated on the western leeward slopes of the central highland mass of the Big Island, it is protected from the prevailing northeast trade winds by Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes.

The rainfall pattern is characterized by a dry period from November-January and rather frequent, almost daily afternoon showers during the remainder of the year. The average annual rainfall within the relatively narrow “coffee belt” of Kona, which follows the contour of Mamalahoa Highway between 600 and 2,000 foot elevation, is between 60 and 70 inches. Afternoon cloud cover and rainfall combine to create the perfect environment for top quality. Good coffee is being produced elsewhere in the state, but it does not yet have the international recognition of Kona coffee.

Coffee has a long history in Kona. It persisted despite many adversities, such as economic depressions, and for many decades was considered to be the economic backbone of that part of the island.

The late Edward Fukunaga, a well-known and respected coffee expert in Kona, pointed out that when he first became county agricultural agent for Kona in September 1941, the coffee industry was in a terrible state. The farmers were deeply in debt, yet world coffee prices continued falling.

The awakening of today’s vibrant and romantic coffee industry is complicated, but the key was teamwork. The concept of gourmet coffee came up as early as the 1950s, but it took years to bring the concept to fruition.

Wing and Mayflower Coffee companies were the first to roast and package the highest quality Kona coffee, but it was tourism that ultimately exposed the coffee to the world.

Pacific Coffee Cooperative, led by Yoshitaka Takashiba, and Kona Farmers Cooperative, managed by Les Glaspey and Bill Koepke, were active in revitalizing the Kona Coffee Council. Tom Kerr, as chairman of the council, was instrumental in bringing all the diverse interests of the industry together.

Today, we have a new breed of coffee farmers producing world-class estate coffees. Some original farms survived the years and are thriving. Others are owned or operated by entrepreneurs from the mainland, Japan, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

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We cannot be sure of what the future will bring, but judging by the commitment and stamina of coffee farmers and processors coupled with production of one of the finest coffees in the world, the outlook is very promising.

Hawaii also will continue to have an advantage over countries such as Colombia because of strict regulations here making sure our products are environmentally friendly and not exploiting labor.