Sunday, November 8, 2009

Learning About Coffee on Hawaii's Big Island

My kitchen counter is scattered with one-pound bags of one hundred percent Kona coffee, jars of real Hawaiian honey, and packets of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. In other words, my kitchen is a mess and I am too tired to do anything about it. But I have an excuse: jet lag. We spent the last twelve days exploring Hawaii's Big Island (the last of the four major islands I had yet to visit) starting with three days in Hilo, two days in Volcano Village and summing up the final seven days on the Kona side.( Yes, we enjoy the islands so much that we decided to do a second trip this year. ) This trip was supposed to be different from the others, and rightly so, since the big island itself is unlike the other islands. The youngest, the largest, home of the tallest mountain in the world (measured from its sea base), home of a flowing volcano, and home of the world's best coffee - hence the bags of beans on my counter.

The Kona coast is known for having the ideal combination of environmental factors for growing coffee. So clearly there would be numerous coffee plantations along this side of the island. Touring one of these plantations has become a part of the tourism industry. We decided to tour Greenwell Farms for a couple reasons: 1) it was recommended by Big Island Revealed (remember, this series is my holy grail for everything Hawaii), and 2) they are a family run business, started in the late 1800's and still functions today as a pesticide free production.

Fresh coffee beans removed from outer shell.

On the day we visited, we were immediately greeted by one of the tour guides and offered cups of freshly brewed coffee; not a bad way to start any tour. While the tour lasted a mere thirty minutes or so, we were able to follow the coffee bean from the tree to all the way to the drying process. I have a special fondness and respect for the agrarian lifestyle. In fact, my grandmother worked on a coffee plantation in Trinidad for many years. Even so, I never knew that ripe coffee beans, called coffee cherries, were actually very sweet with a gelatinous texture, somewhat similar to a grape. And that the bean itself is surrounded by three outer layers: the exocarp (the skin itself), the mesocarp (the soft, sweet layer beneath that) and the endocarp (the last, parchment-like layer covering the bean itself.) The ripe coffee cherries are gathered into a pulping mill where the first two layers are removed. Now, the product is called "wet parchment." Once the final layer is removed, the beans are then dried on large, flat beds with movable roof-like tops. Now called "dry parchment", the beans are then allowed to rest for up to thirty days to allow their natural moisture to evenly distribute which allows for uniform roasting. We weren't allowed into Greenwell's roasting facility but we did get to sample their various roasts, along with macadamia nuts and local honey.

Coffee beans are dried manually on large flat beds with movable roof tops.

After only thirty minutes in the sun, even with a hat and sunglasses, I will never again complain about handing over twenty plus dollars for a pound of good coffee. For even though Greenwell has adopted modern farming practices, every coffee cherry is hand picked! Yes, hand-picked by men and women in eighty degree heat. Added to that, the beans are not mechanically dried on those flat beds; it again takes human labor to spread them out into an even layer and to constantly re-mix and re-spread each batch to allow even drying. That's a lot of hard work! Greenwell's beans are only available for purchase at the plantation and on their website.

Branches of a coffee tree weighed down with green coffee cherries.

This tour was definitely one of the highlights of our trip but not the only one. Below are some photos from our hike across Kilauea Iki Crater, a two hour trek through rain forest, a volcanic crater, with views of the active side of this same volcano, and glimpses of endemic flora and fauna.

Made it out of the rain forest and about to trek across Kilauea Iki Crater.

There once was a road here.

In Thurston Lava Tube.


Sophie said...

What an apart trip you made! Lucky you! A great experience!

Natasha said...

Sophie, I love Hawaii. I'm trying to get my husband to agree to move there; no luck yet though :o(