Kona coffee and bamboo have something in common

Kona coffee has 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. This year looks like a bumper quality crop and to celebrate, the 45th Kona Coffee Cultural Festival is in full swing now through Nov. 15 with all kinds of activities. Contact president Mel Morimoto at 747-5424 for details.

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Kona coffee has 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. This year looks like a bumper quality crop and to celebrate, the 45th Kona Coffee Cultural Festival is in full swing now through Nov. 15 with all kinds of activities. Contact president Mel Morimoto at 747-5424 for details.

One thing coffee and bamboo have in common is that the Hawaii Chapter of the American Bamboo Society is having its annual membership meeting on Nov. 15. So folks can participate in both this coming weekend. They are encouraging anyone interested in bamboo to attend a potluck lunch and tour. The lunch will be held at Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary. Afterward, the tour will be to the gardens of Ricci Bezona as well as Mr. and Mrs. Ed Noda. The sanctuary may be found in Kaloko Mauka adjacent to Mountain Thunder Coffee mill on Hao Street. Call president Jaqui Marlin at 966-5080 for details on the bamboo meeting.

The second thing coffee and bamboo have in common is that a tea can be made with bamboo leaves. Hawaii has a well organized coffee industry and an up and coming Chinese tea industry, so bamboo tea might just be the next drink folks will enjoy along with other local herbal teas like mamake.

In the meantime, take a casual drive through mauka Kona. It is a beautiful sight, especially when our coffee is in bloom or fruit. We now have more coffee grown in Hawaii than at any time in years. This expansion of Kona’s coffee is not the first time we have had a boom but now that our coffee is considered gourmet, we are working together to avoid the boom and bust syndrome.

The Kona coffee industry was born with a few coffee trees brought over 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. Over the next 150 years, Hawaiian coffee has had many ups and downs, but creative marketing and cooperative efforts have insured a bright future.

Coffea arabica is the species grown here exclusively. Other species of any commercial importance, but not grown here, 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 Kona. This year’s crop is especially good because of the abundant rains Kona had this summer.

Although coffee can be grown in many areas of Hawaii, the Kona District 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 tradewinds by Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes.

The rainfall pattern is characterized by a dry period from November through 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 the Mamalahoa Highway between 600 to 2,000 feet elevation, is 50 to 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 has persisted despite many adversities, overcome economic depressions, and for many decades was considered to be the economic backbone of the Kona District.

The late Edward Fukunaga, a well-known and respected coffee expert in Kona, pointed out to me that when he first became Kona county agricultural agent in September 1941, the coffee industry was in a terrible state. The farmers were deeply in debt yet world coffee prices continued falling. Debt adjustments and government relief were the order of the day. More than 1,000 acres of coffee were abandoned in 10 years following the price crash. Another 1,500 acres were to be abandoned before 1950.

Perhaps the most tragic thing that took place during the coffee depression was the exodus of the younger people from Kona. Only the aged were left to tend the farms in many families. However, things perked up after the World War II as world coffee prices rose and farmers thrived through the 1950s.

During the 1960s and ’70s, fields were again neglected and coffee beans wasted for lack of harvesters. Tourism was the new kid on the block and everyone wanted to work at the fancy hotels and restaurants.

The awakening of today’s vibrant and romantic coffee industry is complicated, but the key was teamwork. The concept of gourmet coffee, according to Curtis Tyler Jr., who was manager of the American Factors Coffee Mill in Kailua-Kona, came up as early as the ’50s, 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, but it was tourism that ultimately exposed Kona 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 have survived the years and are thriving. Others are owned or operated by entrepreneurs from the U.S. mainland, Japan, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

We cannot be sure 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.

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As an additional thought to further expand our market, maybe we should suggest to our political representatives that Hawaii Island herbal teas, should get more publicity, research and promotion to expand our tropical farm enterprises.

If you are interested in other potential crops from our tropical lands, there will be a presentation on essential herbal oils at Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday. The meeting and lunch will be followed by a tour of the cloud forest. Space is limited so contact Kim Berney at 640-4182 for reservations and other details.