- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2006

HONAUNAU, Hawaii — outh of Kona, on Hawaii, the Big Island, a stretch of land harks back to a Hawaii of a different time. Towns have remained largely unchanged for 50 years; the land is largely unsullied; and the changes that have engulfed the island farther north have yet to dent the way of life.

This in many ways is the Hawaii of your dreams. You hope it exists but don’t really believe it’s still there in a meaningful fashion. Rest assured, it is. You just have to look for it in one of the most beautiful, unspoiled regions in the Hawaiian Islands.

If you can embrace the simplicity of its charms and vibrant culture and see the struggle to maintain a way of life in a changing world, the gentle slopes south of Kona can provide an eye-opening experience.

Coffee has been grown in Kona for more than 100 years. Originally it was the province of Japanese laborers who had completed their indentured servitude and were seeking some means of self-sufficiency in an economy dominated by ranchers and sugar planters.

The coffee crash of 1899 left large coffee plantations in disarray. Seizing the opportunity, hundreds of Japanese farmers leased 3- to 5-acre plots. Beginning in the hill town of Holualoa high above Kailua Bay, a community of family coffee growers sold their coffee cherry to the dominant mill of the time.

Coffee growing spread into the lowlands and down the coast, to Kealakekua, and farther south to the sweltering rain forest of Honaunau. More than 600 coffee farms are spread out along a swath of land two miles wide and 25 miles long on the slopes of the active volcanoes Hualalai and Mauna Kea, at an elevation between 500 and 2,500 feet. Now 150 estate coffee farms grow, harvest and market their single-vineyard coffees as unique, hand-crafted quality products.

California has its Napa and Sonoma wine country, where small chateaus and artisan winemakers work with the finest fruit of their fabled grapes. The chateaus of Honaunau create a product that has turned these estates into the coffee equivalent of the wine country.

Over the years, the Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition arose to define each year’s best of the coffee chateaus. Now in its 20th year, the Gevalia Cup has paralleled the growth in demand and appreciation for 100 percent estate-grown Kona coffee.

We go in search of the finest coffee farms in Kona, knowing that we will only scratch the surface of the boutique coffee chateaus of Honaunau, whose histories and owners weave a tapestry of stories.

We stay at the newly remodeled Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort, famous for its location on the rocky point at Keauhou Beach. Our balcony looks down on a roaring sea as waves crash against the rocks.

The location is perfect for our sojourn south and as a base of operations for the busy town of Kona (just down Alii Highway), and the Big Island as a whole. It is near everything and yet removed enough to be a resort destination. Kai, the main restaurant at the hotel, is a spacious dining spot with excellent food, including nightly seafood specials, and terrific service.

We take the Queen Kaahumanu Highway south and head for the juncture with the Mamalahoa Highway at a striking Buddhist temple. We are in coffee country.

Kealakekua, the first town, is where you want to return to your little grass shack — near family-run Teshima’s Restaurant. Farther south is Captain Cook, a more sparsely populated area with coffee farms on the mountain side of the highway, a smattering of small stores, and the Manago Hotel, a wooden structure with a Wild West feel. The real attraction is the dining room, whose high ceilings could have been in San Francisco during the gold rush.

South of Captain Cook, businesses disappear on the road along the mesa high above Kealakekua Bay. This is Honaunau, the rain forest in the sky, the finest Kona coffee country.

On the car’s CD player we listen to Jake Shimabukuro’s “Walking Down Rainhill,” a collection of music from this modern master of the ukulele. As the first notes of “Heartbeat” resound through the car, the sun is rising and sleepy Kealakekua is waking.

We enter Honaunau as the sun shimmers on Kealakekua Bay, and we gaze across the bottom land to the City of Refuge far below. Here interlopers and those who broke the ancient Hawaiian law could undergo ritual purification and be forgiven if they could make their way into its boundaries before being caught and killed.

Captain Cook Coffee, near Mamalahoa Highway, has been growing and processing coffee since the 1880s. It is one of the few companies that operate on a grander scale, buying and processing large amounts of coffee cherry from hundreds of coffee farmers who do not have their own brand.

Owned by the McLaughlin family for the past 13 years, Captain Cook Coffee has been managed and operated for 10 years by Roger Kaiwi, a third-generation coffee farmer whose family has lived in Honaunau for hundreds of years; his pure-Hawaiian grandfather worked for the company in the 1930s and ‘40s.

The company processes about 3 million pounds of coffee cherry, yielding almost 500,000 pounds of coffee each year, with 90 percent of it sold to wholesalers.

With five acres of coffee trees planted at the milling and drying plant and 13 acres in the hills above Kealakekua Bay, Captain Cook Coffee produces about 10,000 pounds of its own brand of high-end coffee. The company helps support hundreds of coffee-growing families and works with many estate-grown branded coffee farms to develop their resources.

Left Coast Farms, with 31/2 acres of coffee trees, is the idyllic home of Kim and Lewis Johnson, who came from Los Angeles, where he is a research professor at the University of Southern California. They have plunked down their lot to operate a coffee farm on their own, with spectacular results.

They produce about 3,000 pounds of coffee under the Left Coast and Long Mountain — the English translation of Mauna Loa — brands, depending on the roast, and sell all of it over the Internet. Twice, their small farm, in the Wailapa Valley along the slopes of the great volcano, has placed second at the Gevalia Cup.

When her husband is teaching in Los Angeles, Mrs. Johnson runs the farm, helping in the cultivating, picking, drying, raking, bagging, marketing and selling from their simple but elegant bungalow high above their coffee trees.

Once coffee is picked, Mrs. Johnson runs it through a 100-year-old pulper to remove the outer cherry. The sticky beans are then placed in a special 55-gallon fermentation tank — a trash can filled with water — for 24 hours while a natural bacterial fermentation process produces a smooth coffee parchment. She then dries and rakes the coffee in an open-air drying shed for two to three weeks before the coffee is milled and roasted by Greenwell Farms.

Mrs. Johnson says she loves her work, but it is grueling and not essentially profitable — but she doesn’t do it for the money.

I lock my car keys in the trunk — but we can’t be late to meet a coffee farmer who is to take us to his plantation so high in the hills that it cannot be reached by road. Mrs. Johnson lends us her truck, saying she will call AAA to retrieve the keys.

At the remote Honaunau post office, where most of the Internet-ordered coffee is shipped, we meet Andy Lafayette. I climb into the back of his pickup truck with one of his twin 4-year-old sons, and we go another five miles south before turning toward the mountains into what seems to be a gully. For 21/2 miles, we crawl on a shelf of rock and stone that could not pass for an unpaved road. Tree branches slap our faces before the terrain levels out and we arrive at a jungle Shangri-La.

Lafayette Farms is seven acres of manicured grounds at the optimal 1,700-foot elevation; three acres are planted in coffee. Last year, Lafayette Farms won the Gevalia Cup.

A strapping, soft-spoken young man, Mr. Lafayette lives his dream of independence and self-reliance beyond expectations. The Lafayettes live off the power grid, so they use solar power, generators and abundant catchment water. He found the land on tax maps 25 years ago and bought it fee simple. For the first three years, the Lafayettes reached the farm by hiking. They produce about 2,000 pounds of finished coffee.

When he accepted the Gevalia Cup, Mr. Lafayette credited Poli Alani and Take Kudo for showing him the old ways. Mr. Alani, almost 80, still farms a taro patch, and he farmed this land for coffee decades ago.

Mr. Lafayette was 21 when he arrived here in the late ‘70s, 22 when he bought the land. For a year, he lived across the road from resurgent coffee pioneer Terry Fitzgerald. In those hippie days in South Kona, there would be music and food at someone’s house every night, a changing caravan of wanderers. It is different now. “We all had to grow up despite ourselves,” says Mr. Lafayette, who in quiet moments plays slack key guitar, Hawaiian style. His wife handles packing and shipping.

We return to the Johnsons’ farm and get our keys and car and hit the road, soothed by the album “Slack Key Guitar,” the most Hawaiian of music, on our return to Keauhou Beach.

The next day, we visit one of the leading figures in the revival of Kona coffee as it began to take shape in the ‘70s: Terry Fitzgerald of Da Kine Coffee Bean.

We listen to the late Hawaiian legend Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoole as we pass Chris’s Malasada Shop in Captain Cook — malasada is a Hawaiian donut without the hole, brought to the islands by Portuguese immigrants. Mr. Kamakawiwoole is best known for his elegiac version of “Over the Rainbow,” which has graced movie soundtracks and commercials with just his sweet voice and ukulele. “Panini Puakea,” an homage to a beautiful flower, is playing as we arrive in Honaunau.

Terry Fitzgerald arrived in Hawaii when many coffee farms were neglected and hippies were changing the character of Honaunau. They came looking for freedom and a liberated lifestyle and found paradise and coffee.

Mr. Fitzgerald was more beatnik than hippie, a successful geophysicist with mining exploration companies in Canada and Australia before abandoning his career to travel the world. In Hawaii, he fit in with the would-be coffee farmers, leased eight acres of overgrown land and began restoring a coffee farm.

The new settlers grew coffee cherry and sold it to the one processor, Superior Coffee, that dominated Kona coffee and set low prices. In the 1980s, people began grasping the concept of an estate-grown, direct-to-consumer boutique coffee industry.

Mr. Fitzgerald has become a bull in estate coffee. I remember our first meeting at his jungle estate: He was raking coffee beans drying on his roof. He lives in what I used to describe as a treehouse, but it is more a multilevel structure built into the hillside and around trees, with no back wall. It’s open to the elements, with no fixed windows.

His cherry pulper is powered by a truck engine, and the drying decks are the roof of his house. Last year, he produced almost 6,000 pounds of finished coffee, consistently one of the finest in Kona. A Gevalia Cup first-place winner in 1997, Da Kine Coffee Bean is rated at the top by knowledgeable Kona coffee drinkers as much for the coffee as for the karmic joy of the man behind it.

At the bottom of the hill, Langenstein Farms is run by Mr. Fitzgerald’s longtime friend John Langenstein. The two men are like twins separated by 500 feet of hillside, connected by personal history and their passion for Kona Coffee and an independent life.

Over the years, Mr. Langenstein has cut his hair for a more respectable front, but he produces single-vineyard coffees, each bagged and marketed with its own estate label. These are Langenstein Farms Estate, Sea View Estate and Tropikona Estate, from different orchards at different elevations, creating variations in taste and accent.

Howard and Stephanie Conant own Kona RainForest Coffee, an organic coffee farm on 40 acres of stunning high-country farmland. Lifelong sailors with more than 20 years together at sea, they have sailed their 51-foot boat from eastern Australia to Hawaii to California and back many times.

They bought the land in 1990, but it remained dormant until 1999. Acres of organic coffee trees, fertilized by a gaggle of geese, fill the highlands above a beautiful master house and a more hidden house for guests and rentals, all overlooking rolling hills and meadows down to the sea.

They produce about 5,000 pounds of finished coffee. They also roast to order, meaning that they collect orders from their customers for the week, roast it the following Monday, pack it that night and ship it on Tuesday.

Mr. Conant does the roasting; Mrs. Conant handles cultivation. They may live off the grid — indeed, they do — but they are helping make Kona Coffee’s reputation.

We next head north, back to Kealakekua, listening to Jake Shimabukuro’s new album, “Dragon,” as we pass through scenes of outrageous beauty.

At 47, Tommy Greenwell epitomizes the image of the wise old-timer who has seen it all and retains his compassion for the struggle of the agricultural pioneer. His Greenwell Farms produces an exceptional range of its own coffee and aids the community by buying cherry and supporting hundreds of farmers; milling and roasting coffee for dozens of farms that sell under their own label; and providing advice and support for new farmers, even new processors.

There are no real competitors here, just an interwoven community of people who are ohana — family — working together. When the price for coffee cherry dropped to less than 50 cents a pound, Mr. Greenwell continued to pay his farmers $1 a pound.

Mr. Greenwell says that two weeks after he bought the milling machine and roaster, he had finished his crop, which left him with $50,000 in machinery sitting unused but 50 weeks remaining in the year. That’s how he got into the milling and roasting business.

The Greenwells were a ranching family with 70,000 acres that went up to the 9,000-foot level on Mauna Kea and Holualoa. They were cattlemen, ranchers and land speculators whose presence in Hawaii dates from the 1850s, when Mr. Greenwell’s great-grandfather arrived and began buying land. Mr. Greenwell’s father sold the ranch in the early ‘80s, leaving the family with 150 acres on the sloping mesa below Kealakekua.

The 34 acres of coffee farmed for the Greenwell brand produce 50,000 pounds of roasted coffee, 10,000 pounds of which is their Private Reserve, all sold on the premises, by mail order or on the Internet. Retail coffee sales account for 20 percent of their business, but everything sold under the Greenwell brand is grown on their own farm. Most of their revenue comes from processing and selling green bean to wholesalers.

At night in town, we have dinner at Huggo’s, which has terrific food and a fantastic location by the ocean in the heart of the tourist section of Kailua-Kona. Waves crash against the rocks below our table, the atmosphere is festive and crowded, and the ambience is a welcome if somewhat jarring return to civilization.

We order Kona Kampachi, a trademarked fish that is growing in popularity in Hawaii. It is farmed without hormones or antibiotics in Kona and tastes similar to sea bass.

The next day, in the hills above Captain Cook, the farms are not set off on jungle roads or in rain forest; the farming is more gentlemanly, but the coffee is more than fine.

Moki’s Farm has two acres of coffee and twice won second place in the Gevalia Cup. Owners Roger and Vivian Rittenhouse are professionals from Northern California who bought the farm and lifestyle six years ago. Mr. Rittenhouse knows the traditions and is so serious about his coffee that some of the guest rooms in his house are filled with 100-pound sacks of coffee.

Pau Hana Coffee, also in Captain Cook, has three acres of organic coffee trees. Its new owners, Carol Weaver and Sandy Masterson, bought the farm in July. The farm they bought, Woods Captain Cook Estate, won the Gevalia Cup in 2001 and placed third in 2004.

The coffee of Pau Hana, Moki’s and the neighboring Koa farms in Captain Cook benefit from the altitude, almost 2,400 feet at Pau Hana.

Marin Artukovich, founder and proprietor of Koa Coffee Farms, made a fortune in pipelines in Orange County, Calif. He moved to Hawaii to surf and play beach volleyball competitively, but eight years ago, he bought a small coffee farm, and he has become one of the major coffee processors in Kona, on a par with Greenwell Farms and Captain Cook. He processed more than 3 million pounds of cherry last year, almost 500,000 pounds of coffee, mostly sold to wholesalers.

His Koa Farms Private Reserve, made from the finest extra-fancy beans from his estate, makes a fabulous cup of coffee. In 2002, Koa Farms won the Gevalia Cup.

There is a sharp contrast between Mr. Artukovich and Andy Lafayette, back-to-back cup winners, and yet they share a passion for Kona coffee, even with different approaches to cultivation and lifestyle. Mr. Artukovich is involved in Japan’s exploding market for estate-grown Kona coffee, and, with a new roasting facility in Shanghai, he aims to be a major player in establishing Kona coffee in China.

Norman Sakata, president of the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and a third-generation coffee farmer, showed me a document: his grandfather’s indentured servitude contract from 1890 when he emigrated from Japan to work the sugar-cane fields on Maui.

Once free of his contract, Mr. Sakata’s grandfather came to Kona and began farming coffee in the original Japanese coffee community of Holualoa. Mr. Sakata, 80, grew up using oil lamps and catchment water. He says the old-timers kept the industry alive during the lean years, and he credits the hippies for rejuvenating the industry. He marvels at how those efforts have led to the resurgence in Kona coffees.

Where to get that Kona coffeea

Da Kine Coffee Bean, Terry Fitzgerald; phone: 808/328-8716; go to www.dakinecoffeebean.com; e-mail, terry@turquoise.net

Lafayette Coffee Farms, Andy Lafayette; 808/328-9151; www.lafayettekona.com; e-mail, cafe@hialoha.net

Kona RainForest Coffee, Howard and Stephanie Conant; 808/328-1941; www.konarainforest coffee.com; e-mail: howard@konarainforestcoffee.com

Left Coast Kona Coffee Farm, Kim and Lewis Johnson; 808/328-9039; www.leftcoastfarm.com; e-mail, kim@leftcoastfarm.com

Langenstein Farms, John Langenstein; 808/328-8356; www.kona-coffee.com; e-mail, konafarms@hawaii.rr.com

Pau Hana Estates, Carol Weaver and Sandy Masterson; 808/328-8099; www.peleplantations.com/catalog/konacoffee.htm; e-mail, pauhana@yahoo.com

Moki’s Farms, Roger and Vivian Rittenhouse; 808/328-0535; www.mokisfarm.com; e-mail, mokione@aol.com

Greenwell Estates, Tommy Greenwell; 808/323 -2862; www.greenwellfarms.com

Koa Coffee Farms, Marin Artukovich; 808/987-6823; www.koacoffee.com

Captain Cook Coffee, Roger Kaiwe; 808/322-3501; www.captaincookkona.com; e-mail, sales@captaincookkona.com

Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, for comprehensive list and links: 808/326-7820; www.konacoffee fest.com; e-mail, jvidgen@currentevents.com

Kona Coffee Council, www.kona coffee-council.com

Sheraton Keauhou Resort, 808/930-4900; www.sheraton keauhou.com

Huggo’s, 808/329-1493; www.huggos.com

Teshima’s Restaurant, 808/322-9140

Manago Restaurant, Manago Hotel, 808/323-2642

The Coffee Shack; 808/328-9555; www.coffeeshack.com

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