Kona coffee is loved by specialty coffee connoisseurs around the world. This coffee has a unique flavor profile that is often described as being both rich and smooth, with little bitterness.
The coffee beans for this type of coffee are grown on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes in the North and South Kona Districts of Hawaii. The famed "Kona coffee belt" is a distinct region with unique growing conditions ideal for coffee. Only about 30 miles long and 3 miles wide, the belt has a deep, rich volcanic soil and just the right amount of rainfall. The area also gets plenty of sunshine - another key element in producing high-quality coffee.
Kona Typica is the predominant coffee varietal grown in the region and it thrives in the rich volcanic soil. The coffee trees are carefully cultivated and pruned to ensure a good yield of high-quality beans. Cultivated from seed, the young plants are referred to as "keiki", the Hawaiian word for child.
Signs of Harvest Season
The first sign of a Kona coffee harvest is the delicate white blossom, locally referred to as "Kona snow". These blossoms have a sweet scent, reminiscent of orange blossom or jasmine and in full bloom, it appears as if a blanket of snow has dusted the trees. Bees get to work performing the magic of pollination and soon fruit buds begin to appear on the coffee tree branches.
The fruit of a Kona coffee plant is referred to as cherry. Though smaller than a cherry, the color of the ripe beans in similar. The actual size is more akin to a cranberry. The coffee cherry ripens over a period of several weeks. During that time, it goes through three color changes - from green to yellow to red. Once the fruit reaches a rich red color, it is ready for picking.
Ripe for Picking
Kona coffee is harvested using the selective picking method, which means that only ripe cherries are picked from the tree. Other coffee-producing regions employ mechanical picking, stripping the trees of all the fruit at once - including the green beans unsuitable for processing. Though more labor-intensive, the selective picking process used in Kona coffee production results in higher quality coffee.
Farmers employ teams of pickers who hand-pick the ripest, reddest fruit from the trees. They wear small buckets to gather the fruit and have special tools to access fruit top branches. Throughout the day, they transfer the cherry from their buckets into large burlap sacks that can easily hold over a hundred pounds each. Professional pickers can harvest up to 300 pounds in a day, working from early morning to late afternoon.
On high-elevation farms like Kona Earth (at 2000 feet), the coffee harvest typically takes place between September and March. During that time, pickers will visit the farm over several "rounds", usually about a week per round. During the 2021/22 harvest, a total of six rounds occurred throughout those months.
Fair Wage Labor
Since Kona coffee is grown in the United States, the pickers are paid well, about a dollar per pound of cherry. Earlier harvest rounds tend to be lighter in volume and, in those instances, the workers are paid more - about $1.25 per pound. Unlike farm laborers in other coffee-producing regions, Kona coffee workers are paid a living wage. This, of course, contributes to the greater production cost for the farmer and is one key factor in Kona coffee's high price per pound for the consumer.
Consider this: It takes roughly ten pounds of cherry to produce one pound of specialty Kona coffee. This ratio of 10:1 means that for each pound of Kona coffee the farmer produces, ten dollars was spent on picking labor alone. Add to this the costs of farm materials and fuel, utilities to operate equipment, and overhead costs for business operations, sales and marketing. It gives you a greater appreciation for the tremendous cost that farmers face in bringing their coffee crop to market.
Reason to Celebrate
The coffee harvest is a community affair in Kona and a reason to celebrate. The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival takes place each Fall in the small town of Holualoa. The 10-day event features coffee tastings, cooking demonstrations, a farmers market, and farm tours. It's the perfect opportunity for visitors to learn more about Kona coffee and the people who grow it. It's also a great time for coffee farmers to connect and enjoy a special time together away from the fields. The 2022 event will be held from November 4-13. If you find yourself on the Big Island of Hawaii during that time, be sure to stop by and celebrate with us.