Friday, August 1, 2014

Hawaii: Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation

When people think of the Big Island of Hawaii, two things come to mind above all else: volcanoes and Kona coffee. The volcanic legacy is everywhere, not just in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Kona coffee is just as ubiquitous; virtually every store sells it, and virtually every sweet treat offered for sale is available in a Kona coffee flavor. 

What makes the Kona district so ideal for growing coffee? The slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa offer rich volcanic soil, sunny mornings, cloudy afternoons and ample rainfall. This results in coffee that is full-bodied and complex without the acidity and bitterness typical of “common” coffee. In fact, together with Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, Kona coffee is considered the best in the world.

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Today we visited Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation to see what the fuss was all about. Located at the northern end of the Kona coffee belt at an elevation of 3,000 ft., Mountain Thunder is a family-operated producer and processor of 100% pure Kona coffee. Many of their products are certified organic (their website states that they are “the largest organic coffee farm in the state of Hawaii).

I was excited at the prospect of walking through a coffee orchard and seeing how the ripe fruit called “cherry” is made into roasted beans ready for consumption. Unfortunately, the free tour doesn’t include the orchard, it only covers the processing facilities. (Pricey premium VIP tours do visit the orchards and cover the cultivation of coffee.) So color me disappointed on the orchard angle. The tour of the processing facilities was short and sweet since there wasn’t all that much to it. Of course that’s only what it looks like to the untrained eye; I’m sure the individual steps involved in processing and roasting the beans require a great deal of skill and experience. (Coincidentally, I noticed that the mechanical processing machinery came from Costa Rica, another producer of outstanding coffees.)

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Overall, though, I left a happy camper because the location was beautiful (lush and green when the coastal strip only a few miles away and 3000 ft. lower is arid and brown); the plantation was refreshingly non-touristy and there was no sales pressure; and the coffee we got to sample was truly divine—so much so that I actually shelled out $40 for one pound (!) of coffee to bring home.

Undeniably, Kona coffee is expensive. But remember that much of it is grown on steep slopes that make mechanical harvesting impossible, and labor costs on the island are high compared to the top producing countries in the world: Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Colombia, Ethiopia. (I was astonished to find out that Brazil produces six times as much coffee as Colombia, which I was sure was #1 in the world.)

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View of the coffee and tea sampling station and the orchards below that were off limits

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I did find some coffee trees to photograph. Our tour guide told us that Mountain Thunder keeps their plants trimmed to 8 ft. so the fruit is easy to reach. All cherry are picked by hand.

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These short shrubs (about 3 ft. tall) were covered with fruit.

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The cherry start to ripen in August (although these were still completely green because of the relatively high elevation) and the harvest continues into January. When driving to Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau the other day, I saw coffee orchards at 500 ft. where the cherry were a glossy deep red and hence ready for picking.

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Plants start to bear fruit at two years of age, and by age five they bear a full load.

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Each cherry (in botanical terms, a “drupe”) contains two seeds (“beans”).

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A mature tree produces about 17 pounds of cherry a year, which translates into two pounds of roasted beans—astonishingly little.

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A few branches still contained the remnants of flowers. At their peak, the flowers are very ornamental and highly fragrant, similar to jasmine flowers.

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In fact, I find the entire plant very attractive and would be happy to grow one if only they weren’t so frost sensitive.

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Too bad this wooden statue wasn’t for sale!

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From cherry (left) to bean ready for roasting

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Ripe cherry, each containing two seeds (“beans”). Two seeds fused together are called a “peaberry.” Mountain Thunder sells coffee that is 100% peaberry; coffee aficionados swear it has a more intense flavor. Peaberries make up about 4% of the crop.

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After removing the flesh of the cherry, the bean is still covered by a layer called “parchment.”

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After removing the parchment, you end up with “green” beans ready for sorting, grading, and finally roasting. To find out more about these processes, watch these videos on the Mountain Thunder website.

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I don’t typically pay much attention to home décor, but this pillow caught my eye. The traveler’s palm (Ravenala madagascariensis) is one of my favorite tropical plants.

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The kahili gingers (Hedychium gardnerianum) both inside and outside Mountain Thunder had the largest flowers I’d ever seen.

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Kahili ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) and chandelier tree (Medinilla cumingii)

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Kahili ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) and chandelier tree (Medinilla cumingii)

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Kahili ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) rhizomes

The Kona coffee belt has hundreds of coffee farms, ranging from a couple to dozens of acres. Some of them offer tours. Here is a great article about Kona coffee that rates some of the tours.

2 comments:

  1. I had no idea the coffee trees were so beautiful, love that ripple to the foliage. Sorry you were denied access to the orchard, silly rules.

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  2. There's supposed to be a hardy-ish coffee plant available out there. Worth finding out more about it!

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