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Cafe au Lei

Hawaii's Big Island has long produced one of the world's most sought-after coffees. Now its neighbors are hoping to capitalize on America's love affair with the gourmet bean.

March 29, 1998|SUSAN ESSOYAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Since a mechanical coffee harvester had yet to be invented, Hawaii's new coffee producers modified blueberry harvesters. Vibrating mechanical rods poke long fingers through the branches, dislodging all the coffee cherries rather than just the ripe ones. This makes careful sorting afterward vital, something that is less important when coffee is hand-picked.

At Kauai Coffee Co., on the southern flank of the island, a painstaking multistage operation separates different grades of coffee. The process culminates with high-tech color sorters, whose electric eyes help reject any unwanted beans.

Kauai Coffee sells its coffee green (unroasted) to roasters and wholesalers, with the lower grades used for blends. A Brazilian coffee farm of similar size would employ upward of 1,000 workers during the harvest. Kauai Coffee makes do with 70 permanent employees, adding another 70 at harvest time.

For consumers scared off by Kona's sky-high prices, the new Hawaiian coffees may be an attractive alternative. The estates are quick to point out that they grow their own varieties and never pretend to be Kona. Still, some Kona devotees look down on the newcomers as pretenders to the throne, and are concerned they will dilute Kona's top-flight image.

"Growers need to be very careful not to just post the name 'Hawaiian' on it and automatically expect to get consumer acceptance," says Jim Delano, owner of Honolulu-based Lion Coffee, a wholesaler and retailer. "It has to be coupled with quality."

Most people in the industry consider the boost in Hawaiian coffee production a plus for all growers in the islands, including the Kona farmers.

"The greater the recognition of Hawaii as a coffee producer, the greater the potential for Kona," says Jonathan O'Bergin, Hawaii Coffee Assn. president and a Kona grower. "You need a marketplace in order to have a niche in that marketplace."

In late 1996, Kona growers suffered from a major scandal when it was revealed that an independent California distributor had been substituting cheaper Panamanian beans and passing them off as Kona.

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After the disclosure, Hawaii growers succeeded in mandating state certification of all coffee grown in the state, by grade and island of origin. As a result, today's supply of genuine Kona falls far short of demand.

The state has also applied to register Hawaiian place names with the Patent and Trademark Office to give its coffees nationwide status--like that of Washington apples and Vidalia onions.

Hawaiian coffee now accounts for less than 1% of the world's production of specialty coffees, which means "there's all kinds of room to grow," says Lyle Wilkinson, vice president for operations at Kauai Coffee."

Although coffee trees cover only part of the land recently taken out of sugar cultivation, the crop has greater potential to generate local jobs and profits as it goes from cherry to pulped bean to milled, roasted and packaged product. That's an attractive prospect in Hawaii's flagging economy.

"Coffee is ideally suited for suitcase agriculture--meaning it can be converted into an item that can be carried away in a tourist's suitcase," O'Bergin says. "One hundred percent of the added value in the roasted product can stay within Hawaii."

Coffee is now Hawaii's fifth-most valuable agriculture commodity, after sugar, pineapple, macadamia nuts and milk. As their coffee trees mature, and the new growers hone their harvesting and processing techniques, the marketplace seems to be rewarding them.

The farm price of "nouveau cafe" has increased more than threefold in the last four years. Retail prices vary, but are close to $12 to $15 a pound, roasted.

"I think they all have something going for them," said Kenneth Davids, a national authority on coffee and author of "Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying." "The new growers are very meticulous, very professional. Coffee rewards obsessiveness, just like wine. If they can keep getting money from whatever source it's coming from, I think they'll make it eventually."

In most cases, the estates are backed by the muscle of big corporations. Parent company Alexander & Baldwin Inc. and former partner Hills Bros. Coffee Inc. have invested more than $50 million in Kauai Coffee, whose 3,400 acres make up the largest coffee estate in the United States. Hills Bros., now owned by Nestle, bailed out of the partnership after Hurricane Iniki struck Kauai in 1992.

Although Kauai Coffee has yet to turn a profit, results have improved each year, and it has won some devotees.

"Kauai Coffee stacks up phenomenally well in the marketplace," said Jennifer Wellott, coffee buyer and roaster for Sutton Place Gourmet, a high-end East Coast chain based in Bethesda, Md. "It has such a wonderfully well-balanced flavor."

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