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Hobby Brews Into Patented, Prized Joe

January 10, 2006|From Associated Press

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii — Joe Alban hadn't intended to trade in his scrubs for shrubs quite so soon.

It was just supposed to be a retirement hobby when the California doctor and his wife first planted a couple of acres of Kona coffee trees in his backyard in 1997.

In the eight years since, Kona Joe Coffee has spawned a U.S. patent, earned a national honor and grown to a 20-acre spread that includes milling and roasting facilities, and a warehouse to supply Internet orders.

"We started with a couple of acres, selling to friends and a few retail accounts," Alban said. "It was really just a fantasy to live in Kona and grow coffee."

Although he has been visiting Hawaii for more than two decades, Alban's primary occupation is orthopedic surgery. He spends nearly half his time in scrubs in Los Alamitos, but anticipates dedicating most of his time to his coffee business in the near future.

Alban, 48, also has some background in farming.

Spending time at his father's Alban Vineyards in California, Alban was familiar with the trellis method of growing grapes for wine and wondered if it would be suitable for coffee. Alban enlisted help from his brother and the trellis technique worked well enough to secure a U.S. patent.

Coffee trees have a shallow root system, which makes them susceptible to wind and rain. The trellis serves as an additional anchor, helping to prevent weather-related damage.

Using the trellis as a guide, Alban is able to ensure that all beans get adequate aeration and maximum benefit from the sun and afternoon rain showers. This results in as much as 30% more coffee cherries from each acre, Alban said.

Optimum conditions also kick up sugar levels, which create more flavorful beans and a better brew. Keeping the beans closer to the ground also makes harvesting much easier.

Still, growing is only the start of the process. Alban quickly realized he had to mill and roast his own beans to maintain the quality he wanted.

"When you start putting your name on it, you're responsible," he said. "The most important part is processing the fruit, because if that is not good, nothing is. There is added value at each step of processing when you do it all yourself."

The farm is certified organic and its processing methods are sensitive to the environment while staying true to the nearly 200-year tradition of Kona coffee, which is grown only along a short corridor of the Big Island's west coast.

"We wanted to produce a coffee that would be truly special, that has a taste of the place. We wanted the tradition of Kona coffee, but to really bring out the flavor," Alban said. "I just asked, 'Is there anything I can do to make this better?' "

Apparently, he has answered that question. In 2001, the Specialty Coffee Assn. of America awarded Kona Joe Coffee a blue ribbon.

Relaxing on his lanai, which sports an espresso bar and an uninterrupted view from 1,500 feet across his trellised crop to the rocky shoreline, Alban reflects on changes he has noticed in the industry.

"There is a misconception that farmers are not good at marketing, but it's not true," he said. "When we first started, there were about eight sites offering Kona coffee. Now something like 800 are selling it. With the Internet, your store is open 24/7 to the entire world."

Alban's wife, Deepa, an Oahu native, handles much of the marketing and retail accounts, which include Safeway and select Nieman Marcus stores. Also an artist, she created the company logos and helps run the gift shop, espresso bar and daily tours of the farm.

She is assisted by 14 full-time employees and seven part-time workers. Business is so good that the Albans last year bought coffee cherries from the neighbors and sold out all 100,000 pounds they roasted.

Alban is developing 70 more acres of trellised coffee and plans to open a drive-through coffee shop in March. Kona Joe To Go will be housed in an abandoned gas station on the highway that runs around the island.

The Albans want to preserve the feel and look of old Hawaii and are restoring the old building to its original luster. Staff wearing 1940s-era gas station attire will serve up steaming cups from outdoor coffee pumps 5:30 a.m. to midnight.

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