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Hawaii: Wake up and smell -- and see -- the Kona coffee

April 20, 2012|By Russ Parsons | Los Angeles Times Food editor
  • Ripe coffee beans at Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Ripe coffee beans at Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation on the Big Island… (Kathy Parsons / special…)

Kona on the Big Island is known for its coffee. But almost as impressive is its landscape, which rises from the ocean to more than 6,000 feet high in just a few short miles. The best way to get your arms around both of these attributes at the same time is by taking the Kona Coffee & Craters tour offered by Hawaii Forests and Trails.

Start by piling into the back of an open-sided Pinzgauer all-wheel-drive touring vehicle and bouncing through what seems like every one of the island’s climate zones from rain forest to alpine peak in the short 45-minute drive up the side of the mountain Hualalai volcano. While we assign prosaic names to these areas, the guide explains that the Hawaiians referred to them as “the realm of the gods,” “the realm of the forests” and “the realm of man.”

At the top, you get out and explore the barren volcanic landscape, peering down into deep craters, examining the scraggly plant life that somehow manages to survive, and even scrambling through a lava tube or two.

Then it’s down into the realm of coffee for an in-depth tour at Mountain Thunder, a highly prized organic coffee farm and processor. Owner Trent Bateman, a former Southern California resident, came to Hawaii to work as an engineer on the sprawling Bishop Ranch and started the coffee plantation below his house almost on a whim. “They said we couldn’t do it because we were too high,” he said, “so of course we had to do it.”

As it turns out, he says, the extra altitude is actually good for the flavor of the coffee. Because temperatures are cooler, he only gets three crops every four years instead of the usual annual harvest, which allows the beans more time to hang on the trees and ripen.

Of course, growing the beans is only the first step in making coffee and Bateman explains in great detail how the intricate processing of the raw bean is done, from fermentation and drying to roasting.

Besides coffee, all sorts of tropical fruits are growing in the 10-acre farm on the slopes around Mountain Thunder. There are vanilla and passion fruit vines snaking up the tree trunks, tea bushes, bananas, coconuts and even cacao. There’s abundant animal life, too, as the Bateman family uses an array of ducks, geese, chickens and even goats that help keep insect pests at bay.

Tours through Hawaii Forest and Trail are $139. (800) 464-1993.

A shorter coffee-only tour offered by Mountain Thunder is free. Info: Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, 75-1027 Henry Street #143, Kailua Kona, Hawaii 96740, (888) 414-5662

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