Perking with Kona Joe's
By Karin Stanton
By Karin Stanton
KAILUA, KONA, Hawai'i — 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 Alban 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 Hawai'i for more than two decades, Alban's primary occupation is orthopedic surgery. He still spends nearly half his time in scrubs in Los Alamitos, Calif., but anticipates dedicating most of his time to his coffee business in the near future.
Having spent time at his father's Alban Vineyards in California, Alban was familiar with the trellis method of growing grapes for wine. Alban enlisted help from his brother and his trellis technique for coffee 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 against weather damage.
Using the trellis as a guide, Alban can ensure all beans get adequate aeration and maximum benefit from the sun and afternoon rain. This results in as much as 30 percent more cherry beans from each acre, Alban said.
Optimum conditions also kick up sugar levels, which create more flavorful beans. Keeping the beans closer to the ground also makes harvesting easier.
Still, the 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."
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, grown along a short corridor of the 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 Association of America awarded Kona Joe Coffee its blue ribbon.
On his lanai, with a view across his trellised crop to the light blue winter sparkle of the Pacific, Alban reflects on changes in the industry. "When we first started, there were about eight sites offering Kona coffee. Now something like 800 are selling it."
Alban's wife, Deepa, an O'ahu native, handles much of the marketing and retail accounts, which include Safeway and some Neiman Marcus stores. Also an artist, she created the company logos and helps run the gift shop, espresso bar and daily tours, assisted by 14 full-time employees and seven part-timers.
Business is so good, the Albans last year bought cherry coffee from the neighbors and sold out all 100,000 pounds they roasted.
He is developing another 70 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. Staff in 1940s-era gas station attire will serve up cups from outdoor coffee pumps 5:30 a.m. to midnight.