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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 15, 2006

Isle coffee deserves place at home

By Duane Choy

Kona coffee has come a long way since being brought to the Islands in 1813. Coffee can be grown at home for its beauty and bounty.

Duane Choy

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In "Mark Twain's Letters from Hawaii" (edited by A. Grove Day, 1966), the humorist states in an epistle, "I think the Kona coffee has a richer flavor than any other."

In Mary Kawena Pukui's " 'Olelo No'eau," Proverb 1755 reads: "Ke kope ho'ohia'a maka o Kona." ("The coffee of Kona that keeps the eyes from sleeping. This saying applies not only to coffee but also to love.")

This gourmet agricultural crop is now commanding record prices for its harvest. Its Hawaiian roots are grounded in our cultural history.

The first coffee (kope in Hawaiian) plants were brought to Hawai'i in 1813 by Don Francisco de Paula y Marin, King Kamehameha the Great's physician and Spanish interpreter.

A British agriculturist, John Wilkinson procured coffee seedlings from Brazil. These plants were brought to O'ahu in 1825 aboard the H.M.S. Blonde and planted in Manoa Valley at the estate of Chief Boki, the island's governor.

In 1828, American missionary Samuel Ruggles took cuttings from Manoa plantings and brought them to Kona. With its rich volcanic earth, "greenhouse" weather and strong work ethic among its family farmers, the location and crop were entwined.

The following years brought turmoil in the form of depressed world prices, labor shortages, drought, pest and disease infestations, and the shift by Hawai'i to massive sugar production. None of it killed off coffee production entirely.

Starting in 1885, Japanese immigrants who came to the Big Island to work for the sugar industry started to migrate to Kona as coffee pickers.

Following a market crash, W.W. Brunner, a German immigrant coffee farmer (who also built the first coffee mill in South Kona), subdivided his large plantation for lease to tenant farmers. This trend was adopted by others, and 3- to 15-acre parcels were leased primarily to first-generation (issei) Japanese families. The downsizing revolutionized and rescued the Kona coffee industry.

After the turn of the century, coffee prices seesawed. Prices surged with military use in the two world wars.

Coffee continued to provide employment. In 1932, Kona public schools began closing from August to November for "summer vacation," so students could work the coffee harvest.

Eventually, a cultural shift endangered Kona coffee. People started a mass exodus from farms into construction, civil service, military surplus and tourist-related industries. In 1969, Kona conformed to the rest of Hawai'i with its school vacation schedule. Coffee farmers also began to diversify their crops and seek part-time, non-farming employment.

This time, Kona coffee was resurrected by its emergence as a specialty gourmet coffee for the marketplace.

To further truth in labeling and to shield the name Kona, the state enacted legislation in 1991 requiring a minimum of 10 percent pure Kona coffee in any coffee labeled "Kona." In 1993, the Kona Coffee Council, a non-profit organization of farmers and processors, voted to register the name Kona Coffee.

Today, the emphasis is on marketing Kona coffee as a 100 percent homegrown product. Signature estate coffee farms are germinating everywhere along the Kona coast. Certified organic farmers are also receiving top dollar for their labor-intensive practices.

Now, it's time to recognize the tremendous potential in coffee (Coffea arabica) as a tropical, evergreen planting.

Whether as a hedge, border, accessory or indoor plant, coffee is an ornamental plant, with its glossy leaves, white fragrant flowers, and green, orange and red "cherries."

Ideally, start with a fresh-picked coffee cherry. Pulp the cherry by hand, clean with water, ferment in a water container until all the pulp falls off, and wash again with fresh water.

Pre-germinate the seed by soaking in water for 24 hours, then sow the seeds in damp sand or wet vermiculite.

After germination, place the seed flat side down in a hole about 1/2-inch deep in a loamy, light-weight soil with a high humus content. Sprinkle soil over the hole, but do not press firmly. Water where the soil remains well-drained, but keep moist at all times.

Coffee plants, which thrive indoors under artificial plant lighting or filtered sunlight, can outlive us, growing up to 35 feet.

Plantations keep trees at around 6 feet for optimum yield and ease of harvest. Prune by pinching to evolve a bushier plant, or cut way back, even down to two primary branches.

Feed with a soluble, all purpose (10-10-10) fertilizer. To encourage flowering, wait until winter months and reduce watering for two to three months. Initiate fuller watering in spring. Coffee is self-fertilizing so don't fret about pollination.

With ripe red cherries, you can harvest, pulp, ferment, dry, roast and drink your coffee. This effort certainly will be a glimpse into the people whose love of the bean and its farming lifestyle has sustained them through all the peaks and valleys of its remarkable history.