Just off the winding two-lane highway past groves buzzing with coffee pickers, trucks loaded with harvested cherries of Big Island farmers unload their burden for processing at a coffee mill in Kealakekua. Rising coils of smoke and the rich smell of roasting coffee entice passersby to enter and see for themselves how their favorite morning brew is processed.
After being weighed, burlap bagfuls of sweet-smelling cherries are dumped into a pulping machine that removes the skins. They are then poured into a clean, water-filled tank to soak 8 to 12 hours until fermentation has loosened the remainder of sticky pulp from the beans.
Once drained, the inner beans are shoveled onto broad, flat drying beds called hoshidanas.* Above these wooden beds are clever tin-roofs which slide over the drying beans should it rain. (If the beans get soaked during the drying process, they could be ruined.) The beans are raked into long rows on the beds to sun dry. About six days of periodic raking and turning completely dries the beans. Once dried, the brittle, golden-skinned beans are called parchment beans.
The milling process
Under a huge tin-roofed building, the noisy milling process takes place. As thousands of dried beans jiggle along conveyor belts, the parchment skin loosens and is discarded as the beans cascade through two hullers. They are then graded and sorted on a vibrating table through screens with graduated holes. Each polished green bean slips through the appropriate hole and into its labeled bag: Off-Grade, Prime, No. 1 Grade, Fancy, Extra Fancy, and Peaberry—the prized but rare, single coffee bean. Workers scurry about, checking, shoveling, and hauling the sorted beans. Some of the green beans are roasted; others are shipped abroad. Japan is a huge market for Kona coffee.
In the roasting room, huge cylindrical, stainless steel ovens slowly turn the beans to ensure uniform roasting. A loud pop, called a crack, followed minutes later by another pop, alerts the attendant that a certain temperature has been reached, signaling the time to check the beans. He opens a little window, extracts a cooled bean, and pops it into his mouth for testing. Then, he either unloads the finished beans to cool or roasting continues, depending on whether he wants light, medium, or dark roast. The beans will later be packaged for shipping or bagged for local distribution and sale. The only thing left for the visitor to do is enjoy a fresh cup of Kona hospitality for themselves. Peaberry anyone?
For more information about the Kona coffee industry, visit www.konahistorical.com or www.konacoffeefest.com for information about the annual Kona Coffee Festival. In 2010 it will be held Nov. 5-14.
*Modern farms dry their beans in large, Quonset-style covered areas as shown in the video.
Grab a cup of Hawaiian coffee and enjoy the video.