I learned a lot about coffee in Kona when Max and I worked together roasting, packaging, and delivering coffee. We even had to do some of the field work, like hulling, grading, raking the coffee as it was drying, or put it through the coffee cherry washing machine-like process. (I don't know the technical terms, and if I stop and research them I will end up writing a 10 page story about some other topic. I sat down to write THIS and instead got sidetracked writing a long detailed story about the first times I visited my friend Rudy's coffee plantation in Chiapas. Sometimes this gift of gab is a curse.)
Left: Medium roast coffee from Chiapas. Right: dark roast Kona coffee.
Even if you don't know much about coffee, you would have to admit the one on the right is more appetizing. There are no off color beans. They are uniform in size. This is a batch of dark roasted Kona coffee, and should be darker than the Chiapan coffee on the left. What is inferior about the Chiapan coffee is the non-uniformity of the beans, the presence of off-colored beans which will be bitter, and lots of paper parchment that doesn't do harm but is not flavor enhancing either. Darker roasts heat up the coffee to a higher temperature and often lose their perfect shape during little explosions. I learned that when I roasted my little batch in the oven and thought I'd put popcorn in there.
The coffee grown in both Chiapas, México, and Kona,Hawaii is either Arabe (Arabic in English) or Márago(don't know English equivalent). These plants prefer deep dark volcanic soil, tropical yet mountainous conditions, and some giant shade trees to allow them some afternoon rest from the strong sunshine they enjoy in the morning. (Want a hammock and a beer with that?) Both Chiapas and Kona have excellent growing conditions and produce world class coffee. There are several premium coffee producers worldwide, Jamaica and Africa are two fine examples, but this blog is only about what I have at home today. It is a learning comparison, not a criticism. There is another type of coffee called Robusta that grows in lower elevations, nearer to the sea, and is harvested by machines. If I were to criticize any coffee, it would be this less flavorful improperly processed one. You know, the Folgers or worse, Nescafé, of the coffee world.
Starting from the field, coffee cherries have to be picked from the trees as they ripen. If a branch is stripped of all its beans, the green beans are added to the harvest. Unripened green beens are bitter. Only the ripest reddest cherries should be artfully plucked from the branches. This means you have to harvest the same tree over and over throughout picking season. There were coffee trees around the old coffee shack where we lived in Holualoa (Kona slopes). I decided one day to pick coffee. It took me five hours to fill one 5 gallon bucket. I was exhausted and scratched up. I got impatient picking the individual beans and took a lot of breaks. It's hard work, to put it mildly.
The coffee has to be washed to remove the outer layer, the cherry. Inside is the bean with its protective hull. Once washed of the somewhat slimy cherry, the beans are spread out to dry. In Kona the "coffee shacks" are so called because of their hoshidanas, sliding rooftops that slide over the coffee to protect it from the afternoon rains. It took me days to remove the cherries from my bucket, and the acid from the outer layer and constant popping the cherries, so to speak, left my fingers red and numb.
Once dried, the dried skin covering the bean has to be removed by a hulling machine. When I picked my own coffee that ONE time, I removed the hulls myself. They are crispy and the process left my red, numbed fingertips ripped apart and raw. Part of that process is removing the parchment, or paper thin flakes that remain on the bean. The machine is much more efficient in removing the parchment than blowing on it through a colandar.
From there the beans are graded. The grading machine reminded me of the old game Mouse Trap. I'd drop the beans into a bin at the top and they'd shimmy down a belt with different size holes. Beans would drop into bins by size, thus grading the coffee. They have different classifications in different countries, but Kona coffee is graded as Superior, #1 bean, #2 bean, prime and peaberry. Superior and #1 are the most sought after. Prime is coffee that will be sold ground, it is not shapely and beautiful to look at. Peaberry is a special bean! Most coffee beans are semi-ovals, I guess you could say, and peaberries are the whole beans found at the end of each cluster on the tree. Some folks prefer peaberry to any other grade, and they pay dearly for the luxury.Below are #1 Kona beans. Before getting to this stage they were sorted and bagged as unroasted "green" coffee and finally shipped, stored or roasted. Many fancy names are given to coffee roasts. No matter what you call it, you basically are asking for a light, medium or dark roast.
These beans are a Kona medium roast and a #1 coffee bean.
This is what is called a family roast. The coffee is all great, but it is not graded as carefully. There are peaberries, superior beans, #1s, and an occasional odd sized piece. Still it is quality coffee processed carefully, clean, fresh and delectable.
The Chiapan coffee below I would also call a family roast. It is a light roast. Often that leaves some of the parchment behind that blows off in further roasting. I usually toss the off-color beans and I find the taste is cup-worthy. I am happy to have access to quality coffee at a reasonable price, and there is no complaint here. It is just that the difference in processing is very noticeable and I thought this a good opportunity to share some info about that cuppa' jo' that we take for granted most of the time. 100 lbs. of picked coffee yields 16 pounds of roasted coffee. It is a labor intensive art. If I remember correctly, my weeks of toiling and growing new fingertips yielded me about a half a pound of kona java.
Kona coffee sells for an average of $25 a pound. Chiapan coffee goes for 90 pesos ($6.77 US at today's rate) for a kilo (2.2 lbs.) See? It's all good. A gift of gold on occasion from Kona and quality locally grown coffee at a reasonable price...they even deliver! All I want is a tasty and strong cup, make that two, to get the day going right.....