Kona Coffee From the Seed to the Cup - Part 1

by Mark S. on 3/5/2015 4:58:03 AM

People in the coffee business talk about taking coffee' from the seed to the cup', and everyone is supposed to know what that means. But I think that presumes a lot.

Okay, most people know that coffee grows on trees, and you have to pick it. But then it gets a little fuzzy, and most people skip over to the end where the beans are roasted and ground and you brew it and drink it.

But there is a lot that happens in that fuzzy area. And when I talk with people here at Kona Mountain about it, they find it very interesting. I hope you do too, because here is what I tell them.

You start with the finest coffee seed you can find, both in quality of seeds and quality of variety. Because without the right choices at the beginning, all your work goes to making an inferior coffee. And who would want to do that?

Oddly, more people than you might think. I can't explain why that is, but I see it all the time. I've talked about the variety we use at Kona Mountain in a previous blog, so I won't do that again here.  The usual method of planting is to put about two dozen seeds in each hole.

But we do it just a little differently because of the extra rich soil here in Kona. I can't say exactly what the difference is, because it's a little bit of a secret. But you get the idea. Some seeds sprout and some just do not. It's pretty much the same as in all of nature.

Then the Kona just-right-amount-of-rain and just-right-amount-of-sun goes to work with the deeply fertile soil that has erupted as lava from the volcano and is eventually broken down into lush earth over time. The seed sprouts, a leaf of green appears, and the tree starts growing both above ground and making a root structure underground. 

We take care of the needs of each tree as they pass through the seasons, sometimes having to deal with insects or other problems as they appear. We do this as quickly and as naturally as we can, for the health of the trees. In the case of our organic coffee, only approved organic methods are used.

Now we enter an area of great controversy.

Pruning. Cutting off part of the coffee tree to encourage maximum production over the long term. There are probably as many opinions about pruning as there are coffee farmers. As the tree grows, so-called 'verticals' are produced, branches that shoot upward from the tree rather than outward.

Some farmers prune those verticals in a certain pattern, others in another pattern. Still others wait until a tree has reached maximum production and is obviously getting too many branches for the trunk to support, and then they prune the entire tree severely. Those farmers prune part of an orchard one year and another part another year. 

At Kona Mountain, we tend toward the first, partial pruning method. And it produces award-winning coffee. I think that says a lot. But there are times when a tree needs severe pruning because of special current conditions, such as drought. One of the hallmarks of a superior farm manager is to know which way to go at any given time for any given orchard of coffee trees.

It is not until the second year after planting that the tree flowers, briefly. Only in its third year does a tree generally start bearing significant amounts of fruit.

Yes, coffee trees actually bear fruit, which we call coffee cherry. And it is the seed of that fruit that is called the coffee bean. The cherry has a thick, bitter skin, and the fruit part underneath, that no one eats, is actually very sweet. It has a texture similar to the inside of a grape. Under that, covering and protecting the coffee bean, is a sort of sticky layer.

Under that is yet another layer which is called parchment. This is a very important coffee term, so please keep it in mind.

Finally we come to a skin-like layer that contains two coffee beans. Or in the case of peaberry coffee, a single seed. More about peaberry later, also.

Now we have to pick the coffee. That seems pretty easy, doesn't it? But it is very difficult, hard work. You don't just go out on a certain day and pick everything in sight, like mowing wheat. 

Coffee cherry ripens at different times on the same branch of a coffee tree. One day a few cherry are ripe on one tree, so you pick those, and then go to the next tree, pick a few, go to the next tree, and so on.

The next day, back out to the orchard and see which trees have some ripe cherry, and pick those. Repeat, day after day, from the time the first cherry ripens until the season is pau (pronounced pow, meaning finished). 

And you have to be very careful to pick only the totally ripe cherry. Never partially ripe or, disastrously... green beans. When unripe or partially ripe cherry gets into the picking, they bring down the quality immensely.

And although a bright red color is the primary sign that the cherry is ripe, it takes a surprising amount of understanding and experience to tell when it is truly ripe. There are no machines that can do it properly.

In this day and age, it is difficult to find local people who want to and are able to pick coffee cherry. There are a lot of easier jobs in our society. So for the last few years, maybe a little longer than a decade, people are coming from Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, the Philippines and I've heard even China, though I can't say that one for certain, to pick coffee cherry for Kona farmers.

Kind of amazing, isn't it? It's sort of like getting a fabulous vacation in beautiful Hawaii, but having to work long hours doing hard manual labor in the tropical sun once you get here.

In any event, you can start to see how labor intensive coffee production is. That accounts for a great deal of the price of Kona coffee, because we pay not just 'fair trade' wages of a few dollars a week to our pickers, which is considered the gold standard for wages in other countries. We pay 'actually fair,' full American wages and benefits.

Okay, maybe not all the farms in Kona do everything 'over the table'. There are farmers who 'cut corners' here in Kona, like everywhere else. But our policy at Kona Mountain is to follow both the letter and the spirit of the law. That actually works out very well in the end.

Our store price is in line with all the other award-winning coffees... even if we do have to be really akamai (ah-kaw-my, sharp, smart) in figuring out how to minimize our costs other places, like buying larger quantities of coffee bags so they cost less each.

Things like that make it possible for us to provide people with a decent wage for some very hard work. Which allows us to sleep much better at night.

Off the soapbox, back to the coffee. Or rather, behind the coffee. As you will see, VERY far behind the scenes.

So now we have the cherry picked, and we put it in 100 pound burlap bags with our company art printed on the bag. That's traditional in Kona. This is the way some smaller farms sell it to the large processors. They get paid, and they're done with their coffee. 

Now we enter into a bit of the insider's semi-secret world. Quite frankly, consumers are kept in the dark as to how much coffee cherry sells for to the processors. But I'll break the silence and tell you.
Recently, the price hovered around $1.85 a pound. Shocking, huh? Makes you wonder why Kona coffee costs so much when you buy it at retail, doesn't it? Somebody must be making a LOT of money, is the thought that goes through everyone's mind the first time they hear that price.

(A hint: it takes 7.5 pounds of coffee cherry, sorted and irregulars taken out, to make 1 pound of Kona Coffee in a bag.)

There is a long, long road between coffee cherry and a roasted bean in a store or at a website online. I'll try to lay it out for you so it makes good sense by the time we're done.

Truth is... if you do everything you need to do to make a good coffee here in Kona, you are very fortunate to break even, much less make an actual profit. It's a lot harder than it looks.

The large processors get coffee cherry from dozens of farms, some better, some not as good, and blend it all together (see my previous post on this subject.) They sell the end product as 100%Kona Coffee, which is.

But it's not estate coffee from a single Kona coffee farm.

Premium Estate Kona Coffees like Kona Mountain are an assurance that all the coffee in a bag comes from one single farm, for the highest degree of quality possible. So we keep our cherry separate. 

And that is the 'higher' road we'll continue on next time. I'll even have another 'insider's secret' about green Kona Coffee for you in a few days.