Because of my Mormon faith, I'm not a coffee drinker. But, as I drove through the "Kona Coffee Belt", a 20-mile section of the Big Island with the perfect climate for growing coffee, I found myself curious about how coffee is grown and processed. So, I toured Greenwell Farms and the nearby living history museum, and was glad I did.
The folks at Greenwell Farms were incredibly gracious, offering me samples from the 10 or 11 varieties of coffee they had. When I politely declined, they offered me a chocolate-covered coffee bean. When I politely declined again, they asked if I'd like to pick an orange off of one of their trees, which I enjoyed doing, especially since the experience was a life-time first for me.
The Greenwell Farm is among the oldest farms on the island, and grows many other types of trees in addition to coffee. Here's some breadfruit I saw on a tree near there:
Here's a closeup of the "Kona Snow" blossoms that cover the coffee trees in February and March.
Later in the year, the trees have berries on them like this. (Sorry this photo isn't well focused...I wasn't able to get a better one that showed both the red and green berries on the tree).
I was interested to learn that the berries don't ripen all at once...instead, a few of them turn red at a time, and are harvested by hand, while the rest continue to grow and mature. It can take 6 months for all the berries on a coffee tree to ripen!
Because only a few berries ripen at a time, and because harvesting them is so labor intensive, most of the coffee farms in Kona are very small, often operated by hobbyists or people growing a few trees in their backyard. As a result, most of the farmers don't have the equipment needed to process the coffee so they sell it to larger farms that do have the equipment, such as Greenwell. A farmer pulled up in his pickup truck to drop off two bags of coffee beans while I was there, so I had the chance to observe his coffee being weighed and the first few steps of processing.
One of the things that makes coffee growing difficult is that once a coffee berry is picked, it must be processed that same day. Each coffee berry has two beans inside, with a sweet "juice" around them that must be washed off within the day to avoid fermentation. Here's a photo of a coffee berry that has been opened, revealing the two beans inside.
Here's a photo of the place where the beans are washed to remove the "juice" around them.
Once they beans are washed, they are laid out to dry in the sun. At Greenwell Farms, they are placed in an area like this, where they are raked every few hours, by hand, turning them over and over again for the next 8 days, I believe. When it rains, the sliding roof at the back of the photo is pulled over the beans to keep them dry.
Once the beans are dry, some of them are roasted right there at the farm, but most of them are shipped to roasters all over the world, and are labeled under the roaster's name, rather than the farm name. The final flavor of the coffee is dependent on the process used by the roaster.
Next to Greenwell Farms is the living history Greenwell General Store, which was built in the 1870's by H.N. Greenwell, who originally settled the farm. The tour was totally fun, because the guide gives you an identity and a shopping list, and then she helps you find everything on your list, and explains why you would want each of the items and how they were used. Here's a photo of my guide, fetching me the canned peaches that were on my shopping list.
The identity she gave me was of an actual historical figure, the woman who ran the boarding house where Mark Twain stayed when he visited Hawaii, so I had a LONG shopping list. (Especially since I happened to be preparing for a big dinner party at my boarding house that weekend). Speaking of Mark Twain, the end of his book "Roughing It" has some very entertaining sections about his trip to the Big Island in the late 1800's; if you enjoy travel books, I'd recommend it. I wasn't able to find a copy of Mark Twain's "Letters from Hawaii" book before my trip, but hope to read it someday also.
I'll end by showing this fun photo I saw at the living history museum, of a cow being loaded onto a ship back in the 1800's: