Coffee is big in Hawaii. At least, it’s big on the Big Island because it grows only in the hills of Kona, where it can get the right amount of rain, warmth and shade. Hawaii is the most northern of the world’s coffee-growing regions. You can’t really go to the Big Island without taking a peek at a coffee farm, even if – like me – you don’t like coffee. We toured the Lyman Kona Coffee Farm when we were there in July.
Coffee trees are significantly more interesting than I’d expected them to be. I had no idea that they have to be cut back to stumps every three to four years, or that coffee doesn’t grow on a tree until after it’s been stumped at least once. However, once it starts bearing fruit, it continues to do so for a hundred years. The investment in looking after coffee trees sounds a little like raising children.
I was intrigued to learn that coffee beans come from fruit – cherries, to be specific. Picking the cherries from the trees is labour-intensive, and it’s important to process them within 48 hours or they’ll ferment. There are two beans per cherry, squashed up against each other like twins in a womb. Squeezing the cherry forces the beans to pop out. Once the cherries have dried out, they can be used to make a fruit tea called cascara.
Meanwhile, the beans are separated by size, and the small ones tossed out. Those that pass muster sit in fermentation tanks until the mucilage – a layer of gelatinous gum – dissolves, exposing beans with rough skins called parchment. They’re left to dry in the sun for as long as three months (and the longer the drying time, the better the coffee), and at that point they’re known as parchment coffee. Next, the parchment layer of skin is removed by a mill, revealing green beans. The beans are sorted for size again, and dodgy beans are removed (in this case, “dodgy” means over-fermented or insect-damaged). What’s left is raw green coffee. Rumour has it that raw green coffee is undrinkably yucky, but triggers the body to burn fat and lose weight.
The part of the process that turns green coffee into the bitter brown stuff that most people know and love is the roasting. This step is usually done by the importer because coffee tastes best when it’s freshly roasted. Before roasting, the green beans don’t smell of anything. Only when their internal temperature reaches 375oF do they release caffeol – a fragrant oil locked inside the beans – which produces the taste and smell of coffee.
Like wine and chocolate, there’s an art to tasting coffee. The results of the tasting process are important because coffee is the sixth largest traded commodity (it’s up there with oil and copper) and the quality of the coffee will dictate its value. As a commodity, coffee sells for approximately $2.50/lb, though Lyman’s single-estate organic coffee sells for $28.32/lb and is worth it. Tasters are called “cuppers” and they’re sensitive to more than 800 aromatic compounds in the beans. To give some context, there are 600 aromatic compounds in chocolate, and a mere 200 in wine.
Our tour guide gave us some excellent tips on how to be a coffee connoisseur. Firstly, the darker the roast, the less taste (and caffeine) the coffee has, and the easier it is to hide bad coffee. Secondly, a label that proudly proclaims that it’s 10% Kona is, by extrapolation, 90% crap. Thirdly, coffee should be stored in the fridge. Fourthly, once ground, coffee is good for only one day. After that time it will have lost all its gases, oils and taste. Fifthly, instant coffee has artificial coffee flavor added to sustain the smell. Don’t bother with it.
The coffee industry is fascinating, but what really amazed us is that quality coffee farming isn’t economically viable. Even though Lyman’s coffee farm produces an excellent coffee that retails for over $28 per pound, the farmer can’t make his farm run profitably without taking advantage of the free labour provided by overseas students looking to learn about organic farming. Somehow that makes the coffee seem all the more precious. Coffee farming is an act of passion.