Written By Fern Gavelek Photographs Courtesy of Monarch Coffee
The next time you’re sipping a cup of coffee, sit for a moment and contemplate how your favorite morning beverage came to be. After all, it takes more than a dozen steps to produce coffee from bean to cup.
Coffee is big business. According to 2020 data trends by the National Coffee Association, 62 percent of Americans drink coffee daily with 7 in 10 imbibing at least once a week.
In Hawaii, coffee is one of the state’s top agricultural commodities, and producing it is a painstaking, multi-step art form. Kona is the most well-known brand but coffee is grown statewide. The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reported Hawaii coffee production totaled 24.6 million pounds during the 2017-18 season with a market value of $43.8 million.
It’s believed coffee first came to Hawaii in 1813 as an ornamental tree by King Kamehameha the Great’s physician Don Francisco de Paula Y Martin. Coffee arrived from Brazil in 1825, was planted on Oahu and, cuttings from these trees were soon planted on other islands.
Today, coffee is commercially grown on nearly 1,000 farms on five Hawaiian Islands. The majority of producers are small operations with distinctive farm practices suited to their locale and desired product. Attention to detail is one of the hallmarks of Hawaiian coffee, making it a gourmet, specialty brand.
From Bean to Cup
Growing coffee starts with planting seeds (beans) of tried-and-true or the latest coffee varietals. When mature, coffee trees bloom white, fragrant flowers that cover branches like a fresh blanket of snow. Pollinated by bees, these flowers bear green beans that grow plump over several months. Beans ripen a bright cranberry red and are called “coffee cherries” with the Hawaiian harvest season running August through March. All coffees in the 50th State, are hand-harvested except for a handful of large farms.
“Picking only red, ripe cherry is the most important step of producing the best quality coffee,” shares Abby Munoz, quality control specialist of award-winning Monarch Coffee. Monarch has 6,000 trees under cultivation along Hawaii Island’s Kona Coffee Belt, where elevation and seasonal weather patterns provide optimum growing conditions.
Hand-picking ensures coffee cherry is harvested when plump, juicy, and at the peak of sugar content. Workers strap baskets around their waists to maneuver through orchards pruned for harvesting. A seasoned picker can fill three, 100-pound bags in a day and it’s said the best pickers mimic the sound of falling rain as cherries drop in their basket.
Once sorted, cherries are processed in three different ways: washed, honey, or natural. With traditional washed, cherries go through rollers to separate the beans from the cherry skin and pulp. Next, coffee is fermented sitting in an airlocked container while stirring. Processors have their proprietary method of fermenting—adding yeast and other ingredients—to fully remove the outermost mucilage layer on the bean. Beans are then washed with water. During honey processing, the sweet mucilage is partially removed and with natural, coffee is fully dried in full cherry.
Common drying methods are sun-dried or using a rotating drum dryer. Dependent on weather, sun drying can take a week. Some farms use a flat, elevated hoshidana platform to sun their beans; it has a handy retractable roof in case of rain.
Dried beans, which are called parchment due to their white parchment-like skin, are then stored until needed. “Proper drying and storage are important to remove moisture and protect the parchment,” notes Munoz. “The parchment is a protective layer preserving aroma, moisture level, and quality.”
Milling removes the parchment and leaves the beans polished. Now called green coffee, beans are graded by size and shape. Coffee is also further “graded” by some farms through cupping—a process involving taste and smell. This evaluates production methods, selects roast profiles, and helps purchasers make selections. Munoz is a licensed Q grader, meaning she is certified by the Coffee Quality Institute to evaluate coffee through cupping. She scores coffee for several attributes, such as aroma, sweetness, and flavor notes.
When stored properly, green coffee will retain its flavor until needed. After distributed, it’s roasted, a step distinguishing the flavor and caffeine content of the coffee. Roasting is a precise practice dependent on timing, skill, and quality equipment. A roaster pays attention to temperature, plus the appearance, smell, and sound of the beans. Coffee beans literally “pop” as they expand with the first pop signaling a light roast is attained. Two “pops” yield dark or espresso roasts. The longer the bean is roasted, the less caffeine it offers.
Roasted coffee is finally packaged as whole or ground and then sold to consumers to brew. Enjoyment is the final step: breathing in the aroma; sipping to taste the hard-earned, cultivated flavor, and feeling the subsequent energizing coffee buzz. Down the hatch!