Kona: The Opus One of Coffee

This story begins high in the clouds of Hualalai Volcano on the Cloud Forest Estate….

Sounds like a fairy tale already, yes?

In a way, it is.

The varietal:  Kona Typica. (But we’re not talking about wine.)

Caffeine count: Half that of other coffees.  (Just right.)

Bitter Aftertaste: None.  (How many coffees can give you that?  Only Kona.)

Headache: None. (Mold, the culprit of why many think they can’t drink coffee, is increasingly absent in 100% Kona coffee.)

Flavor: 100% Pure Kona. (Medium roast, please.)

If you are like me, coffee is no small thing to be trifled with.  It’s my morning energy source and the taste I crave.  In Kailua-Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, Mountain Thunder Coffee plantation takes the process of making coffee to an enlightened art form.  At an elevation of 3,200 ft., it is the highest coffee plantation in the Kona Coffee Belt creating a unique blend of elements that set this 100% organic Kona farm apart.  Here, WAFT takes a tour with General Manager John Langenstein, a man who in many ways is responsible for putting world-renown Kona coffee on the map.

“It takes two years to get productive wood,” Langenstein tells us on the gazebo overlooking the coffee trees, “the season gets dry, and as soon as you get rain, it bursts into flowers (typically from late November through May ); That lasts about 2 days, gets pollinated and turns into a green bean [encased in a coffee cherry].”   This green bean, with a shelf life of 2 years, is the 2nd most widely traded commodity behind oil, not the roasted bean which is only fresh for mere months.  Langenstein picks a few “cherries” for us to taste and continues, “These cherries are what we end up with 7-9 months after the flower. “  I pop the precious seed into my mouth; it is extremely sweet.  Once it’s picked there’s a 36 hour window, and…there’s no caffeine in that bean until it’s roasted.”

“Coffee with no caffeine?” I ask, puzzled.

Langenstein quickly explains, “The organic seed absorbs as much sugar as possible, but what many don’t know is that there is no caffeine in that seed until the heat of the roasting process, where it also takes on its distinct flavor.  It is the heat that creates the caffeine. “

Ah, I knew there’d be a plausible explanation.  Another pleasant surprise revealed that the heat from our mouths was enough to release a coveted caffeine rush – five little beans equaling to one cup of coffee!

100% vs. 10%: Even I can do this math.

We continue on to see the several labor intensive steps of the coffee making process.  Langenstein reveals that Kailua-Kona has just come off a two-year drought which has challenged the otherwise hearty coffee plants; this stress, though producing an excellent crop of coffee, has taken a serious toll on the small, mostly family run, industry.  Another challenging factor?  Many consumers don’t realize that 10% Kona “blend” and 100% Kona coffee are completely different products.  They taste a blend, take it as Kona, and don’t come back.  But once you taste 100%, there is no comparison; supersmooth, balanced, not too much, not too little, just right on the acidity, that no cream or sugar is needed to satisfy the palate.

Getting to know your roasts:

When coffee is roasted Vienna typically means a medium roast and French a dark roast.

“The lighter the roast, the more bean flavor.  The darker the roast, the more roast flavor.”  Langenstein instructs, “To know the company, order a light roast to find out if the coffee is good.  If you like the light roast, then you know the quality of the dark will be good.”

Hand-Picked, Computer-Processed, Hand-Roasted:

What sets 100% Kona coffee at Mountain Thunder apart is its meticulous hand-picking combined with a computer-assisted multi-step process (to get the best beans in each bag) to five important components:  size, number of defects, color, cup (a taste test on a cinnamon roast coffee to verify that there are no negative taste accentuates), and weight density.  State-enforced criteria which coffee estates such as Mountain Thunder work to surpass.

They take the time (and extra steps) to differentiate between Kona extra fancy — the largest size bean with the least amount of defects, fancy, and so forth all the way to the rare peaberry – a mere 5% of the crop — which they perfect by coating with chocolate.  They even go as far as enlisting a four-channel sorter, a fiber-optic eye (more exacting than any human eye) that sorts the colors that aren’t ideal for a cup of coffee.  When they say “the best,” they aren’t kidding.

3 Tips from John Langenstein

1.  One lump or two?  “Neither; Drink it black to enjoy the flavor.”

2. What is the proper way to store coffee? “In a cool, dark, air tight container.”

3.  Is storing it in the freezer a no-no? “Yes, as the freezing locks up some of the flavor and it never fully extracts; this method should only be used if the coffee is close to going stale.  The shelf life of a bag is 2-3 months.”

I left with a pocket full of Poha berries, two coffee cherries for my garden in O’ahu, new friends (Tattoo, Menehune, and a highly excitable gander of geese), and a re-education on coffee.  If you’d like to taste the difference for yourself, try their “frequent buyer” program for a little cup of paradise to your door (and a whopping 20% discount!)  Mountain Thunder offers free tours daily, as well as VIP tours by appointment. For more information visit: http://www.mountainthunder.com/.

Wine and Food Travel is pleased to announce the winner of our Kona Coffee Sweepstakes…

Nancy Needham!


Katherine Hsia

Known affectionately as "the wandering concierge," Katherine segued a hospitality career in fabulous New York City into a life pursuing her passions of writing, adventure and travel on the spectacular island of O'ahu. She is a freelance writer for publications such as Honolulu Magazine, Hawai'i Parent, Freesurf, and more, while working on her Hawaiian comic and non-fiction book. She enjoys seeing life for its whimsical beauty, great meals with good friends, her love affair with travel, and being overstimulated by new experiences. Want to get in touch with Kat? Add her on facebook or send her a message on her website, http://www.katherinehsia.com, where she's been known to get her blog on.

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