KEALAKEKUA, Hawaii - For ukulele dealer Brian Kiernan, Kona coffee is as good as hard currency — and that says a lot about its status on the Big Island of Hawaii.
"I often get Kona in trades," he says behind the counter of his shop in the heart of Hawaii's prime coffee-growing district, explaining that local farmers bring him beans in exchange for new strings or repairs to their instruments.
"The barter system is alive and well and I'm definitely into it with coffee. It's like money around here."
Ranked by connoisseurs as one of the best brews in the world — and among the priciest, at upwards of US$30 a pound locally — Kona is grown in a three-kilometre-wide, 50-kilometre-long strip of land that slopes down to the Pacific Ocean on the west side of the island.
Drive along the Mamalahoa Highway and you'll see row upon row of spindly coffee trees, their branches loaded with clusters of bright red fruit called "cherries" — actually, they look more like cranberries — during the fall-winter harvest season. The two-lane route on which Kiernan's shop is located passes by farms, processors and cafes promoting "100 per cent Kona coffee" — all signs of a vibrant scene dedicated to the sought-after local beans.
First planted here by an American missionary in 1828, coffee has become a mainstay of the local economy, worth about US$14 million a year. There are some 600 to 700 farms, mostly small family-run operations that harvest their trees by hand.
Interest in coffee tourism is percolating, with a growing number of those farms welcoming visitors, said Tom Greenwell, one of the biggest players in the industry with 30 hectares of trees. Greenwell exports his beans around the world.
"We give free tours of our farm — we're probably doing upwards of 300 people a day," said Greenwell, whose family has been in the coffee business on the island for four generations. "I call it education. Gotta educate the public."
During a 20-minute tour of the property a guide explained how coffee is grown, harvested and processed. Beans were spread out under the sun on huge drying platforms.
At an outdoor table, nine different kinds of brewed coffee were available for guests to sample, at no charge. One was made from the fruit of 100-year-old trees; another specialty product, called peaberry, is produced from cherries containing just one bean instead of the usual two.
Over at Kona Joe, another farm nearby, coffee trees are grown on trellises, an unusual technique that resembles what you'd see in a vineyard.
"Very smooth and rich," was the considered opinion of visitor Doug Appleby, 57, of Camrose, Alta., in Kona Joe's tasting room where different roasts were offered for free sampling.
"The dark roast is much smoother than the medium roast," he added.
Experts say Kona has a distinctive floral aroma.
"Instead of just smelling coffee, you're getting a bouquet of flowers," said John King, one of the judges at a "cupping" competition staged in a hotel conference room during November's annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival to determine the best local java.
"There is a flavour component, a mellow sweetness, in Kona that you do not get with anything else grown on the planet."
For a discriminating palate, tasting coffee and wine are comparable experiences. King took notes on a clipboard as he swirled, sniffed, sipped — and then spit into a plastic cup.
If he didn't spit he'd be "bouncing off the walls," said King, a California-based coffee importer who's been judging the event for 14 years. His advice to tourists about to embark on a round of tasting: eat first, otherwise the caffeine will go straight to the bloodstream.
In an adjacent seminar room, Honolulu coffee scientist Shawn Steiman told an audience that "coffee geeks" like him seek out complexity.
"We use a lot of descriptors, saying a coffee tastes like blueberries or flowers or caramel or apricots or whatever."
A distasteful topic of discussion at this year's festival was the coffee berry borer, a pest that has attacked coffee plantations around the world and was first identified in Kona two years ago. The beetle, which has spread to farms throughout the district, enters cherries and destroys the beans inside.
The infestation has reduced the supply of good beans, driving prices up sharply — 20 per cent this year on top of a 20 per cent rise the year before, said Greenwell.
"We will most likely see a shortage of the crop for wholesale purposes probably for another year or two," he said.
Measures being taken to control the bug include spraying farms with a special fungus and hanging baited traps from trees.
"A lot of farmers that had it bad last year have cleaned it up," said Greenwell. "It is totally controllable."
All the stress over pests and sky-high prices could drive a person to drink. Greenwell said he's "perpetually wired" from the coffee he consumes — often six to eight cups daily. Visitors are liable to find themselves in the same state.
"I usually drink just a cup a day, and probably now I've already had two or three," said Mike Gindl, 70, of Calgary at a mid-morning festival event where top-grade Kona was being served. But he brushed off a suggestion that the caffeine jolt was causing him problems.
"No. I don't mind the buzz."
If you go . . .
Getting there: Air Canada and WestJet are among airlines flying to Kona International Airport, which provides convenient access to the Big Island's main coffee-producing district.
Where to stay: Options range from the upscale Sheraton resort at Keauhou Bay to the quirky Kona Hotel in Holualoa, a budget establishment that offers one of the most scenic bathroom views in Hawaii — or possibly anywhere (for a photo, see www.kona123.com/konahotel.html). A list of accommodations can be found at http://tinyurl.com/Kona-Info.
Flavours: Local outlets sell Kona coffee in a variety of styles. In addition to a range of roast levels from light to espresso, common flavourings used include macadamia nut, chocolate, vanilla and coconut. There's also decaf.
Festival: Held annually in November, the 10-day Kona Coffee Cultural Festival features farm tours, a coffee judging competition, a tree-picking contest, an art stroll, a parade and other community events.
Shopping: Coffee byproducts for sale locally include coffee bean jewelry, baked goods (the chocolate espresso scones at Kaya's cafe in Kawanui are the height of decadence) and a beverage made from coffee cherries that is said to be high in antioxidants.
On the effects of different roasting levels: "Lighter roast coffees have higher taste acidity and permit interesting, nuanced flavours to be detected. Medium roast beans have fewer nuances and more body. Darker beans have even more body, fewer nuances and tend to have smoky, woody or char notes." — Shawn Steiman, "The Hawai'i Coffee Book: A Gourmet's Guide from Kona to Kaua'i"