The Kona Coffee Belt: Ideal Coffee Country
After enjoying their morning Kona coffee, most people who visit the Kona region on the Big Island of Hawaii end up on the well-known golf courses or sun-drenched beaches unaware that the constantly changing skies above them have so much to do with the enjoyment they got out of their morning regimen.
But the Kona region is one of the most ideal coffee-growing areas in existence. In this "coffee belt," Kona coffee is produced by over 600 mostly small farms for a total of about 2 million pounds of green Kona coffee beans annually. Near Kona, it is easy to see the devastation of the massive lava flows that formed the island Kona is part of. The Kona Coffee Belt is on the rich lands formed on older lava flows stretching along the Mamalahoa Highway.
A world-class coffee region requires six important elements:
* fertile soil
* altitude, e.g., 500 to 3,000 feet as in Kona
* sunshine and temperatures above 55 degrees F at all times
* protection from too intense sun by cloud cover or shade
* sufficient and regular rain
* slope for drainage since the coffee plant does not like wet roots
Hawaii is blessed with all six of these important elements, especially in the Kona region. All essential nutrients needed for coffee trees to prosper are provided by the rich tropical volcanic soil. This is evident in the thriving plant life throughout the Hawaiian archipelago.
Altitude comes into play for several reasons. Moderate altitude (800 to 2000 feet) affords cooler nights. Cool nights in turn produce a coffee cherry that will ripen slower. Slower ripening cherry translates to a larger bean of greater water density all of which has a dramatic effect on taste.
Many parts of Hawaii are drenched continuously in warm sunshine, but in Kona country, this is true mostly only in the morning. Unlike other vegetation, coffee only needs morning sun to grow strong. In fact, too much sun can harm the trees by burning the leaves and coffee cherries which degrades flavor.
In Kona, periods of direct sun are followed by afternoon cloud cover forming in higher elevations that protect the plants from the harsh tropical sun and brings the temperatures down to a more comfortable level. In addition, the afternoon clouds bring much needed rain after the morning sun bath.
As the rain saturates the soil, puddles can form if the ground does not slope enough creating boggy conditions. Too much slope creates too rapid runoff making it generally too dry for the trees. The gentle slopes of Kona offer the ideal angle for drainage.
In addition, easterly trade winds blow consistently, moving across great expanses of the Pacific Ocean before reaching the Hilo side of the Big Island. The winds are tempered after hitting the eastern slope of Mauna Loa, which rises to 13,000 feet. The breezes that make it over the top of the volcano to Kona on the leeward western slope are gentle enough to leave the delicate coffee flowers unharmed and favor the well-formed Kona coffee bean. Of course, frost, the great enemy of coffee, is never a threat in Hawaii's tropical environment.
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