The aloha state is home to almost a thousand coffee farms combined, with the majority being located on the island of Hawaii (commonly referred to as the big island). Millions of pounds of coffee are produced each year, with farms in Hawaii carrying on the rich traditions of their predecessors… farmers have been harvesting Kona coffee for generations, with coffee being grown on the island since the 1800’s!
Throughout February and March small white flowers referred to as “Kona snow” blossom on the coffee trees, creating a sweetly scented blanket throughout the Kona coffee farms signalling the start of the coffee season. In April, green coffee berries begin appearing. Around late August, as the berries ripen, red coffee fruit often referred to as “Cherry” is ready to be harvested.
The coffee plantations of the state of Hawaii, especially those in the Kona region – grow on unique volcanic terrain, and while the slopes of mauna loa provide ideal conditions for coffee trees to grow, they provide a particular set of challenges to how we harvest Kona coffee in Hawaii when the season comes around.
With over 650 coffee farms of all sizes dispersed throughout the region, the sometimes uneven and winding rows of trees at varying degrees of elevation make mechanized harvesting of the beans impractical. Hand picking the bright red Kona coffee cherries is the only solution. Hand picking coffee cherry is preferable to mechanical harvesting in other ways – since coffee cherry does not ripen all at once, pickers may return to the trees several times over in order to only harvest the cherry that has grown to optimal ripeness – a distinction mechanical harvesters are unable to make when they rip everything from a tree at once.
The art of hand picking
There are several important factors to be mindful of when picking coffee cherry by hand. Rather than the method referred to as “strip picking” where a picker takes a branch and removes all the attached cherry in one movement, Kona coffee is often selectively picked, which is more time and labor intensive (another factor contributing to the overall cost of Kona coffee) but yields far higher quality results.
The cherry is best picked once it is fully red – immature beans (those that are still green, yellow, orange or slightly red) have an inferior taste and can cause problems during the processing stage. Picking the ripe cherry without disturbing the unripe cherry leaves time for them to mature properly and be ready for another round of picking.
The sugars in the coffee cherry begin to convert to starches once the cherry has been picked, so it cannot be left to sit around for long, or else there is an increased risk of rot and deterioration.
Once the cherry has been picked, time is of the essence as it makes its way to the next stage: Processing.