Mrs. HowChow and I rode a decade's frequent flyer miles to Hawaii last month, and chance -- plus a busted connection -- put us in the very last row on the Kona flight next to a really nice guy from Los Angeles. Bad seats broke the ice. We chatted about the Big Island where he had lived for several years, and Trey invited us to tour the coffee farm where his father had moved 20 years ago from the mainland.Pele Plantations
Pele Plantations turned out to be an experience that ranked with the lava fields and the hike to black-sand beaches. (But below the sea turtles. Nothing matches a swim with the sea turtles!)
Gus and Cynthia Brocksen run their own organic coffee farm on the slope of a hill south of Kona. They also buy beans from other locals, and their niche is selling "estate" coffee, meaning that the coffee in your bag comes from a single, specific farm. If you like the flavor of "Kona Rose," then you can order again and know that you'll get coffee from the same fields.
You're going to get great coffee no matter what you order from Pele Plantations. Gus and Cynthia toured us around for three hours. We had imagined a big commercial operation, but they basically run the business from their home -- a home with a large garage, a pumping mill, and a drying shed with a movable roof. They hand-pick pick only red beans, which they say avoids the bitterness in green beans that come along when commercial growers strip entire plants on a single day. They handle the beans every step of the way except for one step, and they clearly care about the coffee.
I'm sold. I don't know if I can justify $25 per pound for everyday coffee (and the organics hit $36), but I do believe that their "Mauka Fire" coffee is the best coffee that I have ever bought. It is so much better that I don't really have the vocabulary to explain the difference. Strong, earthy coffee taste, but no bitterness. Caramel-smooth, says Mrs. HowChow. Pele Plantation provides the coffee for the espresso bar and the luxury suites at the Four Seasons resort, so you know that taste must be special.
If you want to try a special coffee, buy mail order from Pele Plantations because they're going to treat you honestly. Every store on the Big Island offered "Kona" coffee, and they're mostly big company brands so you have no idea what you're really getting. In contrast, we stood in Pele Plantation's garage with burlap bags of the different varieties. We decided on "Mauka Fire" on Cynthia's recommendation, and we watched Gus roast three pounds just for us. They have no coffee on the shelf. It's all bagged in green form, then roasted for your order. Too expensive for most people, but a real treat if coffee is your little luxury and cheaper than most "Kona" sold on the island.
If you go to the Big Island, definitely call for a Pele Plantation tour. Years ago, I went on a stuffy tourist tour in Costa Rica. That isn't Cynthia's style. She outfitted Mrs. HowChow with picking gear and walked us right into the fields where plants grow in the fast-draining lava rocks. We learned about coffee plant. We heard about local economics and about Gus and Cynthia's first date. We saw their macadamia nut trees. We saw their sheep. (We saw more of the ram than we ever expected, if you know what I mean.) Then, we came back to the house, and Cynthia was going to run the pulping mill just for us until we promised that we had seen enough. It's a comprehensive tour (although you don't taste the coffee because they don't have any sitting around), and I really believed Cynthia when she said, "You don't have to buy any coffee." We bought three pounds.
The really interesting option at Pele Plantations is their coffee club. You pick your schedule -- deciding the type of beans, the roast and the frequency. You could buy every month, every two months, every three. No minimum enrollment. No penalty if you cancel. The Brocksens think that you'll love their coffee, so they'll stand up for it.
For local coffee roasting, you should check out Mad City Coffee in Columbia or look for coffee roasted by Orinoco Coffee, which still roasts in Columbia although the retail store on McGaw Road closed. I also stumbled on Southern Skies Coffee in Finksburg, MD. The Web site looks like a small roaster selling four varieties. Has anyone seen Southern Skies Coffee at a store/restaurant?
(Photos by Mrs. HowChow (Canon EOS).)
Gus & Cynthia Brocksen, Owners & Founders
P.O. Box 809
Honaunau, HI 96726