Hawaii Plantations Brew a New Alternative Crop

Article excerpt

HONOLULU -- What France is to wine and Italy is to pasta, Hawaii wants to be to coffee.

So, javaheads, listen up.

Connoisseurs say, stop looking for the best gourmet coffee in Jamaica, Kenya or Colombia. Hawaii is the way to go -- right down to the last drop. Where sugar cane and pineapple farms once spread across thousands of acres, rows and rows of coffee trees now stand. Since competition from cheap foreign markets has forced most of Hawaii's plantations to close, growers are now searching for a new alternative cash crop to keep the island green. They hope coffee will be hot. "Hawaii's coffee is virtually unknown now, but Hawaii can make its region as well known as others if it learns how," said Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in Long Beach, Calif. So over the last 12 years, producers of the only coffee grown in an American state have been selling their crop all over the world, transforming their industry from a $4 million a year business to one with sales of $20 million annually. Many believe it has the potential to bring in millions more. The land cultivated for coffee occupies only a fraction of the thousands of acres once planted in sugar, but some, like H.C.Bittenbender, chairman of the Horticulture Department at the University of Hawaii, say coffee could be as lucrative as sugar was at its peak. Before Hawaii's sugar industry began to wane in 1980, it brought in more than $5 billion to the state economy. That potential has led to some debate over what constitutes the real thing. From the mountains of the island of Hawaii to the lush valleys of Kauai, about 6,900 acres of land are now covered with trees that sport bright red coffee cherries. But it is on the western slopes of the Hawaii Island, under the ideal greenhouse conditions of intense morning sun and cloud- covered afternoons, where one of the best grades of coffee in the world grows. Kona coffee has been grown on the island since the late 1800s by individual farmers handpicking the beans on their small farms. Even today, they still take pride in the extra care they give to the cherries. That's why Kona coffee has become the second-most expensive regularly available coffee in the world, Lingle said. At $20 to $30 per pound, connoisseurs of the jolt juice say the taste is worth the price for a cup of Kona. The most expensive coffee, Kope Luwok coffee from Indonesia, sells for about $130 a pound. …


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