In the beginning was paradise
Grands crus Hawaii Kona
The elixir that flows in Hawaii like a rejuvenating spring is the source of its Eden-like youthfulness.
This Big Island is indebted to lava flows for its heavenly coffee: the taste of paradise coveted the world over. Nespresso is devoting a Special Reserve called Hawaii Kona to this exclusive crop.
THE MIRACLE OF “KONA” WAS ALREADY HIGHLY PRIZED BY NINETEENTH CENTURY CONNOISSEURS.
A WRINKLE IN THE WATER, LIKE A THOUGHTFUL FROWN ON THE SMOOTH BROW OF THE PACIFIC. FROM THE AIR, HAWAII’S LARGEST ISLAND SEEMS LOST IN REVERIE, A PEACEFUL AND TENDER LAND OF FIRE THAT DREAMS OF A PAST LIFE IN THE DEPTHS OF THE OCEAN. The lava of two active volcanoes flows quietly, drawing up its source of eternal youth from the freshest layers of the earth’s mantle, and constantly renewing the island’s basalt surface. This rugged outcrop is shaped with roads as smooth as leather straps, a lunar landscape formed from the colours of fresh tarmac blending into the volcanic rock. Drive on them and you feel the warmth emanating from this newborn soil, such is the sense that the Hawaiian archipelago, so recently emerged from the womb of the earth, is the newest that the New World has to offer. It is as if this place is still in the confusion of the unborn child, full of the promise of life to come. As though Creation was meeting in plenary session to debate the identity of the child’s father. For this peacefully tumultuous land is something of an eclectic mix: volcanic mountains, cracked deserts, rolling hills, vast prairies, poisonous jungles, active lava fields, impassable glaciers. Even surfing, the dangerous game of Hawaii’s original inhabitants, bears witness to this basic lack of inhibition as surfers soar on humungous waves which rise on the curve of the horizon.
One of the world’s most precious coffees – and the only one grown in the United States – owes its existence to this unruly island. The name “Kona”, which is also the name of the area it comes from, means “under the wind”. Harvested in the lee of the trade winds on the western coast of the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, this rare coffee, “with notes of freshly ground sky”, comes from one of the scarcest varieties in the world. The island is a little smaller than Jamaica – it only takes four hours to go round it in a car – and has only 2000 acres of coffee plants across several hundred farms, most of which are family-owned. As these growers prepare to commemorate two hundred years since the little tree was introduced to the archipelago, Nespresso has decided to celebrate this miraculous coffee by dedicating a limited – by necessity – collector’s edition to it. “Kona” was already highly prized by nineteenth century connoisseurs. Tom Greenwell, undisputed patriarch of the island’s coffee-growers, proudly displays a certificate of excellence above his desk which was awarded to his great-grandfather at the Universal Exposition of 1873 in Vienna. And the Austrians really know their coffee: it was they who introduced Europeans to this mysterious commodity, found in the luggage of a sultan defeated outside their capital. According to the owner of the Greenwell farm, the incredible quality of Hawaiian crus can be explained by a number of perfectly synchronised coincidences. First of all there is the youth of this soil dotted with volcanic rocks, producing a good, dark, loose earth which is porous and nutritious – perfect for coffee plant roots, and containing sufficient nitrogen to protect against potential diseases. The atmosphere is just as important. It is conditioned by the island’s five mountain peaks, some of which are volcanically active, and all dominated by Mauna Kea, a colossus which would outstrip Everest by half a mile if measured from its base at the sea bed. Clouds arriving from other skies are left hanging as though from a peg before this unforeseen titan, forming a vast, celestial cover against the blazing heat of a tropical day. Contrary to the popular belief that Hawaii’s Big Island is an eternally sunny paradise, its glorious mornings invariably give way to melancholy afternoons, the air sparkling with fine rain like soda water. This hydrating screen perfectly regulates the climate, providing optimum conditions for coffee plant photosynthesis. Finally, local varieties have not changed since they arrived on the islands in 1813. The elegant fruit of Arabica Typica, for example, which produces a clear, smooth coffee, is particularly prone to infection. Here, 3,850 km from its first shores, in damp isolation, the same crop has lit upon a blessed sanctuary. While its American cousins grown in Brazil, Colombia or Guatemala were “improved” to make them more resistant, but at the expense of their distinctive aroma, Hawaii’s isolation put it beyond the reach of pests. The crop could be maintained in virginal purity in a state of untainted innocence.
The overseer of the Greenwell farm, “Pepe” Miranda, speaks of the difficulty of harvesting on the slopes of a volcano which are too steep for machinery. Plots are harvested by hand, and the workers are only to pick ripe fruit, just as the red pulp begins to turn crimson. During the season, which lasts from August to January, the same tree might be harvested around ten times. The coffee is then subjected to the wet process: after depulping, it is washed in fresh water then dried in the sun on traditional racks with removable canopies, named “hoshidanas” by their Japanese inventors. These Japanese pioneers were as much gardeners as farmers and had a profound influence on the development of the coffee tree around Kona. At the beginning of the last century, they committed to working on the Hawaiian sugar plantations for three years to pay for their passage to Brazil, where they hoped for a small patch of land. A few chose to stay indefinitely alongside other settlers arriving from around the world: from the Philippines, Portugal, then later from Panama, Columbia and Micronesia... Here, as anywhere in the United States, labour is expensive: where a worker in El Salvador might be paid 8 dollars for a day’s work, the going rate is 10 dollars an hour in Hawaii. But Kona coffee producers have managed to protect themselves against global competition by emphasising the unique nature of their coffee. This is achieved through meticulous agricultural practices which, at first glance, seem excessive: whether that be the green harvest (when some of the cherries are removed from the tree so that the remaining fruit has more taste), or maintaining plants between rows of coffee trees, to stimulate water stress. Sharon Wood, owner of the Arianna plantation, comments: “Every little step matters, from the early cuttings to our warehousing practices. One tiny mistake, and a year’s work is lost, collapsing like a house of cards.” She and her husband got into growing this beautiful bean after they fell in love with it during their honeymoon. The couple, who hail from California, bought 40 acres on the fertile slopes of the volcano Hualalai, and named it after their only daughter, as if to ward against failure in this crazy venture. To recreate the flavours which first drew them in, “a bouquet of fruity aromas with subtle, nutty notes,” Sharon reveals she followed the advice of more experienced farmers. Hawaiian producers are happy to share their secrets, because of the “aloha” spirit which gives the 50th American state its name. It is an untranslatable word which expresses the sunny disposition and gracious, kind nature of the inhabitants of this string of lost islands... That incredible goodwill evoked by the melodious murmur of the ukulele, smooth and predictable as a sea of glass. Sharon adds, “Kona isn’t simply a coffee paradise, it’s also heaven for those who grow it.”
ONE TINY MISTAKE, AND A YEAR’S WORK IS LOST, COLLAPSING LIKE A HOUSE OF CARDS.
SURFING THE ELEMENTS
Whether riding the ocean or the lava, Hawaiians frequently brave a sometimes ferocious nature: it makes victory all the more satisfying.
FORCE OF NATURE
The only coffee grown in the United States perfectly encapsulates the exuberant character of its homeland: an island no bigger than Jamaica, yet it fosters all the landscapes of a continent.
A RARE PEARL IN THE PACIFIC
Kona coffee flourishes on the western side of the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. The area barely exceeds 2000 acres and is a miraculous pinprick in the immense Pacific Ocean, possessing all the necessary conditions for this priceless fruit to grow. Its scarcity means that some distributors dilute a tiny portion of the sought-after bean in a much greater volume of ordinary coffee. Nespresso guarantees a “pure origin” coffee, which is why this Special Reserve is such a limited edition. To ensure that every cup truly displays its incredible qualities, our Experts only select the largest, best quality beans, and make sure that they are kept in their protective “parchment” until the very last moment. The bean is then roasted to achieve a perfectly even dark caramel colour, then ground to “medium” grade. These two operations determine the quality of the coffee in your cup: constant vigilance is required to ensure that the most delicate flavours are locked in and to prevent any bitter nuances from developing.
Photography Olivier Gachen Text Julien Bouré