Tasting the ‘aina: Kona coffee and chocolate

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This blog post had some technical difficulties on the back end, which makes it a little late! Back to our regular programming:

One of the highlights of the trip was a hands-on trek to a chocolate and coffee farm, up in the mountains overlooking all of the Kona area. This is a showcase of Kamehameha Schools‘ lands and partners in the farm-to-table initiative, showing how people are truly making local, sustainable products that are viewed by the world as high-quality items.  The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory is the nation’s first “tree to bar” operation, where Bob and Pam Cooper have been growing their own cacao since they bought the farm in 1997. Bob was determined to keep this operation “made in Hawaii,” so after testing his beans with a world-renowned chocolate institute and finding he had a superior bean, he got a loan from the state Department of Business and Economic Development and got equipment and a micro-processing facility. You’ll see more in the gallery below.

Before heading out to see the big farms, we took a detour on Donkey Mill Road, one of Kamehameha Schools’ ag/residential developments. Many of the people in this area live on “gentleman farmers” plots, which are small, non-operative farms that don’t supply products to the masses. They provide extra income for hobby farmers that live there, so you might find a gem of a boutique farmer growing a small, single-estate crop. The exception is a man named John Perry, who leased 400 acres at the end of this road, and planted 280 acres with 500 to 700 coffee trees per acre. His coffee, Kona Gold, now has the contract for all Costco stores west of the Mississippi. We didn’t get out to take photos, but I thought I’d share that as a neat success story.

For me, the trip to the UCC Coffee farm was educational on many levels. Peggy Smith gave us a very thorough tour, explaining coffee growing, processing and roasting and some of the back stories of the farm and the area. As far as farm-to-table goes, I don’t even need to tell you how superior Kona coffee is to anything else in the world. I’m sure it tastes great in other cities, but getting Kona coffee fresh from the farmer is magical. (I have been drinking my Kona coffee from this tour since I returned home, and today had to drink instant coffee in a pinch and almost gagged. And I’m not even a coffee connoisseur. I’m ruined.)


My great-grandfather and his kids on the Kona coffee farm, maybe 1905. My grandmother is third from right, holding the baby (a.k.a. Uncle Eddie).

From a personal standpoint, I’m often referring to my mother’s side of my roots, which originated in Kona in the late 1800s. Her family — also Changs, but Hakka — came to Kona from China to become migrant coffee pickers. They were very poor, but they probably came to achieve the American Dream for their family. And, once their children moved off the farm to Honolulu and San Francisco, the wheels of progress left those plantation days far behind. I always wonder what they might think if they saw what their grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren had become? Not one of us knows how to pick coffee. But now, at least, I know how to roast my own beans.

Touring Big Island agriculture

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Another day of touring Kamehameha Schools' ag lands and partners brought us to the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory on the leeward slopes of Mt. Hualalai. Pam Cooper greeted us with a tray of — what else? — chocolate.

One minute video: How to roast your own coffee.

Educational video: Tour of the UCC Coffee farm and facilities (includes my coffee roasting video at the end).

Up next: culture, history, and more locavore eats.

Our group at the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory.


"And I’m not even a coffee connoisseur. I’m ruined."


it's a slippery slope to quality. Inez 's favorite compliment  was when someone once called her a 'quality snob'. 


Delicate Blossom:  Interesting post...a little bit of everything.  It is great to see the agriculture going through its cycle of increasing importance as the world gets more and more bodies to feed.  Besides agri-business conglomerates, GMO, water resources, and hazardous chemicals, agriculture has lots of pressures.  I think your great-grandmother would find it ironic that you went back to see what her family did for a living and would have a good laugh.  Then she would say:"Delicate Blossom, may you never have to pick coffee beans for a living and be rich enough to just buy it to drink!"  Kind of makes you wonder about Starbucks, how much they are making and how much their growers are making by comparison.  Maybe Juan Valdez is now rich from making TV commercials!


Melissa, thanks for sharing your family history.  My grandmother was born in Honolulu on my father side and his father in China.  My mother and grandmother from China.  Grandmother worked in sugarcane field till when back to China with husband and children to be educated  since grandfather has business .  My Grandfather on mother side was known as Godfather in casinos in China and when he came to San Francisco he open up an casino in Chinatown . People pay up fast or guys went after them.

To this day my grandfather death was still a mystery how he died.


Melissa808 moderator

 @turkfontaine I was kind of surprised, but I guess once you get a taste of the good stuff, you can't go back. I remember back in the 1980s, my dad got his first taste of Kahuku corn straight from the farm....that was IT for the family, and Safeway corn was no longer consumed in the Chang household. Then he got a watermelon from Ewa...and so on and so forth.

Melissa808 moderator

 @Annoddah_Dave I'm sure the family's hope was that none of us would ever have to work in the fields!


  1. […] made with local fruits when possible, and high-quality coffee and tea: Big Island Meyer lemons; UCC’s Kona coffee; Ito En’s ceremonial grade, premium matcha powder; and whole Tokachi azuki beans from […]