Legacy in a Cup
7-Eleven Hawaiʻi's Estate Roast Kona Blend
Brooke Rehmann | Feb 13, 2017
Legacy in a Cup
Ripened by the Sun
High above the slopes of the Big Island’s sun-kissed beaches lays one of its most fertile and well-regarded regions. To the casual visitor, this region may not be well-known, but the product cultivated in this area has quite the reputation
As robust as the coffee it produces, the Kona Coffee Belt is a small stretch of land that extends two miles wide and twenty miles long. Historically, this little area has produced some of Hawaiʻi’s best coffee, garnering worldwide accolades and maintaining a legacy of farming techniques that are still alive today. The volcanic, nutrient-rich soil is ideal for coffee growing because it basks in warm, sunny mornings then is cooled by cloudy afternoons, giving the coffee grown in this area a distinct and rich flavor.
The coffee tree produces a bright, red berry called the “cherry” that contains within it the coffee bean. Farmers pick each cheery by hand only once a year. During this long and arduous process, not all cherries on the same branch ripen at the same time. The picking season usually lasts for several months and while other coffee areas in the world may use picking machines, the farmers in the Kona Coffee Belt know that machines cannot tell the difference between a ripened cherry and one that is still not ready - all of which affects the taste of the final product.
The Journey to Hawaiʻi
Coffee came to the state of Hawaiʻi by way of Oʻahu’s Governor Boki in 1825. Having picked up the seeds for the crop on his travels through Brazil, Governor Boki helped establish one of Hawaiʻi’s most fabled products. In 1828, Reverend Samuel Ruggles took some cuttings from the coffee plants grown on Oʻahu over to the Big Island. Over time, the crop made its way to Kona where it has remained ever since. That isn’t to say that the crop has enjoyed easy, long lasting success in all of that time. There have been many booms and near busts, but the people of Kona, and the coffee they produce, continue to endure.
"Farming is my lifestyle. I hope my dad would be proud of my coffee."
With the Coffee arabica plant, Kona coffee first received international acclaim when H.N. Greenwell’s coffee was recognized at the 1873 World’s Fair in Vienna for producing an exceptional product. Once coffee became established in the Kona region, workers from other areas of the island started making their way west, many of them escaping the hardships of life as sugar plantation workers. Though many ethnic groups came to this region, it was the Japanese farmers who had the longest lasting impact on the coffee farming practices in Kona. Japanese language schools were set up along with a local Japanese language newspaper, the Kona Echo. Community was hugely important, with members of the Japanese community setting up kumiai, or support associations, to help each other out in times of need. Large families helped pick the coffee cherries from the trees, and haul the cherries to the road to be picked up by the local mills with the help of donkeys.
Up towards the northern section of the Kona Coffee Belt, along the historic Mamalahoa Highway, is one such farm that has been operating for generations. Driving along the old highway in the afternoon, around all of the twists and turns and through the light afternoon drizzle, one can see the sun burning a bright reflection off the ocean while it hides behind a cloud, casting a bright pink and orange hue over the coffee trees. There, Mel Kunitake, an eighty-year-old sansei, or third generation offspring from Japanese immigrant grandparents, has been farming coffee since he was a child. His farm has been overlooking this beautiful view for over a hundred years, with coffee trees drinking in the light drizzle and warm evening sunshine since they were first planted here a century ago.
Generations of Love and Hard Work
When his grandparents left Japan for the Big Island, it is hard to imagine that they could have foreseen the impact they would have on so many coffee drinkers around Hawaiʻi. While Mel’s grandfather had built a modest house on this land in the early 1900’s, it was Mel’s father who decided to plant some coffee on this stretch of land, and over time, Mel became the sole overseer of the farm. At twenty acres and over 12,000 trees, this is not an easy task. Today, Mel hires out seasonal workers to help pick and tend his farm, but when he was a kid growing up, he and his seven younger siblings were much more involved in the picking of the coffee cherries. He says he’s done a little bit of everything on the farm and, in terms of ensuring the safety of his workers, he doesn’t ask them to do anything he himself would not do.
Meeting Mel at his coffee farm on a warm sunny morning, the sun was shining over his acres and acres of coffee trees. The sky and ocean hues of the clearest blues complimented this picturesque view. There, we "talked story" about his life growing up on his coffee farm and the legacy farming has had throughout his life. Despite Mel's age, he is healthy. He’s a little self effacing but also very practical minded. He doesn’t get caught up in the hype about his coffee, though he knows he has worked hard to create a product to be proud of.
While standing on a ledge overlooking the coffee trees and Kailua Bay, Mel points out an area towards his left that he says used to be used as an artillery during World War II. He was a young child at the time when soldiers came to his parent’s farm and set up camp. His family was lucky to avoid being sent off to an internment camp and was able to stay on their land during the war. Mel talks about the soldiers and how young they were, too young to be facing the huge burden before them. While looking out towards the bay, he tells me of the times the military would hold target practice in the bay, using the artillery on his land to shoot the targets at night, miles away into the open ocean.
Being a coffee farmer has never been easy, he says. Though he left to attend college on the mainland for a few years, he returned to help his parents take care of the farm. “I didn’t mind helping out,” he says, “I just wished I could have done more for my parents. I never thought about the sacrifices I’ve made or they made, I just thought it was a son’s duty.” Eventually, his parents passed away and now, as he looks to the future, he’s not sure what will become of his farm. Times change and his children are not as interested in taking on the challenges that have defined the life of a Kona coffee farmer for so many years.
The Future of Mel's Coffee
Mel’s coffee embarked on a new journey this past year. 7-Eleven Hawaiʻi rolled out a new 20% Kona coffee blend featuring the coffee grown right here on Mel’s farm, as the single source for the Kona beans. This blend is now a feature in all of the neighborhood 7-Eleven stores. When asked about this new development for his coffee, Mel reflects on the work he’s always done. “Farming is my lifestyle,” he says. Mel drinks his own coffee every morning, sometimes up to six cups. His coffee makes him think of his parents and the sacrifices they made to give him a better life. “I hope my dad would be proud of my coffee.”
Despite all the attention being placed on Mel and his farm, he remains humble. When asked what makes his coffee so special, he talks about the unique qualities of Kona coffee instead. After generations of coffee farmers who have relied on their community for comfort and strength, Mel represents the continuation of this spirit. For consumers who want to taste all of the love, aloha and hard work that have gone into creating this delicious cup of Kona coffee, all you have to do is walk to the nearest 7-Eleven store. While enjoying this special Estate Blend, imagine the generations of coffee farmers, and one farmer in particular, that helped bring this unique product to you.