Kona coffee is world famous for its full-bodied, non-bitter, bold flavor. Hard to put the taste into words, but it's good coffee! The micro-climate just south of Kona, around 1000 - 2000 ft above sea level, is perfect for growing coffee beans. The volcanic soil is fertile, the days sunny and warm, the nights cooler, and with frequent light afternoon showers -- exactly what coffee thrives on!
(Kona Coffee trees and their cherries)
Coffee grows on small trees, generally trimmed to bush size. It's a fruit known as a cherry which is red when ripe. Much smaller than the bing cherries you buy in the store, the pulp of the coffee cherry is scanty but sweet -- quite tasty and rich in antioxidants. Most of the cherry consists of its key central seed, which breaks into two halves that we call coffee beans. These beans are dried and roasted to make Kona coffee.
(coffee cherry split open, with it's seed split into 2 coffee beans)
Most of the coffee is grown by small land owners, many not making much money doing so despite the fact that pure (100%) Kona coffee sells for well over $30 a pound. That's mostly because you have to pay American wages to pick and prepare the coffee, obviously much higher than salaries in the developing world. Kona blends are required to contain 10% Kona coffee so they are much cheaper but don't taste nearly as good. You really do get what you pay for.
(pulper and receiving area)
(local coffee farmer brings coffee cherries to Greenwell)
There are a number of coffee growers that give free tours (with the hope that you'll buy something). I've done the Greenwell Farms Coffee Tour twice and, unlike the very disappointing Mauna Loa Macadamia nut plantation tour, the Greenwell Coffee Tour is as excellent as the coffee they sell! Greenwell Farms is a family business run by two siblings and their spouses, descendants of the man who started the farm in 1850. They employee 50 people full time with a surge of seasonal help during the 6 weeks most of the coffee cherries ripen.
No appointments are necessary. Tours run frequently during business hours so you won't have to wait long for one. While you're waiting you're welcome to sample some of the 10 or so varieties of brewed Kona coffees (including such exotic flavors as Chocolate Macadamia nut). An employee of the Farm takes you around part of their coffee garden, explaining how coffee is grown and harvested, how labor intensive it is, and the process of pulping the cherries and drying their beans.
(drying and turning the beans)
You can often smell the beans being roasted at Greenwell's, but no one is allowed into the roasting facility probably because the place is very hot. The tour ends back at the gift shop where you started and many visitors do get a pound or two of Kona coffee to take along. While there's no fee for the tour; if you enjoyed the 20 or so minute narrative from your guide give them a nice tip.
(sample and buy some of the Greenwell Kona coffee)
There are other fruits grown on the farm, some of which you can see below. Visiting Greenwell's is a very pleasant, personable experience. The employees seem happy and love their work, and it reflects in the quality of the visit you have. This is a very recommended activity on the Big Island, especially if you've never been to a coffee plantation before!
(fungus growing on a drying piece of coffee wood)