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Name a product of the land, and you’ll likely find it on Hawaii’s Big Island. Because of its vast size and diversity of climates, the destination is a proverbial breadbasket, a place where almost anything can — and does — grow.
For living proof, clients can book a new tour that takes them to a coffee farm, tea garden and honey farm in the Big Island’s rural northeastern area called Ahualoa on the Hamakua Coast. For many decades, this region was mostly one big sugar plantation, thriving on reliable rains and local workers. The rains are still here, but the sugar has moved to places where labor is cheaper. For the same reason sugar grew so well in this fertile soil, other crops do, too. The three farms on the Ahualoa tour are typical of these new culinary innovators.
Long Ears Hawaiian Coffee owners Wendell and Netta Branco
Take coffee, for example. Usually associated with the Kona side of the Big Island, at one time coffee farms were also prominent on the Hamakua Coast. That’s one of the first things clients find out from Wendell and Netta Branco, owners of Long Ears Hawaiian Coffee, where the tour starts. The Brancos have had this farm for years, using it mainly for breeding mules. But in 2000, Wendell decided to pick the beans from some of the wild coffee trees growing on the land. Soon he had 300 pounds of ripe, red coffee beans, and a business was born.
Not having many coffee trees themselves, the Brancos found more wild trees growing on the coast, dug them up and replanted them on their acreage. They acquired the basic equipment for processing the beans and taught themselves how to do the pulping, drying, husking and roasting involved in creating coffee.
The Brancos’ coffee estate is now the only one on the Hamakua Coast doing the entire coffee process, from picking through roasting, on-site. Unlike other coffee companies, at the Long Ears farm, the coffee is aged for three years after it dries, giving it its unique flavor.
"It’s kind of like fine wine, cheese or women," said Wendell. "After all, this is Hawaii, so we aren’t in any hurry here."
Clients taste several varieties of the Long Ears brew, accompanied by slices of fresh baked banana bread.
The next tour stop — the Mauna Kea Tea Garden — is half a mile up the road. Owners Takahiro and Kimberly Ino started the operation a few years back, growing green tea on a quarter-acre, which is rapidly expanding.
Although tea, like coffee, was introduced to Hawaii in the 19th century, today the Inos’ farm is one of only a few in the state. The climate at the 2,000-foot elevation is perfect for tea cultivation: acidic soil, adequate year-round rainfall, cool nights and a mix of sunshine and cloudy skies. The Inos use sustainable farming practices to help them produce the best quality product.
Tea is processed for about 10 hours, explains Takahiro, and should be consumed, rather than stored, as soon as possible following processing for maximum flavor. Taste also depends on the intricacies of tea brewing — including water temperature, the material of pots and cups and timing — all of which Takahiro demonstrates for clients. For many, it’s likely the first time they have ever experienced fresh-picked and fresh-brewed tea.
"It’s a peaceful drink," said Takahiro. "We drink it together to make friends."
A little farther up the narrow, winding road from the Mauna Kea Tea Company is the tour’s final stop, the Volcano Island Honey Company. Its product, Hawaiian organic white honey, has an opalescent color and creamy, rich, sensuous essence that floats off the tongue. One taste and almost everyone agrees it’s the best honey they have ever tasted.
It’s no accident this honey tastes so good. The Volcano Island Honey Company produces what it calls "inspired honey," because it is a business with an uncommon philosophy, emphasizing living in harmony with nature and people. Company owner Richard Spiegel had this in mind when he started the enterprise two decades ago. A former attorney in Washington, D.C., the industrious Spiegel came to the Big Island to see if he could marry beekeeping to a "small but quality" approach to the business.
Spiegel tells clients about the fascinating history, biology and social-spiritual significance of bees in our society. His company’s all-organic honeys come from 150 hives located in a single grove of kiawe trees along the arid coast on the west side of the Big Island. These trees are nothing to look at, but — thanks to underground water — produce a prolific number of blossoms saturated with exquisite nectar.
It’s these types of natural conditions — along with meticulous growing practices — that make this an authentic artisan food operation, just like Long Ears Hawaiian Coffee and Mauna Kea Tea Company. All three have, in Spiegel’s words, "consciously stayed small," valuing tradition, quality and authenticity above other considerations.