Without question, going into this week’s “roasterpost,” biscotti was on a roll. Two roaster interviews down – one via email, the other via phone interview,
thirty-three thirty-five (two more added this week!) to go. So, we connected w/ Gary Strawn, the owner of family owned & operated Kona Earth coffee farm and agreed to speak.
Gary sent us an email before our interview, saying - There’s one thing about your set of questions…they’re all about being a coffee roaster, and that’s not what I do. I’m a coffee farmer. I plant the coffee, prune the coffee, pick the coffee, process the coffee, package the coffee, sell the coffee, and ship the coffee – but the one thing I don’t do is roast it.
(We ran into the other room and splashed our face with some iced kona full city roast peaberry coffee to get our bearings.) We came back to the computer and re-read the background material we had for Kona Earth. It’s signed “Gary Strawn a.k.a. Farmer Gary.” #biscottifail
Then we realized how great an opportunity this really was. We had a chance to learn from Gary all about coffee farming and decided it would make a great blog post. We really enjoyed our conversation w/ Farmer Gary. What an interesting story he’s got!
We need to back up for a second and give a 5-second history lesson about Kona coffee. It’s one of the most prized coffees in the world, known for its combination of creamy, smooth, clean, sweet and (non)chocolaty-ish taste notes, along with medium-body and balanced qualities. And it’s only found in Hawaii. Actually, it’s found only on the tropical slopes of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes in the northern and southern Kona Districts of the Big Island of Hawaii
but who’s counting. The combination of Kona Districts’ unique weather pattern (sunny mornings, cloud cover/rain in the afternoons, little wind, mild nights) and porous, mineral-rich volcanic soil, creates favorable coffee-growing conditions.
But Gary didn’t live in Hawaii. Well, he did for a tiny amount of his childhood, but that’s beside the point. Also, until he bought his coffee farm, he only ever had *ONE* cup of coffee in his whole entire life. (That one cup was given to him as a reward by his commanding officer in Air Force Survival School after he’d just finished hiking up a snowy mountain in the middle of the night! Yeah, Gary did a surprise 6-year stint in the United States Air Force, having signed up a reservist right before Desert Storm – d’oh!)
Gary spent a decade working as a senior network game programmer in New Hampshire, Silicon Valley and L.A. He rose to the top of his field, and his last project was working on the Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth video game! But it wasn’t fun anymore. His company was working him into the ground. Gary felt trapped. He had huge amounts of professional success…but his fantasy was to leave corporate life behind and work outside, on the land, as a farmer. But if you know anything about farming today, you know it’s all Big Agribusiness, and there are no real “Family Farms” anymore. Except for a few farming sectors…like Kona coffee farms in Hawaii…
Gary quit his job and went on walkabout in Hawaii (or, whatever the Hawaiian equivalent is for that). His mom was living there now, and he did some part time work for her business. And he went on some tours of coffee farms up for sale. When he found himself on a twelve-acre Kona farm nestled at the base of the famous Hualalai volcano, he “just knew” this was his farm – so he bought it! Then, he made a phone call home – Hi, Honey,…I, uh,… just bought a coffee farm.
He moved to Hawaii with his family on March 1, 2005. And now everybody works on the farm. Gary’s role most of the time is cleaning, sorting and processing the Kona right after it’s been picked. He uses the wet processing technique. The beans must be removed from the coffee cherries and sugars washed off them right after they’ve been picked, or too much fermentation will happen too quickly, giving the coffee an “un-Kona-like” taste. Gary uses a $20,000 machine to mechanically remove another layer from the beans called the muselage. Then, it’s laid out on a sundeck to dry.
There’s one more step to processing the Kona, and that’s removing a thin, tougher layer from around the coffee bean called parchment. Once that’s done, Gary brings about fifty pounds of processed Kona beans to the nearby roaster he’s chosen to work with. He typically has half of it medium roasted and the other half dark roasted, and he’s chosen exact roasting temperatures for both batches. He’ll package and sell this amount of beans usually in one week. He also likes to roast these amounts at one time so he can take advantage of “more stable,” larger roasting machines.
More stable? What does that mean? Gary explained that larger roasters have internal computers that control and maintain the roasting temperature. A smaller machine might not always roast at the same temperature each batch, even if it’s set that way. Factors like the outside temperature and what number batch in a series come into play, and Gary prefers eliminating these variables.
Gary sells his roasted beans to individuals via his website and ROASTe, but he also sells his processed, unroasted beans to other roasters in a wholesale business. And, he’ll sell some coffee cherries to roasters completely unprocessed – right after they’ve been picked from the tree, a process called “Farm-Gate.”
It’s been five years since Gary bought the Kona Earth coffee farm and worked it with his family. We asked him his favorite part of being a coffee farmer. We could hear his smile come through the telephone. Being your own boss, he said. Sometimes I might work until eight or nine o’clock at night. But, then there’s mornings like this – where I went to the beach at eleven and did some surfing.”