I have been hearing about the Mountain Thunder Coffee story from various friends since we moved to the Big Island of Hawaii. This morning we took a trip up Kaloko Drive to the main coffee mill located at 3,000 feet elevation in the cloud forests on Hualalai Volcano. As you leave the main highway at 1,500 feet elevation you immediately notice the change from coffee farms, banana trees and macnut groves to grassy horse farms and then into ohia lehua trees and tree ferns at higher elevation. It is a gorgeous drive and we missed the tiny sign to turn right onto Hao Street, so we saw more of the beautiful estates and landscapes than expected until we came to the dead-end on the road.
I usually enjoy industrial interpretive tours and love Kona coffee so I was looking forward to the experience. We were 10 minutes late for the free tour that starts each hour but one staff member invited us to join the tour with Mary Ellen Legay that was in progress. She encouraged us to try a sample of the Private Reserve and/or Black and Tan coffees in the thermos dispensers. I liked both and loved the black and tan, a mix of American roast and French roast, a bit toastier than the usual light roast coffee dubbed American. Oddly the lighter roast coffees have more caffeine because prolonged roasting times and temperature required for dark roast break down the eye-opening caffeine in coffee.
I missed the introduction but Mary Ellen was great about bringing new arrivals up to speed quickly. She was explaining how coffee cherries are transformed into coffee beans by fermenting off the cherries, drying, dehusking and grading in preparation for roasting. She walked us through the warehouse where very noisy equipment overpowered our ability to hear, but she picked up a battery powered amplification unit and continued so all could follow the process. I usually don’t like to hear guides using amplifiers, but this was absolutely the right timing and appropriate for the environment. She went back to a more conversational unamplified approach when we left the grading equipment room for the roasting room. She had small children, adults and some older folks in her group and was careful to be sure all could see and hear at each move on the tour.
Our original group of ten or so had swelled to twenty or more people by the time we reached the end of the tour in the gift shop. Mary Ellen invited us to try coffee cherry tea as we entered the small shop and then explained how each of the grades of coffee are packaged and sold through the shop. She asked for a team effort to answer a question related to the tour content and rewarded the entire group with chocolate covered coffee beans before inviting us to browse the rest of the shop and ask questions. She stayed as long as anyone had something to ask and then headed back out to the plaza for the next group. An hour had flown by and we were happy to participate in the flurry of sales as almost everyone in the group found coffee, macnut treats, t-shirts and other appropriate souvenirs of the visit. From discreetly observing the sales, we estimated the shop took in somewhere around $1,000 plus in sales as a direct result of the quality of the “free” tour.
Mary Ellen found the right balance of information about the coffee process and the appeal that high quality coffee has in Kona District. At $30 to $50 a pound, organic Kona coffees are some of the most highly valued coffees in the world. The Mountain Thunder story on their website explains that Trent Bateman, an “oil-well doctor” and machine shop owner, sold his businesses twenty years ago and bought a 20-acre coffee farm on Kona. His family-owned business now includes a dry-milling operation for their own farms and other small coffee farms in the area and multiple retail outlets and tours (some free, some for a fee). US Dept. of Agriculture certifies their coffee as organic and makes regular inspections.
As trainers of guides, we like to visit commercial operators such as beer breweries, tea factories or coffee mills that interpret unique human stories blended with the agricultural or industrial processes involved. Mountain Thunder produces a very high quality product, shares their unique story well and adds a wonderful attraction to the Kona tourism experience. If you get to the Big Island, check out their cloud forest coffee mill on Hualalai. And enjoy their award-winning coffee during your visit. Once you see what it takes behind the scenes to bring you your daily dose of caffeine, you’ll never look at a cup of coffee the same way again.
– Tim Merriman