By Laura Bly
PAHALA, Hawaii - Texas health food store owner Shelly Oerlemans says she'll "travel far and wide for a great cup of coffee."
Her latest destination: the Ka'u (say "KAH-ooh") Coffee Mill, surrounded by rows of coffee and macadamia nut trees on the windswept slopes of the Big Island's Mauna Loa volcano.
The brews dispensed here - which starry-eyed connoisseurs describe as "chocolate, cherry and coconut, accompanied by floral notes of orchid and citrus" - are generating nearly as much buzz as their more famous cousins from the Kona coffee region, a two-hour drive to the northwest. And with price tags commanding $20 to $100 a pound, they're part of a percolating business that's luring Hawaiian vacationers way off the standard Mai Tai circuit.
"Most of our farmers are in a beautiful situation: They're selling out as soon as they produce their coffee," says saleswoman Brenda Iokepa-Moses, who welcomes as many as 100 visitors a day to a tasting showroom that opened last March.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of coffee cultivation in Hawaii, and bright red "cherries" (dead ringers for cranberries) are grown and processed on each of the state's five major islands.
But the heart of Hawaii's $31 million-a-year coffee industry is on the Big Island, where a combination of rich volcanic soil and ideal climate - sunny mornings and misty afternoons, with wet summers and cool, dry winters - has translated to ideal growing conditions.
The 'romance' factor
Big Island java jaunts have traditionally centered around the "Kona coffee belt," a 22-mile stretch of small, mostly family-run farms on the western flanks of the Hualalai volcano, more than 1,000 feet above the popular resort area of Kailua-Kona. About 40 farms are open to visitors, and their free, often ad hoc tours (with generous samples) cater to both coffee aficionados and sunburned neophytes looking for a quick respite from the beach.
Some of Kona's tourist-friendly operations, such as 250-acre Greenwell Farms, have been growing coffee for generations. Others were launched by more recent transplants from the mainland, including Hula Daddy, whose owners Lee and Karen Paterson gave up corporate careers in California a decade ago to embrace the motto, "because life's too short for bad coffee."
"Coffee-growing areas like Africa or Central America are often known for a particular flavor profile, but Kona coffee is more complex and subtle," says Matt Simpson, a former Starbucks barista who became enamored with the brew during a 2008 vacation and now blogs about the region at KonaCoffeeBuzz.com.
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Hula Daddy visitors can ponder those complex subtleties from the roasting room, enveloped by aromas reminiscent of freshly roasted nuts, or, with mug in hand, from rocking chairs on a lanai overlooking the coastline far below. Though the vista often is limited by vog (volcanic smog) from a vent on the island's active Kilauea volcano, local farmers say it hasn't affected their crops; a much bigger threat is the coffee berry borer, a beetle that enters the fruit and destroys the two beans inside.
Of course, beetle invasions aren't the only reason Big Island coffee prices are so lofty. High land prices and labor costs are a big part of the equation; workers pick and sort the ripe cherries by hand. And so is what Honolulu-based Shawn Steiman, author of The Hawaii Coffee Book, calls the "romance factor."
"We have a big advantage in Hawaii," Steiman says. "There's a blurring of the line between the experience of being here and the taste of the coffee, and that experience helps support the high prices."
A taste of history
For a flavor of what the Big Island's coffee pioneers experienced, the Kona Historical Society's 5.5-acre Kona Coffee Living History Farm near the town of Captain Cook explores how Japanese families disenchanted with work in the pineapple and sugar cane fields reinvigorated the island's coffee business at the turn of the 20th century.
Self-guided tours of a 1913 farmhouse and the rest of the original Uchida family homestead, including scrumptious samples of the farm's home-grown java, are offered Monday through Thursday. As lead interpreter Mary Prevetz explains, many early tools of the coffee trade are still being used today, from 100-pound burlap sacks to wooden rakes that rotate the washed beans as they dry on traditional Japanese platforms.
And while they're no longer part of the industry's labor force, sure-footed "Kona nightingales" - feral donkeys that got their name because they brayed from one coffee farm to another at sunset - had been such a common sight that highway signs warn unsuspecting Big Island motorists of their meanderings. (An adoption program has relocated many of them to safer pastures.)
Roots clear back to 'papa'
A pair of those Kona nightingales, Madeline and Jasmine, constitute the official greeting party at Aikane Plantation Coffee Company, one of about 50 small farms that are transforming the economic landscape in the Big Island's sparsely populated Ka'u region.
Though Ka'u's coffee industry took off when the area's sugar cane plantations folded nearly two decades ago, its roots go back much further - in Aikane Plantation's case, to co-owner Merle Becker's great-grandfather "Papa" J.C. Searle.
Today, Merle and her husband Phil combine cattle ranching with coffee growing from the same trees "Papa" planted in 1894.
Visitors who manage to find the place - tucked off an old sugar cane road that connects the small towns of Naalehu and Pahala - are welcomed with award-winning java, a taste of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts or peaberries (single, rare coffee beans prized for their taste) and a free tour of their 150-acre spread.
From picking to pulping, the business of coffee is clearly tough work - but one infused with passion. And java expert Steiman is right: When you're sipping a cup of Big Island brew, the romance of Hawaii is the strongest flavor of all.
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If You Go
The Big Island of Hawaii's Kona coffee belt extends along a north-south swath of highways 180 and 11, starting about 10 minutes from the Kailua-Kona airport, while the up-and-coming Ka'u region stretches from Ocean View to Pahala, about a half-hour's drive from the headquarters of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Where to stay: Kailua-Kona is the nearest coastal tourist area, where the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort (from $209 per night; 866-837-4256 or sheratonkeauhou.com) serves locally produced Mama's Kona Coffee in their lobby coffee shop.
In the heart of Kona coffee country, the six-room Holualoa Inn (808-324-1121; holualoainn.com) charges $315-$425 per night. And the four-room, Hawaiian-ownedKalaekilohana ($269 per night, 808-939-8052; kau-hawaii.com) provides killer breakfasts (including Ka'u coffee) and a welcoming base for exploring Ka'u, South Point and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Where to eat: For lunch and coffee drinks with a knock-your-flip-flops-off view, try the Coffee Shack, just north of mile marker 108 on Highway 11. In the artists' community of Holualoa, the Holualoa Cafe and Gardens features a locally sourced, slow food menu, including Kona coffee. Award-winning Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation runs a coffee shop and hosts occasional coffee-themed dinners at theMauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows.
Don't miss: The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, held every November, features farm tours, coffee judging, parade and other events; the Ka'u Coffee Festival takes place April 27-May 5 in Pahala.
Information: The Big Island Visitors Bureau (800-648-2441; gohawaii.com/big-island).