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Orange County Register

The Kona King: He was an O.C. doctor on a Hawaiian vacation. A woman and a bean changed everything...

By Gary A. Warner / The Orange County Register

Like a benign Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Joe Alban has a split personality.

He can be Dr. Alban, a respected orthopedic specialist in surgical whites who fixes all those tendons and bones that accident of birth, car crashes and over-40 basketball leagues send his way.

But then he peels off the medical coat and disappears up the flank of the world's largest volcano. There he reappears in an Aloha shirt as Kona Joe, tropical coffee baron.

I recently drove 1,500 feet up the side of Mauna Loa to find the guy whose life so happily derailed. How a career turned into a sideline. How a hobby became an obsession. How the obsession made Kona Joe, man and product, stars in the small but intense world of coffee growing.

I found Joe Alban in the roasting house, sniffing handfuls of beans while sipping coffee - one of the eight or so cups he has a day.

"It wouldn't be right for people to visit and hear me say, 'No thanks, I've had enough coffee,'" he says.

We wander his 20-acre plantation and I put to him, old school, the basic journalism questions: who, when, what, where and why.

Who: Joe and Deepa Alban. Joe: Doctor. Raised in Long Beach. Lived in Seal Beach. Medical practice in Los Alamitos alongside his father, Dr. Seymour Alban. Deepa: Born in Bora Bora in French Polynesia. Raised on Oahu. Moved to the Big Island of Hawaii. Worked as an artist and in the tourist trade.

When: Hawaii, and then coffee, took over two lives. It's 1986. Joe's on vacation on the Big Island. Deepa is strolling the beach. They meet. They date. They fall in love. They marry in 1990. How to build a life together on their beloved Big Island? They buy 24 acres of land on the slopes of Mauna Loa in 1994 as an investment. Maybe for retirement, a long way down the line. They give 4 acres to a local church. In 1997, they start producing Kona Joe coffee. The brand takes off. It wins awards. It's sold at Hilo Hattie. Then Neiman Marcus on the mainland. The sideline becomes the center of their lives. Today, Joe Alban is semi-retired from the bone business. More Kona Joe than Dr. Joe.

What: Kona Coffee. Not the 10 percent Kona blend stuff you can pick up at the Honolulu airport. The real thing. One hundred percent Kona. Joe's brother, John, runs Alban Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, near Pismo Beach on the central coast. On a visit, Joe became intrigued by the trellises used for the grapes of the winery's Rh'ne varieties. What if he took the same approach to coffee? Joe Alban tried the technique, then had it patented. It turns out an amazingly sweet bean that rocketed Kona Joe to the top of the list of top-end, pure Kona growers on the Big Island. As if the coffee wasn't enough, Joe and Deepa have wrapped their famous beans in chocolate, combining two great American addictions: caffeine and sugar. Called JammerS, a handful are like a sweet espresso jolt in a bag.

Where: Hawaii. The Big Island. The dormant Mauna Loa volcano. The violent geological eons have created a place of intense sun, occasional fog, cooling breezes, good rainfall and amazing soil. It is the premier place to grow coffee in the United States.

As Kona Joe's fame has spread, more visitors have made the twisting drive up to the plantation at Kealakekua. Joe's usually out in the fields or in the roasting house. Deepa is the warm presence in the small visitor's center, café and gift shop. Along with the coffee, JammerS and pieces of Deepa's beautiful Polynesian-themed art, the shop sells that ultimate sign of Hawaiian tourism success: the T-shirt. The black and green Kona Joe shirt is, like the coffee, a quality product.

Why: Passion. A couple's passion for each other. Their passion to make a life in Hawaii, the verdant tropical world they adore. Joe's passion to add to the luster of the already legendary Kona Coffee. Deepa's passion to bring the spirit of aloha to the little parcel on Mauna Loa. "People are just naturally more friendly here," she says. Kona Joe's coffee will give you a buzz. But the sweeping views from the plantation café down to the endless Pacific, the cooling trade winds and friendly voices put you in that exalted state: alert and relaxed.

"I know that some people say they couldn't live here on an island in the Pacific all the time, that they would get what we call rock fever," Joe Alban says, heading off into his plants. "But we love it."

Contact the writer: Warner can be reached at