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Kona Joe Coffee Trellis Makes History

On September 14, 2005 Modern Marvels debuted an hour long episode on the history of coffee.  The Kona Joe Coffee trellis was featured as one of the best new innovations in coffee.  Coffee experts appearing on the show included Howard Schultz CEO, founder of Starbucks Coffee, Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). and Dr Joe Alban inventor of the coffee trellis.

It was clear from the history of coffee how wine and coffee are both specialty beverages and according to Ted Lingle "the future of coffee will follow the wine model".

Kona Joe has been a pioneer constantly working to produce and grow coffee like wine.  Growing coffee on a trellis like wine grapes marks the first time in history, coffee has been cultivated like wine.  Kona Joe not only cultivates coffee like wine he has recognized the importance of appellation, terroir, and the critical balance of sugars and acids in developing coffee fruit.

Kona Joe acted as a technical advisor to the History channel and the Kona Joe Coffee Trellis will forever be a part of coffee history. 

A DVD copy of the 1 hour show is available from Arts and Entertainment; just ask for the History Channel Modern Marvels of Coffee.

For over a decade, MODERN MARVELS has brought grand stories to life.

The complete story of the world’s most popular beverage--and the multi-billion dollar industry behind it.

The ultimate celebration and investigation of engineering excellence.

Elaborating ingenuity, invention and imagination brought to life on a grand scale, MODERN MARVELS® tells the fascinating stories of the doers, dreamers and sometime-schemers who created everyday items, technological breakthroughs and man-made wonders.

COFFEE traces the origins of this tasty drink from Ethiopia over 1,000 years ago to the espresso-fueled explosion of specialty coffee stores like Starbucks. Along the way, we'll see how American companies like Hills Brothers, Maxwell House and Folgers grew to be giants. Discover how billions of coffee beans make their journey from farms and plantations to cups all over the world. And get tips on how to brew a better cup at home! 



Los Angeles Magazine

Orthopedics Today

  October 2006

West Hawaii Today

   June 2001

Business Week Magazine

Kona Joe Coffee
Kona, HI
Deepa and Joe Alban on their 20-acre Kona coffee plantation in Hawaii. Joe devised a patented method of growing coffeetrees using trellises. This lets the coffee cherry, containing the seeds commonly known as beans, ripen more evenly, giving the coffee richer flavor and improved texture.

  • Who: Joe Alban, 45, and Deepa Alban, 40
  • Revenues: $525,000
  • Employees: 11
  • Old Job: Joe is an orthopedic surgeon and still practices part-time. Deepa is an artist
  • How it Started: As family and friends requested coffee from the Albans' personal stash, they kept planting more
  • Preparation: Got help from the Agriculture Dept. and joined trade groups such as the Specialty Coffee Assn.
  • Initial Investment: $50,000
  • Began In: 1997
  • Broke Even: 2000
  • Favorite Thing About Kona Joe: "Creating something that makes people say, 'Wow, that really tastes good.'"
  • Biggest Challenge: Competing with companies that don't believe in truth in labeling

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

American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons

Bloomberg Business Week

Brewing Up a Hawaiian Success
By Rachael King Joe Alban never planned to grow coffee. He went to Hawaii for the waves. By the time he hit the beach with his surfboard, his course in life was already set. He had invested years to become an orthopedic surgeon and was in the last year of his residency in Chicago when he made the trip to the Pacific paradise.
But life has a way of delivering surprises, and Alban got his the day he met Deepa, a Hawaii native. He spotted her on a cruise ship around the island and Deepa was, Alban says, the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. After much persuasion, she finally agreed to a date. "On my last day, she picked me up in her white Corvette and took me for an island tour," he recalls.
THE GOLD BELT. After dating long-distance for two years, they married in 1990, a bond that also cemented Alban's connection to Hawaii's Big Island although the couple didn't live there then -- and ultimately his path to a successful business in coffee. Alban and Deepa visited the state again and again. On one visit, four years later, Alban, now 45, and Deepa, 40, decided to buy some property so they could one day retire in paradise. They found 20 acres near the Mauna Loa Volcano, with spectacular views of the Kona Coast and the Pacific Ocean.
The property also happens to be located in what's known as the gold belt of the Kona coffee district. Planters had been growing coffee here since the early 1800s.
"We learned some of our neighbors were growing Kona coffee," Alban says. "We tasted the coffee and thought, 'Wow, this is some of the best coffee we've ever tasted.'" So, they planted some coffee of their own. Soon, family and friends began asking the Albans to plant coffee for them as well. The couple kept adding more trees to the property.
WORTHWHILE TECHNIQUE. "I guess I got the farming gene," says Alban, whose grandfather owned a potato farm in Idaho. Alban's father also owns a vineyard in California. One day Alban's brother suggested that he grow coffee on trellises, using the same techniques employed by the best vineyards.
Alban liked the idea and ultimately patented the method of training coffee trees to grow along the wires of a trellis -- a move that paved the way for Kona Joe's success today (see a photo essay of the plantation). The technique requires years of meticulous pruning to get the coffee tree to grow sideways and upwards. But the results, Alban says, are well worth the effort, since the more uniform sun exposure evenly ripens the coffee cherry. This makes the overall flavor richer, with better texture.
Apparently, customers agree -- and are willing to pay $39.95 per pound for his Estate Trellis Reserve coffee. "In 2000, Neiman Marcus stores heard about our farm and asked if we would feature our coffee in their stores," says Alban. Today, he says, demand is exceeding supply. The company is on track to top $700,000 in revenue this year, up from $525,000 last year.
BOUTIQUE COFFEE. The price tag is high because Alban's is a special kind of high-quality Kona coffee, known as estate coffee. In contrast to a Kona coffee blend that's typically gathered from multiple farms (and may only be 10% Kona coffee), estate coffee is the product of one plantation and is 100% pure. The coffee is processed and roasted under the control of the estate farm.
According to the Kona Coffee Council, this produces a set of unique coffees, each with their own label. The council likens estate coffee to the different wines from the individual estates in Napa, as opposed to a generic wine from mixed grapes. Currently, the Kona Coffee Council's program features about 50 estate farms, and Kona Joe is one of them.
Only coffee that's graded prime or better can be used, and once harvested, it can take a backbreaking amount of labor to produce it. After the coffee cherries are picked by hand, they're wet-processed that same day, which means removing the cherry skin and pulp.
BEANS AND BONES. The coffee is dried to parchment over the next three days, and on the fourth day, Kona Joe dry-processes the parchment, removing the husk, and polishing and sorting the beans into graded green beans. The green-bean coffee is placed in cold storage at 65 degrees and 50% humidity for a minimum of four weeks to stabilize the residual moisture.
After that, the Hawaii Agriculture Dept. certifies the coffee. Once it earns a stamp of approval, the coffee remains in temperature- and humidity-controlled storage throughout the year and is removed on the day of roasting. The coffee is roasted in small batches of 25 pounds or less as orders are received. The coffee is then packaged the same day in airtight, nitrogen-flushed foil pouches with one-way gas valves. It's shipped the following day.
And, as it turns out, Dr. Joe and planter Joe Alban can co-exist. Alban still maintains his orthopedic-surgery practice in California, spending about half the month on the mainland and half the month in Hawaii. He says his medical partners are very understanding and help him make his dual life work.
PERFECT BLEND. When he's on the farm, he supervises coffee production, including farming, processing, and roasting. Deepa Alban, who's also an artist, lives full-time on the plantation and does all of Kona Joe's marketing, maintaining existing accounts and working to establish new ones.
Not many people could manage being a doctor and a farmer at the same time. But for Joe Alban, it's a perfect blend. King writes about business and technology for BusinessWeek SmallBiz and other publications.