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Joseph Alban, MD, heals bones and grows beans

By Jennie McKee

Surgeon draws from winemaking, Ilizarov method to cultivate gourmet Kona coffee

When he’s not treating patients in Los Alamitos, Calif., Joseph Alban, MD, does something so remarkable that it was featured on the History Channel’s Modern Marvels. For two weeks each month, Dr. Alban, better known by some as “Kona Joe,” heads to Hawaii’s Big Island, where he grows Kona coffee beans on a 32-acre plantation using his ground-breaking, patented method.

Joseph Alban, MD, uses his patented technique for growing coffee beans on a trellis, the same way that wine grapes are grown. Leading coffee trade professionals have lauded this unique cultivation process.

Getting into the coffee business
Dr. Alban has lived in many places, but he has a special fondness for Hawaii. A surfer, he regularly takes to the waves between January and March, when the coffee trees are dormant and the south swell kicks up.

In 1990, Dr. Alban married Deepa, an Oahu native and oil painter. Four years later, the couple bought some land on the Big Island for their future retirement. After they tasted the coffee made from the beans their neighbors were growing, the Albans decided to try their hand at coffee farming. Eventually, they went into business and established Kona Joe Coffee.

Deepa now directs a sales team of 16 people who sell Kona Joe Coffee throughout Hawaii and the Western states, and her art graces the product packaging.

Hawaiian coffee paradise
The Albans’ coffee plantation is located in Kona on the southwestern slopes of Mount Hualalai, adjacent to the world’s largest volcano, Mauna Loa. The Pacific Ocean and Kealakekua Bay are nearby.

The farm’s mineral-rich soil—a mixture of dirt and crumbled lava rock—creates a porous base for growing coffee beans and has excellent drainage. The perfect balance of morning sunshine and afternoon showers makes Kona the world’s premier coffee-growing region.

“If it’s not grown in Kona, it’s not Kona coffee,” says Dr. Alban emphatically. “It’s the terroir, or ‘taste of the place,’ that makes Kona coffee so special.”

Growing coffee beans like wine grapes
Farming comes naturally to Dr. Alban, whose grandfather was a successful potato farmer; his brother runs the Alban family vineyard in California.

A trip to the vineyard inspired Dr. Alban’s innovative coffee-growing technique. In his patented process, coffee trees are grown on a wire frame just as grapes are grown on the vine for winemaking. This unique growing method was featured as one of the best innovations in coffee farming during the Modern Marvels episode.

Dr. Alban uses an orthopaedic analogy to explain the process.

“The trellis is like an elaborate wire fence,” he explains. “The challenge is training the trees to grow sideways along the wires by tying and retying the young, flexible shoots. The process reminds me of the Ilizarov technique for correcting limb deformities. Once the tree has been trained and the green shoots become lignified (have turned woody)—similar to cancellous bone ossifying into cortical bone—the training is complete.”

So what makes this technique so successful?

“The trellis allows for maximum sun exposure and aeration, which produces naturally sweet coffee fruit throughout the tree,” he says. “The additional mechanical support from the trellis allows the tree to support 35 percent more fruit compared to an untrellised tree. Trellised coffee trees are also more resistant to wind, heavy rain, flooding, and earthquakes.”

According to Dr. Alban, growing, cultivating, and making the finished coffee product has its share of challenges.

“Producing coffee is much like producing wine,” he explains. “There are 17 steps from cultivation to brewing. One slip-up can ruin an otherwise perfect cup.”

Keeping the bean counters busy
Sales of Kona Joe Coffee have increased steadily since the Albans established the brand in 1997. The coffee, which ranges in price from $20 to $55 per pound and comes in varieties such as Peaberry, Kona Blend, and Trellis Reserve, is available for purchase online and in markets and department stores in Hawaii. Dr. Alban says that consumers with discerning palates have helped spread the word about the Kona Joe brand.

“The demand for premium gourmet coffee far exceeds the supply. A growing coffee consciousness is driving more coffee drinkers to search for the best brew,” he says.

“Kona Joe Coffee is one of life’s most affordable luxuries,” continues Dr. Alban. “The coffee may seem expensive, but each pound makes 60 cups. A good bottle of wine is gone in an evening, but a pound of Kona Joe Coffee can be enjoyed for an entire month.”

Growers and consumers alike have praised the coffee. It’s been named the “Best New Roasted Coffee of the Year,” was a finalist in the 2003 Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition, and won the People’s Choice Award in the June 2006 “Best of Hawaii” issue of West Hawaii Today.

Kona Joe Coffee has partnered with companies that purchased the coffee beans to use in their liqueurs and truffles. According to Dr. Alban, his company has some exciting projects in the works with other potential partners.

“The goal is to make Kona Joe Coffee a household name. At the moment, though, the details are top secret,” says Dr. Alban with a smile.

Orthopaedist first, coffee farmer second
Dr. Alban loves having “Kona Joe” as his alter ego, but he’s also a devoted orthopaedic surgeon who grew up in a “medical family.” His father, Seymour L. Alban, MD, his uncle, Harry Alban, MD, and his first cousin, Richard Fixler, MD, are all orthopaedists. At one time, all four physicians practiced together.

Even though Dr. Alban could focus full-time on his coffee plantation, he can’t imagine giving up orthopaedic medicine.

“I took 10 months off from my practice last year,” says Dr. Alban, “and I realized how much I missed being a physician. My father is still practicing part-time at the age of 83; I plan to work at least to that age.”

The six cups of java that Dr. Alban drinks every day will no doubt give him the energy to continue practicing medicine and growing coffee for decades to come.

Jennie McKee is a staff writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at mckee@aaos.org

For more information
To find out more about the Kona Joe Coffee brand, visit http://www.konajoe.com

November 2007 AAOS Now
http://www.aaos.org/news/bulletin/nov07/youraaos12.asp