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What’s New in Coffee Across Hawai‘i

WRITTEN BY SHAWN STEIMAN, PHD
COVER PHOTO BY BLAKE WISZ

Twenty years ago, the only word associated with Hawai‘i’s coffee industry was “Kona.” For the better part of the 20th century, Kona was the only region in Hawai‘i growing significant amounts of coffee; even though a few other regions were producing coffee again by the 1990s, Kona was all anyone thought about. Today, not only do people know about the other nine growing regions across five islands within the state, but the industry is doing innovative and fun things. Hawai‘i is once again on the cutting edge of the global coffee industry!

The innovation is happening not just on farms, but at every stage of the production chain. This article will explore a few of the ways Hawai‘i is keeping pace with the rest of the modern coffee world, and even doing things few other places are. It will look at how Hawai‘i farmers are striving for unique flavors and maximizing efficiency in their farming practices. It will touch on Hawai‘i’s coffee house scene, barista culture, and the myriad competitions and educational opportunities taking place in the island chain. Finally, it will explore products made from coffee and coffee material, going beyond the traditional black brew.

HOW DID THE INDUSTRY GET SO HIP?

Hawai‘i coffee farming has been at the forefront of efficiency and technological advancement since the 1960s, when agricultural scientists at the University of Hawai‘i were busy conducting groundbreaking research and passing it on to farmers both local and abroad. When plans were being made to plant large, mechanically harvested farms across the state, the university paired with those nascent farm operations to conduct the research that would facilitate those plans, while the Hawai‘i Agriculture Research Center began developing its own coffee expertise and research agenda.

By the 1990s, not only were those large farms in production, but some small farms in Kona began the transition to estate farms. These new estates focused on selling roasted coffee directly to customers rather than selling the coffee fruit to a processing middleman. The maturation of the Internet also played a significant role, allowing farmers to learn more about the coffee industry and connect directly with consumers.

All the while, the specialty coffee industry was growing; by the early 2000s, it was a significant and important segment of the global coffee industry. Specialty coffee, while tricky to pin down, has become defined by its attention to quality and the meaningful relationships that develop along the coffee production chain.

As all of the different pieces came together, Hawai‘i residents began to recognize the new business opportunities related to specialty coffee, and started seeking out more complex and interesting coffees to work with. There was, however, a major hurdle they needed to clear: creating products and doing business in Hawai‘i is expensive, so locally made products came with a high price tag for the consumer. The only way to survive was to innovate – increase efficiency, create high-quality, diversified product lines, and get consumers excited.

PRODUCTION AND PROCESSING

For coffee farmers, competing on the world stage means producing a bean that, when well roasted and brewed, results in an inherently complex cup of coffee. In other words, the coffee shouldn’t taste simply like coffee, but it should have additional flavor experiences. These flavors can be reminiscent of all sorts of things: flowers, fruits, herbs, caramel, honey, spices… Essentially, these are coffees that deliver more than mere caffeine, and are interesting enough to be worth thinking about. These are the coffees Hawai‘i farmers are aiming for.

There are certain hard-to-control, environmental factors – like climate – that influence a coffee’s flavor. While farmers can’t do much about these, they do have power over some other factors, such as choosing to plant varieties that have the potential to generate complexity.

All farms in Hawai‘i grow the species Coffea arabica. Most farms are planted with a variety called ‘Typica.’ It can produce extraordinary cups, but it has limitations. This has led some farmers to try planting varieties more common in other parts of the world in hopes of discovering fun, new flavors. Some of these varieties are ‘Bourbon,’ ‘SL28,’ ‘Margogype,’ and the famous ‘Geisha.’

One of the most important research projects that came out of the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center was a breeding program to produce high quality varieties unique to Hawai‘i. Some of those varieties are now being grown and have been very well received. Two varieties of note are ‘Pohihiu,’ grown at Waialua Estate Coffee and Cacao on O‘ahu, and ‘Mamo,’ grown at Greenwell Farms in Kona.

Variety selection isn’t the only tool a farmer has to produce quality coffee. Fine-tuning cultural practices can also lead to healthier plants, which often produce better tasting coffee. Kauai Coffee Company in Kalaheo, the largest coffee farm in Hawai‘ i, is implementing modern technology to do just this, while increasing the efficiency of their operation. They’ve installed water sensors in the soil throughout the farm that wirelessly transmit data for quick feedback on water availability for the crop. They use drones with infrared cameras to help measure crop health, and they’ve installed cameras on their mechanical harvesters to give instant feedback to the operators, enabling them to make immediate changes to optimize the harvest.

A third area where Hawai‘i farmers are delving into new territory is in cherry processing. The coffee we brew is the seed of a fruit. To get to that seed and prepare it for roasting, the coffee fruit, or cherries, must first be processed. How that occurs will influence the final flavor of the coffee.

Kona View Coffee in Holualoa has been experimenting with the pulp dried method (a.k.a. honey process). While most farmers dry their coffee on patios, they’ve built a shed that allows them to manipulate the drying conditions, thereby allowing them to create a red honey coffee – a coffee that is sweeter and has a defined acidity relative to other processing methods.

In the parchment dried method (a.k.a. washed process), a handful of farmers across the state are spiking the fermentation tank with known yeast strains, rather than letting ambient populations control the process. This practice is a very active area of scientific research around the world but only a relatively small number of farmers in other countries are experimenting with it. This purposeful addition of yeast strains tends to contribute a slight, often positive flavor enhancement.

COFFEE HOUSES

The industry’s modernity goes beyond developments on the farm. Hawai‘i’s coffee houses, once purveyors of caffeine and third spaces (after home and work), now celebrate the ideals of specialty coffee: celebrating a coffee’s origin and brewing it meticulously. While no census of Hawai‘i’s coffee houses has ever existed, anecdotally it seems like there are a lot more coffee houses in Hawai‘i than there were ten years ago. As an example, look at Honolulu’s Salt at Kaka‘ako, it contains five different coffee houses within a single city block development!

These establishments employ people who have chosen coffee as a career path. They brew coffee using novel, though often simplistic, methods. In many coffee houses, a customer can order a cup of coffee brewed just for them. Typically, the coffee is sourced from specific farms around the world (including Hawai‘ i) and customers are provided with details about the coffee, such as what varieties it may contain and the elevation at which it was grown. These new coffee houses are highlighting the origin and taste of coffee, a relatively new concept in the global coffee industry.

Perhaps the most novel territory is the opportunity for a vertically integrated, farm-to-cup operation. An example of this is Kona Coffee & Tea, a 20-year-old farming operation in Kona that, 15 years ago, opened its own coffee house to share the coffee the company grows, processes, and roasts. Since opening, they’ve transitioned from just brewing and selling their own coffee to being actively involved in the global specialty coffee community.

COMPETITIONS

A hallmark of an advanced and mature coffee industry is the presence of competitions that celebrate coffee production and the skills of coffee industry workers. Hawai‘i has both!

The annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and the Hawai‘i Coffee Association have been hosting cupping competitions to discover the extraordinary coffees grown in Hawai‘i. Within the past decade, both organizations have been following competition systems that are used and recognized throughout the international specialty coffee community. The Festival has even experimented with a novel, locally developed competition system.

Barista competitions seem to now be regular events in Hawai‘i. This past July, Hawai‘i had its second Aeropress Competition, and in August, its first U.S. Brewers Cup competition. Both are preliminary rounds that send a winner to the national competitions.

EDUCATION

Without knowledge, no one grows or advances. The local coffee industry has long understood this, and workshops and seminars have occurred sporadically throughout time, mostly for farmers. Now, however, coffee education is available across the state for everyone from farmers to consumers.

There are several companies that offer an array of workshops, seminars, hands-on trainings, farmer consulting, consumer education, or Specialty Coffee Association coffee skills modules. There’s something for everyone, no matter how much coffee experience a person or company already has.

Not all of the education comes from private companies; most farmer or industry associations have educational aims. For example, the Maui Coffee Association, an amalgamation of coffee businesses and enthusiasts on Maui, manages to sneak in education opportunities for farmers and consumers throughout the year. During their monthly meeting, they set aside 20- 30 minutes for a member to teach a new concept or discuss an experiment they’ve recently conducted. The association also brings in experts from around the state, country, and world to share knowledge with members. Most notable, perhaps, is their annual Seed To Cup Coffee Festival, which provides coffee fun for attendees alongside a host of learning opportunities.

COFFEE, BUT NOT QUITE

Roasting and brewing coffee beans will always be the most common way of interacting with the coffee plant, but some companies in Hawai‘i have recognized that there are other useful parts of the plant, and even roasted coffee can be destined for more than warming a mug.

The fruit that surrounds the coffee seed is edible. While it isn’t the tastiest of fruits, when it is dried down, it can be brewed as a tea (one of the first ways the coffee plant was consumed, in fact). Locally, a handful of companies offer it to consumers, often under the traditional name for it, cascara. Hala Tree, a farm in Kona, sells pure cascara, while Haleiwa Plantation on O‘ahu’s North Shore blends it with other plants to create flavorful, complex tisanes.

Other companies make use of the coffee cherries but not for direct brewing. Kona Red and Hawai‘i Coffee Company use extracts of the anti-oxidant rich cherries to add to their beverages or roasted coffee products, thus capturing the superfood potential of coffee.

With the help of bees, Hala Tree uses a unique part of the plant – flower nectar – to create another unusual coffee-related product: honey. While they can’t guarantee all the honey is made from coffee nectar, most of it probably is. The honey doesn’t taste like coffee, but it does taste different from other honey made on the farm.

Roasted coffee has long been a common additive to chocolate bars. However, a small coffee farm in Puna, Big Island Coffee Roasters, has inverted that paradigm and reinvented the “chocolate” bar. They produce a coffee bar, made similarly to a chocolate bar, but with coffee instead of chocolate.

Hawai‘i has a rare and special coffee industry, as it both produces and consumes coffee. This affords it the opportunity to make connections and innovations in different places all across the industry. Pay attention to what is going on with Hawai‘i coffee; you may not find it happening anywhere else in the world.

Shawn Steiman, Ph.D, is a coffee scientist, consultant, and entrepreneur. His coffee research has included coffee production, entomology, ecology, physiology, biochemistry, organoleptic quality, and brewing. He owns Coffea Consulting and co-owns Daylight Mind Coffee Company. Steiman regularly presents seminars, workshops, and tastings at public and private events. He has authored numerous articles in scientific journals, trade magazines, newsletters, and newspapers. He is the author of The Hawai‘i Coffee Book, The Little Coffee Know-It-All, and co-editor and author of Coffee- A Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, the Beverage, and the Industry.