Date: April 2006

Column/Title: Hawaiian Coffees 2006: Not This Year

Author: Kenneth Davids

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Disappointment implies history. We can only be disappointed if past successes make us expect more good things than actually come our way in the present. Such is the case with Coffee Review's latest revisiting of Hawaiian coffees.

First disappointment: A rather lackluster collection of coffees from the famous Kona growing region, with only one of the twenty-two 100% Kona samples we collected attracting a rating of 90 or better: the Bayview Farm 100% Kona Peaberry Medium Roast at 92. (When we cupped Konas in February of 2002 the average was considerably better.) Three dubiously named "Kona Blends," which typically contain only 10% actual Kona coffee, were even less inspiring, though one Kona-style blend, the Surf City Hawaiian Blend (20% Kona) impressed with a rating of 91.

Second disappointment: Virtual disappearance from the mainland market of "other island" Hawaiis, those often interesting coffees produced by large, innovating farms on other islands outside the famous Kona growing district.

Kona bashers, those coffee professionals who resent Konas for what they feel is a disconnect between Kona's very high prices and (for them) ordinary cup, will doubtless feel justified by this month's results.

But I'm not a Kona basher. I enjoy the classically delicate, cleanly fruity, floral Kona cup, and I admire the passion, tradition and backyard creativity of the many small Kona growers. And as far as price goes, I would prefer that other growers in the world get paid more for their coffee than Kona farmers getting paid less.

Perhaps we simply sourced the wrong Konas. Or perhaps Kona had a bad year, as coffee-growing regions often do, although we hear it was a good one. Or, and I hope this last is not the case, some Kona mill owners and growers are not paying as much attention to detail as they once did.

At its best, the Kona cup is neither dramatic nor distinctive: It is quietly classical. Most Konas come from a variety of arabica with a deep connection to Central America: the "Guatemala" strain of typica. Typica is respected for its long and famous history, but it does not produce a flashy cup, either in Central America or in Kona. Nor are most Konas arresting in their acidity, although some from higher altitude farms produce an acidy cup with high-grown character.

All of which points to a delicate cup, the floral-fruit character of which requires the purity and sweetness that come from impeccable fruit removal and drying. Unfortunately, about half of the Kona samples we cupped for this article displayed problems that interfered with the subtle potential of the coffee - either astringency (too much unripe fruit?) or a dulling, musty shadow that could come from a couple of sources, but most likely from moisture-interrupted drying procedures.

We did source one example of what I would regard as a virtually perfect Kona, the 92-rated Bay View Farm peaberry. The Pele Plantations Pau Hana Estate Captain Cook (88) also was impressive, but for some reason stiffened and simplified a bit as it cooled.

Both Bay View Farm and Pele Plantations are Kona-based producers who roast and retail the best of their coffees themselves and sell direct to consumers. Such companies remain the best source for the finest Konas, although the normally excellent Hawaii-based Kona Blue Sky company and its associated farm, the Twigg-Smith estate, sent us several coffees that all, to one degree or another, exhibited shadow processing faults.

Of course, Kona can't be blamed for the indifferent quality of the three Kona Blends we sourced, given that these deceptions probably contain only 10% Kona. Whatever failure or success these blends achieve is the responsibility of roasting companies and their blend designers. Aside from the excellent Hawaiian Blend from Surf City, the Kona blends we sampled suggested that these companies tossed whatever vaguely low-acid wet-processed coffees they had around the warehouse into their faux Konas without much real commitment to approximating the subtle Kona character.

Finally, the "other island" disappointment, although here there were some surprising and interesting new developments.

Some years ago, Hawaii officials and agricultural interests were taken with the possibility of shifting several of Hawaii's economically unviable sugar and pineapple farms to the production of high-end coffee. These new farms were established on the basis of considerable research and study. At one time, four such farms were in operation, one each on the islands of Kauai, Oahu, Maui and Molokai. All embodied interesting coffee experiments. The farms on Molokai and Maui in particular produced distinctive and gradually improving coffees.

However, consumers apparently were not willing to pay Kona prices for non-Kona Hawaiian coffees, even if they were interesting coffees, and Hawaii's very high labor costs apparently doomed three of these brave new coffee experiments, those on Oahu, Maui and Molokai.

The giant Kauai Coffee farm stayed in business mainly by switching to large-volume industrial production of "price" Hawaiian coffees, with a few higher quality "reserve" selections. One sample of Kauai Coffee did turn up for this month's cupping, roasted by a mainland company. Regrettably, it was faded and baggy (mildewed with the ropey taste of the coffee bag). I would guess (hope?) that the "reserve" coffees available directly from the Kauai Coffee company itself at www.kauaicoffee.com are considerably better.

But arguably the most interesting story is the surprising revival of the all-but-abandoned farms on Maui and Molokai under new ownership. Kaanapali Estate on Maui has been resuscitated in smaller and leaner form, and the Coffees of Hawaii farm on the rustic "Friendly Island" of Molokai will produce its first new crop under fresh management in 2006/07. Both of these farms produced some attractive coffees under their old regimes, and hopefully will again.

For this month's exercise were able to source one coffee from the revived Kaanapali Estate, the Maui Mokka from roasted by Supreme Bean. The original Kaanapali estate produced four different botanical varieties of coffee, the most unusual being Moka (also Mokka, Mocca or Mocha), from trees of an exotic cultivar first commercialized hundreds of years ago in Yemen and apparently brought to Maui via research farms in Brazil. In years past, the Moka's tiny, split-pea-like beans fascinated coffee aficionados, as did its Afro-Arabian fruit-and-chocolate cup character.

The sample of revived Moka roasted by Supreme Bean appears to have been processed by the ancient "dry" method, meaning the seeds or beans were dried inside the fruit, rather than after the fruit residue was removed (the "wet method"), as is the case in Kona and all but a handful of the world's leading fine coffee regions. Unfortunately, with this month's sample the fruit appears to have fermented heavily during drying, contributing a wildly winy fruit character that some adventurous coffee lovers may find attractive and others distasteful.

Nevertheless, it is wonderful news for aficionados that the Kaanapali fields, a living treasure of coffee research, are back in operation. I suspect that once this farm gets rolling it should send us some interesting and outstanding coffees, as should the revived Coffees of Hawaii farm on Molokai.

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