When writing about Hawaii coffees – more specifically, Kona coffees – I invariably feel conflicting impulses about whom to take on. Should I attack the many cynical Kona-bashers among the mainland high-end coffee-roasting community who sneer that Hawaii coffees (Kona in particular) are at best ordinary and always overpriced? On the other hand, should I rattle the bars of the sun-and-sand besotted Kona-infatuated tourists who have let myth convince them that the drab, overroasted versions of Kona they encounter on racks next to the muumuus are worth making a fuss over?
I continue to have faith that Hawaii coffees have tremendous potential, given Hawaii’s easy access to the U.S. and its potentially intimate connection with the innovating high-end coffee community on the mainland. I keep waiting for the stunning experiments with processing method that are happening in Panama and Costa Rica and Ethiopia to start popping up in major ways in Hawaii, or the planting of new or newly recognized botanical varieties of coffee that the high-end coffee community are increasingly recognizing as the key to exceptional cup character. These sorts of experiments are happening in Hawaii, but, as far as I can tell, on a very modest scale with very modest impact. It could be that Hawaiian producers are simply distracted right now by the devastating appearance of the coffee borer beetle, a coffee-destroying pest recently imported from Central America. Or it could be that because Kona producers in particular are already paid some of the world’s highest prices for almost any coffee grown in Kona, good or bad, the more thoughtful among them simply don’t see the need to innovate, aside from perhaps holding the line against dilution of the Kona brand by the wrong kind of innovation – industrialized processing and bland, high-yielding hybrid tree varieties.
The Classic Konas
The largest number of exceptional coffees among of the twenty-six Hawaii samples we tested this month were a handful of high-quality Konas of the classic style, meaning they were produced from the local Kona Typica or other respected mainstream tree varieties and meticulously processed by the traditional wet or washed method, producing a quietly nuanced, balanced cup of the style for which Kona is traditionally admired. The organically grown Mahina Mele Kona from Thanksgiving Coffee, which shared this month’s top rating with a pair of Ka’us at 93, was deeply resonant yet lively and delicate: peaches, chocolate, flowers. The 92-rated Konas from Hula Daddy and Café Virtuoso were similarly classic in structure though subtly different and distinctive in aromatics. Both should, in different ways, satisfy the genuinely informed Kona-coffee lover with their variations on suave balance and clean fruit and chocolate nuance.
Elsewhere on the Big Island
The newer growing district of Ka’u, southwest of Kona, with its fine, deep-soiled, generally south-facing terroir, is home to one of Hawaii’s most innovating coffee producers, Lorie Obra and her Rusty’s Hawaiian farm. But, as with the Konas, the classic style dominated this month’s Ka’u samples, including those from Rusty’s. The two top-rated Rusty’s samples, both at 93, one very light-roasted by Equator Coffees & Teas on the mainland, and one medium-roasted by Rusty’s on the farm in Hawaii, were classic meticulously wet-processed coffees, apparently from standard varieties, each differently but very sensitively roasted and each distinctive and engaging.
Several interesting coffees showed up from farms outside Kona and Ka’u. The best was from a third Big Island growing district, the Puna district, across the island from Kona and Ka’u. The Big Island Coffee Roasters Hawaii Puna Kazimura (92) was an impressively pure but lush coffee with particularly striking floral and peach-toned fruit notes. The loving production of a tiny three-acre farm on which owners Kelleigh Stewart and Brandon von Damitz do practically everything, this Puna may represent the ultimate artisan coffee.
Two from the Other Islands
We also review two coffees from islands other than the coffee-dominant Big Island. The Daylight Mind Coffee Company sent a coffee from Waialua Estate on the North Shore of Oahu. Waialua Estate is a medium-sized, relatively technified farm that uses machines to harvest the coffees rather than increasingly difficult-to-find manual pickers. However, the Daylight Mind 100% Waialua Peaberry, reviewed here at 90, is hardly an off-the-rack coffee. It was produced from trees of a rare, recently developed hybrid variety that attempts to combine the exotic cup complexities of the Mokka variety, a variety now established on the island of Maui that expresses sensory and physical traits typical of ancient Ethiopia and Yemen coffees, with the traditional Typica variety associated with Kona. Dubbed Pohihiu, this variety, at least the sample we cupped, was engaging and promising, though it exhibited some unevenness that probably derived from variations in fruit removal and drying. Nevertheless, this is a variety to keep an eye on, should volume increase and the rather odd and engaging cup character displayed by this month’s sample prove to be inherent to the variety and stable.
The Ka’anapali coast of Maui, home to the old town of Lahaina and scores of beach-front hotels, motels and condos, has for some twenty years, through a series of commercial ups and downs, been producing interesting coffees from original experimental plantings of a range of varieties of Arabica. The most famous of these Ka’anapali-grown varieties is the Mokka, with its tiny beans and striking, Ethiopia-like cup profile, but other less exotic varieties also have had sensory success, including the dried-in-the-fruit “natural” processed Yellow Caturra that went into the bags of the Haleakala Sunrise from the Canadian roaster Kona Kimo, reviewed her at 90. Probably owing to the very dry weather at harvest in Ka’anapali and the use of Brazilian methods of fruit-separation and processing, the Haleakala Sunrise resembles good Brazil naturals, crisp, gentle and cedary, rather than the fruity and often brandyish naturals associated with Ethiopia and Central America.
Hawaii Coffee-Buying Advice
Based on this crop year, and given the very limited volume of our sampling, here are some generalizations aimed at assisting the Hawaii-buying coffee consumer:
- Small farms with solid traditions and respected names produce the best Kona and Ka’u coffees. Only one generically identified 100% Kona, the Kona Fancy from Honolulu’s Downtown Coffee, made our review cut at 91. The Rusty’s Hawaiian small-farm Ka’us averaged over 90, whereas the two generic Ka’us averaged 87.
- Hawaiian coffees generally, including Konas, continue to suffer from character-destroying dark and ultra-dark roasting.
- Beware of “Hawaiian coffee blends.” One of the three such blends we tested was a solid, respectable coffee (Manny’s Brew 100% Hawaiian, rated 89, not reviewed here), but two other “Hawaiian” blends contained tainted green coffees, in one case mildly tainted and in the other savagely, outrageously tainted.