Kona coffee, grown on a narrow band of hard-scrabble lava terrain that meanders along the mountainside above the resort complexes and splendid western coastline of the Big Island of Hawaii, is a singular coffee origin in many respects. A combination of demand and scarcity have made one of the worlds most expensive coffees. It is a favorite among American and Japanese consumers, who associate it with happy times spent luxuriating in balmy air and muumuus. On the other hand, it remains a sort of bete-noir among many coffee professionals, who consider it an overpriced, weak-kneed imposter of a coffee they are forced to fuss over owing to the misguided enthusiasm of beach-besotted consumers.
Complicating the Kona picture are newer coffees produced on large farms on other Hawaiian islands, coffees that attempt to ride Konas coattails into the marketplace Kauai Coffee on Kauai, and Coffees of Hawaii on Molokai. Smaller fields have been planted by hobbyist growers elsewhere in the Islands.
Kona-Bashing on the Wane?
Judging from the fact that both Starbucks Coffee and Peets Coffee & Tea, two institutions with a long-standing tradition of Kona-avoiding, now offer pure Kona coffees, it appears that the consumers have won the battle. Or, perhaps, Kona coffees have won the battle. Always a coffee blessed by nature and a superb coffee tradition nurtured first by Japanese farmers and an innovative University of Hawaii agricultural extension program, then by hippie back-to-the-landers, Kona coffee is now benefiting from the same loving attention by retired-executives-turned-farmers that transformed Napa Valley wines from ordinary to world-beating. Every time I cup Konas they seem to impress me more with their quality and variety. This is a fine and interesting origin. But an origin worth three or four times as much as most other coffees? Those interested in that question may want to test their thoughts against the observations I offer in Are Konas Worth It?
The Question Animating the Cupping
But, one way or the other, anyone who puts out $30 per pound for a coffee ought to get the best possible version of that coffee. Hence the questions animating this cupping. Where is the vacation-nostalgic (or name-dropping) consumer to find the best Hawaii coffee? In Kona? Elsewhere in the islands? Through a mainland coffee roaster? Or direct from the farm?
Because Hawaii coffee farmers, owing to the high prices they receive from their coffee and their easy access to the mainland American market, are doing what quality farmers all over the world have wanted to do for years: cut out all of the middlemen, from green dealers through roasters to retailers, and sell their coffee directly from the farm to the consumer. The Internet and tourism obviously conspire to assist this enterprise.
Twenty-Seven Hawaii Coffees
I cupped twenty-seven Hawaii coffees to try to answer those questions. Eighteen of those coffees were Konas and nine were from Kauai and Molokai. Some from each group are roasted by large roasting and retailing companies, either on the mainland or in Hawaii, and others (the majority) are roasted and sold directly to consumers by the farms that produce the coffee.
The Konas shone in comparison to the Kauai and Molokai coffees, although the latter were solid, interesting coffees that continue to improve year by year.
However, I can report no overall pattern of superiority between the Konas roasted on the mainland and those roasted on the farms. Nor did size of roasting company seem to make much difference. The most listless and ordinary Kona in the cupping was produced by Lion Coffee, Hawaiis largest specialty roaster. On the other hand, the pure Kona from specialty giant Starbucks was distinctive and attractive.
Small-Farm Konas Shine
I will say, however, that I was most impressed by those Konas sold directly from small farms. In fact, there were too many good ones to put into the article. And the only small-farm Konas that were not impressive were distinct oddities: a coffee grown from trees grafted onto Liberica (a non-Arabica species) rootstock, and an aged coffee. The standard issue, current-crop, direct-from-the farm Konas all struck me as fine to remarkable.
Furthermore, I found the quality of the roasting and the freshness of the delivery impressive. In most cases I obtained the samples by simply showing up unannounced at the farm or farm store and buying what was on the shelf. In every case, what I reached home with was agreeably fresh, and I see no reason why the same wouldnt be true for a consumer ordering via Internet or telephone. And there were no roasting flaws that I could detect. Many mainland roasters would be well advised to take lessons from these farmers about how to roast coffee with genuine respect for the bean itself.
Finally, I was impressed by the variety these small-farm Konas displayed in the cup. As I indicate in a sidebar to this article (Are Konas Worth It?) Kona is not a strikingly distinctive origin, a la Ethiopia Yirgacheffe or Kenya, but it is a subtly varied one. Like Guatemala Antiguas, which vary from lightly bright, sweet and fruity when grown on the valley floor to austerely acidy when produced on the valley slopes, this months Konas range from wonderfully and complexly fruity, soft and sweet (Nani Kona, Greenwell Farms) to powerfully acidy and authoritative (Brocksen Gate, Kona Mountain). No one should have any problem importing a little retrospective paradise from one of these farms, custom-roasted.