Coffee from Hawaii
Coffee has long been produced in the Hawaiian Islands, and coffee from the Kona district in Hawaii has achieved particular fame. Interesting coffees are grown elsewhere in Hawaii.
The total volume of all of these U.S. coffees is less than minuscule by world standards, but they are interesting for the aficionado and student of coffee. First, they represent efforts to succeed with small-volume, high-value coffees in economies with very high labor costs. Second, they are a part of and potentially influenced by the restless, innovating North American and East Asian specialty coffee cultures. The producers, particularly those in Kona, do not always take advantage of the opportunities offered by this intimate overlap with the high-end specialty coffee world, but a few do, with increasingly impressive results.
Hawaii: Kona and Ka’u
Although coffee is produced on all five of the major Hawaiian Islands, the most famous Hawaii coffee is Kona, grown on clusters of small farms stretched along volcanic slopes overlooking the Pacific on the “Big Island” of Hawai’i. The classic Kona coffee, to the degree it can be found today, is a subtly pleasing cup: balanced, quietly complete, gently bright, smooth in mouthfeel, a softer, occasionally more melodious version of classic Central America high-grown wet-processed coffees. By the 1990s this soft, aromatic cup, boosted by tourism-inspired demand and limited supply, made Kona one of the highest-priced coffees in the world.
Kona Blends and Kona Complacency
Perhaps more destructive to quality than pests, local or imported, are the wounds inflicted by the Kona industry on itself. Kona coffee may be the victim of its own success, or at least the success of its name.
All Kona is produced pretty much as most of the world’s great coffees are, by artisan producers on farms that may range from an acre up to 30 or 40 (from under a half-hectare to 12 to 16 hectares). It is picked by hand, usually selectively. The farmers themselves are either local people or fugitives from mainland American cities looking for tropical weather and an interesting way to make (or supplement) a living. So far so good for Kona coffee. This artisan-grown, potentially classic coffee reaches market via two different routes, however.
Along one route, large centralized mills buy the coffee fruit from the small-holding farmers, who bring it to the mill or a collection point in the morning in their pickup trucks. These mills process the coffee using variations on the wet or washed method, often rather carelessly.
The Name Sells, Not the Cup
Why carelessly? Because the Kona name sells the coffee, not the quality of the cup. For example, the most widely available “Kona” coffees sold in Hawaii are Kona blends that, by law, only need to contain 10% actual Kona coffee. Thus the Kona coffee inside these bags exists for only one reason, which is to legally justify the Kona name on the outside of the bag. The rest of the coffee in the bag could be, and is, from anywhere: Central America, Brazil, Colombia. Often these non-Kona blend components are inexpensive, low-quality, even tainted coffees; occasionally they are good coffees, so good that 10% Kona blends sometimes taste better than much more expensive but still carelessly produced 100% Kona coffees. Because, again, the name sells the coffee, regardless of its quality. Finally, there are the “Kona Style” or “Kona Roast” blends that contain no actual Kona coffee whatsoever.
Small Producer Kona Coffees
Relief from this dismal picture is in part provided by those smaller-holding Kona farmers who process their coffees themselves, roast it themselves and sell it to tourists and internet buyers. There is no chicanery here that I know of; these small-holding producers are passionate opponents of the 10% Kona blend phenomenon, and deeply committed to what they are doing.
But the problem again is that the Kona name is enough to sell the coffee, and many of these farmer-retailers are not particularly skilled in coffee processing and even less skilled when it comes to roasting their coffee. Thus a potentially soft, balanced, subtly fragrant Kona is often roasted so dark by these well-meaning farmer-retailers that its understated grace is destroyed and it ends up tasting like an oily, overroasted coffee from anywhere, except that it costs three times as much.
Kona Growing Regions
Kona is traditionally divided into North Kona, a largely deep-soiled district on the slopes above thetown of Kailua-Kona, and South Kona, an area with generally younger soils, or sometimes almost no soil at all: The trees grow out of holes and crevices in partly decayed lava. Both areas can produce fine Kona-style coffees, though for now perhaps give a little overall edge to the older farms and the older soils in North Kona.
Ka’u and Elsewhere on the Big Island of Hawai’i
The newer growing district of Ka’u, southwest of Kona, with its fine, deepsoiled, generally south-facing terroir, produces Kona-style coffees that are less expensive and often better prepared than standard-issue 100% Konas from the big Kona mills.
One boutique small producer, the tiny Rusty’s Hawaiian farm operated by Lorie Obra, has achieved world fame in specialty coffee circles for its meticulous, successful experiments with tree variety and processing method.
A handful of tiny, obsessively managed farms in other parts of the Big Island of Hawai’i also have distinguished themselves, including some in both the Puna and Hamakua districts.
”Other Island” Hawaiis: Maui, Moloka’i, O’ahu, Kaua’i
Small boutique coffee farms are beginning to appear on the other major Hawaiian Islands, particularly in the cool upland region of Maui on the slopes of the mammoth Haleakalā volcano.
But visitors to these other islands — Maui, Moloka’i, O’ahu and Kaua’i — may encounter an entirely different coffee spectacle. In place of small plots of coffee trees shoehorned in among rocks, rusting cars and wooden houses, long, regular lines of coffee trees undulate like gleaming dark-green hedges over low coastal plains where sugar and pineapple once grew. Rather than isolated groups of pickers balancing their way over rocks, ingenious harvesting machines roll across the nearly flat terrain, coaxing ripe cherries off the trees with hundreds of fiberglass rods vibrating through the branches like tireless fingers. The soil is deep and red, and rainfall, less frequent than in regions like Kona or Ka’u, is supplemented by drip-irrigation systems.
These large coffee farms include Ka’anapali Estate on Maui (now MauiGrown Coffee), Malulani Estate on Moloka’i, Waialua Estate on O’ahu, and Kauai Coffee, with an astonishing 3,100 acres (1,250 hectares) of trees on Kaua’i. They are revivals of earlier efforts to grow coffee on a commercial scale on the coastal plains of Hawaii. In the 19th century, these early coffee farms gave way to more profitable sugar and pineapple, and coffee growing survived only in rugged Kona, where the rocky terrain discouraged large-scale agriculture.
Hawaii Coffee Ratings and Reviews
The Hawaii coffee reviews below are listed in reverse chronological order by review date. Only reviews published in the past five years are displayed. Click here to view older reviews of coffees from Hawaii. Older reviews may no longer accurately reflect current versions of the same coffee.
Richly chocolaty, balanced, deep-toned. Dark chocolate, persimmon, roasted almond butter, magnolia, oak forest in aroma and cup. Sweet in structure with vibrant, apple-like malic acidity; plush, viscous mouthfeel. Integrated, flavor-saturated, very long finish.
Richly chocolaty, harmoniously juicy and bright. Dark chocolate fudge, pomelo, star jasmine, cedar, marjoram in aroma and cup. Sweet-savory structure with complex, bittersweet acidity; full, creamy mouthfeel. Resonant, long, flavor-laden finish.
Delicately sweet-tarty, fruity and lively. Baking chocolate, pomegranate, lime zest, cashew butter, oak in aroma and cup. Sweet-tart structure with gently bright, winey acidity; crisp, silky mouthfeel. Baking chocolate and lime zest are central in the finish.
Elegantly fruit-toned, gently spice-driven. Date, clove, blood orange, baking chocolate, cedar in aroma and cup. Complex bittersweet structure with winey acidity; plush, syrupy mouthfeel. The resonant finish is centered around notes of date, blood orange and clove.
Richly sweet-tart, deeply chocolaty. Dark chocolate, pomegranate, lemon verbena, agave syrup, pink grapefruit zest in aroma and cup. Sweetly tart structure with apple-like malic acidity; very full, smooth, viscous mouthfeel. The finish consolidates to notes of pomegranate and dark chocolate with undertones of pink grapefruit zest.
Evaluated as espresso. Richly sweet, crisply chocolaty. Dark chocolate, hazelnut, candy apple, orange zest, fresh-cut cedar in aroma and cup. Satiny-smooth mouthfeel; resonant, chocolaty finish with hazelnut undertones. In three parts milk, chocolate notes are amplified but remain in balance with hazelnut and cedar suggestions.
Deep-toned, complexly layered, vibrantly aromatic. Black cherry, honeysuckle, cocoa nib, sugar cane, lemon balm in aroma and cup. Richly bittersweet structure with tart, juicy acidity; crisp, satiny mouthfeel. Very long, nuanced, resonant finish.
Price: $30.00/4 ounces
Richly sweet-tart, floral and fruit-driven. Mango, cocoa nib, ginger blossom, lime zest, cedar in aroma and cup. Balanced, tart-leaning structure with vibrant, juicy acidity; lightly viscous, silky mouthfeel. Long, flavor-saturated finish centered around fruit and florals.
Price: $30.00/4 ounces
Fruit-forward, elegantly bright. Lychee, passionfruit, cashew butter, sandalwood, bergamot in aroma and cup. Sweetly tart with vibrant acidity; crisp, syrupy mouthfeel. Fruit-toned finish with undertones of cashew butter and sandalwood.
Evaluated as espresso. Richly chocolaty, sweetly nutty, subtly fruity. Nutella, dried red currant, magnolia, pink grapefruit zest, rosewood in aroma and small cup. Crisp, syrupy mouthfeel; the dessert-like finish centers around notes of Nutella and magnolia. In three parts milk, plush, flavor-saturated and lingering.
Fruit-forward, high-toned. POG (pineapple, orange, guava), cocoa nib, freesia, cashew, lemon verbena in aroma and cup. Richly bittersweet structure with bright acidity; silky, very smooth mouthfeel. Crisp fruit-toned finish.
Price: $30.00/4 ounces
Tropical fruit-toned, juicy and bright. Lychee, mango, almond butter, osmanthus, oak in aroma and cup. Sweet in structure with winey acidity; crisp, syrupy mouthfeel. Fruit-driven finish supported by notes of almond and oak.
Voluptuous, juicy, unique. Starfruit, cocoa nib, star jasmine, amber, wild strawberry in aroma and cup. High-toned, vibrantly sweet structure with bright, balanced acidity; viscous, syrupy mouthfeel. Resonantly, long, lingering finish, fruity and deep.
Price: $17.00/4 ounces
Complex, multi-layered, gently fruit-forward. Grape taffy, dark chocolate, dark chocolate, almond brittle, orange creamsicle in aroma and cup. Sweet-toned structure with gently bright acidity; silky, viscous mouthfeel. Resonantly chocolaty finish with undertones of almond and orange.
Price: $30.00/4 ounces
Fresh, integrated, deep-toned. Caramelized mango, ginger blossom, cashew butter, lemon-thyme, palo santo in aroma and cup. Sweet structure with gently bright acidity; full, syrupy mouthfeel. The resonant, satisfying finish leads with notes of mango and ginger blossom with undertones of palo santo.
Deeply fruit-toned, balanced and deep. Dark chocolate, goji berry, gardenia, hazelnut butter, fresh-cut cedar in aroma and cup. Richly sweet structure with gentle, balanced acidity; crisp, syrupy mouthfeel Resonantly chocolaty finish with undertones of goji berry and hazelnut.
Crisply chocolaty, floral-toned. Nectarine, brown sugar, wisteria, baking chocolate, fresh-cut oak in aroma and cup. Complex, bittersweet structure with quiet acidity; very full, syrupy-smooth mouthfeel. Baking chocolate and oak notes characterize the long finish, with pretty hints of wisteria underneath.
Richly sweet-savory, complex, layered. Dark chocolate, lilac, candycap mushroom, cedar, black cherry in aroma and cup. Sweetly tart structure with bright, juicy acidity; very full, creamy mouthfeel. The resonant finish consolidates to notes of cocoa-toned lilac and black cherry.
Price: $40.00/4 ounces
Richly sweet, deeply layered. Lychee, tangerine zest, mesquite, star jasmine, agave syrup in aroma and cup. Sweet-tart structure with vibrantly bright acidity; very full, syrupy mouthfeel. The finish consolidates to notes of agave syrup and mesquite.
Complex, high-toned, resiny. Malt, amber, pomelo, baking chocolate, date in aroma and cup. Brightly bittersweet structure with juicy acidity; plush, satiny mouthfeel. Perfumed finish with leading notes of amber and pomelo.