The tiny Kona growing district on the southwest coast of Hawaii, the “Big Island” of the Hawaiian chain, produces the most famous and the most traditional of Hawaiian coffees. Entirely hand-picked, wet-processed and from trees of a splendid local strain of typica called Guatemala, Kona is grown on clusters of tiny farms above the Pacific on the lower slopes of Mount Hualalai and Mauna Loa.
The coffee trees are shaded by a cloud cover that appears regularly most afternoons, followed by tourist-discouraging drizzles that often escalate into downpours. The combination of regular rain and cloud-cover, the temperature-moderating influence of the Pacific, and very porous soil (sometimes the trees grow straight out of the volcanic rubble) seems to mimic the effect of higher growing altitudes. Although grown at altitudes of 800 to 2,500 feet, very low for arabica, Kona often displays the powerful acidity of much higher-grown coffees.
But it is the gently acidy, fragrant, sometimes wine- and fruit-toned cup of the more typical Konas that made Kona’s reputation as one of the world’s premier coffee origins. In the late 1990s the soft, aromatic cup, tourist-inspired demand, limited supply, and palms-and-sand romance made Kona the highest priced coffee in the world, with prices exceeding even those attracted by Jamaica Blue Mountain.
Kona Deceptions and Evasions. At the millennium Kona prices have moderated somewhat, but the extremely high prices paid for Konas in the 1990s apparently encouraged one mill-owner and supplier to sell Costa Rica and Panama coffees in Kona bags. After a few years of successful deceit he was uncovered and indicted for fraud. The resulting scandal shook the little world of passionate, outspoken Kona growers and mill owners. The end result seems to be positive, however, as the growers work with authorities toward clearer control of the Kona coffee identity.
However, retail sales of Kona coffee continue to be rife with dubious marketing practices. Commercial roasters produce Kona style coffee, Kona blend coffee, and Hawaiian hotels brew coffee vaguely labeled Kona that probably consists in large part of (often low-grade) Central America beans. In fact, it is difficult to find a good cup of Kona coffee in Kona, and flat-out impossible in hotels. The colorful bags of Kona coffee sold in Hawaiian supermarkets and airport gift stores are almost always poor quality and stale. Tourists who visit Kona often do come across that one splendid cup, however, and driven by its fragrant memory, plus recollections of the warm air insinuating itself under their newly purchased aloha shirts and muu-muus, spend the next six months trying to find a comparable coffee experience through mainland supermarkets and specialty stores. Most, I suspect, give up and buy something else.
“Other Island” Hawaiis: Maui, Molokai, Kauai. Today, Kona is no longer the only coffee grown in Hawaii. Visitors to the “other” islands – Kauai, Molokai, and until recently Maui – could encounter an entirely different coffee spectacle. In place of Kona’s family plots shoehorned in among rocks and rusting cars, 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 Kona, is supplemented by meticulously managed drip irrigation systems.
These coffee farms — Malulani Estate with 460 acres on Molokai, and Kauai Coffee with an astonishing 4,000 acres on Kauai — are revivals of earlier efforts to grow coffee on a commercial scale on the coastal plains of Hawaii. Kaanapali Coffee, which had 450 acres on Maui, closed its operations in late 2001. Cheap labor and lower operating costs in other parts of the world contributed to the shut down of Kaanapali Coffee’s farm as well as the less productive of the big pineapple and sugar plantations. Growers and the State of Hawaii continuously look for replacement crops that will prevent rural Hawaii from turning exclusively into a playground for tourists and bedroom community for hotel maids and helicopter tour operators.
Experiment and Innovation. Coffee is one such crop. Coffee romantics may entertain existential attitude problems with these highly technified coffees and their corporate sponsors. For some aficionados, however, the experiment and innovation they represent can be as engaging as Kona’s tradition. These farms are among world leaders in the effort to maximize quality and offset extremely low growing altitudes through superior, highly efficient processing and seed selection.
Kauai Coffee produces a highly selected coffee called Kauai Estate Reserve from trees of the hybrid yellow catuai and the typica varieties. These are consistent, agreeable coffees that will please those who prefer a full-bodied, sweet, low-acid cup.
All Molokai coffee is grown at the Coffees of Hawaii estate in the central part of the island at around 850 feet. Most comes from trees of the hybrid (but admired) red catuai variety. The wet-processed Malulani Estate and the dry-processed Moloka’i Muleskinner coffees are medium-bodied, sweet, low-acid coffees with complex, attractive bouquets that often include unusual herbal tones.