Every year, Coffee Review organizes a report focusing on roasting companies from various regions of the U.S.: in 2018, the Mountain States, in 2019, New England, and in 2020, the Northwest. Given that it’s been a difficult winter, to say the least, this month’s report celebrates coffees roasted in U.S. coastal communities, particularly beach towns and tourist destinations. We put out our general call for samples, augmented by ordering coffees from roasters not on our email list but situated in U.S. seaside communities known for their vacation appeal.
We ended up with 40 coffees. Once they came off the table, we discovered, partly to our chagrin, that several usual suspects had risen to the top — namely, roasters we know from Hawaii and San Diego, along with one in Florida and one in coastal Connecticut.
Hawaii and San Diego are, perhaps, no surprise. Both are long-established coffee communities, although the former is better known for growing coffee than for roasting it. In this month’s report, we’ll look at 10 coffees that rated between 91 and 96, and we’ll talk with some of the roasters (in three cases, also the farmer) about why they chose these particular coffees to highlight among their respective offerings.
A Rare Kona-Grown Variety
We should have seen this one coming. It’s a rare coffee, and it is grown and roasted on the mountainside above the town of Kailua-Kona, one of Hawaii’s most celebrated vacation towns. Every year since 2016, we have blind-tested Hula Daddy’s estate-grown Kona Mocca® variety and rated it at 95 or 96 points, a testament to both its quality and consistency. Mocca is a tiny-beaned variety of Arabica commercially produced on only a handful of the world’s coffee farms. This year’s Hula Daddy (96) was as fine as those from previous years, a lyrically sweet, luxuriously chocolaty cup with notes of fudge, tamarind, sandalwood, narcissus, and an intriguing hint of wine barrel from intentional (sweet) fermentation during the process of sun-drying in the whole fruit.
Lee Paterson, co-owner of Hula Daddy’s Kona farms, says, “Kona Mocca is a challenge at every step of growing, picking, processing and roasting, but the result is worth it.” He recounts that the first time his team roasted the Mocca harvest, the (very tiny) beans fell out of the roaster. Now, the Mocca is one of Hula Daddy’s most sought-after coffees, available only to those on the roaster’s allocation list.
A Panama Classic
While the Lamastus family’s Elida Estate is a luxury-coffee pioneer, known the world over for its Geisha coffees processed by a range of methods, from classic washed to experimental anaerobic techniques, this month’s Green-Tip La Torre ASD (anaerobic slow-dry process) has attracted particular attention among specialty roasters for its fruit-laden aroma and palate.
Willoughby Coffee and Tea’s version (rated at 95) is evocative of the tropics, with notes of lychee, pineapple, cocoa nib, lemon verbena and ginger blossom — hard not to love and an exhilarating antidote to winter restraint. Like the Hula Daddy Mocca, it is a rare and pricey coffee, but it does offer repeated morning doses of tropical exuberance for, say, the cost of a couple of hours of tall drinks and fancy pupus at a tiki bar.
Of this coffee, Willoughby’s owner Barry Levine says, “I’ve had the privilege of tasting Elida’s stellar La Torre Geisha Natural ASD both as a competition juror and as the coffee buyer for our company. I have watched other jurors grasp to find superlatives for this coffee when it’s at its best. The Lamastuses are smart, detailed, science-minded, excellent cuppers in their own right, and stewards of the land they own. They, along with a collegial group of their coffee-producing peers, have transformed the Panama Highlands from producing good, solid, everyday coffees to the pinnacle of world coffee quality in a relatively short period, thanks in part to coffee like this.” And yes, Willoughby’s Branford, Connecticut location is coastal and a tourist destination, just a mile from Long Island Sound and the historic Thimble Islands.
Four at 94
Four coffees landed solidly at 94, three roasted on the Big Island of Hawaii (and two of them also farmed there) and one from the iconic beach city of San Diego.
Of the Kona Peaberry from new Kona Hills Farm, roaster Kelleigh Stewart of Big Island Coffee Roasters says, “The producer and farm are unlike anything I’ve seen [before] on the Big Island.”
Stewart says she was astonished to learn, after Mark McCormick, managing member of Kona Hills, drove her to the first coffee tree he planted in 2017, that today the farm has planted 398,000 coffee trees — all hand-harvested, all irrigated with rainwater. And the farm is in the process of building 100 worker homes, has established a nursery with 400,000 coffee seedlings, and has built 3.5 million gallons of rainwater storage. (Note: The sheer size and ambition of the Kona Hills farm and its funding from mainland investor groups created controversy in the local Kona coffee community about three years ago. The controversy appears to have quieted since. The sample we cupped is a fine coffee in a very traditional Kona style.)
Jeff and Maritza Taylor, of Bird Rock Coffee in San Diego, submitted a Panama Catuaí from another admired producer, Graciano Cruz, Sr., whose meticulous processing at Finca Los Lajones impressed the Taylors. The result in the cup impressed us, too, with concentrated aromatics in a definitely tropical-leaning profile with bright, citrusy acidity and a complex sweet herbaceousness underneath.
Focusing on Variety
Farmer-roasters Jean and Danielle Orlowski of Hala Tree Kona Coffee are growing their successful business both by focusing on USDA-certified organic production as well as on coffee from uncommon tree varieties. Their submission, produced from the famous Kenya SL28 variety of Arabica, was crisply sweet-tart, balanced and bright, with notes of nectarine, narcissus, Meyer lemon zest, nougat and cedar. If asked to blind-identify this coffee’s origin, our team would have pegged it as a Kenya, evidence of the care the Orlowskis have taken to respect this variety and let it speak of its own lineage.
And then we have a lovely Bourbon Pointu Laurina from Kraig and Leslie Lee of Kona Farm Direct, grown at an elevation of 1,550 feet on the Lee Family’s estate on the slopes of Kona’s Hualalai Mountain. The Pointu Laurina variety of Arabica is a natural mutation of the famous Bourbon variety that was discovered on Reunion (Bourbon) Island in the Indian Ocean and known for its naturally low levels of caffeine and unusually small, pointed beans.
Kraig Lee says, “This unique coffee is special to us because it is so different from any other variety. We personally germinate each tree we grow from seed, then transfer to individual cells where they will continue to be nurtured for one year prior to being planted in our field. Unlike many coffee varieties, these trees don’t grow aggressively large but are rather dwarf-like with tight, small branches and tiny leaves that protect the hidden reward found deep inside. Each tree is slowly and carefully harvested, approximately 10 times each season, selecting only the brightest, juicy-red cherries.” Lee dries the coffee in the whole fruit, and puts particular emphasis on careful hulling, or removal of the dried fruit residue, so as not to damage the bean. Each bean is ultimately hand-sorted prior to being roasted.
A Ka’u Roasted on Maui
While the aforementioned Hawaii coffees are all produced in the Kona region of the Big Island, we also cupped a wonderful Yellow Caturra (93) grown by Miranda’s Farms in the Ka’u District, natural-processed with the addition of a fermentation step using wine yeasts.
Heather Brisson-Lutz of Origin Coffee on Maui, who roasted the Miranda’s Farms Ka’u (and who also roasts green coffees from non-Hawaiian origins), says, “Owning and operating a coffee roasting company on Maui, I have felt a sense of isolation from the rest of my peers in the industry. It has been four years since my move from Bird Rock [in San Diego] to found my own venture here, and, in many ways, Origin Coffee is paving the way with a few others to bring a more ‘modern Hawaiian’ coffee scene to the surface, one that is enthusiastic about our local farmers and that works hard to highlight their hard work. All business owners on the island face higher cost of goods, shipping, labor and rent than the rest of the nation and have to be innovative to remain competitive.”
The Miranda’s Farms Yellow Caturra is deeply sweet-savory, berry-toned, with notes of mulberry, brown sugar, Meyer lemon zest, dark chocolate, and appealingly bittersweet hop flowers.
Two from Honduras
Our list rounds out with two stellar Honduras coffees, one roasted by Amavida in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, and the other by the highly regarded brewery and coffee roaster Modern Times in San Diego.
The Amavida Cosma Honduras (93) is a gently fruit-forward honey-process with notes of dried stone fruit, vanilla, and spicy florals. Owner Martin Trejo shared his thoughts about what is unique to being a coastal roaster in a resort town, saying, “Our economy here is almost entirely driven by tourism. In the off-season, it can be challenging for some businesses here to keep the doors open, but when we are busy, we are very busy. Learning to balance that influx of customers can put a lot of stress on a business and its staff. We’ve been doing this for 15 years, so I guess you could say we’ve gotten pretty good at the balancing act.”
He adds, “We also have to fight customers’ disposable mindset while they are at the beach. They want to take their beverages with them so they can enjoy the outdoors on their vacation. As much as we wish we could serve every drink in porcelain, we have to meet our customers halfway. We use all compostable cups and sleeves, as well as paper straws to help reduce plastic waste.” Amavida also has gone one step further by becoming 100% plastic-neutral (certified through rePurpose Global), offsetting all of the plastic waste it produces as a business. Trejo says, “Being a resident of this coastal community for over 25 years, I’ve seen far too much plastic waste end up in our waters. It has been wonderful to find ways to reduce waste in our community and across the globe.”
Of the natural-processed Honduras submitted by Modern Times of San Diego (93), roastery manager Seancarlo Ohlin says, “We’re lucky to exist in not only a craft beer mecca but also a blooming coffee scene. Over the last five years, we’ve seen several new micro-roasters establish themselves in San Diego. While we all do things a bit differently, we do have one thing in common. Collaboration. The industry can sometimes be exclusive, and information feels proprietary. Something about the laid-back vibe of our beach town really helps drive collaboration and innovation.”This is the third year Modern Times has purchased this sweetly tart, juicy-rich coffee produced by David Lopez of Los Amigos Farm. Ohlin says, “This year’s version of Los Amigos is quite spectacular. The flavor in the cup when brewed hot is full of red fruit — think cherry, strawberry and raspberry jam. The natural processing lends it a bit of red winey-ness, and it has an aroma similar to port or an exquisite dark chocolate.”
Islamorada Coffee Roasters is a community-based specialty roaster with the sort of warmly breezy salt-air location we imagined when we came up with this report idea. Situated in the Florida Keys, Islamorada is “The Only Coffee Roaster between Miami and Key West” as its website points out. We review its richly low-toned and chocolaty-sweet Uganda Sipi Falls here at 91.
Finally, when the world opens up for travel again, and we return to taking actual vacations to seaside towns, we’ll have some idea of where to head for the good coffee.