The legendary Kona coffee flavor profile has captured the imagination of coffee drinkers worldwide since the 1800’s. Kona has a reputation for smooth, mild acidity, lemon, apple, and tea-like notes, with a rich but delicate body.
With more than 800 individual farms, Kona is by far the largest growing region in Hawaii. The steep slopes and rocky terrain of the Kona coast almost prevented much of the large-scale conversion to sugarcane that halted coffee production in other Hawaii growing regions, which means Kona has remained a continuous coffee producing region since the mid-1800’s.
Today, Kona is experiencing a coffee renaissance. Traditionally, Kona coffee farmers have sold fresh coffee cherries to large mills which aggregate many farms into a single homogenized commodity product. This practice is beginning to give way as more and more farmers are participating in the specialty coffee market and maintaining ownership of their coffee through the entire production cycle from planting to processing, roasting, and even preparing the coffee in their own cafes. With this turn toward specialty production methods in the last ten to fifteen years, Kona has seen a dramatic increase in the overall quality of coffee being produced in the region.
In recent decades, the neighboring region to Kona began to make a name for itself. Coffee was planted in Ka’u over one hundred years ago but, like most of the coffee growing regions of Hawai‘i, was overshadowed by sugarcane production. In 1996, when the district’s largest sugar plantation closed, displaced plantation workers looked to coffee as a replacement crop. Early production of Ka‘u coffee was mostly sold to and marketed as Kona coffee but eager, talented producers sought their own recognition and marketability. The quality of coffee coming from the district rivaled its neighbor and won many awards. This lead to the growing region’s own origin trade name and Ka‘u gaining a reputation for producing some of the best coffee in Hawaiʻi.
Ka‘u is located on the southernmost tip of the Island of Hawaii. While the landscape of the district is quite diverse from Mauna Loa lava fields, to eroded pastures, to the dry, high deserts of Volcano National Park, most coffee is grown in the valleys between where the trees enjoy a sunny climate with afternoon mist and cloud cover. Ka‘u coffee is home to less than 100 farms with a diverse range of coffee varieties and processing methods contributing to a multitude of fantastic flavor profiles.
The Maui Coffee Association lists over 30 member farms on the island, making Maui the second-largest growing region behind Kona in terms of number of producers. The flavor profiles of Maui coffee are extremely diverse and the farms range from large-scale growing operations on the Kaʻanapali coast near Lahaina, to tiny boutique farms on the slopes of Haleakala on the East side of the island.
Maui is perhaps most famous for the Mokka variety produced by Mauigrown Coffee in Kaʻanapali. This coffee is sweet and chocolatey with low acidity and a rich, creamy body.
The crowded freeways and high-rise hotels of downtown Honolulu may not be the image that comes to mind for most people when they imagine a trip to origin, but just 20 minutes from the bustling tourist mecca of Waikiki is one of Hawaiiʻs most interesting and innovative coffee farms. The Hawaii Agriculture Research Center began as a research facility for the sugar cane industry and has since become a worldwide leader in coffee innovation.
Just over the mountains to the North of the city lies O‘ahu’s largest farm called Waialua Estate. This relatively large farm is owned by the Dole company and is located on former sugarcane fields. Coffees from Waialua Estate tend to be very smooth, low acidity, with raw cacao and tropical fruit notes.
Kaua‘i is home to only a handful of commercial coffee farms. It is also home to the largest farm in Hawa‘i (Kauai Coffee Company) which compares in acreage to the vast farming operations of major coffee producing countries like Brazil.
Historically, coffee from Kaua‘i has been largely overlooked in the specialty industry, but in recent years all three commercial farms on this island have made great strides in quality and innovation. Both Kaua‘i Coffee Company and Moloaʻa Bay Farm have made it to the top 30 in the Hawaii Coffee Association Statewide Cupping Competition, and Blair Estate is the island’s only certified organic coffee farm.
Hamakua was the first region on the Big Island to grow coffee, starting in the mid-1800’s. From there, cultivation spread to other parts of the island including Kona, Kaʻu, and Puna. In the early-to-mid twentieth century, sugar cane almost completely displaced Hamakua’s coffee crops. When sugar production began to wain in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a few farms reverted to coffee. Today there are only a very few coffee producers in Hamakua, but the rich soil and unique climate lend Hamakua coffee a distinctive flavor profile that sets it apart from the other growing regions. A typical Hamakua coffee presents very mild acidity, a full body, and notes of milk chocolate and raw cacao.