Beyond Kona coffee


POSTED: Sunday, November 22, 2009

Hawaii's coffee is reaching beyond the boundaries of Kona.

Though still relatively small in comparison, coffee is becoming a crop of choice on the isles of Maui, Kauai, Molokai and Oahu, offering a diverse array of flavors representing Hawaii.

The farms are as small as between 3 to 5 acres to as large as 100 acres or more.

At the 14th annual Hawaii Coffee Association convention held on Maui in July, there were 69 entries from Kona and Kau on the Big Island, as well as Maui, Oahu, Molokai and Kauai.

Kau coffee producers are serious contenders, with three scoring among the top 15 in the last HCA competition. Two coffees from Maui and one from Kauai rounded out the top finishers.

The numbers of contenders from outside Kona grow every year.

“;There are a lot of emerging coffee districts throughout the state of Hawaii,”; said David Gridley, president and owner of Maui Oma Coffee Roasting Co. and a board member of HCA.

Gridley roasts coffee from all the isles and sets up programs at restaurants that allow customers to taste a selection of locally produced French press coffees.

        A sampling of varieties grown in Hawaii:
        Typica, Bourbon, Catuai, Caturra, Blue Mountain, Mundo Nova, Mokka
        » Strategies for coffee exploration by Shawn Steiman http://hsblinks.com/1cm
        » Maui Coffee Association

Merriman's and Alan Wong's restaurants, for instance, offer a selection of Hawaii coffees on their menus, detailing where they were grown, similar to a wine list.

Many of the coffee estates are on former sugar cane lands.

When sugar ceased to become profitable in the 1980s, many cane fields were planted with coffee, which has since created 10 major regions on five different isles, according to Shawn Steiman, a self-defined coffee geek and owner of Coffea Consulting.

“;We have coffee everywhere in Hawaii, but there's still this old notion that it's just Kona,”; Steiman said. “;All these regions spur different flavors.”;

Steiman encourages consumers to sample coffees from different regions. Even within an isle, various regions will produce a different taste, he said, due to soil conditions, temperature, rainfall, the variety of coffee grown and processing technique.

As a coffee geek, Steiman goes for complexity in his cup of joe, whether for notes of citrus, cherry, chocolate, nuts or a combination of two or more. He calls it an organoleptic experience, which means exploring everything with all of your senses.

“;Those notes are what create complexity, and you want to think about that experience,”; he said. “;It compels you to explore it intellectually.”;

Ever since placing sixth and ninth in the Specialty Coffee Association of America's cupping competition in 2007, Kau coffee farmers have put themselves on the map for gourmet coffee.

“;It definitely created international awareness for Kau, and we've continued to build on that every year,”; said Chris Manfredi, manager of Ka'u Farm and Ranch Co.

Manfredi estimates there are about 350 acres in coffee production on Kau, many of them small family-run farms measuring between 5 and 7 acres.

Part of Kau's success has to do with the tenacity and hard work of the farmers, along with a passion for what they do. Farmers there are also cultivating caturra and bourbon, varieties that are not grown in Kona.

“;Now we want to take it to the next level,”; Manfredi said. “;We want to create a brand and awareness for Kau as a newly discovered, premium coffee with a growing origin in Hawaii.”;

On Oahu only one commercial coffee farm exists, Dole Plantation's Waialua Estate on the North Shore.

The farm has potential for further growth, according to sales manager Derek Lanter.

Waialua Estate is on track this year to harvest about 500,000 pounds of coffee cherries, according to Lanter, yielding about 125,000 pounds of green beans for roasters from 175 acres.

“;This is the best yield we'll have,”; he said.

Lanter declined to give specific revenue numbers but said the coffee being produced is selling. The beans are sold at the Coffee Gallery in Haleiwa, as well as to Lion Coffee's “;North Shore Uproar”; brand, and in retail outlets like Whole Foods Market.

Dole, which still has about 3,000 acres in pineapple, set aside land for coffee and cacao in an effort to diversify its crops in the 1990s under the brand Waialua Estate.

The former sugar cane lands were ideal—they had quality soil and good rainfall, Lanter said, while the infrastructure, including roads and irrigation, were already in place. But it wasn't until 2005 that the farm would be restored and produce a small harvest the following year.

He believes there is more potential for specialty coffee estates in Hawaii, given that it is the only state producing U.S.-grown coffee.

In the village of Kualapuu on Molokai, Coffees of Hawaii has been harvesting coffee since 1993 on 500 acres (350 of which are under cultivation).

Its signature is the Molokai Muleskinner, a natural-dried, dark roast that has become popular among coffee aficionados.

“;We do most of our selling online, and we have a strong following all over the world,”; said Maria Holmes.

Coffees of Hawaii has a recurring delivery program, in which customers can sign up for delivery every 90 days. The plantation, which has about 40 employees, also offers tours in a mule-drawn wagon ($40 per person) as well as field tours ($25 per person) followed by a cupping session.

The visitor area recently expanded to include a kitchen and open-air lanai that can seat 250. Coffees of Hawaii is also partnering with Kumu Farms to produce organic coffee.

One of the challenges facing relatively new coffee growers outside of Kona is how to market their coffee. While Kona has had 150 years to grow its reputation, other regions are still catching up.

Lanter said Hawaii-grown coffee still has a cachet because of its association with Kona coffee. Kona coffee still commands higher prices per pound.

The wholesale, unroasted price of coffee outside Kona averages about $1.75 per pound, according to the state, while Big Island growers get an average of $5.30 per pound for the season.

While the Big Island was home to 830 coffee farms in 2008 and 2009, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service Hawaii Field Office, neighbor isles (Kauai, Maui and Oahu) were home to about 40.

But many of those in the coffee industry believe the numbers on the neighbor isles are actually larger than that.

The Maui Coffee Association lists 30 farms on the Valley Isle.

While Kauai is home to the largest single coffee farm in Hawaii, Gridley sees Maui as the next well-known region emerging on the map, particularly Upcountry Maui, where there are an increasing number of small growers.

“;I'm really excited about it,”; Gridley said. “;I see coffee as a positive agricultural alternative for Hawaii. We can grow a product that is very good and competitive on the international market in which there's increasing demand.”;