Kona coffee is cultivated on a 20-mile long, two-mile-wide stretch on the slopes of two active volcanoes in the North and South Kona Districts of Hawaii’s Big Island: Hualalai and Mauna Loa. And at roughly $20-35 per pound, it is one of the world’s most expensive coffees. The value has to do with its taste, yes, but also with where it comes from and the people making it. Here’s the science behind Kona coffee, and why it’s worth the travel time to see (and taste) it up close.
Globally, Kona coffee has a reputation for being special. Experts revere its quality and customers are willing to pay dearly for any product bearing its name. The dominant varietal of Kona coffee is Kona Typica. Originally from Guatemala, it found a home on the west coast of Big Island in the 19th century, where it has thrived. Kona coffee is recognized as one of the world’s best, and part of what makes that so impressive is the small-scale production. Kona’s coffee region spans roughly 27 hectares of land whereas Brazil—the world’s largest coffee-producing region—sports two million hectares. But its small scale is exactly what allows its farmers to maintain high quality, to adapt to changing conditions, and to experiment with the production process. When you meet the people behind Kona coffee, you can feel the pride in their product.
Meet our Coffee Expert: Shawn Steiman
Shawn Steiman grew up in a Kansas City suburb and began drinking coffee as a toddler. Without a clue how to spend his life, but with a lifelong passion for a certain hot beverage, he moved to Hawaii 17 years ago to study coffee at the University of Hawaii. After spending 8 years there, Steiman started a consulting company called Coffea Consulting, that he still operates today. And four years ago, he opened a resto-cafe called Daylight Mind, which he describes as the coffee equivalent of a brewpub. He has authored and co-edited three books about coffee, and as a coffee scientist is active in the global coffee industry. He has a six-month-old daughter, to whom he has already given a taste of his favorite drink. Here, he answers all our questions about Big Island’s most precious export.
What is Kona Coffee?
Coffee came to this small area of Big Island from Guatemala because of its prime growing conditions. The Kona Coffee Belt land benefits from being hilly and elevated and has about 600 small farms. It gets an optimal amount of sun and rain and has high-nutrient volcanic soil. While any coffee grown in this region is considered Kona coffee, there is controversy over commercial practices to do with what should and shouldn’t be referred to as Kona. There is an important distinction between 100% Kona coffee and what is called a blend, which mixes different coffee cherries together. Legally, a coffee can be labeled Kona as long as it contains just 10% Kona coffee. Buyer, beware.
What does it taste like?
Not all Kona coffees are created equal, and to say every Kona coffee is the same would be to say that all wines from Bordeaux are the same. Prior to the 1980s Kona coffee boom, farms did not produce their own roasted coffee. Instead, farms grew coffee cherries, sold them to big mills, and their job was done. All the farmers sold their coffee to three or four major processors and it all got blended together. When you homogenize the process, Steiman explains, you get a homogenized taste. “There was a point in time where you could say ‘Kona coffee tastes like this’. Now, however, there are hundreds of different farmers doing their own thing, growing their own varieties, and doing it in different places on the mountain.” The result? A unique cup of coffee from every farm.
What sets it apart?
What sets Kona coffee apart from the rest isn’t just the way it tastes or how it’s made. It’s the people behind it.
“Hawaii as a coffee producer is very small,” Steiman says. “But from an engagement perspective, from a farm-to-table perspective, and from a touring perspective, there are very few places on the planet where the farmers speak English, they have email and telephones, and they’re interested to meet customers. Here in Kona, it’s easy and accessible. The level of engagement that a visitor can have, that ability to engage and dig deeper, is really unmatched.”
For the discerning traveler looking for a first-class experience, Kona coffee answers the bell. You can fly into Kona International Airport directly from some major airports on the U.S. west coast, or with a stop in Honolulu. Many of the farms are owned by retired or second career types growing coffee for the love of it, and the owners are normally very happy to show you around their farm extemporaneously.
While many farms offer guided tours of their grounds, Steiman says a coffee farm tour does not have to be arranged, but rather improvised. “You could go to any farm and just ask—and those are the best tours because you get it straight from the farmer. Tour guides give you a lot of information about coffee laid out in a logical way, whereas a farmer will see a particular tree and decide he just has to tell you about it! There’s something homey and personal about that.”