Buying Guides

Hawaiian Coffee: The Volcanic Novelty

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You don’t come across a single-origin produced in the United States at a cafe very often. While America is not one of the world’s top coffee producers, and there’s not much coffee grown in New York or Florida, there are some excellent coffees grown in Hawaii.

In fact, Hawaii is the only state in the US that grows coffee beans commercially. And there are around 790 coffee farms on the islands.

What does this paradise island have to say about coffee? Is it really that special? And why is it so expensive?

Let’s find out.

At a Glance: Best Hawaiian Coffee

Quick Summary: Best Hawaiian Coffee

Royal Kona 100% Hawaiian Kona Coffee, Ground, Private Reserve Medium Roast - 7 Ounce Bag Royal Kona 100% Hawaiian Kona Coffee Check on Amazon →
Kauai Whole Bean Coffee, Koloa Estate Medium Roast – 100% Premium Arabica Whole Bean Coffee from Hawaii’s Largest Coffee Grower - Bright Aroma with Light Floral Notes (32 Ounces) Kauai Whole Bean Coffee Check on Amazon →
Maui Coffee Company, 100% Maui Coffee, 7 oz. - Ground Maui Coffee Company Check on Amazon →
Lion Coffee, Original, Medium Roast, Ground, 10 Ounce Bag Lion Coffee Original Roast Check on Amazon →
100% Pure Kona Coffee-Medium-Dark Roast Whole Bean, 2 LB Bag 100% Pure Kona Coffee Check on Amazon →

The Brief History

The coffee beans were first brought here from Brazil by Chief Boki in 1825 and successfully planted in Manoa Valley. In the 1850s, the first commercial attempts started. At this time, the coffees were being harvested by Japanese-origin families who placed great importance on precision and detail. Then, they were joined by Filipinos, Americans, and Europeans.

In the 1980s, the sugarcane ceased to be profitable and most of these farms were planted with coffee instead. Then, the third wave coffee came in and the rest of the world caught up with Hawaiian coffee. Still, coffee production in Hawaii was expanding and went from 2.8 million pounds of coffee produced in 1990 to 10 million pounds in 1999.

However, the production went down again and in 2016, Hawaii produced 7.8 million pounds of coffee beans. This was caused by various reasons, but mainly because it is very expensive to grow coffee in Hawaii. More on that later though.

Unique Hawaiian Conditions

What makes Hawaiian coffee so special?

The islands provide perfect conditions for harvesting coffee. The volcanic soils contain a lot of minerals which make the coffee taste unique and developed.

The natural conditions in Hawaii are optimal for great coffee growth. Apart from the volcanoes, the terrain is full of hills, the island has plenty of sunshine as well as a decent amount of shade. An abundance of rain, mild winds and cool nights make up the best conditions that coffee plant thrives in.

Even though Hawaii is full of hills, the altitude is not as high as some other regions that produce coffee. That’s why Hawaiian coffee has a milder taste and acidity than some other regions with higher altitudes, such as Costa Rica or Ethiopia.

Hawaiian Coffee

How Does Volcanic Hawaiian Cup Taste?

The coffee is often described as bright, crisp and clean. The tasting notes can vary significantly depending on the region, but overall, you can expect a smooth and slightly syrupy mouthfeel.

The most common taste characteristics include milk chocolate, brown sugar, molasses, and honey. While some varieties can also have floral, orange and blackberry tasting notes.

Growing And Processing

The Hawaiian coffees bloom in February and March when small white flowers, known as “Kona snow” cover the trees. The beans are then picked in between August and January.

The fermentation is done in water for a long time. For those coffees grown in lower altitudes, it can be up to 24 hours, while those harvested in higher altitudes are fermented for around 12 hours since their taste is more developed.

After, the coffee beans are spread on “Hoshidana” or the drying rack for over 14 days to dry to reach optimal levels of moisture.

Why Is It So Expensive?

There are approximately 960 farms on Hawaiian islands and around 7,900 harvested acres. Yet, Hawaii only contributes to around 0.03% of the world’s coffee production. And, as mentioned before, it is the only state in the United States that produces coffee commercially.

When buying Hawaiian coffee, especially Kona coffee, expect to pay around 20-50 dollars for a pound.

The first reason for this is very simple. Growing coffee in Hawaii is very expensive. Since it is an American state, the farmers are making significantly more money than they are in most of the other popular coffee regions.

A Hawaiian coffee farmer makes at least $9.25 per hour, which is the minimum wage. In contrast, a farmer in Central America makes only around $2-3 a day. And since you can get Colombian coffee that is of similar quality as the Hawaiian coffee for a fraction of a prize, the result isn’t surprising.

The second reason for the high price tag of Hawaiian coffee is that its main market is the tourist industry. Even though the coffee is expensive, the tourists are enchanted by this magical island and buy it as a part of their experience.

Not Only Sunshine And Rainbows

However, Hawaiian coffee faces some problems with producing coffee beans. Like other regions, Hawaii struggles with coffee production when the islands don’t get enough rain.

Another big problem for the farmers in Hawaii is the coffee borer beetle which destroys the coffee cherries and makes them unusable. Other coffee regions sometimes encounter this pest as well, but when it hit isolated Hawaii, it hit it hard. These problems make the Hawaiian coffee harder to source and contribute to its higher price.

Hawaiian Coffee Varieties

Kona

The coffee beans were first brought to the most famous Kona region on the Big Island in 1813. And soon, the merchant Henry Nicholas Greenwell established the region as an internationally recognized brand.

It is located along the slopes of Hualalai and Maua Loa in the North and South of Kona district on the Big Island.

Kona coffee is the most popular region and considered to be the best Hawaiian coffee. Most of its profit comes from the tourists who buy the beans as a part of their island experience.

The coffee is truly exceptional and offers the most variety and complexity out of all coffees on the islands. This is due to the great variety of terrain that can be found in the region.

The coffee that comes from the altitude of around 1200 ft above sea level is usually mellow, delicate and subtle while the coffee grown at higher altitude farms of 1600 ft or above produces beans with remarkable floral character and rich sugars.

It is important to note that, when buying the famous Kona coffee, make sure to avoid the ones labeled as “Kona blend”. These, officially only have to contain 10% of Kona coffee and the other 90% is usually filled with low-quality foreign beans which end up ruining the experience. If you want to experience its true taste in your cup of coffee, make sure to buy 100% pure Kona instead.

Ka’u

While Kona coffee is grown on the Western slope of Mauna Loa, Ka’u coffee is grown on the south slope of the same volcano on the Big Island. That’s why the conditions of this region are very similar to the ones of Kona coffee, with volcanic soils and cloudy afternoons.

While the coffees in the Kona district of Hawaii have been going on for over 100 years, Ka’u coffee is just a baby and has only been converted from a sugarcane plantation in 1996.

Most farms are located at 1500-2100 ft above sea level, hence exhibiting characteristics similar to the coffees of Central America, with syrupy mouthfeel, complex acidity, and distinct brown sugar, vanilla and floral notes.

Hawaiian Coffee

Kauai

As it is true of many Hawaiian coffee regions, the Kauai area was also originally a sugar cane plantation. It was converted into harvesting coffee in 1987 by the Kauai Coffee Company. It is still the only coffee farm on the island.

This region is experiencing a growing popularity and some even prefer it to the famous Kona. The flavor of the cup tends to be mellow and delicate with a mild acidity that can bring out more flavor than some of the Kona varieties.

Maui

Located in the West Maui mountains, this is a region formerly planted with sugarcane and considered to be one of the wettest regions on Earth. The coffee industry is rapidly expanding in this area and it rose from only a few farms to over 30 today.

The taste is quite similar to Kona coffee and the cup is clean and bright with hints of brown sugar, milk chocolate, citrus, and berry.

Molokai

The coffee beans of the Molokai region, which is a sparsely populated island off the west coast of Maui, benefit from the red volcanic soils that add more pronounced flavor to the beans.

Quite different from mellow Kona coffees, the ones from the Molokai region have a rich body, mild acidity, and a rich finish. Molokai is producing great, nutty and sweet-tasting coffee.

Oahu

Oahu region has precisely one coffee farm, Waialua Estate in the north of Oahu. It comprises of 155 acres of land 600-700 ft above the sea level. It also has a pineapple and cacao orchard in the region.

The coffee is smooth, mellow, well-balanced and medium-bodied.

Puna

Out of the coffees on the Big Island, Puna coffee represents the area with the most untapped potential for the great coffee industry and it is not even recognized as a coffee region by the state of Hawaii.

Interestingly, most Puna coffee grows in or just above lava. This means that a lot of sulfur is present in the soil which helps to create aroma, body, and acidity. The area experiences a lot of rainfall which means the coffee tends to ripen very slowly in relatively cool temperatures. This distinct terrain creates one of the most unique flavor profiles.

Puna coffee has a syrupy body, the flavors vary greatly from orange blossom, red wine, and green apple to sandalwood, cacao nib, grapefruit, and deep chocolate.

The Best Hawaiian Coffee

Thrilled by the unique Hawaii coffee profile? Keen to experience it for yourself?

We’ve looked up some of the best Hawaiian coffees that you can try today.

Royal Kona 100% Kona Coffee

Remember we said to stay away from “Kona blend” coffees? They are usually filled with 90% of the cheap stuff and overpower this best coffee of Hawaiian islands.

Royal Kona, however, is a 100% pure and comes from Captain Cook facility in the Kona region on Hawaii’s Big Island. They have been roasting the coffee there since 1969 and you can rest assured to experience the authentic taste with this one.

Your cup will be a full-bodied, medium-dark roast, mild and smooth, just what you’d expect from the Kona region. And, of course, freshly roasted.

Koloa Estate Kauai Coffee

If you’re tempted by Kauai coffee as one of the most interesting regions in Hawaii, this is a great choice. It is the largest coffee grower in Hawaii with over 4 million coffee trees and 3,100 acres, which makes it also the largest grower in the United States.

The farm is environmentally friendly and employs sustainable practices among which are composting programs, an effort to reduce synthetic fertilizers and ensure healthier soil.

You can choose from either medium or a dark roast. And if mellow coffee is not your jam, the dark roast brings out stronger and more pronounced flavors and floral notes.

Maui Coffee Company

100% Maui coffee is rare, so this one is there to cherish. Roasted daily in Maui mountains in the west of the Big Island, the coffee is fresh and bold.

This is also a family-owned and operated business that puts in the best practices to produce coffees in line with the Hawaiian tradition. If you’re keen on Hawaiian coffees, this one will take you right back to the beach from the comfort of your home.

Lion Coffee Original Roast

The Lion is one of the oldest major American coffee companies and has been roasting since 1864 in Ohio. Then they moved to Hawaii in 1979 where they soon became the favorite coffee brand.

They are using handpicked premium Arabica beans roasted to the exact standard that doesn’t disappoint even the biggest coffee snobs. It comes as a medium roast, the taste is subtle, smooth and sweet to match the leisurely lifestyle of the islands.

Mark Ferrari Specialty Coffee, 100% Kona

If you want to experience the Hawaii authentic coffee beans expertly roasted by a small roastery that pays attention to detail, this one is for you. It comes from a family-owned farm that has been harvesting these great beans since 1980.

Coffee beans from this small-batch artisan roaster are fresh, top quality, deep and rich. Again, this is not a Kona blend but a pure bag of this best Hawaiian variety.

Our Aloha Verdict

Hawaiian coffees are not commonly seen around the world but the beans definitely deserve some noise.

Even though the beans from Hawaii are quite pricey, this is because farmers are actually getting paid fair wages and therefore it is expensive to grow.

The main market is the tourism industry. The visitors buy Hawaiian coffee as a part of their island experience. It is important to avoid the tourist trap of buying mixed coffee blends and only go for 100% Kona to experience its true taste.

The coffee varieties in such small regions are truly impressive and most of the credit goes to the great conditions for the growing and harvesting, namely the volcanic soils full of minerals, a lot of sunshine but also plenty of shade.

The coffees are mellow, sweet, medium-body and not overly acidic. The dominating flavors are milk chocolate, brown sugar, molasses with occasional citrusy, berry and floral notes. The taste is quite delicate and especially suited for filter brewing methods such as pour over or French press. And when properly prepared, it is truly one of the best coffees in the world.

But who are we to tell you?

Try for yourself.

Stay caffeinated!

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