Issue 13.5: October/November 2010

Adventures in Coffeeland

Story by Jesse Katz

Photos by Elyse Butler

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Tom Greenwell's great-grandparents
arrived in Kona from England in 1850 and
started farming coffee; today he
continues the family tradition.
The sun is setting on old Kailua town, another perfect afternoon giving way to twilight, and as I join the throngs on Ali‘i Drive, all of us stopping to gape as the horizon turns salmon and amber and plum, I take a sip of Kona coffee.

 

Countless others have done a version of the same—at dawn or after dinner, poolside or on the lanai—their trip to Hawai‘i gilded by the right cup at the right time. As the most renowned coffee-producing region in the nation’s only coffee-producing state, Kona evokes romance and relaxation, elegance and earthiness. More than a beverage, it is a brand, a touchstone, a myth, the souvenir that signals to everyone back home how deeply you savored the Islands.

 

The mystique that has put Kona on the map, though, has also roused the cynicism (or snootiness, as the case may be) of the world’s critics and connoisseurs. In the overcaffeinated ranks of coffee geekdom—a culture that has come to echo the wine industry—Kona tends to be pooh-poohed as a “honeymoon coffee,” which is to say, a lightweight tonic consumed under idyllic conditions and sentimentalized once the holiday ends. “Its cachet is based on the experience,” says Shawn Steiman, a coffee consultant in Honolulu who holds a Ph.D. in tropical plant and soil sciences from the University of Hawai‘i. “Not necessarily on what’s in the cup.”

 

So what happens if you shed all that baggage—the hype and the prejudice, the aloha factor versus postmodern barista chic—and evaluate the coffees of Kona on how they actually taste? What about a Kona is delicious? What about it falls short? In a marketplace crowded with spicy Sumatrans and tart Kenyans and flowery Guatemalans, brews that, incidentally, are a fraction of the price, how do you even compare?

These questions have brought me to the Kona Coast for a jittery week of sniffing and slurping, sipping and swishing, morning and night. At cafés and farms and kitchen tables, I will sample medium roasts and dark roasts and private reserves and espresso shots, all of them taken, as coffee should be, black and unsweetened. Like most coffee drinkers I am used to drinking coffee—ritually, socially, medicinally—which is not the same as tasting it. Java hounds such as Steiman, author of The Hawai‘i Coffee Book, have attempted to gird me, expounding on the six main characteristics of coffee quality: aroma, body, flavor, acidity, sweetness and aftertaste. I am packing a printout of the coffee taster’s flavor wheel, a dizzying graph that ranges from cedar and clove to maple syrup and roasted almonds. I have been advised to focus on what I perceive rather than what I like, on the intensity of a given characteristic and not my preference for it, yet that strikes me as an impossible formula. What fun is assessing coffee if I never get to kick back and enjoy it?

 

“One lesson I’ve learned,” concedes Steiman, “is that what coffee geeks consider the best coffees aren’t all that cherished by non-coffee geeks.”

 


 

 

The first cup of my Kona tour—the cup I am sipping at sunset, a cup that should be susceptible to the sway of emotion and context—is, I regret to report, not a candidate for impressing anyone. I have stopped at Island Lava Java, a fixture of the Ali‘i Drive tourist crawl, one of the few retailers on the strip advertising “100% Kona.” I order two cups, a medium and a dark, and I take them outside, plopping myself on a ledge just as the crowds begin to ooh and aah. I start with the medium, prying off the lid to keep from burning my tongue, but my worry is misplaced. The coffee is tepid and sallow, too anemic even to be called weak. I am reminded of the old Peanuts gag, of Lucy complaining that her cocoa tastes like a brown crayon dipped in warm water—and Linus offering to add another crayon. Something has gone wrong. At least I hope, especially at $28.95 a pound. I spill my cup, discreetly, onto the grass. The darker roast is an improvement, in both temperature and substance, yet I am struggling to discern any flavor that might hint at coffeeness. I sip and wait, sip and wait. It is not disagreeable. There is nothing bitter, no trace of resin or char. Just an utter absence of sensation. After half a cup, I spill this one, too.

 

Maybe the coffee was better that morning. Maybe it will be better the next. I do not mean to dog Lava Java, only to underscore one of the first rules of the coffee trade: There are a million ways to screw up a cup. Unlike a bottle of wine, which contains a product ready to be consumed pretty much as the vintner intended it to be, coffee requires extraction, a human hand, to unlock its chemical properties. The purity of the water, the fineness of the grind, the precision of the measurements, the calibration of the heating element, the time and pressure and evenness of the drip or spray or pump—brewing joe is always a bit of a gamble, part art, part science, part magic. If they all come together, the results can be monumental. It helps to have somebody at the controls who is knowledgeable and dexterous and, lacking that, at least somebody who cares.

 

The next day I leave the beachfront and chug up the volcanic slopes of Mount Hualalai to Kona’s coffee belt, the two-mile-wide, twenty-mile-long swath that runs across the leeward flank of the Big Island. Although coffee is grown commercially throughout the state—a $30-million-a-year industry that encompasses Maui, Kaua‘i, O‘ahu and Moloka‘i as well as such other Big Island districts as Ka‘ü and Hamakua—it is Kona that has become synonymous with Hawai‘i coffee. A microclimate of warm days and cool nights, afternoon clouds and summer rains, the region straddles the Mamalahoa Highway beginning at five hundred feet and topping out at three thousand. With some three thousand acres of cultivated land, it is also one of the world’s smallest coffee-producing provinces, an enclave composed of even smaller farms, about 670 mostly mom-and-pop operations. The old guard is, by and large, of Japanese ancestry, descendents of the nineteenth-century laborers who pioneered many of Kona’s processing techniques. They were followed by a wave of hippie farmers in the 1960s and ’70s and, most recently, by a gentleman class, doctors and lawyers and dot.com refugees who have sought a second career growing gourmet beans.

 

On the Mamalahoa Highway, just past mile marker 114, I follow the signs to one of the snazziest of those estates, Kona Joe. Through swinging gates, past stone walls, down a private road designed to accommodate tour buses, I find myself on a lush hillside surrounded by trellises. Like a vineyard, Kona Joe has trained its Arabica trees to grow sideways, a patented technique (with a certificate from the US Patent and Trademark Office to prove it) that is said to increase exposure to the sun and enhance the natural sugars in the fruit. “You can completely tell the difference,” a hostess at the visitor center assures me.

 

She serves me a cup of Signature Kona Joe and leads me to a panoramic terrace where I am greeted by the plantation’s namesake, Joe Alban, an orthopedic surgeon who maintains a practice in Orange County half the month, and his Bora Bora-born artist wife, Deepa—“the lovely Deepa,” as she is known on their website—who directs marketing and sales. “Kona coffee is really a beautiful coffee,” Joe tells me, “with a beautiful aroma, a floral essence, nutty tones and a pure, clean finish.” I take a sip. “A lot of connoisseurs are extremists,” adds Joe, who drinks four to six cups a day of his own coffee. “They’re looking for really unique characteristics, that really unusual experience. Kona is more subtle. It’s not a coffee that’s going to set your palate on fire.” I sip again, nodding.

 

He has described what is known, in coffee parlance, as Kona’s regional flavor profile, the qualities that most growers here strive for and that most consumers have come to expect. The Signature Kona Joe is hitting my tongue with a citrusy sparkle, reminiscent of a Chardonnay, then fading into a sweet, nougaty glow, not unlike a melting Snickers. It is a pleasant experience—the smooth jazz of coffees—yet for the price, I cannot help but wish for just a little more oomph. Maybe it is unfair to inject value into the discussion, but what I am drinking retails for $40 a pound, and at the gift shop I will purchase a bag of the even more select Kona Joe Trellis Reserve, a $55-a-pound splurge. That is among the most expensive coffees on the planet—closer in price to Godiva truffles or a smoked Nova salmon—and somehow I feel it should be transformative.

 


 

 

To get a handle on the economics of Kona coffee is to enter a rabbit hole of politics and legalities, global markets and colonial legacies. For all its urban faddishness, coffee is still a Third World crop, picked mostly by subsistence laborers in Latin America, East Africa and Southeast Asia. Hawai‘i, meanwhile, is the costliest state in one of the world’s costliest nations, a tough place for an agrarian enterprise these days, as the sugar and pineapple industries can attest. With wages for Big Island pickers many times greater than those of their counterparts in developing nations, Kona coffee will always be overpriced; or perhaps the rest of the world’s coffee will always be underpriced. In either case, the disparity has cemented Kona’s status as an indulgence, a niche coffee, regardless of how captivating it proves to be in your cup.

 

Muddling that equation is the practice of blending, a euphemism for diluting Kona beans with cheap imports. Throughout the Islands, in resorts and restaurants, snack bars and knickknack marts, you will find these imposters—Kona Sunrise, Kona Paradise Roast, Royal Kona Mountain Roast—none of which contains more than 10 percent Kona coffee. The only requirement under Hawai‘i law is that such products be labeled a “10% Kona blend,” a cryptic phrase that fails to convey the bigger truth: A Kona blend is a 90 percent non-Kona product, usually beans from Colombia and Brazil. (This is an improvement on the deceit perpetrated in the mid-1990s by Berkeley-based Kona Kai, which imported millions of pounds of low-grade Central American coffee and sold it as “pure” Kona; its owner, Michael Norton, was sentenced to thirty months in federal prison.) Still, if no Kona flavor can be detected in a “10% Kona blend”—the equivalent of maybe five Kona beans per cup—it is hard not to think of blending as anything but a ruse, a terroir bait and switch. When Jack in the Box added a Kona Classic to its Mainland menus earlier this year, the fast-food chain’s press release trumpeted the fact that “real Kona coffee beans” would be part of the blend. In other words, mostly not real Kona coffee beans.

 

“Most people assume if it says ‘Kona,’ it is Kona,” says Bruce Corker, president of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, a trade group that has lobbied unsuccessfully to get the Hawai‘i Legislature to adopt a minimum standard of 75 percent Kona beans for any product that bears the name. “Our concern is that the demand for 100 percent Kona is being soaked up by this faux Kona.”

 

The counterargument is waiting for me just down the road from Kona Joe, by mile marker 112, home for more than a century to Greenwell Farms. Its fourth-generation patriarch, Tom Greenwell, is beyond old school. He welcomes me in a camouflage cap, and when his cell phone rings, it plays the country tune “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” Although he produces his own coffee, including a caramelly Greenwell Estate Private Reserve for $31.95 a pound, Greenwell also serves as a middleman to the blenders. He purchases the crops of nearly half the farmers in Kona, mixing and milling their beans, then selling them in bulk to the coffee conglomerates. “The people talking against it—they don’t understand the industry,” says Greenwell, whose great-grandparents arrived in Kona from England in 1850. “They don’t understand where our coffee goes.”

 

From his vantage, farmers need a market for what they grow or else their farms cease to exist. By offering a discount product—a product within the reach of millions of tourists, most of whom are not coffee aficionados—blenders are the ones creating that market, the ones keeping Kona’s farmers in business. Greenwell estimates that of the roughly four million pounds of coffee produced in Kona each year, at least three million ends up in blends. That figure is impossible to verify, but the math is easy to follow: If what is grown here were to be sold only as 100 percent Kona, who would buy all that high-priced coffee? “Can we sell four million pounds at $30 a pound?” he asks. “Who’s willing to take that risk? What if it doesn’t happen?”

 


 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Roast master R. Miguel Meza 
arrived in Kona in 2008 from 
suburban
Minneapolis, where
Food &
Wine
had just named his shop a
"Top 10 Best 
Boutique Roaster."
Another day, a new direction: Instead of the road down to Kealakekua, I am pointed north, to Holualoa, where Hula Daddy is doing everything in its power to shatter the Kona paradigm. Headquartered in an old plantation house topped by a clock tower, the farm was a weed-choked cow pasture when Los Angeles exiles Lee Paterson, a corporate attorney, and Karen Jue, a human resources manager, put down roots in 2002. In the beginning they were producing coffee not unlike that of other estate farms, a brew that was bright and sweet but by their own admission not especially distinctive. They were also caught in the same dilemma: high costs on one side, cheapo blends on the other, and all around them a United Nations of coffee artisans introducing the world to a kaleidoscope of new tastes.

 

“To survive you have to differentiate yourself from the pack,” says Paterson, “and I decided we have to do it on quality. We set a goal—an outrageous goal—to shoot for the best coffee in Kona, or even one of the best coffees in the world, and to keep on shooting for it.”

 

Not every farmer in Kona wants to be told what he is doing wrong, not when he is already charging top dollar for a handcrafted delicacy, but Paterson concluded that intervention was his only hope. “Denial,” he says, “is a terrible disease.” He and his wife were hearing raves about a young roast master in, of all places, suburban Minneapolis—Food & Wine had just named his shop a “Top 10 Best Boutique Roaster”—and they invited him to come west and stay for a while. The kid’s name was R. Miguel Meza, and starting in 2008, he methodically went about changing almost everything about the way Hula Daddy was producing coffee. He insisted on riper fruit off the trees and greater nuance in the roasting process and a devotion, bordering on the religious, to cupping, the industry’s term for tasting and comparing samples. Most of all, he convinced his hosts that they need not adhere to Kona’s regional flavor profile, that Hula Daddy could be as playful and provocative as it dared. “You’d be surprised,” Paterson says, “how much crap we’ve taken for this.”

 

I am disappointed to learn that Meza is in Central America on a reconnaissance mission during my visit, but I am given a primer on his bold experiments in dry processing. The fruit of the coffee tree, known as the cherry, is normally soaked and washed after picking to help remove the sticky casing—the mucilage—from around the seed. It was Meza’s idea to sun-bake the mucilage, increasing the risk of a putrid mess but also allowing all that fermenting sugar to be absorbed. He called his creation Hula Daddy Kona Sweet and sent a batch off to Coffee Review, the über-geeky score sheet that rates coffee, like wine, on a scale up to 100. When founding co-editor Kenneth Davids awarded Hula Daddy Kona Sweet a 97—the highest score that any Hawai‘i coffee has ever earned and a tie for the highest score (with four African coffees and two Panamanians) that Davids has ever awarded—the legend of R. Miguel Meza was sealed. “An extraordinary and original coffee, complex and exotic yet lyrically pure,” gushed Davids, whose palate picked up molasses, nuts, cider, aromatic wood and a “hint of dusk flowers.”

 

I am invited to cup the Kona Sweet, along with some of Meza’s other innovations, in the Hula Daddy kitchen. Eight grams of coffee, five ounces of 200-degree water, five minutes of steeping, then we scoop away the crust. The trick is not to sip, but to slurp from a spoon so vigorously that a spray of coffee hits all your taste buds at once. I prove to be less than expert at the technique—and frankly, I would rather be cradling a full cup on the veranda—but I buy a pound (at $59.95) for my Cuisinart at home, and after a few pots, I can attest that the Kona Sweet is, indeed, a rare brew. So tangy is the initial burst, so lavishly fecund the aftershocks, that I am a bit overwhelmed, at once compelled and confounded. They have taken a Kona coffee and made it taste like anything but one.

 

“What Hula Daddy has done is what everybody in Kona should be doing,” says Andrew Hetzel, a barista trainer and certified cupper in Waimea. “You can’t go on selling a really expensive product that’s nice but uninspiring solely on the basis of ‘Ooh, we’re in Hawai‘i.’”

 


 

After a few more days of this and many more cups—at Merriman’s, at Huggo’s, at the Kona Coffee & Tea Co.—I am feeling a wee frayed, my sleep patterns jangled, my stomach in mutiny. Like so much about Hawai‘i, you scratch the enchanted surface and below discover a place far uneasier, more complex, even conflicted. Coffee here can be overrated, I suppose, but also underappreciated, the beneficiary of misguided enthusiasm and, at the same time, the victim of it. The challenge of sorting through all that is not just that taste resides in the mouth of the beholder, a subjective proposition. It is that few of us ever examine our own habits and preferences: Do we really know what we like? Have we actually thought about why we like it? There are seventy-plus Starbucks stores in Hawai‘i, a reminder that even in coffee country—a land of fresh, indigenous brews—consumers still choose familiarity and convenience.

 

With my expedition in its final throes, I summon the enthusiasm for one last stop, a visit to tiny Wolf Farms on the mauka side of Honaunau. Mark Wolf has such an unassuming outfit—no signs, no tours, no tasting room—that he instructs me to pull off the road just past mile marker 108 and wait there, on the shoulder, for him to retrieve me. In 2009 his farm won the Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition, the marquee event of the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, which celebrates its 40th year this November. The phone has not stopped ringing. “We were just a small, happy farm,” says Wolf, who with his wife, Denise, performs every chore on their four-acre plot. “Now we gotta get a website.”

 

He leads me to the back patio, with a view not of the shimmering Pacific, but the misty haunch of Mauna Loa, and hands me an oversize mug. Wolf Farms has only one coffee in its repertoire, no gimmicky names or elaborate price structures. It sells for $20 a pound—or rather, it would if you could find it somewhere, but the operation has no retail arm, no presence in any gift shop or grocery store or farmers market. “You kind of get lost out here in coffeeland,” explains Wolf, who produces about 800 pounds of roasted beans a year. “It’s basically word of mouth, friends and relatives mostly.” He is a construction worker by trade, with a silver mustache and a Dog Chapman mullet, and I have to say his coffee is pretty damn good.

 

I suspect it would fail to impress the coffee vanguard, those in pursuit of the most unconventional flavors, but what is in my cup is making me happy. It is buttery and balanced, with hints of smoke and nuts, a coffee not trying to be anything more than itself. An afternoon sprinkle has begun to fall on us, the forest now damp and rustling. A wild turkey named Angel, rescued as a chick on the highway, calls for our attention. When I am offered a refill, I say yes.