Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

New Bean on the Block

Story by Malanie McLellan. Photos by Elyse Butler.

“The Pink Bourbon variety is really rare,” says Juli Burden as she rolls glossy pink, red and yellow coffee cherries in her palm.“Maybe two places in Hawai‘i are growing it, and only half a dozen others in the world are growing it commercially. Bourbon coffees are nice and complex, abundantly sweet. In blind taste tests professional tasters think this is a high-elevation coffee, like Ka‘ū or Kona, which is remarkable.”

Remarkable because the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC), where Burden holds the title of “coffee technician,” is not at high elevation. Neither is it in Kona or Ka‘ū or any other Hawai‘i region known for coffee. It’s on O‘ahu, at the back of the residential Windward neighborhood of Maunawili. Despite its lower elevation, Maunawili is in some ways ideal for coffee: The valley is blanketed in cloud cover both in the morning and afternoon, reducing ultraviolet radiation up to 30 percent compared with other Hawai‘i coffee-growing areas. As a result the coffee matures and ripens more slowly, which imparts a caramel scent, notes of dried fruit and an innate sweetness with no bitter aftertaste.

Coffee isn’t the only thing that thrives on the land where HARC’s eighty-acre Maunawili Research Farm now sits. Early commercial sugar cane was planted here and“even flowered, which is rare,” says HARC station forester Nicklos Dudley. Dudley and his team have developed disease-resistant strains of koa that thrive at low elevation, which provides habitat for native birds and shades the coffee—a win-win-win, says HARC station manager Tyler Jones.

“We demonstrate how to shade coffee with koa, which enhances the watershed and creates long-term investments for the farmer.” HARC is also cultivating cacao, evaluating varieties they’ve planted around the state for yield and flavor. They’re researching possibilities for ‘iliahi, or sandalwood, a once-common tree that was over harvested for trade in the early nineteenth century.

So where can you sample O‘ahu’s distinctive coffee? “We have shared our so far limited offerings with Maunawili residents first, as they’ve been such supportive neighbors,” says Jones. But HARC’s coffee will soon be available through its web site, which might just put Windward O‘ahu on Hawai‘i’s coffee-growing map.