When we took an anniversary trip to Hawaii, we set out on a mission to discover the best coffee on the island. We soon discovered we were not alone on our quest. Coffee plantations may or may not offer tours, but nearly every one had set up a little roadside stand with an urn of fresh, hot coffee and small paper cups of free samples. It wasn't just about the tasting, however, it was about the whole experience of seeing where the coffee plants grew and flourished.
The geography of Hawaii is uniquely suited to growing coffee. The best known of Hawaii's special coffees is "Kona," ranked as one of the world's best. The rainfall pattern and consistently mild temperatures of the upper elevations of the Kona coast perfectly match the growing and harvesting seasons for coffee. We visited during the dry season, when the plants glory in long days of bright sunshine and are refreshed by cool morning mists. At lower elevations, macadamia plantations and avocado orchards thrive in the black volcanic soil.
We were in Hawaii for snorkeling and sightseeing, but we planned our route to the beaches each day to take us past different coffee plantations around the Big Island, as the island of Hawaii is known. The island has a rainy side, dense with blooming vegetation and waterfalls. The other side of the island is drier, with steep mountainsides leading down to sunny postcard beaches. These western mountainsides are where you'll find coffee plants clinging to the slopes in contoured rows.
Coffee plants flower from February to May, producing plump green "cherries" that ripen red by November. The cherries are about the size of large peas and are little more than husks of fruit surrounding the coffee beans. The beans have a long path between picking and perking their way into your cup. They'll be pulped, fermented, milled, dried, sorted, roasted, and ground. Just as with grapes used to make wine, there are differences between coffee beans grown in different locations. Trace elements in the soil, differences in micro-climate from one plantation to another, even differences from one growing season to the next can produce subtle variations in flavor.
Some plantations had full gift shops set up, with not only coffee but also mugs, sweets, and souvenirs. Our first couple of stops, we sipped and said, "Yep, tastes like coffee." But soon we found ourselves trying to find words to describe the differences that emerged as we sampled the several brews set out at one plantation and compared them to the ones we'd tasted just down the road. Smooth, complex, full-bodied, chocolaty, delicate, a little harsh, a note of vanilla... we sounded like any wine tasting party.
Good quality beans produce a smoother cup of coffee. The harsh, bitter notes in lesser beans can be disguised by clever roasting. That's why dark roasted coffee is sometimes cheaper. Even the less expensive Kona beans compared pretty favorably to basic coffee back home, so we had a lot of fun comparing the finer points and nuances of flavor in the "fancy" and "private reserve" coffees. We did discover a difference right off the bat between pure Kona coffees sold by the plantations and the "Kona Blend" brews offered at island souvenir shops.
We sampled, we compared, we took notes, and we bought at least a pound of each to take back home. Once home, we held several "tastings," narrowing down our favorites once again. Our very favorite variety turned out to be a pricey "private reserve" that was not likely to be available in subsequent years. However, a close contender was reasonably priced for ordering online. OK, it was still priced like Kona, but for our weekend "treat" coffee it would be just fine. Compared to the cost of even a regular black coffee in one of those cups with the familiar green logos, importing our own freshly roasted Kona seemed downright reasonable.
For a list of farms and estates growing Kona coffee, many of which have beans available by mail order, check out the Kona Coffee Council's website. For several years, we've been ordering our weekend "treat" coffee from Bayview Farms, five pounds at a time. We store the big bag in our freezer and keep a small airtight canister on our countertop, ready to grind and brew. The aroma and flavor take us right back to those misty mornings, standing by a mountain roadside on the Big Island of Hawaii, drinking in the gorgeous scenery along with the best coffee in the world.
Photographs by Jill M. Nicolaus, with thanks to my loving husband, who knows how to get my morning off to a great start with three little words: "Want some coffee?"
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Sept. 29 is Coffee Day! At Dave's Garden, we are observing the occasion with a week's worth of coffee-themed articles. From growing coffee to drinking coffee to using coffee in your garden, join us each day to read something different about the beverage that says "Good morning!" to so many of us.
Not a coffee drinker? We didn't leave you out. Look for articles on chicory and biscotti. And thanks to Melody for the custom "mug shot" at the top of the article.
Happy Coffee Day!