From Maui Gold pineapple to Ni’ihau shell leis, the Hawaiian Islands are globally renowned for producing some of the most exquisite commodities in the world.
And when it comes to the 50th state’s best-known crops—sugar and pineapple among them—the Big Island has long held the title as Hawaii’s coffee capital: its Kona coffee is recognized the world over as one of the finest cups of joe on the planet.
No surprise there: Between Kona’s sunlit mornings and cloud-covered afternoons (to say nothing of its well-drained basaltic soil and balmy climate), coffee trees were practically made for this kind of ‘aina—growing up to twenty feet tall and six inches thick, and leading The New York Times to write, “Whether brewed in a drip pot or in an espresso machine, pure Kona produces a cup of coffee with a creamy head and a magnificently full body. Its taste is winy and multidimensional, with enough acidity to give it balance”—and that’s just one accolade out of many.
But in the coming years, the Big Island may have to share the spotlight: Maui is increasingly earning acclaim for its extraordinary java—and the world is beginning to pay attention.
We live, after all, in an era that’s passionate about great coffee. Gone are the days of Sanka and Maxwell House; even Starbucks—the former king of kings when it came to buzzy beans—is falling out of favor as coffee connoisseurs seek out higher quality beans and processing techniques. And as Hawaiian culture continues to lure people from around the globe, it’s only natural that third-wave coffee enthusiasts are keen on getting their hands around a mug of Maui’s most intoxicating concoction.
To give you a leg up on how and why Hawaii’s coffee trade is changing, we’ve pulled together the facts you should know about Hawaii coffee—and the brews you best try on your Maui vacation.
The History of Hawaiian Coffee
As synonymous as Kona may be with the smooth, delicate coffee it cultivates, the Hawaiian Islands haven’t always been home to coffee trees and the delectable infusions they produce.
When Polynesians first arrived between 500 and 1000 A.D., their boats were filled with canoe crops—primarily breadfruit (ulu), candlenut (kukui), bamboo (uhe) and taro (kalo), the last being a staple of the Hawaiian diet that’s most commonly seen today in poi. Conspicuously missing? The buoyant bean most of us depend on to get going in the morning.
Those crops didn’t arrive until King Kamehameha the Great—the first ruler of a unified Hawaii—befriended a Spaniard by the name of Francisco de Paula Marin. Impressed by the knowledge “Manini” possessed, Kamehameha engaged him as his top confidante, utilizing him as a jack-of-all-trades.
The relationship proved to be fruitful in more ways than one. Not only did Marin act as a physician to islanders, he also introduced Oahu to a fruity plant that bore coffee cherries.
And yet, because the fate of those seedlings Marin planted remains a mystery, Hawaii’s history of coffee tends to be credited to another male friendship—that between Governor Boki of Oahu and agriculturalist John Wilkinson, whom Boki met when he journeyed to England. Enamored by Europe’s booming coffee culture, Boki persuaded the West Indies planter to travel with him back to the islands; along the way, the pair stopped in Rio de Janeiro and picked up a supply of coffee trees, the plantings of which were sown on Oahu by Wilkinson himself before his unexpected death in 1827. While the plantings were neglected for some time, Wilkinson and Boki’s original efforts reached fruition (literally) when Samuel Ruggles—a Connecticut-born reverend and one of the first missionaries in Hawaii—began farming ornamental Arabica trees on Kauai and the Big Island. That strain—velvety, light-bodied, with subtle, zesty hints—became known as “Kanaka Koppe,” the prized Kona coffee we know today.
The Rise and Fall of Kona Coffee
A member of the family Rubiaceae, coffee trees—which were first discovered in the Ethiopian highlands in the 1500s and are native to Africa and Asia—don’t just thrive in the tropics but require the sultry yet mild temperatures found near the equator, thus giving rise to the expression “the bean belt” to describe places located between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.
Deemed the most valuable tropical export in the world (and the second most valuable export overall), coffee trees took to Kona’s warm climes and volcanic soil well, where they began to prosper near their original point of origin near Kealakekua Church. The year was 1828, a time when coffee—which was revered by the Muslim community, considered de rigeur by Parisians, relied upon by Civil War soldiers, dubbed an American’s patriotic duty after the Boston Tea Party, and consumed in great quantities by everyone from Voltaire to Teddy Roosevelt—was quickly becoming a worldwide commodity.
As such, coffee cultivation was attempted outside of the Big Island. On Oahu, for example, coffee was planted in Niu Valley and Kalihi Valley. Kauai, meanwhile, saw the establishment of the first sizable coffee plantation on its northern shore. But despite the increased demand on Hawaiian-grown products such as potatoes, molasses, and coffee during the California Gold Rush, Hawaii’s coffee industry remained unpredictable, even volatile, thanks to spates of fungal diseases (such as leaf blight) and the surge of coffee pests. (A glance at the statistics suggests its precariousness: Hawaiian coffee exports came in at less than 50,000 pounds in 1861, rose to more than 450,000 pounds in 1870, and then decreased to less than 150,000 pounds by 1877.)
King Kalakaua’s 1875 agreement with the U.S.—wherein he permitted products from Hawaii to be sold in the States without duties and customs—further contributed to the coffee industry’s variability, in that sugar superseded coffee as the “Sandwich Island’s” most prominent crop. Still, Europeans and Americans began investing in Kona-grown coffee in the 1890s, while the first substantial coffee mill was constructed near Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. Droves of sugar plantation workers arrived from Japan, China, the Philippines, Korea, Samoa, Puerto Rico, and more, and, when their contracts reached their end on the plantations, many elected to move on to coffee farms (particularly Japanese, some of whom, as The New York Times reports, “escaped from slavelike conditions on Hawaiian sugar plantations before their contracts expired, rode (to Kona) on donkeys along narrow cliffs and changed their names.”) At the same time, a new varietal—this time, a Guatemalan Arabica—was introduced to the paradisiacal landscape.
However, in the subsequent decade, the globe saw a surplus of coffee growth, which ultimately resulted in the decimation of Hawaiian coffee as a profitable export; by 1900, most of the coffee farms had closed. In the years that followed, World War I and the Great Depression impacted Hawaiian coffee—the former giving the industry enough of an upswing that, in 1916, approximately 2.7 million pounds of it were produced in Hawaii; the latter causing a decrease due to farms defaulting on their loans.
What remained consistent, though, was the bean’s ability to bloom throughout Hawaii. After receiving a nod of excellence at the World’s Fair in Vienna, “Kanaka Koppe” secured an official spot on the bean belt’s map, politics—and economics—be damned. By the 1950s—considered the peak of Kona coffee production—the Big Island produced 17 million Kona coffee beans annually. To phrase it differently, it was the largest harvest of any coffee region in the world.
Hawaiian Coffee: 1950s to Now
By the next decade, Hawaii’s coffee industry faced further erraticism. For a time, alterations in pricing, market demand, and labor costs resulted in a diminishment in production. By the late 1980s, though—an era characterized by decadence—the U.S.’s escalating interest in gourmet foods ushered in Kona coffee as a premier, and readily accessible, choice for coffee aficionados. (As Hawai’i Magazine writes, “Grown on just 2,300 total acres on a 20-mile belt of land on the steep slopes of Big Island volcanoes Hualalai and Mauna Loa, Kona coffee claims a price-per-pound, consumer awareness and marketing advantage no other coffee in the world can match.”)
But with the heightened demand also arrived an almost inevitable decline in pure Kona coffee. “For years,” Honolulu Magazine reports, “big growers dominated the scene, and Hawaiian coffees, particularly the sought-after Konas, were routinely blended with inferior product to make them more affordable—a practice that diluted not only the coffee but, eventually, its reputation.” Indeed, the only Kona manufacturer turning a considerable profit turned out to be a fraud—an outfit known as Kona Kai Coffee who were, The New York Times reports, “convicted in 1996 in a $20 million swindle in which cheaper Central American green (unroasted) coffees were put into bags marked ‘Kona,’” one argument being that not all French bread comes from France. Other large roasters chose to take a less blatant route: They took—and take—advantage of Kona’s name while brewing the island beans with other blends.
Meanwhile, however, the epoch of extravagance’s desire for quality led to a mounting interest in more niche products. In terms of Hawaiian coffee, this paved the way for boutique coffee farms that, rather than selling their product to companies that produced Kona blends (which typically include no more than 10% of actual Kona coffee; legally, this is the percentage needed to market coffee as “Kona”), sold 100% Kona coffee to consumers. Now, such purity commands a steep price: 100% Kona coffee generally goes for $30 per pound, while some companies demand $60 for the same amount.
Simultaneously, the slow-food, locavore movement has worked towards making a cup of locally-grown Hawaiian coffee a supreme treat for mainland and international visitors, in that Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. to commercially produce coffee.
“Hawaii is one of the few places on Earth that both produces this strictly tropical crop and enthusiastically consumes it,” Honolulu writes. “The global field-to-cup timeline of coffee can be up to a year; in Hawaii, it’s possible to go from harvest to table in a few days. Vertical integration is also becoming more common in Hawaii—where a single farm, or a farm and a nearby roaster, take the coffee all the way from harvest to roasted bean rather than specializing in only one step in the process.”
The process itself—from bean to cup—is a beauty (and a feat) in itself. Smaller coffee farms throughout Hawaii lack the resources to install pricey machinery; rather, farmers hand-pick the coffee berries, remove its foamy encasement (which is accomplished in a pulping mill), and then dried on a hoshidana, or drying deck. Finally, the covering is husked off, the beans are graded—and the roasting commences. Combine that precision, inclusiveness, and specialty with the bean that took root so many years ago, and Hawaii’s got a winning ticket when it comes to being a serious part of third-wave coffee.
“Now, with sustainability and fair-labor practices at the forefront of farming, tastes evolving to appreciate coffee excellence and thousands of acres of prime farmland released by the sugar industry, smaller coffee farmers, boutique roasters and purer coffee are getting more play,” Honolulu affirms. “In two decades, Hawaii has expanded from one coffee region to 11, and the coffee world at large has taken note. To illustrate this further, in 2008, “Hula Daddy’s ‘Kona Sweet’ coffee received a score of 97, the highest Coffee Review ranking in the world that year and the publication’s third-highest rating in history.” What’s more, “Hawaii-based barista, Pete Licata, of Honolulu Coffee Co., won this year’s highly competitive Western Regional Barista Competition with a blend of Kona and Maui coffees.” Which brings us to our next point…
Beyond Kona: The Present and Future of Maui Coffee
A mere glance at the headlines suggests that Kona coffee may be timeless but Maui coffee is nothing short of timely, with The Maui News writing, “Move over, Kona. Maui coffee is getting much stronger.”
In July of 2017, for one, Maui’s Olinda Organic Farms received the Hawaii Coffee Association’s top award, which the Big Island has held since the award’s inception in 2008. In fact, with 107 entries from around the state, Maui took more top 10 places than any other region—a number that, despite challenges “such as the bean’s destructive coffee berry borer beetle and lack of affordable real estate,” The Maui News writes, Maui’s coffee scene is on the cusp of soaring in a big—and enduring—way.
“We’re just scratching the surface,” Gerry Ross, an organic farmer with Maui’s Kupa’a Farms, told the island’s largest newspaper. “This industry is lasting.” MauiGrown’s James “Kimo” Falconer echoed that sentiment: “Everyone is very excited. Coffee is a big, vibrant market. There is high demand worldwide and lack of supply…Demand often exceeds supply with our coffee varietals selling out each year. It’s a nice problem to have and we are now looking at planting more coffee to meet the demand for our 100% MAUI Origin Coffee.”
And yet, Maui coffee’s surge in popularity and production in recent years is tainted with loss—that of the Aloha State’s position in the world as a leading exporter of sugar. Most plantations around the islands faced closures in recent years, but it was the official shuttering of the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company on Maui (commonly recognized as HC&S) that, as the last remaining planation in all of Hawaii, marked the definitive end of an era. ("If you told somebody in 1950, when sugar was the absolute foundation of the entire economy in the Hawaiian Islands, that the day was going to come when sugar was going to end, they would not have believed you, it would be impossible to comprehend, and here we are," said DeSoto Brown, a historian at Bishop Museum.) The loss of jobs was deeply felt—and the loss of a period just as much—but the silver lining of it all was the freeing up of fertile real estate: As in, 36,000 acres of prime Maui land that can now be devoted to smaller farms and varied agricultural uses, including the cultivation of coffee.
To date, over 500 acres (and the 50 farms that serve them) around Maui are being nurtured to grow coffee, while in March of 2017, news reached the public indicating that a bill is being passed to bestow as much as thirteen million dollars to the farming of the world’s buzziest bean on Maui.
Of those who have gotten in on this new development is the experimental plantation, the aforementioned MauiGrown Coffee, who ploughed acres once dedicated to sugar to advance their operations and to, according to The Maui News, “create jobs for displaced Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Cane Co. workers.”
Alexander & Baldwin (who owned HC&S) spokesman Darren Pai encourages their efforts and those of other farmers, as well as the bond measure. “Our goal is to get as much of our former sugar lands as possible transitioned to successful diversified agricultural operations,” he said. “MauiGrown Coffee is an experienced grower of coffee in West Maui. With this additional support, this proved operation may be able to expand its operations to Central Maui,” where a good deal of former sugarcane land is located.
Other Maui-based operations are capitalizing on the appeal of Maui coffee’s scarcity and the expanding interest in agi-tourism. One such place? Upcountry Maui’s O’o Farm. Tucked onto the slopes of Haleakala in Kula, its eight and a half acres teeming with herbs, greens, and coffee beans, O’o delivers the ultimate in the java experience, offering patrons tours of their grounds and an in-depth overview of their hand-picking and roasting process before serving steaming cups of their home-brew (along with farm-fresh eats and mugs of tisane tea, which is made from dehydrated coffee cherries). Down in Maui’s Central Valley, Maui Tropical Plantation is home to The Mill House’s Roasting Co., where plantation-grown beans are cultivated by hand and coffee is prepared in small batches at their roasting room and café. (The Mill House’s Roasting Co. also recently hosted a Barista Throw Down: Sponsored by several other Maui coffee companies, including Maui Coffee Roasters and Wailuku Coffee Co., the July 2017 event included a free-pour latte art competition. Further, the Maui Tropical Plantation holds an annual Maui Seed to Cup Coffee Festival, in partnership with the Hawaii Coffee Association, and offers guided cuppings and sessions with a roaster.)
In addition to several others farms—Maui Jo Coffee Co. in Kula, for example, and Mahina Farms in Iao Valley—coffee stores around the island are seeing a rise in ubiquity and esteem as well, such as The Coffee Store (with locations in Napili and Kahului), Belle Surf Café in Kihei, and Akamai Coffee in Kihei and Kahului. Restaurants, like Longhi’s in Wailea and Lahaina, offer flights of Kona and Maui coffees to give patrons a taste of the regions. At the same time, leading exporters of coffee, including the world’s biggest coffee grower, Brazil, have seen a decrease in coffee production due to environmental and economic issues, while infestation of the coffee berry borer, coupled with droughts, has cut a swath in Kona’s usual production. Meaning? Maui coffee is in the midst of a “perfect storm” within the coffee industry—and is making major headway.
Maui Coffee: A Family of Growers, Processing Techniques, and Varietals
Part of the excitement (and promise) of Maui coffee is the persistence of the aloha spirit—and sense of ohana—that exists among its coffee farmers; in essence, a collaborative approach to producing some of the most excellent coffee in the world. (A similar sense of community is found on the Big Island, where, as Maui No Ka Oi writes, “Kona coffee farmers have weathered the tempestuous international market by forming collectives and working together to defend the quality of their product and promote it worldwide.”) Then, of course, there’s Maui’s processing techniques—wherein ripe cherries are hand-picked, pulped, and sundried—and the flavors that are thereby produced.
At MauiGrown, for example, the Ka’anapali estate offers consumers both natural and washed products—“washed” being a method in which the bean is sorted after being immersed in water, and both having an impact on the coffee’s finished flavor. Their natural processed coffees (“washed” products are generally preferred on the mainland) yield coffee with “a sweeter, fruitier flavor with occasional notes of dark chocolate and cherries,” says co-owner Jeff Ferguson.
As for Maui’s best beans? The leading four include Yellow Caturra, Red Catuai, Typica, and Mokka. The first, Yellow Caturra, has hints of cinnamon, all spice and licorice; Red Catuai is a buttery, full-bodied beauty with, as “I Need Coffee” bloggers put it, “a wine-like finish,” and Typica bears similarities to the world-renowned Kona with its medium to high acidity and nutty, caramel-noted, smoky finish. (For a truly stellar blend, try Piilani Kope Farm’s City Roast, which merges Yellow Caturra with Red Catuai and Kanaka Koppe, and was described by KQED as holding hints of “toast and spice.”)
As for Maui Mokka, it easily goes down as the island’s most cherished flavor. With a bean derived from native Yemeni seed stock over 1,000 years ago, the “heirloom” varietal, known by some as “the champagne of coffee” (and which has since gone extinct elsewhere around the globe), produces a wide range of chocolate, cherry, and plum flavors, all with a crisp, slightly acidic finish. It also gained off-island fame when, in 2012, Starbucks chose the varietal for their acclaimed Starbucks Reserve Coffee product line (it was also served in select Starbucks Clover stores). According to industry rag Coffee Universe, Starbucks screens “thousands of coffees from all around the world and only a precious few are exceptional enough to become a Starbucks Reserve Coffee. Coffee critics and consumers worldwide also give Maui Mokka high marks for producing a superb cup of coffee.” In other words? This Valley Isle gem, like Maui’s coffee scene in general, is destined for greatness.