Given the sheer volume of coffeehouses — in some neighborhoods, they’re literally on every other corner — it’s no exaggeration to say Hawaii has a prodigious interest in coffee.
Big chains are most prevalent, yet like everything else consumable in this era of sustainability, isle coffee lovers are often finding that producers closest to home deliver the most interesting, innovative, high-quality product.
About 830 coffee farms populate the state with growers on the five major islands. Kona is by far the most famous of the coffee-producing regions, while Kau coffee is making waves on the international scene.
Now baristas, professional coffee makers who work primarily in coffeehouses, are bringing attention to Hawaii coffee. Earlier this year, Pete Licata, Honolulu Coffee Co.’s head barista trainer and coffee quality manager, won the Western Regional Barista Competition, a field usually dominated by Southern California baristas. What makes Licata’s victory so interesting is that it was earned using 100 percent Hawaii coffee.
A GOOD CUP OF JOE
Four steps to brewing delicious coffee, from Pete Licata, head barista trainer at Honolulu Coffee Co.:
» Grind coffee fresh and to the proper size: As soon as the beans are broken up from grinding, they start to lose flavor and aroma, so grind immediately before brewing — medium-fine for drip coffee and coarse for French press. The best grinder is a burr grinder ($50 to $100), but most folks own blade grinders ($20 to $30). If using a blade grinder, hold button seven to 10 seconds for drip and four to six seconds for French press. Shake gently to ensure all the coffee is ground.
» Use proper amount of high-quality, freshly roasted coffee: Coffee won’t go stale for two to three weeks if stored properly in a sealed container in a cool, dry space. Do not refrigerate or freeze: Coffee soaks up refrigerator odors, which can affect flavor, while freezing will cause the bean’s oil to break down, affecting quality. A general rule of thumb is 2 tablespoons coffee beans per 6 ounces water, but adjust for personal preference.
» Water should be close to 200 degrees: Bring to a boil, remove from heat and wait 30 seconds. This method is especially good for French-press brewing.
» Brew for proper amount of time: Most home brewers automatically brew at a set speed, three to five minutes. French-pressed coffee should steep for four minutes before plunger is pushed down. Too short a brew will prevent extraction of full flavor, while too long a brew will cause bitterness.
"Pete’s win is a remarkable benchmark for the only coffee-producing state in the U.S.," says Marcus Boni, of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, who’s involved in regional, national and world barista competitions. "His performance demonstrated the amazing connection a barista can have with a coffee that he’s worked with from seed to cup."
"The advantage in Hawaii is that I can literally take a half-hour flight and work with farmers," Licata says. "We can try out different methods to make the coffee taste better. No one else in America has this advantage. Most baristas use Colombian or South American coffee. They have no real relationship with farmers."
For the average Hawaii coffee lover, the bottom line on all this fuss is that these endeavors result in new and delicious local coffees.
"It’s literally farm-to-table. So much of specialty coffee is about the relationship between farmers and consumers," says Shawn Steiman, of Coffea Consulting and author of "The Hawaii Coffee Book." "It’s all consumer-driven. When people see awards for Hawaii coffee, it causes them to turn their heads."
"A lot of farmers notice. They say, ‘It’s not a bad idea,’" Licata agrees. "This raises the quality of the coffee, it raises the selling price, it raises demand."
Licata isn’t kidding about prices. Good coffee can run $20 per pound and up.
Coffees of this caliber are invariably from estate farms, which means growers are involved in everything from farming to processing and sometimes roasting their coffee. They’re engaged in every stage of production, even selling the product under their own label. Such coffees have unique characteristics and distinctive flavors. In Hawaii there are between 200 and 300 estate farms.
For the competition, Licata used a coffee that was a blend from two estate farms, one from Kona and the other from Kaanapali on Maui. The Kona coffee was processed three different ways and, combined with the Maui coffee, brought flavors of strawberry, Meyer lemon, blackberry and chocolate with a creamy, buttery feel in the mouth that didn’t linger on the palate.
Licata says he hopes to bring this coffee, or one similar to it, to Honolulu Coffee Co. within the next six months.
So how’s a coffee lover to enjoy local coffee if their budget can’t sustain estate prices?
First, there’s always the coffeehouse. While many chains don’t include Hawaii coffee in their lineup, locally owned coffeehouses do. Buying high-quality brewed coffee by the cup is a softer hit to the pocketbook than purchasing beans by the pound.
Licata says some people buy a small bag of specialty coffee and drink it for occasions, or drink solely high-quality coffee, but less often or in lesser amounts.
"It’s what people do with spirits. There’s such a huge difference in flavor between what’s affordable and what’s high quality."
Another way to navigate price and quality is to buy blends for everyday drinking. "Buy a blend with a high percentage of Kona, maybe 25 or 50 percent," Licata suggests.
Steiman also recommends blends but says it isn’t always easy to tell "the boys from the men." One way to err on the side of quality is to buy blends roasted locally.
"You stand a better chance because Hawaii has small, independent roasters, so they can pay more attention to detail," Steiman says.
"Starbucks sources pretty good coffee. … The problem is they deal in such big batches that the coffee loses its identity," he says. "Coffee roasted in smaller quantities are a little more interesting."
A few local roasters include the Coffee Gallery in Haleiwa, where blends run about $14 a pound, and Covenant Books and Coffee in Kaimuki, where estate coffee goes on sale after sitting on shelves a couple of weeks, making them an exceptional bargain. Honolulu Coffee Co., with a bar and a kiosk at Ala Moana Center and locations at the Moana Surfrider Hotel, Princess Kaiulani Hotel and American Savings Bank Tower on Bishop Street, sells a pound of 25 percent Kona blend for $16.75.