Hawaii Coffee Overview

See our current selection of Hawaiian Coffees at Sweet Maria’s.

Hawaii coffee increasingly trades on it's cup quality

It was easy at one time to be cynical about Hawaiian coffee.  It’s value was not intrinsic, not due to its flavor quality, the fact it tasted good. It had value by association: folks had a nice vacation and wanted to bring something back to relive their Aloha experience.  While that still may be the case, and there is certainly low quality coffee sold to tourists in this manner, there is also many people dedicated to making Hawaiian coffee as good as the price would suggest it should be!

The range of coffee wrapped in a bag that reads “Hawaii” is still there, from high to low quality. Some of the growing regions are so low in altitude they are nearly in the tidal zone. The coffee is mild (sometimes too mild). It can be terrible and flat, or it can be mildly nice! The best coffees cost a lot and the worst cost way too much. 

So the goal with Hawaiians is to quit thinking that all Hawaiian coffee is good, and to realize that only a handful of coffees deserve the high price in terms of cup quality (you can easily argue that all deserve a high price in terms of the care and labor expended in producing them). And frankly, you must pay quite a bit for the truly great small-farm Kona

Kona is still the center of Hawaiian coffee, but …

We had occasionally offered coffees from Maui, Molokai, and Kauai. But these are not usually grown like true small farm Estate grade coffees from the Big Island, nor do they taste like them. Kona isn’t grown at impressive altitudes compared to other coffee origins, but on Maui and Kauai coffee is grown at exceptionally low elevations, sometimes near tide pool level! Also, much Kona is an older coffee variety, Typica, a traditional type that cannot be grown at the lowest elevations. Recently, we found out that Ka’u coffees have come a long way, and can be excellent. So Ka’u is a region with credible quality potential.

In a historical sense, coffees like Kona are the pinnacle of a particular definition of what “good coffee” is: clean, pleasant, mild, good aftertaste. This is a notion of “good coffee” handed down from a time when low-grade coffee was called Brazil Rio and it had a seriously foul, dirty taste (so distinctly awful it is still called Rioy in defective coffee terminology). The best coffees were considered the polar opposite; island coffees — mild, delicate and clean.

Certain exotic coffee origins we appreciate as intense and unusual flavor profiles, such as Yemeni coffees, Ethiopian Harar, and wet-hulled Sumatras for example, would be considered defective in this definition. If you love those intense coffees, Kona may seem too timid, too simple, too mild. With scores in the mid-80s, they don’t rate like the best Kenyas or Ethiopias, but the descriptors indicate balance and clean cup quality. Consider this when you taste good Hawaiian coffees. 

Hawaii Coffee Pricing and Risks

The famously fragile ecology of Hawaii has been shattered; along with other invasive species and insects, the recent appearance of Broca, the Coffee Berry Borer insect, has had a huge negative effect on the farms of Hawaii. And coffee fungus is having it’s impact too.

Coffee is being downgraded before export, and can’t fetch the prices it used to as an Extra Fancy grade when it gets knocked down to Kona No. 1 Grade. The affected beans do affect cup quality, but can be sorted out. Yet this takes labor, and in an expensive market that is just not feasible.  Hawaiian coffee costs a lot because there is no cut rate labor … if the world had universal labor laws then all coffee would be priced like Kona etc. We think that’s the direction it should go, and coffee should be treasured while farmers are fairly rewarded.

Hawaii Coffee Areas Map Sweet Marias
Hawaii Coffee Map

See our current selection of Hawaiian Coffees at Sweet Maria’s.

Country Profiles:

Hawaii References in Our Coffee Library

Sweet Maria’s + Hawaii 2021 Update:

I must admit that we have been out of the loop on Hawaiian coffee. Our old sources have retired or sold their farms. Newer operations can sell direct to customers, and good for them! Large operators still sell volumes of coffee, but they aren’t great quality from my experience. 

We used to sell coffee produced by family farms that produced a decent volume, and didn’t want to bother doing a bunch of marketing and retail. They wanted to farm coffee, and that’s it. We hope to create new long term connections, and are encouraged to see the hard-working small farms roasting and selling coffee direct. But our reality in our cupping lab is to focus on where we find the best quality cup, so the energy we expend on sourcing from regions in … say, Ethiopia, doesn’t leave us with much capacity to seek the finest small farm coffee from Hawaii. 

The other confession is … we are kinda cheapskates I guess! We want to offer our customers a good value. Hawaiian coffee can be a tough proposition in those terms, when setting up these cups on a global stage. Hawaii Vs Kenya Vs Colombia Vs Guatemala Vs Ethiopia, in a blind cupping. Tough competition there.

 I want to see farmers get $50 for their 12 ounce bag of Hawaiian coffee. Coffee is hard work. But if I am going to buy 2000 lbs of Hawaiian coffee, and have to sell it to our customers at prices that are 10x a fantastic Ethiopian lot, it’s got to also be amazing. That’s a tall order. I think small farms that sell direct to customers are offering something we cannot, that direct connection, and that makes the $50 for nice coffee worth it for those involved. Just like any produce in a farmers market, there’s that extra value. And there’s the way you are putting consumer dollars into farmers pockets …which is fantastic!

More on Hawaii: Our article detailing some history of Hawaiian coffee

Our Hawaii Coffee Photo Gallery

See our current selection of Hawaiian Coffees at Sweet Maria’s.