After last week’s well-researched post on beer, I was more than ready for a little pick-me-up this week. So, as I was brewing my cup o’Joe this morning, I thought I’d talk a bit about coffee. Specifically, Kona coffee! I’d wager quite a bit that at least one co-worker or sister-in-law asked you to bring back Kona coffee from your vacation—am I right? So, what is it, anyway? And how do you know if you’re getting the good stuff? And, really, what’s the big deal? Hopefully, I can help you navigate the coffee scene while you’re here in Hawaii, and point you in the right direction for a perfect cup of Kona!
Back in the 1800’s, a few different people tried to grow coffee around the Hawaiian Islands, with varying degrees of success. Reverend Joseph Goodrich planted coffee at his mission site in Hilo, looking to make it a self-sustaining community. Hilo didn’t prove to be an ideal place to grow coffee, but when another missionary, Reverend Samuel Ruggles, transferred to Kona, he took some coffee cuttings with him, and the rest is history. Kona’s volcanic soil and mild climate is a perfect spot to grow the world-renowned coffee variety. Other coffee farms around Hawaii were gaining some success, but with the advent of sugarcane, they got pushed out to make more room for Hawaii’s number one cash crop. Kona became the coffee king, and business boomed. These days, there are close to eight hundred coffee farms in Kona’s “coffee belt.” In the same way that only sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France can be called “champagne,” only coffee grown in Kona’s growing region can be called “Kona coffee.”
Kona coffee is certainly “top-shelf” in the coffee world. Kona coffee beans are descendents of Guatemalan plants, so they share similar (but not identical) flavor qualities with Central American brews. The flavor can vary from farm-to-farm, and Kona coffee growers are constantly experimenting with different techniques and plant hybrids, so it’s tough to pin down exactly what Kona coffee tastes like. It’s a bit like asking someone to explain what New Zealand wine or Chinese tea tastes like! However, in general, Kona coffee will have a light amount of acidity, a little fruity sweetness, and a darkly toasted nut flavor. For coffee lovers worldwide, a cup of Kona is quite a treat.
You can find Kona coffee in almost every store in Hawaii, but before you fill your cart with the cheapest one you can get your hands on, beware: it may not be 100% Kona coffee. Plenty of retailers sell “Kona blends,” which may contain as little as 10% Kona Coffee. They’re not legally obligated to disclose what the rest is, so you may be drinking a cup of 90% cheap, over-roasted, not-so-quality beans. Look for “100% Kona,” and ideally, a specific grower or farm on the label. If you’re not buying it in Kona, be diligent about reading the whole label before you purchase. Stop by a specialty coffee or gourmet shop, and ask a knowledgeable employee to walk you through your Kona choices.
So, you’ve bought it, now what? First, keep an eye on the expiration date, and try and use it well before that date. Stale coffee is no good. Also, are you the type to store your coffee in the fridge? Please don’t! The moisture in the refrigerator is terrible for your beans. The enemies of flavor are light, moisture, temperature, and air. Store your Kona in an air-tight container in a cool, dark, dry area—a cabinet or pantry is perfect. Finally, make sure you grind it as you need it—not all at once. If you don’t have a coffee grinder, and have to grind the whole bag, be sure to use it within a week.
A pound or two of good Kona beans may cost you more than you’ve ever spent on coffee, but it’s certainly worth the splurge, especially if you’re a coffee connoisseur. It’s a wonderful way to bring home the flavor of the Islands, and share it with friends while you’re showing off your pictures and sharing your stories from your trip to Hawaii.