Here’s what you will learn as soon as you get to Hawai’i. COFFEE. This is exciting for someone like me who regards themselves as a coffee tourist. I am always up for trying the local coffee when I travel, and I avoid Big Coffee as much as I can, but this comes with frequent disappointments and the occasional surprise.
This is my personal story of exploring coffee in Hawaii. Your experience will likely be completely different than mine. I will share some of my framework and how I fared on the islands.
My Coffee Framework
Before I jump into my Hawaiian coffee adventure, I wanted to share my coffee framework. These points are how I think about coffee and what I like after decades of experimentation.
- I only drink coffee in the morning before I eat. This is a habit that I have had for a long time. I rarely drink coffee late in the day, so my coffee window is about 6 hours in the morning.
- I like to try small amounts of coffee vs. large cups of coffee. Yes, a standard coffee cup is only 8 oz. That’s hard to imagine in our jumbo world.
- I prefer hot coffee for tasting. Cold brew and iced coffee are excellent, but for tasting, I find them not too helpful. Iced coffee was likely brewed hours before you got to the cafe.
- I prefer freshly brewed black coffee to espresso drinks. Most espresso drinks, to me, taste about the same. The added milk and flavors cover up the coffee’s flavor. They are great drinks, they are just something different than black coffee.
- My favorite coffee is from Ethiopia. I like the distinct flavors that come from those beans. It always tastes like I am drinking something special compared to the general coffee flavor profile. I know other regions have pronounced flavors, I just happen to prefer the fruity and floral notes of jasmine flower and bergamot with a slight blueberry aftertaste.
- I never really had Kona coffee on the mainland. I knew it was expensive coffee, and I didn’t have many opportunities to have it.
Why is coffee special in Hawaii?
Hawaii, particularly the Big Island, has ideal growing conditions for coffee. The volcanic soil is rich in minerals, the elevation is suitable, and the weather pattern—sunny mornings, clouds or rain in the afternoon, mild nights, and steady temperatures—provides an environment that coffee plants love. Hawaii is right in the coffee belt.
The “coffee belt” refers to the region around the globe where coffee is grown. It encompasses regions between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. This zone provides the ideal climate and conditions for cultivating coffee. The latitude, climate, elevation, temperature, rainfall, and soil have to be perfect for the finicky coffee plants to flourish.
Hawaii is the only part of the United States in the coffee belt.
Coffee on Oahu
I spent the majority of my trip to Hawaii on the island of Oahu—the island with Pearl Harbor, Waikiki, and Honolulu. Every place on Oahu sells Kona coffee. This is coffee from the Big Island. Even Starbucks sells Kona coffee in bags, but they do not have it available freshly brewed.
There are lots of coffee shops or places to get coffee on Oahu. Tourists expect it. Again, I am not looking for lattes and syrups; I am looking to try the local coffee varietals.
“If they advertise latte art, the regular coffee is not likely to be anything special.”Hans Scharler
I tried a bunch of the coffee shops, and everything was pretty meh. I also bought a pour over coffee maker and kettle at Target to experiment with bagged coffee. Every place I went—shops, gas stations, grocery stores, Hawaiian ice shacks—sold bagged Hawaiian coffee. They were all the same brands, with no indication of when they were roasted or how long they had been sitting around. I semi enjoyed Maui Coffee made with my expert touch and some primitive tools. The others had no distinct flavors or anything to note.
I kind of expected this outcome. Like I said, being a coffee tourist involves a lot of misses. A hit, though, was the Honolulu Coffee Experience Center. I knew when I walked in that I might have a pleasant experience. They had a bunch of pour over coffee makers lined up on scales, and every order was taking over five minutes to process. Right in the center of the room, they had a giant working coffee roaster on display. I tried two of their options. I paid handsomely for the cups of coffee, but I also got a story about the beans, the cultivation and processing processes, and how they were going to brew it. This really does add a lot to the experience and rounds up any issues with the coffee that you are drinking. Context is everything. FARM TO CUP.
Coffee on The Big Island
I arrived at the Kona airport and was immediately presented with a lot of bagged coffee options in the airport coffee shop. Every brand was different from what I saw on Oahu. Everything was estate-grown. While waiting to get my rental car, I asked a local resident where to go for the best coffee. They gave me two recommendations, and they continued to say that everything else was pretty much for tourists (ahem, not sophisticated coffee tourists like me).
My First Cup of Kona Coffee in Kona
The recommendation that I got was to go to Kona Mountain Coffee. I punched in the coordinates and navigated about 3 miles to the Kona Mountain Coffee Shop in Kailua-Kona. YES. It was fantastic. I had an early morning flight from Oahu to Kona, and I was ready for a cup of coffee. They had two roasts ready to go, and both were fantastic. Distinct flavors came through—chocolate, fruit, hazelnut, and caramel. Waves of caffeine heightened the psychedelic experience after not having any coffee all morning.
This is also where I learned about peaberry coffee. Peaberry coffee is a rare type of coffee bean that develops when only one seed forms inside a coffee cherry, instead of the usual two. This happens to about 5% of the coffee harvest each year. Peaberries are named for their uniquely round, pea-shaped shape and are a bit smaller than the normal coffee bean. This makes it way more expensive.
Roasting Coffee in Kona
I wanted to visit an actual coffee farm, see the coffee plants, pick the cherries, and be in the room where it happens. A Google search yielded 50 options, with almost every option having the same 4.4 review score. I wanted to go off the beaten path and find a unique experience. Again, I am not just a tourist donning an ill-fitting Hawaiian short; I am a coffee tourist, dammit.
I picked Heavenly Hawaiian Farms because its high review score and glowing comments set it apart. Heavenly Hawaiian coffee is grown on the hills of Holualoa, in the heart of Kona. This place was hard to get to which also heightened the experience. I appreciated having a Jeep and the encouraging farm signs along the route. Heavenly Hawaiian had many coffee experiences that you could book: a coffee roasting class, a coffee brewing class, a coffee tasting bar, and a farm tour. I opted for the coffee roasting class. We learned about coffee beans, the roasting process, and how to reach different flavor profiles. We smelled the raw green coffee beans and roasted them using propane and a cast iron skillet. They taught us how to use our senses to perfectly roast coffee beans.
Using smell, sound, taste, and time, we transformed green beans into a medium roast. Our instructor encouraged us to take a bean from various stages and crunch it up in our mouths to get a sense of how the roast was going to turn out. In the beginning, the beans are earthy, and by the end, after The Maillard reaction, they start to taste like coffee as we know and love it and take on the flavors that the plant intended.
They took our roasted coffee beans and heat sealed them in a coffee bag. They encouraged us to name our coffee roasts and sign the bags. This was a great experience. Literally going from farm to bean to coffee all in one day. We learned a lot, and George and I got to share a wonderful class.
Finding Kona Coffee in Hilo
Hilo is on the other side of the Big Island. Hilo is not known for its coffee, but it is sold everywhere. I had a hard time finding a Kona-only coffee shop. They were mostly latte shops and didn’t even mention if the coffee was from Kona or not. I took Becky to Coffee Girl in Hilo, HI, and she had a delightful iced latte with a heart-shaped straw. Everything there was Instagram worthy. I skipped having a latte as I was holding out for a fresh brewed cup of hot black coffee. Our family goal was to hike the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, so I searched for a coffee shop along that route. I found Koana just outside of Hilo. YES! They specialize in “slow black coffee”. Koana is a local Hawaiian specialty coffee shop, located in Mountain View Village, halfway point between Hilo and Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.
Koana featured coffee from Monarch Coffee and other curated roasts from around Kona. This place had it all—Hario coffee brewers, scales, gooseneck water kettles, coffee tasting note posters, and novelty coffee mugs.
The baristas here told the story of each roast, explained the process, and demonstrated their love for Kona coffee. This was a really cool spot. If you order coffee from these farms over the internet, I recommend 2 oz coffee tasting boxes. I like having a variety of coffee roasts in small batches versus one big bag of beans. My favorite roast from Monarch (so far) is Ohana Espresso. It is surprisingly light and flavorful.
This is My Story
I think that it was worth being a coffee tourist in Hawaii. I learned a lot about coffee, gained a lot of respect for the process, further defined what I am looking for in a coffee, and had varied experiences. I promise you that I am not a coffee snob, I just love using coffee as a backdrop for travel especially in a place where coffee is grown. I recommend that you avoid the lattes, find a cool place, and craft your own experience.