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4 Other Major Hawaiian Coffee Growers You Might Not Know About

Everyone knows the coffees of Kona, Big Island. Get to know your O‘ahu, Moloka‘i, Maui and Kaua‘i growers.


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As far as name recognition goes, Kona coffee has been tops in Hawai‘i for a long time. But the coffees of Kona, and other regions of the Big Island coming into their own, represent just part of the story of coffee in Hawai‘i today. More than half of the coffee now produced in the Islands is, in fact, produced on Moloka‘i, Maui, O‘ahu and Kaua‘i. These islands collectively produced 4.6 million pounds of dried coffee in the 2008–2009 harvest season, compared to the Big Island’s 4.1 million pounds.

 

While premium Neighbor Island coffees can hold their own against the best stuff from the Big Island, there’s a sharp contrast between how coffee is grown on the Big Island and how it’s done on all the other islands.

 

Where the typical Kona coffee farms were carved out of the volcanic slopes of Hualālai volcano in the 19th or early 20th centuries, the Neighbor Island coffee farms emerged from the demise of plantation agriculture, in the 1980s and 1990s.

 

Many of Kona’s farms are small-scale, labor-intensive operations, where the coffee is picked by hand and often sold to someone else for processing. The Neighbor Island farms tend to be large-scale operations, where coffee is picked mechanically and the processing, roasting and marketing handled in-house.

 

Although there are a few small Kona-scale farms on the Neighbor Islands, there are just four major players. Here’s the rundown.

 

Kaua‘i Coffee Co.

The Kaua‘i Coffee Co. is the largest coffee farm in Hawai‘i, by far. Its sprawling fields of neatly aligned hedgerows run for six miles along Kaua‘i’s south shore, and stretch three miles inland. The massive farm comprises more than 4 million coffee trees on 3,100 acres. That’s nearly half of all the coffee acreage in the state.

 

Planted by Alexander & Baldwin beginning in 1987, the coffee has taken over the former cane fields of McBryde Sugar Co., one of the first sugar growers in Hawai‘i. Hurricane ‘Iniki delivered an $8.5 million setback to the growing coffee plantation in 1992, but in 1996 the company sprung back and harvested more coffee than all the coffee produced that year in Kona. The farm has since become part of the Massimo Zanetti Beverage Group, the largest coffee roaster in the world.

 

Kaua‘i Coffee Co.’s coffee is purported to be less acidic than other Hawai‘i coffee, and therefore easier on the stomach. At the visitor center, a popular stop for those coming from or going to Waimea Canyon, you can sample some 30 different roasts and varieties the farm produces—if you can handle that much caffeine. You’ll find everything from the soft, fruity Kaua‘i Blue Mountain to the intense, chocolaty, deep-roasted peaberry.

 

“Generally speaking, our coffee is full-bodied but mild, with a really well-balanced flavor,” says Greg Williams, the farm’s manager of orchard operations. “It retains its flavor even when it cools off, which not all coffees do.”

 

Coffees of Hawai‘i (Moloka‘i)

When Moloka‘i’s sole coffee grower and marketer, Coffees of Hawai‘i, planted an experimental crop in 1986, it had no assurance that coffee could succeed on the island’s dry, windswept central plain. But with the help of drip irrigation and windbreaks, coffee ended up growing quite nicely there. When Del Monte Foods stopped growing pineapple on Moloka‘i in 1988, Coffees of Hawai‘i leased 600 acres and filled them with coffee. In retrospect, that was a little too ambitious. Following years of struggle over water rights and finances, the farm has downsized to 150 acres. But the company’s gourmet coffees have consistently gotten good reviews.

 

Located at Kualapu‘u, about two miles from the trailhead to Kalaupapa, the farm is best known for its Moloka‘i Muleskinner, a “raisin” type coffee that’s dried on the plant before it’s harvested and processed. The coffee rating website the Coffee Review has said of Muleskinner:

“The opulent, flower-toned sweetness of this coffee is overlaid with an effervescent spicy mustiness. Imagine mildewed spice covered by chocolate.”

 

Coffees of Hawai‘i has undergone several changes of ownership over the years. In the early days, Jack Magoon, the seersucker-suit-wearing president of Hawaiian Airlines, was the majority shareholder and chairman. Most recently, the company was acquired by Hawaiian King Candies.

 

MauiGrown

Located on the lower slopes of the West Maui Mountains, a few miles mauka of the Ka‘anapali resort, the Ka‘anapali Estate Coffee farm was created by the Pioneer Mill Co., a long-time sugar producer looking for an alternative to cane production. Pioneer planted 500 acres of coffee, harvesting its first commercial crop in 1994. But the company folded in 2001, amid a collapse in international coffee prices.

 

Although weeds sprung up all around, the abandoned coffee plants remained in the ground, and in 2003 the farm was partly revived by Kimo Falconer, a former researcher for Pioneer Mill’s coffee operation. Falconer bought the old processing equipment, leased 80 acres and began producing Maui coffee under his own label, MauiGrown.

 

The best known of MauiGrown’s four varieties is the Maui Mokka, a cultivar of mocca found only on the Valley Isle. The MauiGrown Coffee Co. Store, located in one of the old Pioneer Mill buildings, sells roasted coffee from MauiGrown as well as the handful of smaller Maui coffee growers. It also sells green coffee you can roast yourself, if you’re so inclined.

 

Thanks to an unusual arrangement with a luxury housing development, MauiGrown’s farm has grown to 400 acres. The development, called Ka‘anapali Coffee Farms, has rows of coffee trees woven among the homes, employing a loophole in state land use law that allows houses to be built on agricultural land as long as the land is part of a working farm.

 

Waialua Estate Coffee & Chocolate (O‘ahu)

Mechanical harvester from
Waialua Estate Coffee Company.
Photo: Olivier Koning

As the Waialua Sugar Mill approached its final closure in 1996, Dole Foods Co. launched an initiative to find new, marketable crops to keep some of its vast North Shore acreage in use. The company experimented with papaya, avocado and exotic varieties of mango. Then Dole planted banana, lychee and coconut, tried flowers and feed for cattle, and dabbled in coffee and cacao. In the end, only the coffee and cacao survived in the marketplace. And, as Dole discovered, coffee and chocolate not only go well together on the table, but coffee and cacao complement each other in the field, too.

 

The two crops’ naturally staggered harvest seasons make it possible for a single crew to pick and process coffee half the year and cacao the other half. This allows Dole’s Waialua Estate Coffee & Chocolate to keep 13 people employed, year-round. “It’s the perfect marriage,” says Mike Conway, Dole’s manager of diversified agriculture.

 

The coffee grows outside of Hale‘iwa on 150 acres straddling Kamehameha Highway. Though the Typica variety that’s grown is exactly the same variety used in Kona coffee, the regional flavor differences are noticeable. In other words, Waialua coffee—with a soft, mellow medium body—is unique unto itself.

 

Read More Stories by David Thompson

 

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