Farm to Table: Coffee

Many people can’t—or won’t—live without their daily coffee, and, in Hawaii, we’re lucky enough to have farm-fresh beans to brew. To find out more about how coffee gets from the farm to your table, we chat with Hawaii’s coffee Ph.D.


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Photo: Olivier Koning

Americans are on intimate terms with coffee. We consume about 400 million cups of the stuff every day. We wake up with it; work with it; date with it; pull all-nighters with it. By now, you’d think we’d know something about our favorite little brown bean.

Yet, in an age of increased interest in eating local and knowing your farmer, the back-story of coffee remains relatively unknown, in part because of a supply chain that can read like a Lonely Planet guide. It’s not uncommon for coffee to be grown and harvested in one country, undergo multistep processing in another and be consumed in a third.

Except here. Hawaii is one of the few places on Earth that both produces this strictly tropical crop and enthusiastically consumes it. The global field-to-cup timeline of coffee can be up to a year; in Hawaii, it’s possible to go from harvest to table in a few days. Vertical integration is also becoming more common in Hawaii—where a single farm, or a farm and a nearby roaster, take the coffee all the way from harvest to roasted bean rather than specializing in only one step in the process.


"Dr. Coffee," Shawn Steiman, surrounded by coffee plants at Waialua Estate and Coffee Cacao.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Vertical integration: an easy catchphrase to drop, harder to accomplish well. A true field-to-cup coffee producer needs to master a mind-boggling array of skills: farming, processing, roasting, marketing and distribution.

Enter Shawn Steiman, scientist, consultant and self-described “coffee geek.” To Steiman, and others like him who are helping to usher in a new age of Hawaiian coffee, the creation of a good coffee is an achievable art—and a science that can be taught. Steiman has translated a love of coffee that began in elementary school into a coffee-centric horticultural dissertation and a career mentoring coffee farmers and producers across the globe. He also educates the public palate here in Hawaii through coffee “cuppings”—a centuries-old practice that is equivalent to wine tasting. 

Steiman feels that the time is right for producers of artisanally made coffee—also known as specialty coffee—to find a wider audience. America, he says, is riding the “third wave” of coffee consumption (the first is coffee as a diner commodity, the second a Starbucks-type lifestyle choice, and the third, a deep appreciation of coffee’s origins, craft and subtlety). 

For some, it’s an obsession: coffee’s third wave has spawned an intense culture of cupping and barista competitions, avidly read reviews of specialty coffees, “trip to origin” tours and a descriptive coffee-tasting vocabulary that approaches wine’s: an interesting coffee might offer aromatic notes of fruits and flowers, chocolate, caramel, herbs and even fir tree. “Coffee geeks are attached,” says Steiman. “They’re passionate. These people have espresso machines they can, and will, tweak to a 10th of a degree.”

You don’t have to be a coffee geek to appreciate that coffee folks in Hawaii are upping their game—and all of us who like something good in our cup will benefit.
 

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Honolulu Magazine October 2018
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