Drip Studio Is a Coffee Nerd’s Retreat in Downtown Honolulu
Craft-brewed coffee from small, independent roasters pairs with irresistible baked goods on Fort Street Mall.
Café culture in Honolulu is peaking right now. From pour-overs, lattes and scones at Morning Glass Coffee to “cofftails” and breakfast sammies at Ali‘i Coffee, there’s a range of cafés that speak to all types of coffee and tea lovers. For the nerds, the list tapers down to just a few, including Drip Studio, which opened earlier this year on the mauka end of Fort Street Mall.
In some ways, Drip Studio could be considered a normal coffee shop. At the takeaway window, you can order one of many coffee options (except espresso), tea or a caffeine-free mocktail and be on your way. There are food items too, baked or prepared in-house, which happen to be one of the highlights of Drip Studio.
In other ways, Drip Studio transcends most definitions of a coffee shop. With each visit, my appreciation for craft coffee grows. Not only for the soothing taste and stimulating effects, but for the community of small roasters that Vincent Higa and Kelsie Mercado-Uehara, the shop’s owners and life partners, are shining their light on.
Higa, a carpenter by trade, was ready to hang up his tool belt. A coffee lover for most of his life, he knew his next step was to create a space to share his passion for the craft. He equipped it with a front counter low enough for you to sit on stools. There are high-top tables, but I always gravitate to the counter and often linger for a few hours.
I tell people that I’m not a coffee snob, because I’m admittedly too lazy to get technical with brewing, but I sure enjoy a well-brewed cup, and I like that Drip Studio offers that happy medium. Don’t worry about knowing anything about coffee: Higa will break things down for you and have you up to speed in no time.
From the kitchen, Higa engages with his customers. He keeps a coffee bible nearby that lists upwards of 40 coffees from various roasters he’s in contact with worldwide. A quick consult, and he’s got a beverage to cure your craving. On each visit, I’ve tasted at least two different coffees, all brewed using different techniques that evoke distinctive flavors from the same beans. This is where it gets a little nerdy. I can recall tasting beans from Rose Coffee Roasters of Switzerland, Portland Ca Phe in Oregon and White Nēnē Coffee Roasters on Hawai‘i Island, all champion roasters. Higa and Mercado-Uehara recently went to the Specialty Coffee Festival in Portland, Oregon, to network and learn more about the industry.
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Pour-overs ($6.50) are the standard, but Higa can also make you a Japanese-style iced coffee ($6.50) or a Vietnamese pour-over ($7.50) with condensed milk. There are cold brews, standard ($4.50-$5) and charged with nitrous ($5.50-$6.50), plus teas and caffeine-free options ($3.50-$5.50) as well.
On a recent visit, I brought beans from Manu Coffee Roasters in Fukuoka to brew. Higa made me a cup using the Devil’s Brew method, created by world champion brewer Tetsu Kasuya. It involves two processes that maximize flavor upfront and pull pure caffeine toward the end. The result is a luscious, full-bodied cup that’s not too hot to drink immediately. I shared my cup with a friend, and we were wired for the rest of the day.
I’m a sucker for iced coffees and drinks with cold foam, so the Cold Fashioned with Foam ($8.50) is a definite winner. The cold brew is gussied up with maple syrup, orange bitters and a creamy cloud of citrus-scented foam.
Mercado-Uehara delicately arranges berries, mint and edible flowers on one of her ricotta toast creations ($12). Her baked goods entice from under glass cloches and jars: browned butter miso chocolate chip cookies, slices of citrus olive oil cake with orange zest glaze and guava jelly bars. The menu also lists open-face sandwiches ($10), salads ($10) and other light fare.
I enjoy the egg salad ($10), which Higa suggests goes well with crushed-up bits of kaki mochi. It’s a secret menu hack that Mercado-Uehara rolls her eyes at, but the bits add a blip of texture and a dash of umami from the caramelized shoyu.
I have yet to order the $20 overnight crème brulee french toast, which feeds three to four, but I hear it is an attraction all on its own. As if I needed more reasons to go back, Higa is working on turning the rest of Drip Studio into a coffee sanctuary that he’s not ready to share more details on. But if my experiences so far are an indication, I am so ready for the next phase of his caffeine-fueled dream.