Respect for Hawaiian Coffee

A few months ago, I had a conversation with a friend about whether the Hawai‘i coffee industry was diverse and dynamic. I had mostly forgotten about it until this weekend when I was at the 2009 Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) Symposium and Exposition. While there, I found myself defending Hawaiian coffee quite a bit. It doesn’t get much respect.

Honestly, I don’t blame the doubters. Historically, Hawaiian coffee was only Kona coffee. It always came with a high price tag and high quality was never guaranteed. Like Jamaica, the name was more important than anything else and price didn’t necessarily correlate with quality.

Many green coffee buyers came to, and often still do, see Kona coffee as a necessary evil in their stockroom. Customers demand it, usually for winter holiday gifts, so they must have some on hand. Unfortunatelly, most of these buyers are unaware of what has taken place in recent years not only in Kona, but the rest of the state, as well.

This is when I remembered my conversation about diversity and dynamism. Is our industry represented by these ideas? Diverse is certainly a good word choice. Dynamic? I probably wouldn't use that term but if I had to make an argument/explanation for it, it would go like this:

In the last 20 years, we went from 1 coffee growing region to 10 (hopefully soon to be 11). In that explosion, we expanded from old-school farming to everything up to and including fully mechanized operations. We've gone from a few large processors to custom processing and many vertically integrated farms. The demographics of the farm owners and operators, in general, have changed from old-timer locals and their descendants to retirees, hobbyists and dreamers.

Of course, that all has already happened. That’s part of the diversity. What about now? Well, we're still seeing growth and some of these changes are still happening. We're changing how we think about some production practices, e.g., mucilage removal and green bean storage. More importantly, farmers are beginning to see that quality is the paramount factor in production.

It is this dynamism that green coffee buyers and consumers aren’t recognizing. Sure, these intrepid quality-driven farmers are few in number and more are certain to come. However, the only way Hawai‘i will become a respected coffee origin is when our farmers not only focus more on quality but when buyers of Hawaiian coffee begin demanding higher quality. The expertise and resources exist in the state to produce incredible coffee- the kind that makes you want to think about it. Producers just need incentive and encouragement.

The next time you doubt Hawaiian coffee, think about how hard you really worked to find the excellent stuff. Then, ask yourself what you’ve done to encourage the rest of it to get better. Roasters and green bean buyers spend a great deal of time and energy on improving coffee quality in other regions. Why not put a little effort into Hawai‘i?

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