Story by Jesse Katz
Photos by Elyse Butler
The sun is setting on old Kailua town, another perfect afternoon giving way to twilight, and as I join the throngs on Ali‘i Drive, all of us stopping to gape as the horizon turns salmon and amber and plum, I take a sip of Kona coffee.
Tom Greenwell's great-grandparents
arrived in Kona from England in 1850 and
started farming coffee; today he
continues the family tradition.
Countless others have done a version of the same—at dawn or after dinner, poolside or on the lanai—their trip to Hawai‘i gilded by the right cup at the right time. As the most renowned coffee-producing region in the nation’s only coffee-producing state, Kona evokes romance and relaxation, elegance and earthiness. More than a beverage, it is a brand, a touchstone, a myth, the souvenir that signals to everyone back home how deeply you savored the Islands.
The mystique that has put Kona on the map, though, has also roused the cynicism (or snootiness, as the case may be) of the world’s critics and connoisseurs. In the overcaffeinated ranks of coffee geekdom—a culture that has come to echo the wine industry—Kona tends to be pooh-poohed as a “honeymoon coffee,” which is to say, a lightweight tonic consumed under idyllic conditions and sentimentalized once the holiday ends. “Its cachet is based on the experience,” says Shawn Steiman, a coffee consultant in Honolulu who holds a Ph.D. in tropical plant and soil sciences from the University of Hawai‘i. “Not necessarily on what’s in the cup.”
So what happens if you shed all that baggage—the hype and the prejudice, the aloha factor versus postmodern barista chic—and evaluate the coffees of Kona on how they actually taste? What about a Kona is delicious? What about it falls short? In a marketplace crowded with spicy Sumatrans and tart Kenyans and flowery Guatemalans, brews that, incidentally, are a fraction of the price, how do you even compare?
These questions have brought me to the Kona Coast for a jittery week of sniffing and slurping, sipping and swishing, morning and night. At cafés and farms and kitchen tables, I will sample medium roasts and dark roasts and private reserves and espresso shots, all of them taken, as coffee should be, black and unsweetened. Like most coffee drinkers I am used to drinking coffee—ritually, socially, medicinally—which is not the same as tasting it. Java hounds such as Steiman, author of The Hawai‘i Coffee Book, have attempted to gird me, expounding on the six main characteristics of coffee quality: aroma, body, flavor, acidity, sweetness and aftertaste. I am packing a printout of the coffee taster’s flavor wheel, a dizzying graph that ranges from cedar and clove to maple syrup and roasted almonds. I have been advised to focus on what I perceive rather than what I like, on the intensity of a given characteristic and not my preference for it, yet that strikes me as an impossible formula. What fun is assessing coffee if I never get to kick back and enjoy it?
“One lesson I’ve learned,” concedes Steiman, “is that what coffee geeks consider the best coffees aren’t all that cherished by non-coffee geeks.”