The biggest lie in Hawaiian coffee is that it’s all about the location. It's tempting to believe, but it just isn't true.
Here’s a true story to illustrate the point:
A prominent Hawaii-based food manufacturer called to ask if we could help with the quality issues in their coffee shop. Turns out the roasted Hawaiian coffee they'd been purchasing had received several complaints and they hoped that using the same green coffee beans but a different roasting process (i.e. a different roast profile) could resolve the issue.
“It just doesn't taste the same as last year. Can you roast it for us?” I cupped it and my taste buds puckered. It was tangy (think vinegar) and metallic, which we identified as both harvesting and processing defects. The grower and the client suspected it was a roasting issue. I disagreed but obediently roasted this defective coffee eight different ways for the business to sample.
We underwent a coffee cupping and, not surprisingly, none of them were approved.
Without going into great detail, I'll just say that from visiting the grower's coffee farm dozens of times, we were well aware of the reasons this coffee tasted “off”. In the grower's mind, providing great coffee came down to one simple condition: growing it in Hawaii. This is a common misconception with growers and consumers alike. In reality, Hawaiian coffee is only as good as the handling, and good handling takes a lot of work.
As with most American-made products, due to the economics of labor and land, the price of coffees in Hawaii will almost always dwarf international coffees. Because of that, from our perspective, we owe it to our customers and to Hawaii to legitimately provide the best Hawaiian coffees we reasonably can: ripe coffee cherry, carefully dried, stored in moisture-resistant bags, milled in small batches, sorted, cupped, and roasted to order. Also known as Hawaiian specialty coffee.
Unfortunately, there's a lot of awful coffee production and roasting in Hawaii, which is why the coffees of Hawaii have long had a sordid reputation within specialty coffee markets. I don't blame the coffee industry for that - it makes sense: growing coffee is risky and laborious, and running a business in Hawaii has its own extraordinary challenges. Folks are just doing the best they can with the information they have.
But on the other side, the expectations around coffee are changing, and coffee changes because consumers change, and consumers change because ideas change.
Over time, poor quality leads to a poor reputation and low pricing. It's a race to the bottom making farming unsustainable. And that’s what we’re trying to change.
We want real food, real beverages, and wild and beautiful lives. We want healthier products and to enjoy our coffees without needing to drown them in sugars and flavors. We want authenticity.
I digress... Eventually, the business decided to discontinue that coffee, but their interest in serving Hawaiian coffee continued and our conversations evolved. I explained to the business that, as a roaster, there is nothing I can do short of burning/over-roasting the bad coffee to cover the defects.
No, roasters aren't alchemists... we can’t turn bricks into bread. At a lighter roast, the array of defects would be revealed.
Furthermore, we could not in good conscious continue to roast the coffee because we suspected it contained potential carcinogens that can occur in poorly handled coffees.
Producing great coffee is a partnership where attributes are transformed at every step in the process. To demonstrate the point, a few weeks later we brought the business a sample of coffee I'd roasted from a farm only ¼ mile from the first farm. The location was practically the same, but the farmer took a vastly different approach: healthy coffee trees, ripe harvesting, clean processing, and environmentally controlled storage.
The Hawaii-based food manufacturer tasted it and became hooked on that coffee: it was (and is) a clean, sweet, balanced representation of what Hawaiian coffee could taste like. We were delighted to connect a great farmer with a prominent, high-volume buyer.
What I know is this: regardless of location or variety, coffees can be made great or disappointing - specialty or commodity - and there’s a breadth of labor, education, and investment that separates the two.
If I had to choose the most important aspect of producing great coffee, it would start with caring to do so.