Hawaii is synonymous with coffee. Ask a serious coffee drinker about the best coffee in the world and Kona coffee would have to be on the list along with the likes of Jamaican Blue Mountain or Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. I am partial to coffee from Hawaii’s Ka’u region over Kona coffee, but that is like getting asked to choose between two fine wines. Both are great, so you cannot lose with either choice.
I have sampled coffee from all four of the major islands and two of the three inhabited minor islands (sorry Nihau, if you grow coffee I would love to try it). Kauai is less known for its coffee production than the Big Island which is odd considering that the majority of Hawaiian coffee is actually grown on Kauai. This is due in large part to the small average size of coffee farms on the Big Island versus the large plantation on Kauai. Like appellations of wine, Kona coffee is also viewed to be an artisan or craft product so any large scale production, in my opinion, would be viewed as cheapening the “brand” of Kona coffee.
When you visit Kauai and if you are a coffee drinker, you have the opportunity to visit a large scale coffee plantation on the south shore of the island not far from the resort area of Poipu. I think it is always a good thing to see how the food you consume is produced. Coffee is an oddity because most of us have little idea how it is grown or processed. We drink the dark liquid without a second thought as long as the label on the package tells us something reassuring. Given the opportunity, I take the chance to walk among the coffee trees even though this was my second trip to the Kauai Coffee Company.
There is a short, self-guided walk through an area near the visitor’s center that gives you little tidbits of information about coffee production. Is it a stylized or sanitized version of coffee production? Sure, but all along the highway leading back to Poipu you can see where the vast quantity of coffee is grown as well.
Coffee trees are odd. In the wild the trees can grow upwards of 50 feet, but you will rarely see a coffee tree at height greater than 10 to 12 feet on a plantation:
Are these not coffee shrubs or bushes? Little flowers dot the branches:
These flowers will eventually develop into the red cherries that contain the precious beans we desire so much in the morning. Heck, even dieters are now keen on compounds in green coffee.
The image of Juan Valdez hand picking coffee with a burro is enduring because it is powerful. We want our food to be produced in some bucolic or pastoral setting that evokes soft light and fuzzy memories. Well, coffee is harvested by machine:
It’s actually a big scary machine. Coffee in more hilly regions or where terraced fields are common is still picked by hand (e.g. Kona) because the quantities do not justify the capital investment and the topography is not conducive to wheeled behemoths. Incidentally, the Big Island has a population of feral donkeys that are descendants of animals used as beasts of burden on coffee plantations in the earlier part of the 20th century. Feral donkeys…cool.
As the climate changes and diseases impact coffee, the importance of basic research into the varieties of coffee is essential. By their own admission, the Kauai Coffee Company is helping conduct some of this research which is a form of self-preservation. Several varieties of coffee trees are grown in various plots around the plantation:
Five varieties of coffee are grown on the plantation—Yellow Catuai, Red Catuai, Typica, Blue Mountain, and Mundo Novo. These varieties are all Arabica beans versus the lower quality Robusta beans, which are typically used to espresso blends and contain a higher level of caffeine. It will be interesting to see if there is a shift toward more Robusta trees as climate conditions get harsher because that variety is known to be hardier.
In Kauai the wildlife is usually of the poultry sort:
Even at the coffee plantation the local chickens are out in force. When you have a two-year-old boy on Kauai, nothing is more fascinating than free roaming chickens. Nothing.
Even the path itself is littered with little coffee details:
A visit to the Kauai Coffee Company is a fun way to spend an hour or so. If you have curious children, it’s a great way to show them where the coffee dad drinks every morning comes from because there are no coffee farms in eastern Iowa.