Why You Should Take the Time to Visit Hawaiian Coffee Producers
But for a truly unique experience, take some time to explore the working coffee farms. There’s nowhere else on earth that can compare with the intimate visits offered in Hawaii and they offer more than just a chance to learn about history and agriculture. It’s a way to really connect to the people of Hawaii and immerse yourself in the labor of love that is the lifeblood of their farms.
Even if you aren't a coffee drinker, you’ll still enjoy a visit.
Hawaiian Coffee Experience - Kona, Maui, and Oahu's North Shore
Which Locations to Visit - And Why
If you are only going to do one Kona coffee tour on your visit to the Big Island, make it Greenwell Farms along the Mamalahoa Highway. This historic property, in the same family for over a century, gives a friendly, welcoming tour that is both very comprehensive and also easy for novices to appreciate. It covers all aspects of coffee growing and production and features the most generous selection of coffee samples – there were 8 for us to try, including two flavored coffees (they also dabble in macadamia nut production, and use their own mac nut oils for flavoring). Their next door neighbour, H.N. Greenwell Store Museum is part of the Kona Historical Society and is well worth a visit.
Their coffee is amazing, but Kona Blue Sky Coffee will also make the non-coffee fans very happy. Their tour of the estate focuses less on coffee and more on the diverse and beautiful flowers, plants, and produce. It’s amazing to see so many fruit trees hidden among the lush, tropical plant life and I found the grounds to be fascinating. Non coffee lovers will also enjoy their shop – they also sell nuts, mugs, shirts, Hawaiian pancake mixes and Tahitian vanilla shipped in from the owners’ sister based in the South Pacific. There’s a friendly house dog on site as well.
If you have a modest interest in coffee but are short on time, stop by Hula Daddy Kona Coffee. The tours are basic, but their views are spectacular and you will feel so relaxed sipping coffee samples on the deck. If someone in your party is lingering in the shop, you can melt away with the gorgeous ocean views. It’s worth mentioning that the self-serve samples come with cream, sugar, and mini ceramic mugs. (Most Kona coffee samples are black coffee, so you can more easily appreciate the coffee’s flavor). They also have a fascinating cupping room/kitchen/laboratory you can see.
Holualoa Kona Coffee has a very basic, self-guided tour and not much in the way of fancy finishes. But this is the real deal – just small batches of great coffee. When they replaced the old roaster with a newer model, they noticed a slight change in the coffee flavor. To make sure customers continued to be happy, the old roaster got a death row reprieve and now they sell coffee from both to cater to their customers’ discerning palettes. You’ll appreciate why they have such a loyal following. They also offer mini ceramic mugs, cream, and sugar with their samples.
Drop dead gorgeous house on a hill top overlooking an endless expanse of ocean, surrounded by acres of coffee? This is a reality at Lahaina’s Maui Grown Coffee, which has a separate retail store and welcomes you to pick up a map and drive around the coffee estates (and maybe even imagine which plot you’d put your own house on!). They have a wide range of local beans and roasts, some of which are quite rare, and the little store is welcoming and interesting. Perfect to pick up a large coffee or café au lait, and a few muffins in the early morning before exploring Maui.
A tiny community on the northern shore of Oahu is just steps off the tourist track and faces potential economic devastation when the sugar factory closes. Instead, the community rallies and revamps the site into the Old Sugar Factory, a hot bed of commerce and creativity. Island X Coffee roasters will welcome you in their facility, give you a hands-on tour of their coffee growth and production out back, and has samples to try. Oh, they also grow and process chocolate, one of the rarest single source cocoas in the world! They also carry coffee from neighbouring islands, and we usually get their Molokai Peaberry when it’s in stock. Your coffee and gift shop purchases are supporting real people, a real family, and a vital community. Whatever you do, don’t leave without purchasing a few packs of their homemade pancake mix (I love Pineapple). This was our first experience meeting Hawaiian coffee growers and really set the stage for our love affair.
The Hawaiian Coffee Tour Experience
Most people agree that Hawaiian coffee is incredibly smooth, lacking in bitterness, with no aftertaste and a built-in creaminess. But it will taste much different from instant coffee, pre-ground coffee, blends, flavored coffees, and especially coffee that is laden with powdered creamer and artificial sweeteners. Start by taking small samples, and try as many as possible. Tell the staff what you usually drink, as they can direct you towards something that will be complimentary to your tastes. Start with light roasts before experimenting with darker.
Some coffee tour etiquette: Feel free to try lots of samples –there is nothing wrong for going back for seconds, thirds, fourths or more! But do be neat and reuse your cup if you can. If there’s no cream or sugar on display, don’t ask for it. They want you to taste their coffee in a pure, simple fashion. During the tour, feel free to take tons of photos - they will tell you if there’s a private area that’s off limits. Don’t touch any equipment and definitely don’t touch any part of the coffee plant unless invited. Chances are there will be “demo” plants that you are allowed to touch or smell later on.
Your tour will have been free, as would be the endless samples, so it’s good form to make a small purchase at the gift shop. Fortunately, even if you are not a big coffee fan, there are plenty of small options, such as mini coffee packages that are perfect for gifts, and food items like pineapple pancake mix.
These are living, working farms and it’s important to show your appreciation for their time and effort. It’s not appropriate to bargain like you might at a flea market or even a farmer’s market, but it is okay to ask if there’s a different in price if you buy 5 or 10lbs of one variety – usually you’ll save a dollar or two per pound.
It’s perfectly fine to ask the difference between two beans that appear similar but have two different price points – you’ll learn a lot, there will be no pressure, and you can make an educated decision.
Take the Time to Educate Yourself Before You Choose Where to Visit
Nor should you be tempted by too cheap coffee beans. There are plenty of roadside booths in Kona advertising “ brown bag” beans for low prices. For a visitor, it’s harder to trace the origin of these beans and, unless you are an experienced local, it would be hard to know which of these roadside vendors sell quality product.
One final word about choosing a farm: think twice about a place that brags too much about how many TV and magazine feature’s they've experienced. We visited one “famous” coffee farm, but were disappointed by the measly sample selection, the large scale machinery, the restricted tour, and the hard sales push at the end.
Certified organic coffee is rarely worth the mark up. Most farms are very open and happy to discuss their environmentally friendly farming practices. Many operate a very environmentally friendly farm that is almost entirely organic, but cannot afford to go through the certification process or simply cannot find a certified organic farming component (like an organic manure or grass seed). One thing we loved about Hawaiian coffee farms – the use of cute chameleons as a form of natural pesticide!
Finally, if you are buying a few pounds, feel free to ask for some beans that have been more freshly roasted. The older the roast date, the less fresh the bean, so even a few weeks can make a difference if you’ll be buying a lot of coffee and not able to drink it all at once.
This is another excellent reason to buy coffee beans directly from the farms and not the ABC, grocery store, airport, or hotel gift shop. Their coffee could have been roasted many months ago and the coffee will be stale by the time you drink. Coffee fans using a French Press will notice a thick and creamy crema with a very fresh coffee – similar to the creamy head on a pint of Guinness.