What France is to wine and Italy is to pasta, Hawaii wants to be to coffee.
So, javaheads, listen up.
Connoisseurs say, stop looking for the best gourmet coffee in Jamaica or Colombia. Hawaii is the way to go - right down to the last drop.
Where sugar cane and pineapple farms once spread across thousands of acres, rows and rows of coffee trees now stand.
Since competition from cheap foreign markets has forced most of Hawaii’s plantations to close, growers are now searching for a new alternative cash crop to keep the island green. They hope coffee will be hot.
“Hawaii’s coffee is virtually unknown now, but Hawaii can make its region as well known as others if it learns how,” said Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in Long Beach, Calif.
So over the last 12 years, producers of the only coffee grown in an American state have been selling their crop all over the world, transforming their industry from a $4 million a year business to one with sales of $20 million annually. Many believe it has the potential to bring in millions more.
The land cultivated for coffee occupies only a fraction of the thousands of acres once planted in sugar, but some, like H.C. Bittenbender, chairman of the Horticulture Department at the University of Hawaii, say coffee could be as lucrative as sugar was at its peak.
Before Hawaii’s sugar industry began to wane in 1980, it brought in more than $5 billion to the state economy.
That potential has led to some debate over what constitutes the real thing.
From the mountains of the island of Hawaii to the lush valleys of Kauai, about 6,900 acres of land are now covered with trees that sport bright red coffee cherries.
But it is on the western slopes of the Hawaii Island, under the ideal greenhouse conditions of intense morning sun and cloud-covered afternoons, where one of the best grades of coffee in the world grows.
Kona coffee has been grown on the island since the late 1800s by individual farmers handpicking the beans on their small farms. Even today, they still take pride in the extra care they give to the cherries.
That’s why Kona coffee has become the second-most expensive regularly available coffee in the world, Lingle said.
At $20 to $30 per pound, connoisseurs of the jolt juice say the taste is worth the price for a cup of Kona. The most expensive coffee, Kope Luwok coffee from Indonesia, sells for about $130 a pound.
“I have about a dozen customers who are faithful Kona coffee drinkers, and they are willing to pay top price for the taste,” said Kathy Maddux, owner of Coffee Manoa coffee shop.
Tourists who visit Kona’s 600 small farms can see families picking coffee beans in their back yards or coffee beans spread to dry in their driveways - just like scenes from small village streets.
But farmers say that lifestyle and tradition is threatened as new technology and big coffee companies enter the island.
As more farms open on other islands, Kona coffee is being challenged by lower-priced brands of Hawaii-grown coffee, some produced by food conglomerates.
Former big-time sugar and pineapple plantation companies, such as Dole Food Co. Hawaii and A&B-Hawaii;, are finding high-end profitability in coffee.
Over the past year, A&B-Hawaii; started producing much of the state’s crop on its 4,000 acres on Kauai. And since cheap labor is hard to find in Hawaii, the personal touch to farming is out and large harvesting machines are in.
Some view the change as a good thing.
Kona coffee “is just too expensive,” said John Alverez, general manager for four Coffee Gallery shops on Oahu. “We’re featuring other Hawaiian coffees right now.”
But some of Kona farmers are nervous, saying although they’re glad to see Hawaii’s coffee industry expanding, they’re worried about protecting their reputation, which could potentially be damaged through the sale of bogus Kona coffee, or through coffee blends containing only small amounts of Kona coffee.
“Selling Kona blends is just selling the image, not the real taste,” said John Langenstein, a veteran Kona coffee farmer of 21 years.
” Not so, said Al Kam, president of the Superior Royal Kona Coffee Co., the major roaster of Kona coffee in Honolulu.
“You want 100 percent Kona, I’ll give it to you, but blended Kona gives you a well-rounded, full-bodied cup,” he said.