As a young adult, Lee Paterson loved visiting Napa Valley. He remembers his first taste of it, in the early 1970s. He was on a tour with a teacher from his Christian Brothers-run college, knocking on the doors of Louis M. Martini and sampling the whole line of reserve wines with Louis P. at no charge.
Now, he’s in the coffee business. As he approached retirement as a corporate litigator, he and his wife, Karen, bought land on the Big Island of Hawaii and started growing coffee in 2002. They harvested their first coffee in 2004. Now their Hula Daddy 100 percent Kona coffees win international awards.
Paterson leads a new wave of Kona growers and roasters who are applying some of the same ideas to coffee that California did to wine. They are lifting Kona’s game, just in time. Growers on the other islands are starting to provide some serious competition.
I asked my cousin Shawn Steiman who I should visit while on vacation on the Big Island to get a hook on where Kona coffee is today. Shawn is a University of Hawaii Ph.D. who consults with coffee growers around the world and wrote The Hawai’i Coffee Book. He pointed me to Hula Daddy.
I stopped in for a visit and cupping (what coffee geeks call tasting) Friday, the day I arrived on the island. I figured, if I liked it, I could buy some and use it over the next few days in the cottage we were renting.
When Paterson expounds on coffee, he sounds like someone talking about wine. Just listen to him describe what makes a great cup of joe in my video. He speaks in terms of flavor descriptors, complexity, mouth feel and a lack of off characters.
Coffee farming has some similarities with growing grapes. Each plant thrives for 20 to 50 years, but can live to more than 100. There are distinctions among varieties. Picking at just the right time affects the quality of the finished product as does processing the fruit (called cherry) to make green coffee beans.
Few Kona producers sort the beans at each stage, from cherry to green, to cull out those that are not ideal, but the cutting-edge guys are convinced it ups quality. The best winemakers do the same.
Finally, roasting the beans is the coffee parallel to wine fermentation. Paterson believes the biggest difference in quality for him came when he hired Miguel Meza as his roaster. Now 27, he had quite the reputation as a roasting genius at Paradise Coffee company in Ramsey, Minn., before Paterson lured him to Hawaii in 2007. Hula Daddy started winning the big awards in 2008.
Sound familiar? Meza is the coffee equivalent of the star winemaker.
Winemakers juggle details such as temperature, skin contact, pressing times and aging to get the most out of their grapes. Roasters can adjust roasting temperature, air flow and timing. Two minutes can spell the difference between a light roast and extra-dark.
Roasters can also skate the edge. Some of Hula Daddy’s best coffees are made by a risky process. As opposed to the usual process, which removes the beans from the fruit before drying them, these coffees use beans dried in the cherry. The risk is that the fruit can produce spoilage organisms before roasting. The reward is more complex flavors.
In the cupping, my favorite coffees were those made from whole cherries. They did have extra depth and complexity, as in Hula Daddy’s most expensive coffee, Kona Sweet. It had a bittersweet chocolate component and something resembling tropical fruit and brandy. While the basic 100 percent Kona is $25, about the going rate for good, estate-grown 100 percent Kona, the Sweet sells for $60 per pound. It’s a silky coffee with extra nuances of nuts and dusky spices. (No added flavors, it’s natural to the coffee.)
Meza also included three experimental coffees. I found coffee nirvana in No. 3, which turned out to be the Kona Sweet, made only from Extra Fancy (large) beans. It had layers of chocolate, roasted Brazil nuts and spices. I have no idea what they would have to charge for that one, but if the Kona Sweet sells out at 60 smackers, the sky’s the limit.
“Kona today reminds me of Napa Valley in the 1970s, before the boom,” Paterson remarked. “The quality potential was always there but not always attained. [In California] they experimented and focused on improving quality. Every step was incremental, but the result is what you see today. Here in Kona, each little thing we try makes the coffee just a little bit better, and it adds up.”
Among the more notable producers in Kona today, Shawn lists The Kona Coffee and Tea Company and Kona RainForest (“They’re willing to take criticism and listen to advice,” he said). Onouli Farms, managed by one of Kona’s pioneers, Greenwell Farms, won Hawaii’s first statewide cupping competition recently. “They take meticulous care of their coffees,” he added, "and they are willing to experiment with different varieties."
It’s only been eight years for Hula Daddy, with six years on the market, but their coffees show just how good Kona can be. As Shawn said, “Truthfully, no farms push the quality edge the way Hula Daddy does. But I suspect that will start changing in the next five years.”
John Lawrence — Michigan — January 19, 2010 6:51pm ET
Jamie Sherman — Sacramento — January 19, 2010 7:21pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 20, 2010 3:06am ET
John Lawrence — Michigan — January 20, 2010 8:16am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 20, 2010 12:17pm ET
John Lawrence — Michigan — January 20, 2010 10:13pm ET
Brian Buzzini — NorCal — January 24, 2010 12:18pm ET
Trevor Morris — Laguna Hills, CA — January 27, 2010 5:53pm ET
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