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Cafe au Lei

Hawaii's Big Island has long produced one of the world's most sought-after coffees. Now its neighbors are hoping to capitalize on America's love affair with the gourmet bean.

March 29, 1998|SUSAN ESSOYAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NUMILA, Hawaii — A carpet of tousled sugar cane covered these rolling hills on Kauai for a century, and even gave this dusty hamlet its name--"new mill." Today, orderly rows of emerald-green coffee trees slice across the fields.

Squeezed out of the sugar business by lower-cost rivals, Hawaii's farmers are taking their cue from the makers of designer jeans and the vintners of Napa Valley. Rather than raising another crop that will vanish like sugar into the vast commodity market, they have set their sights on gourmet coffee.

Few consumers care whether a spoonful of sugar comes from a cane stalk in Hawaii or a sugar beet in Minnesota. But a cup of coffee is another story, at least judging from the proliferation of espresso carts and coffeehouses across America's urban landscape this decade.

Hawaii, the only coffee-growing state in the nation, is poised to capitalize on America's blossoming romance with the bean. In the last decade, farmers on the islands of Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Oahu have all jumped on the specialty-coffee wagon, joining their cousins on the Big Island's Kona Coast who have long produced one of the world's most sought-after coffees.

The new growers hope to cash in on the cachet of Hawaii, as well as on the distinctive characteristics of the various beans, soils and microclimates of each island. Their target: consumers with label-conscious tastes who don't mind paying more.

"Some people like Calvin Klein and some people want Levi's," says coffee expert H.C. "Skip" Bittenbender, chairman of the horticulture department at the University of Hawaii. "It's a segmented market. That's what we are seeing with coffee in Hawaii. They are growing different varieties, in different locations, that are going to appeal to different people."

Although overall coffee consumption in the United States fell dramatically after 1960 and has stagnated in the 1990s, the gourmet market has exploded in recent years. The number of specialty coffee retailers mushroomed from just over 2,000 in 1990 to 11,000 last year, according to the Specialty Coffee Assn. of America.

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Meanwhile, the value of Hawaii's coffee harvest has multiplied from $6.5 million in 1993-94 to an estimated $29 million for this year's recently completed harvest. Total volume of the latest crop of beans was about 9 million pounds, more than triple what it was four years ago, according to the Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service.

The islands of Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Oahu, which produced no coffee at the start of this decade, now account for roughly two-thirds of the state's production and just over half the total value of the crop in Hawaii.

Although the new coffees sell for a fraction of the price of Kona, they fetch a premium compared with commercial canned coffee.

Borrowing from the wine industry, Hawaii's new growers are marketing their product as so-called estate coffee, meaning it is grown, harvested and processed on site to ensure quality.

Though names such as Molokai Muleskinner and Kaanapali Estate Coffee are still unfamiliar to most consumers, industry insiders are beginning to take notice.

"I talk it up as the wine of the tropics," says Paul Kalenian, founder of Armeno Coffee Roasters in Northboro, Mass., which now carries 13 Hawaiian coffees among its 70 offerings and supplies cafes as far away as Japan and the Netherlands. "Each of these coffees has quite a distinct taste. People have their favorites."

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The Kona district had a lock on the Hawaiian coffee market until the beginning of the decade. Its feisty, independent farmers, who have cultivated their crop by hand since the 1800s, enjoy a venerable spot in the pantheon of world coffees: Rich, full-bodied Kona coffee is one of the most expensive brews on the planet.

These small, family-owned farms--average size is 3 acres--are clustered along a coffee belt in the misty uplands, where a cool dry season and a warm rainy season offer ideal growing conditions. The coffee is rain-watered, hand-picked and sun-dried. The prized beans are fetching record retail prices today, from $20 to $40 a pound, roasted.

Meanwhile, the fledgling estates on the neighboring islands have had to develop a newfangled way of growing coffee. Their large orchards, which are on drier land at lower elevation, feature drip irrigation and mechanized harvesting, a novel concept in the coffee world, which depends on cheap labor.

"If we were to pick a place to learn how coffee agriculture should be in the 21st century, it's Hawaii," says Ted R. Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Assn. in Long Beach. "Hawaii is playing a historic role. It is learning to solve the labor problem."

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