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"Kona in a Cup": Everything you need to know about Kona coffee before you buy

Hawaii is the only U.S. state where coffee is grown. Farms can be found on Maui, Molokai, Oahu, Kauai and elsewhere on the Big Island, with many of their owners producing, to some palates, even better tasting roasts than Kona. But Kona coffee, cultivated since 1828, remains Hawai‘’s best-known bean.

Holualoa, the coffee belt’s main town is surrounded by coffee farms—some fields of trees next to the family home, some offering field tours and sample cups, some retailing their own boutique brands.

My first stop of the morning, Hula Daddy coffee, offers all of the above. From a rocking chair on the veranda of Hula Daddy’s retail shop, you can gaze on owners Lee Paterson and Karen Jue’s 11-acre farm and, far downslope, the Kailua-Kona coastline, all the while sampling as many cups of their fabulous brewed roasts as you want.

The couple bought the then-weed-covered patch of land in 2002, giving up corporate jobs in California—Lee as a litigation attorney; Karen as a human resources manager—for dreams of living and working on their own coffee farm.

Coffee trees take two years to mature and produce cherries—the red or green fruit whose center seed, or “bean,” is roasted to make coffee. Adding considerably to that time, Lee and Karen had to drill into lava rock to plant each tree and wait to see if the roots would take.


Seven years later, Hula Daddy grows, roasts and retails seven varieties of coffee—many of them local- and international-award-winning. In December 2008, Hula Daddy’s “Kona Sweet” roast received a score of 97 out of 100 from industry buying guide Coffee Review. Only five other coffees worldwide have ever achieved that score.

Spend a day tasting coffees from farms along the belt, and you’ll quickly find that all Kona coffees are not created equal. Cups of joe I sampled were consistently good, but not always as crisp and complex in flavor as Hula Daddy’s roasts. A couple of farms even proffered bitter, over-roasted brews that hardly delighted the palate.

“Just like wine, coffee is a process,” says Jue. “It’s not as simple as putting the apple in the carton and sending it out to market.”

Most growers frown on offering a general flavor profile for Kona coffee. “It would be like saying all wines from Napa Valley taste a certain way,” sniffed one roaster, when I asked. Still, Karen Jue takes a shot for me.

“In general, Kona coffees are milder and smoother than other coffees. It shouldn’t be bitter. It shouldn’t leave an aftertaste,” says Jue. “A good Kona coffee should taste good black, without a burning sensation in the back of your mouth and tongue.”

Not surprisingly, Hula Daddy has invested heavily in its farm, facilities and roasting personnel, all with a goal of producing coffees that taste great and win awards. Lee and Karen were also wise to early on seek out the knowledge of longtime area coffee farmers.

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