Before we start reviewing the espresso in India, it’s about time we wrap things up on our recent coffee excursion to Hawaii’s Big Island. Hawaii is the only coffee-growing state of the Union (as they say: sorry, Puerto Rico is a territory), which makes it a uniquely American place to both sample the local espresso and visit coffee farms. Hawaii also gives us the opportunity to bore you with vacation photos, which we will spread liberally throughout this post.

Scenery around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park The Halema'uma'u Crater, inside Kilauea Crater

Hawaii's Pu'u O'o Crater - hold your breath Lava meets the sea above Hawaii by helicopter

The last time we were on the Big Island, Hurricane Katrina was unfolding its tragedy around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. While it made for riveting television news drama, things back in the mainland U.S. seem so far away from here that it might as well have been on the moon.

But what also gives you a sense of being on the moon are some of the locals. Besides the Polynesian and European immigrants to the area from hundreds of years ago, and besides the throngs of ankle-free tourists from the mainland, Hawaii seems to have attracted residents in the past few decades of some of the more…unusual mainland castoffs. Many haole Hawaiian residents look like contestants (refugees?) from 1970s game shows like “Matchgame ’75” or “Password” who fled the set and used their meager winnings as down payments on run-down Hawaiian condos. (You can recognize them by their leathery, over-tanned, sea-turtle-like skin — sporting hairstyles not seen since the original “Brady Bunch” filmed on these islands.)

Hawaiian lava flows from a helicopter - note the trees for scale The expanse of South Big Island

Where the Coffee Grows on Trees

Hawaii may be famous for its Kona estate coffees, but the much wetter, eastern side of the Big Island is also home to many fertile, less famous coffee farms that grow Puna, Ku’a, and Hamakua estate coffees (read our post on the Hilo Coffee Mill). What’s interesting is to contrast the differences terroir brings to the coffee, and the Big Island has enough variations in terroir to make you feel you’re on a Hawaiian beach, on a cattle ranch in Montana Big Sky country, in an Australian Eucalyptus forest, in a tropical rain forest, or on Himalayan foothills — all within an hour’s drive of each other.

Coffee trees in bloom on Greenwell Farms Fike Farms coffee estate

On Kona's Greenwell Farms Name your Greenwell Farms poison...

Visiting a couple of Kona coffee farms in March (Greenwell Farms and Fike Farms Coffee), the coffee trees were just starting to bloom between seasons. But you still can tour the washing, drying, processing, and production facilities as harvested cherries are brought in as imports. At farms set up for the coffee tourists, such as Greenwell Farms, you can sample many variations of the local product.

Coffee trees on Greenwell Farms Coffee cherries collected at Greenwell Farms

Coffee cherry pulp from wet processing Coffee undergoing sun drying at Greenwell Farms

Where Espresso Best Comes from Overseas

The Big Island has a lot to rightfully be proud of in their local coffee. Sure, some critics will say that they grow a great product but not for the expense. But sustainable coffee growing with sustainable wages by the local cost of living standard doesn’t come at a discount.

The ubiquitous espresso beverage bug has not passed over these islands. Unfortunately, the local pride in Hawaiian beans has lead to many cafés serving Hawaiian-only espresso blends. This is like visiting Italy or Australia for their French press coffee — the reverse side of the argument we made against a singular approach of coffee appreciation through the Clover brewer.

French press Kona coffee menu at Merriman's in Waimea Merriman's in Waimea puts their Kona coffee selections on display

French press Kona coffee menu at Alan Wong's Hualalai Grille at the Four Seasons resort What's Hawaii without luaus and Samoan fire dancing?

Here’s where we like to break from theme: the best espresso in the area is typically made with anything but Hawaiian beans, such as the espresso at the Hilo Coffee Mill. (Similarly, I may have had Don Ho and Polynesian drum songs on my mp3 player, but I inevitably listened most to the ear-damaging sounds of “Luau” by Drive Like Jehu.)

But sampling some of the local stuff in a French press can be sublime. Many of the better Big Island restaurants offer a coffee menu featuring Kona beans from various local estates. A French press of Harens Old Tree Estate at Merriman’s, for example, was one of the best coffee experience I’ve ever had. Soon afterwards I had memorized the Hawaiian phrase, “E ‘olu’olu ‘oe, makemake au i ka kope“, or “Please, I’d like some coffee”.

We conclude with a sampling of a few Big Island espresso ratings:

Name Address City Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Café Pesto 308 Kamehameha Ave. Hilo, HI 4.70 6.20 5.450
Hilo Coffee Mill 17-995 Volcano Hwy. Mountain View, HI 7.50 7.80 7.650
Island Lava Java 75-5799 Ali’i Dr, Suite A1 Kailua-Kona, HI 6.90 7.00 6.950
Waimea Coffee Company 65-1279 Kawaihae Rd. #114 Kamuela, HI 6.90 7.80 7.350

Hawaii's Waipi'o Valley Hawaiian sunset