Shawn Steiman’s mother apparently wasn’t worried about her son rocketing off the walls from heavy caffeine dosage. Her lax regulation of his coffee intake–starting before fifth grade–led to his life as the coffee world’s equivalent of a sommelier.
Now, Steiman, 33, has a PhD in horticulture from UH-Manoa, authored The Hawaii Coffee Book: A Gourmet’s Guide from Kona to Kauai, and owns a coffee consulting business. A tour through his kitchen yields seven different coffee brewing implements, including a bamboo cloth-sock combo from Columbia and a Chemex, which resembles a giant beaker.
The Weekly sat down with this coffee geek for answers about Hawaii coffee.
What’s going on with this crazy spike in coffee prices? Is the same thing going to happen with local coffee costs?
There are a number of different factors. One is that more people are drinking coffee, particularly specialty coffee, and especially in producing countries like Brazil. Two is climate: Columbia had a bad year. Three, speculation, as prices go up people are investing.
But Hawaii’s prices aren’t going to increase because they’re already so much higher. Right now if you look at the New York City price, unroasted coffee is going for about $3 [a pound]. Most Hawaii coffee goes for $10 to $15 a green pound.
Why is Hawaiian coffee so expensive?
One, you have a high cost of labor. Hawaii is the only place in the US that grows coffee. We have laws to enforce, environmental laws, social laws, labor laws. If you’re in Guatemala, you’re on a farm in the middle of nowhere. There’s no minimum wage, there’s no fifteen minute break. If I’m a local coffee grower, I want a cell phone and a car. [Consumers] help pay for that, but [they] also get to know that the coffee is ethically sound and contributes to [their] own economy.
The other thing, [which is] what keeps the market going, is that Hawaii is paradise. It’s that notion that we can produce things that have a story to them.
Blends are more affordable. What do you think about them?
If you have nine black marbles and one white marble, you
would never say, “Oh look, that’s 10 percent white marbles.” What’s really
happening is that Kona has this reputation that companies use to sell their
coffee. However, they do serve a purpose in that they sell Hawaiian coffee and
make it more accessible.
So is it possible to profile, flavor-wise, different coffees from Hawaii?
What if I describe something and someone buys it and they don’t taste it or the next year it’s different?
There are some coffees that are very intensely coffee flavored, they have this earthy, spiciness to them, like this coffee I had from the Kualapuu coffee region on Molokai. There are some coffees that are distinctly fruity, with a lemony brightness and cherry taste. There’s just such diversity. I mean, there’s a coffee that almost tastes like chocolate from Waialua.
[And in] Kona you have this huge elevation shift. As you go up, [the coffee] is going to be a little more acidic, a little more floral and fruity. But if you get something that’s from lower elevation, it’s more coffee-flavored coffee.
If it’s local, why is it hard to find 100 percent Hawaiian coffee being served?
With a lot of chefs, coffee still has this connotation of a diner-style, cheap experience to get caffeine into the system. And there are other restaurants that know better, but sourcing local, quality coffee takes more cost and effort than they think their customers care for.
Also, [established coffee companies will] come to restaurants and say, “Hey you should use my coffee. I’ll give you all the equipment you need and all the service for the machines. All I ask is for you to sign a contract for so many years to use my coffee.” Whoever started [this scheme] was both a genius and a bastard. If you’re small, you can’t really afford to compete.
If you’re the drink-at-home kind, does it matter how you store your coffee?
Yes. Coffee keeps changing from the moment it’s roasted and [the moment] it’s susceptible to oxygen. Anything you smell, you’re not drinking, is the easiest way to explain it. So what we coffee geeks tend to recommend is buy enough to last you one to three weeks, store it on an airtight container on the shelf. Drink it up, go buy more.
Do you have any tips for basic coffee drinkers who want to kick it up a notch?
Your average consumer has a drip coffee maker. The problem is that they almost never get the water hot enough. Anything you heat the water for yourself is better–it can be a Chemex, a French press, a Melitta pour-over.
The trick for a French press is to heat the water to just before boiling and pour it over larger grounds. Let it sit about three to five minutes, then drink right away.