Sunday, July 27, 2014

The land of coffee

I'm not a complete idiot. Of course I knew that Hawaii grew coffee before I came here and that it is a big deal. This isn't even the first place I've been where coffee is big. When I was in Costa Rica, it was made abundently clear how important coffee was and that it was the best in the world and anyone who told you otherwise were lying bastards.

But man, Hawaii is something else.

First off, it's good coffee. I'm far from being an expert on these things. I've only taken to drinking it every now and then in the last couple of years. I find the coffee in Canada bitter and tastes like burnt rubber. Every now and then I'll hit something that makes me think "Oh, this is why people like this stuff."

I've yet to hit a bad cup of coffee here. I've hit some truly extraordinary stuff.  I bought some from a place called McClure Farms and I'm kicking myself for not buying a crate of it.

Having said that, the industry surrounding it in Hawaii is impressive. I first got a hint of it at a farmer's market in Hilo. I was just eyeing something called Kau coffee, when the guy behind the table starts giving me the whole spiel. That the area, just south of Volcano National Park, used to grow sugarcane, then they transformed it to coffee, using coffee beans found in the area dating back to Brazil in the 19th century...and so on and so forth.

It was a good story. I bought a bag and we drank it while in the Hilo/Volcano area. It's pretty good.

But by the time we hit  Kailua-Kona, it had reached epic proportions. We drove into the city from the south, which means we cut through the heart of their coffee country. There were signs everywhere inviting us to do coffee tours or visit their gift shops. One thoughtfully reminded us that we had passed their farm 500 yards ago and that we should turn around because we were missing out on the best coffee in Hawaii. It seems every coffee in the region has won an award of some kind, at some point. They also all have epic stories of some kind.

The lady at the table who sold me the McClure coffee explained that since the coffee was grown by an 86-year-old man, and that it wasn't lumped in and roasted with beans from other farms, it was unique and better than the rest. It was a good story, so I bought the bag. And it's probably the best I've ever had. Sadly, it would cost a fortune to get it shipped to Iqaluit and I can't find it for sale off the Big Island. Damn.

And so it goes. There's that much coffee being sold in Kailua-Kona that I don't know how people actually sleep. There are cafes everywhere, there are shops specializing in coffee everywhere. There was a street fair on the Sunday we were there, and there was enough coffee being sold there to keep Nunavut caffeinated for a year.

My favourite involves Donkey Balls.

There's a store on Ali'i Street, the main drag, called Donkey Balls. It was hot, it had air conditioning and the name intrigued me. Basically they sell all kinds of chocolate, most of it covering macademia nuts. Hence, donkey balls. They also sell coffee and the guy behind the counter was an older gent and quite ambiable. After buying a lot of balls (they're quite tasty) and getting an iced coffee, I expressed my confusion about all the claims about which coffee is best.

"All the coffee around here is good. It might be grown at different altitudes, or roasted different ways, but there's no such thing as a bad cup of coffee around here," he said.

Which I thought was a fair point. You can get blinders on these things, chasing around which coffee might be the best. I know little about coffee, but I can get that way sometimes. If I'm in coffee-nirvana, maybe I want to try and find the best coffee around. Instead, just enjoy what's there.

But I had another question. I'd seen ads for another Donkey Balls up on the main highway. I asked if it was the same company.

His complexion went from laid-back Hawaiian chill, to scowl. The word "thieves" was not said, but it wouldn't have taken many drinks to get him to say it.

So yes, there is a Donkey Ball rivalary in Kailua-Kona. We went to the other store, by the way. Can't speak to their coffee, but their chocolate salty balls are quite tasty.

One last coffee related story. I went into another shop and, with some amusement, noticed they also sold tea.

"Isn't that sacriliege around here?" I asked.

"Well, there are some people who go for that sort of thing, I guess," he said. It was a tone of voice similar to what you might hear if you ask a Texan what he thinks about gun control.

We haven't seen as much coffee on Maui as the Big Island. There's plenty of it, but they're just not as crazy about it. I mean, there are lots of Starbucks on Maui, but only a few on the Big Island. I imagine in the land of coffee paradise, where every block has a coffee with an award or a story, Starbucks is a bit of a hard sell....

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