Why Hawaii's Coffee Culture is Worth Booking a Flight For  

Michael Utech/Getty Images

Singular brews and a laidback tropical vibe are turning this island paradise into a new Mecca for caffeine lovers.

Visitors flock to the islands of Hawaii for many reasons, but one thing everyone from beach bums to hiking addicts has in common is that they could use a little help waking up in the morning. It may be best known for waves and waterfalls, but the 50th state has another claim to fame that gets far less attention: coffee.

Except for a few areas along the California coast, Hawaii is the only state in the US that has appropriate conditions for farming coffee. This has led to artisanal shops on every corner and a taste for strong, dark roasts, which emphasize the bolder flavors of the terroir. The most famous region is the Kona coffee belt on the Big Island of Hawai'i, but coffee cultivation takes place across the entirety of the state, with a total yearly production ranging from seven to nine million pounds.

Although that's certainly enough beans to make an island's worth of lattes, it's a tiny fraction compared to powerhouse producing countries like Colombia or Brazil. A typical cup at a cafe doesn't carry the sticker shock, but bringing home a bag will cost at least twice what you'd pay for specialty beans grown elsewhere ($20-60), and shoppers should be wary to read the fine print to make sure they're purchasing 100% Hawaiian and not a blend including lower-quality filler. Expect old school flavor profiles heavy on chocolate and caramel notes with low acidity, perfect for adding a bit of milk and sugar.


JTSorrell/Getty Images

For specialty coffee drinkers who love lighter roasts and fruit-forward flavors, many Hawaiian coffees probably won't suit you. Still, there's a dedicated community of baristas who keep an ear to global trends and offer the same type of trendy roasters you'd see in mainland coffee Meccas like Portland and Seattle. And for those coffee snobs still wanting to keep it local, most specialty cafes do offer Hawaiian roasters creating flavors similar to what you'd taste in a Blue Bottle or Intelligentsia.

From cliffside coffee shacks to hipster hangouts, here are five cafes from the coffee heartland on the Big Island to the cosmopolitan capital of Honolulu that every type of coffee lover will enjoy.


© Elyse Butler Mallams

Daylight Mind

Coffee nerd pedigree doesn't get much finer than at Daylight Mind. Founded by a coffee scientist who literally wrote the book on Hawaiian coffee (he now consults from Oahu), the Waterfront Row location along Oneo Bay is a sure bet for the finest cup of coffee on the Big Island. The colonial architecture creates a sunny atmosphere without feeling kitschy, and the wrap-around patio gives gorgeous views of the water. It's a calming retreat from the more touristy energy of the area while serving the cream of the Hawaiian crop. In addition to 100% Kona offerings available on pour-over, they also offer rarer beans grown on the neighboring island of Oahu, as well as expertly curated beans from Latin American.

The coffee is fantastic, but the brunch alone is also worth the trip: try the chef's salad, coconut and macadamia nut Niu Pancakes or the Kona avocado "smash toast," all made by local organic farmers. 

The menu has plenty of lighter island fare, but big eaters will also leave happy thanks to a Puna Kine Benedict loaded with pulled pork or a Loco Moco with sunny side up eggs, gravy, hapa rice, and a bonus touch for coffee fanatics: Kuahiwi Ranch beef short rib braised in coffee.


quangpraha/Getty Images

The Coffee Shack

For one of the best coffee experiences in Hawaii, head to the source. The Coffee Shack is located alongside Mamalahoa Hwy in the heart of the Kona Coffee Belt at an ideal coffee-growing elevation of 1,400, so it should be no surprise that their beans come from a farm located directly under their cliffside lanai. As the name suggests, the space is nothing fancy, but the overlook of Kealakekua Bay and 26 miles worth of panoramic views more than make up for the no-frills ambiance.

Coffee lovers can't ask for much more than a fresh cup within stone's throw of coffee plants, but those hungry for more than just a buzz will find some of the island's best deli sandwiches, perfect snacks for lounging on one of the many nearby beaches. Plus, if you have a desire for some fresh Hawaiin cuisine, the island's revered raw fish favorite Da Poke Shack is just a short drive down the road.


© Erin Kunkel

Kona Coffee Purveyors

For a temporary retreat from the sunburned crowds of Waikiki Beach, head a few blocks inland to the International Marketplace. Last year the bustling hub of retail and restaurants unveiled a new food hall curated by acclaimed chef Michael Mina, flanked by one of the best coffee shops in the state. The pristine tiled-floored cafe includes a full bakery prepping James Beard-winning pastries by b. Patisserie, but still feels Hawaiian thanks to a spacious al fresco extension. 

All the beans are roasted on nearby Sand Island by a true pioneer of Hawaiian coffee who originally founded the Honolulu Coffee Company back in 1992. To maintain the highest quality standards and highlight regional differences within Hawaii, they typically buy full lots directly from farms. If the baristas aren't too overwhelmed, ask for a pour-over, and they'll choose from one of the three daily offerings to brew by that best expresses that coffee's flavor, from V60 to Kalita Wave to Aeropress. And if you enjoyed your drink, don't miss an opportunity to take home a whole bean gift pack featuring all three of their coffees.


© Lianne Rozelle

Morning Glass

“But first, coffee” has become a mantra for many caffeine addicts. A visit to Morning Glass might make them reconsider thanks to a must-order brunch item: the mac and cheese pancakes. The griddled comfort food classic was reinvented for the cafe's “night breakfast” with the addition of pancake batter (plus bacon and maple syrup). It's now on the regular menu by popular demand.

Established in 2011, and now with three locations (one in Osaka, Japan), the Manoa Rd cafe feels decidedly old school. This unpretentious diner nestled between strip malls and emerald green hills maintains a real neighborhood vibe while upholding coffee geek standards of quality. Baristas brew by the cup in Clever coffee drippers, using both mainland roasters like Portland's Coava and locals like Big Island Coffee Roasters. Pro-tip: if you plan to dine-in for breakfast, head to the counter to order your coffee first because there might be a wait (so you might want that coffee first after all).


Inga Spence/Getty Images

The Curb

Only a few feet of sidewalk separates The Curb coffee shop from Waialae Avenue, but its name stems from the fact that this cafe actually started on the streets as a mobile operation. Now a brick-and-mortar in Kaimuki, a walking district with a mix of upscale residences and boutique shops, The Curb might be Honolulu's best representation of a trendy multi-roaster shop.

The cozy space avoids the stark white sterile atmosphere that accompanies many coffee destinations these days and feels more like a corner cafe than a palace of pour-overs. The space is tiny, and a wood-paneled service counter takes up nearly half the room, so expect to share a table. But what they lack in size they make up for in coffee selections. Beans from critically acclaimed mainland roasters like Onyx, Olympia, Slate, and Intelligentsia line their shelves (plus Big Island Coffee Roasters), available as espresso drinks, drip coffee, pour-overs, and perhaps most importantly, given Hawaii's scorching sun, nitro cold brew.