Cornwell Estates is hard to find. The coffee farm’s address is listed online, but there’s no sign at the entrance, and the web of winding hillside roads makes Google Maps as useful as, well, Mapquest. Few Hawaiians have been to the farm, but most have tasted their beans—the small ten-acre plot supplies Kona Brewing Co. with the beans that fuel the rich coffee flavor in its Pipeline Porter.
Kona Brewing Co., on the other hand, is everywhere. It was Hawaii’s first craft brewery in 1994 and now has a ubiquitous presence on tap at nearly every dive, upscale restaurant and resort pool bar on the islands. The ratio of neon Kona signs to residents is staggering. Although some locals bemoan their joining the Craft Beer Alliance in 2010, Kona has still stayed true to their Hawaiian roots. There’s no better evidence of their dedication to local than Pipeline Porter, which debunks beach beer stereotypes while showcasing ingredients grown just a few miles away.
Walking into the Growler Shack, Kona’s brewpub on the Big Island of Hawai’i, it’s hard to guess that they’re now a multinational company. The island vibes run strong, with red umbrellas shading an outdoor patio that’s surrounded by greenery nourished by the brewery’s waste water. The company’s logo slash mascot is the puffed gecko—expect to see a few of the neon green lizards scurrying around the grounds.
At 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday, the place is packed. Island-wear is the dress code, anyone not wearing shorts looks like they might be an undercover cop. There’s a few stragglers from the 10:30 tour, but it’s also a wildly popular lunch and dinner destination—go for the mac and cheese with extra bacon. Fans of the brewery will recognize a few of the beers, but unless you say “aloha” on a daily basis, it’s unlikely you’ll be familiar with the full line-up. The Big Wave Golden Ale, Longboard Lager and Hanalei Island IPA are all there, but there’s also a line-up of seasonal releases and Hawaiian-only offerings. Duke’s Blonde Ale, crisp with just a hint of hops, pays homage to a beloved Waikiki Beach watering hole. Gold Cliff, a fruity IPA, references a diving destination near the island’s first pineapple fields. Fruit beer lovers can also try a sweet and sour Pineapple IPA. Don’t be afraid to ask for a taste, but keep in mind that even the most attentive servers here operate on island time, so best to order a sample alongside a full pint. While it’s no surprise that locals favor the easier-drinking beers, there’s also a devoted fanbase of the darker arts.
“You would think with the constant 82 degrees and humidity that people would gravitate to lighter beers,” says Kona brewmaster Billy Smith, who previously oversaw production at Craft Beer Alliances Redhook facilities in Portland, Oregon. He carries himself with no-nonsense professionalism, chased by a brewing-in-paradise calmness. “But there are a fair amount of beer enthusiasts here in Hawaii that love their darker beers and this one fills that need quite well.”
Pipeline Porter accounts for roughly 20% of sales. It’s big, roasty, frothy and so thick it could double as a light snack, but at 5.3% ABV one or two pints won’t end an afternoon. The coffee flavor is rich, bold and smokey—a traditional flavor profile that’s one of the hallmarks of Hawaiian-grown coffee.
Aside from a few upstart California operations, Hawaii is the only place in the United States that grows coffee. The main conditions you need for coffee are elevation and rainfall, two things that Hawaii has no shortage of. Several of the islands produce coffee, but the Kona region of Hawaii is the most well-known and holds a demarcation of origin. The Mauna Loa Volcano shields 3,000 acres of farmland from trade winds, which creates a shady cloud cover and enough rain to keep the coffee plants healthy. Despite the scorching sun, drizzles happen without warning, giving the coffee stalks much needed showers. The volcanos, whose dried lava flows create a rocky moon-like contrast to the island’s lush greenery, also gives the soil a unique terrior that results in the signature bold flavors of the beans.
Cornwell Estates has supplied the beans for Kona’s coffee porter for nearly 15 years. Despite the fancy name, the operation is quite modest: Two elevated townhouses perch on a tropical green hillside overlooking rows of neatly trimmed coffee plants. A tiny dog wanders weaves in and out of the coffee fields like he owns the place. The actual owners, JaDawn and Dan Hubbard, moved to Hawaii from California and thought the coffee farm might serve as an investment that could gracefully transition them into leisurely island life at the end of their careers. It became anything but.
“My husband thought he was going to retire,” says JaDawn. “This isn’t retiring.”
The farm produces 17,000 pounds of coffee annually, 3,000 of which become Pipeline Porter. The harvest takes place during the summer months, and much of the picking is done by the family’s three adult sons who live on the compound. It truly is a boutique operation, the depulping of the beans takes place in a underneath the awning of a small shed on a machine not much bigger than a laundry machine.
Locally grown coffee is the norm around Hawaii, but in the mainland U.S. it would be considered a luxury good. Cornwell sells a pound of their Kona Reserve beans for $40, with the price rising to $58 for the rarer Peaberry varietal. Comparatively, that’s two to three times the cost of most specialty coffee beans, which is why it’s so unusual to see Kona coffee sold outside of Hawaii, especially 100% Kona coffee that hasn’t been blended with beans from other origins. Thankfully for Kona Brewing, the locality of the coffee offsets the premium price. To make the porter, they introduce fifteen pounds of roughly ground coffee into the bright tank, resulting in 25 barrel batches, but the Pipeline Porter isn’t their only beer with a caffeine buzz.
“We have ventured out with creating other beers with Kona coffee,” Smith says. “One seasonal that is quite popular is the Da Grind Buzz, which is an Imperial Stout with copious amounts of coffee that’s available at our brewpub in Kailua-Kona. Also, we recently have been working on a coffee cream ale and playing with the idea of a coffee IPA.”
Their local approach extends to other beers as well. The Lemongrass Luau features local lemongrass and ginger, there’s island-grown vanilla in their Vanilla Thriller stout and Hawaiian staple fruit lychee makes an appearance in a curiously tart Lychee Lager. Soon, they’ll release a brown ale featuring local cocoa nibs and macadamia nuts.
The story of the Pipeline Porter starts in the soil, and that’s part of a broader Hawaiian tradition of respecting Mother Nature, which Hawaiians call Papahānaumoku, or Papa for short. Kona’s breweries are 99% sustainable, with roof mounted solar energy system, water recycled through the gardens, and leftover grains baked into the pizza crust at their brewpubs...the mac and cheese is still the move though. It’s an approach that they intend to carry forward to their new 30,000-square-foot brewing facility, which will be fully operational by the end of the year.
Given Kona’s international ubiquity, it’s easy to write them off as local operation that’s outgrown its roots, but a visit to the brewery and the coffee farm that supplies their beans shows that scaling has actually increased their ability to pay back the community that’s supported them for decades, their beer becoming an expression of the people and place that has helped it grow. You may not be able to taste all of that in a pint of Pipeline Porter, but Kona hopes that you can feel it.