Local Series: Q&A with Coffee Scientist Shawn Steiman

October 26th, 2020 People

Hawaii is home to some great artists, makers, artisans, designers and even educators. Meet Shawn Steiman, a coffee scientist based here in Oahu, who holds a doctorate in horticulture.

We had the pleasure of catching up with the coffee guru to learn more about his work, studies and favorite places on the island!

When did you first realize your passion/interest in coffee?
I began drinking it early, as in elementary school. The hobby aspect of it began in high school but it was my first year of college when I began to really start learning about it.  It sort of just snowballed from there.  After 8 years of studying coffee in graduate school, it became clear it was a bit more than just a hobby.  

Can you provide a brief background about yourself (studies/experiences/books)?
I moved to Hawaii to study coffee in graduate school. I earned an MS and PhD in Horticulture and Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, respectively, from University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, but, really, I studied coffee science. As I was finishing school, I started my consulting company, Coffea Consulting, and wrote my first book (The Hawai‘i Coffee Book, now in its second edition). From there, I began working internationally with governments, large companies, and cooperatives. Of course, I try to do as much work locally as possible.

Since finishing grad school, I’ve co-edited and written two additional books (Coffee: A Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, the Beverage, and the Industry and The Little Coffee Know-It-All). I co-owned Daylight Mind Coffee Company for six years. It was a pretty cool roastery/café/restaurant/bakery/coffee school in Kona. It didn’t survive and it was a lot of work but it was a great experience.

I still own my consulting company and I’ve recently started a new company, Grok Coffee. I began it with the intention of doing coffee service for events and coffee tours but Covid-19 has paused those possibilities. In the meantime, the company is my venue for supporting our local coffee community; I distribute locally roasted coffee in plastic free, nearly zero waste, reusable jars.

What are your favorite aspects of Hawai‘i?
The answer I usually give to this version of the question is “Hawai‘i is hard not to like”.  But, that doesn’t really answer the question, does it?  Here are some things I love:

  • Hawaii has extraordinary flora and spectacular beaches.
  • The diversity of humans and their cultures.
  • For a relatively small population, we have an amazing food and beverage culture.
  • I can bike comfortably nearly every day, no matter what the weather is like.
  • There’s a seed-to-cup coffee industry (and bean to bar chocolate and cane to rum Agricole and leaf to brew tea industries…)

Favorite coffee places to get coffee in Oahu!
This is a very unfair question! How does one select from so many good options? I’ll do my best to capture them all, listed alphabetically. Needless to say, I’d be content to drink coffee from any of these establishments. I’m friends with most of the owners and many of the baristas, which means there’s a lot I can say about each of the stores. 

9Bar Honolulu
They tend to offer rare and unusual coffee origins. Walking inside and ordering is always an adventure and a treat.  Also, they bake all their own treats. What’s not to love about that?

Alii Coffee
It can be a challenge to offer both geeky specialty coffees and fun, creative coffee drinks because it is a wide range of customers to satisfy. These guys pull it off beautifully.  Their black coffee is compelling and their array of concoctions are well crafted delights.

Ars Café
This café is worth visiting for its style alone; I always feel like I should be drinking whiskey and smoking a cigar rather than black coffee. Their baked goods are delicious and they have a small art gallery in the back half of the space that features local artists.

Arvo
A little experience of Australia in the heart of Kaka’ako. They have lots of outdoor seating (surprisingly rare in Hawai‘i) with a walk-up outdoor bar.

Bean About Town
A tiny little place in Kaimuki that is fun and cozy. If the owner is around, he’ll laugh and talk your ear off, but he’s a fun fellow so it is worth it!  Also, he roasts a fair amount of their own coffee for the café.

Brew and Foam
They have two locations at opposite sides of the island; both are worth visiting. They mesh modern café with beach culture.  

ChadLou’s
They recently condensed their roastery and café into an adorable corner space in Kailua. They roast their own coffee and even gave growing their own a try for a while.

Downtown Coffee
A small space in downtown Honolulu that mostly caters to the business crowd. They are the only roaster/café in Hawaii that roasts and serves only Hawaiian grown coffees.  

Honolulu Coffee Company
Hawai‘i’s most successful specialty coffee roaster and café. They have cafes throughout the state and a handful out of state. Their flagship location is a fun hubbub of activity, never mind all the made-on-site tasty treats! 

Kai Coffee
They roast their own coffee and are fanatical about the customer experience and quality of the brew.

Kona Coffee Purveyors
Another roaster/café on our small island. They specialize in Kona grown coffee, as their name suggests. Kona Coffee Purveyors space with a spectacular bakery (b. patisserie), making it easy to sit outdoors and enjoy the greatness of Hawai‘i.  

Morning Glass
Nestled in Mānoa valley, it is much more than a café but also a bistro. The quality of their food rivals their well-made coffee. Moreover, the view from their patio encompasses the valley’s majestic lush green mountains!

The Curb
Arguably the geekiest specialty coffee shop on the island. When I want complex coffees in a modern setting, this is where I go.

Wicked HI Cafe
Tucked away in Waialua, this is more restaurant than coffee shop but the coffee they serve is worth drinking.

Hawaii is known for coffee and being one of the only places to grow coffee in the U.S. – what makes a good cup of coffee in your opinion? Any tips to look out for?
For me, the coffee beans need to be grown and processed well, not roasted darkly, brewed not too far from the roast date, and brewed well. There’s a lot packed into all that but there’s also not enough space to cover it in detail!

Another way of answering this (for me) is that a cup of coffee shouldn’t taste bitter, astringent, sour, or roasty. But, this leaves a lot of room for what a good cup is for me.  I really love coffees that have floral and stone fruit flavors in them and some acidity is quite pleasing.  However, sometimes, I just want a cup of coffee that tastes like, well, coffee, with no hints of this or that to be unraveled. There’s no single answer, for me, as to what a “good” coffee is, as there’s no universal definition of what a good cup is for anyone.

The best tip I can offer someone is to discover not only what they like but why they like it. What brew method is preferred? What roast level? What flavor descriptors are liked or disliked?  If a person can understand why they like a coffee, then it will be easy for them to find other good coffees for them.

Tell us 5-10 of your favorite places to eat and drink in Oahu!

12th Ave Grill
This is my go-to “fancy” night out restaurant.  I’ve never been disappointed with a meal here.  They are a fierce farm-to-table supporter and they have a killer wine list and bar menu.

Aloha Beer Works
One of my favorite Hawai‘i breweries as they carry some styles that other breweries lack.  Moreover, their comestibles are delicious!

Broken Boundary Brewery
These poor folks- they opened shortly after the Covid-19 lockdowns came into force.  While they’re not well known, they should be.  Their beers often do what they claim- break boundaries.  Both their traditional beer styles and innovations have pleased everyone I’ve shared them with.

Encore Saloon
Hawai‘i’s largest mezcal selection!  I never eat here without trying a new mezcal but I could, because the food is Mexican in theory but clearly innovative.

Kaka‘ako Farmers’ Market
Full confession- I have a coffee booth at this market.  I include it in this list because there are a lot of vendors who serve incredibly delicious food.  It is often hard to decide who to eat from each week as there are so many great choices!

Koko Head Café
Farm-to-table breakfast/brunch amazingness. This is perhaps the only restaurant on Earth where I’ve tried every item on the menu. I pretty much only order their specials now.  And, cocktails with breakfast? Absolutely!  

The Pig and the Lady
Vietnamese as its core but I find it hard to label their style. It is rare that I fantasize about a dish I’ve eaten somewhere and return to eat it again. It has happened here more than once!

South Shore Grill
There are all kinds of fish tacos on this planet. These guys have some of my favorites.  

Town
I remember studying for my comprehensive exams here shortly after they opened and I’ll always have an affinity for them.  They are famously known for their farm-to-table ethic and innovative dishes to support seasonally available produce.

Vino
Italian with interpretation. I’m always surprised by how much I love the food. Moreover, they are the best wine bar on the island, in my opinion. I’ve learned more about wine ordering 2 oz tasters here than perhaps from any other source.  

Other favorite outdoor activities in Oahu (surf, hike, etc)?
The biggest one for me is bicycling. While I only do it as transportation, I bike a lot to get around town by myself and with my 3-year old daughter.

My daughter makes time-consuming hobbies and playtime a challenge. That said, prior to Covid-19, we picnicked at the beach every Friday night. I still try to take her to the beach at least once a week but that isn’t always possible.  

We like to think of ourselves as a hiking family, too, but, we only go a few times a year.  However, since our family has a love of plants, we really enjoy it when we do manage to get to one.