I spent some time trying to track down what the White House is serving for coffee, and it led me to a small plantation on the southwestern coast of the island of Hawaii.
Kona Rainforest Farm is not the only supplier of coffee for the White House, but they are one of the only ones I was able to track down.
So I ordered up a batch of the same brew that the White House does: the Extra Fancy Blend.
First off, this stuff is not cheap, even by my own high-spending coffee standards (it’s safe to say that Michael Dukakis, he of the 3-cent Costco cup, wouldn’t be caught dead drinking this stuff). I ordered half a pound, which worked out to $23, plus $11.25 in shipping.
Now, I confess that I’m not a Kona coffee connoisseur. And I was not prepared to like this. I’ve been on a lighter-roast kick, and these beans were about as glossy-dark as you can get.
But I did.
I tried it a couple of different ways. I went with a French Press, a Cafe Solo, and a Kalita Wave pourover.
It had a dark smoky taste, sort of an earthy, tobacco feel to it. I’ve got no science to back me up at the moment, but it seemed like there was more than the average bit of caffeine in this.
It also had a full body. If it were a beer, this would be Guinness. If it were a wine, it would be Merlot.
Now, a little bit about what happens before these beans are delivered to the White House — or to me.
Kona Rainforest Farm was started in 1999, as a 2.5-acre plantation, but the current owners — Robert and Dawn Barnes — took it over in 2006 and have steadily grown it to 24 acres. There are a total of four employees, along with some with seasonal pickers.
They are in a lush environment, with soil that is rich in lava and all its minerals.
“We just happen to be in a location that has really great organic matter. Great soil,” Robert Barnes said by phone. “We’re high elevation farm so our beans grow year round.”
Kona coffee is a specific kind of coffee grown in a specific region of Hawaii, and farmers are adamant about protecting the brand (there are places that market a “Kona blend” or a “Kona roast,” but to be considered legit Hawaiian law requires blends to label how much Kona coffee is included; only the truly authentic can market themselves as “100 percent Kona Coffee”).
There are about 600 independent coffee farms in the Kona region, according to the Kona Coffee Council. Most are small farms no bigger than 7 acres.
“Kona tends to be acidic — but in a refreshing way, a hint of citrus, lavender,” Barnes said. “When we have our coffees cupped by professionals, they [describe it as] blueberry, citrus, maple, chocolate, nutty.”
“It kind of leaves a caramelly after-finish in your mouth,” he said.
Now, about that Extra Fancy Blend.
It’s a nice name for a bean served at an extra fancy place (the White House). But the name is actually given because of the size of the bean. There are different classifications of Kona beans, and Extra Fancy is the largest.
Finally, there’s a decent backstory in how the Kona Rainforest Farm coffee found its way to the White House.
During the early years in the Bush administration, the White House decided to serve Hawaiian coffee at certain state functions, according to a 2004 article in the Honolulu Advertiser.
But the use appears to have been sporadic and Joel Berliner, a freelance journalist and Kona coffee enthusiast, began pushing in 2006 for more recognition of Hawaiian coffee.
“They printed the White House menu for the state dinner, and it listed the wine,” Berliner recalls. “I was like, ‘Well, you’re serving California wines. Why aren’t you serving Hawaiian coffee?’”
At one point, he sent a large batch of coffee to top officials at the White House. Five pounds each went to adviser Karl Rove, first lady Laura Bush, and Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.
He also sent 12 different coffees — 10 caffeinated, two decaf — to Daniel Shanks, the White House sommelier who is also in charge of ordering coffee.
It apparently worked. Shortly after, Shanks began ordering small batches of coffee from Kona Rainforest Farms, apparently used for special occasions.
In 2009, Shanks told Hana Hou, the magazine for Hawaiian Airlines, that the Bush family requested coffee grown in the United States.
He described the taste of the Kona brew as “delicate, gentle, balanced and best when the ethereal flavor of the coffee can be appreciated at a slower pace.”
He said he would generally serve the brew during more intimate gatherings at the White House.
Shanks told the magazine, “The first lady’s morning coffee — for the right 40 people — brings out the best in Kona.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.