Shawn Steiman, Dr. Coffee

Shawn Steiman, Dr. Coffee

Originally Appearing in "Hot Coffee" (Abstract 7)
Interviewed by Abstract Magazine // Images by Olivier Koning

Shawn Steiman (a.k.a. Dr. Coffee) holds a doctorate in coffee science and works as owner/consultant for Coffea Consulting and Daylight Mind Coffee Company on the Big Island.


So how does one become Dr. Coffee?

I never call myself Dr. Coffee, but it’s flattering when people say it. [Laughs]

My mother let me drink it when I was young, but it was just coffee back then. When I was in high school, an artist friend of mine was really into coffee and I remember realizing then that it was something more than just a caffeine delivery system. Shawn Steiman (a.k.a. Dr. Coffee) holds a doctorate in coffee science and works as owner/consultant for Coffea Consulting and Daylight Mind Coffee Company on the Big Island.

Did you go to college to study it deliberately?

No, at least not at first. I was always interested in science and I took a lot of science classes in college; coffee was just something I liked and that became a hobby. Eventually, I started using it as the medium: Every time there was a paper, I would write about coffee. It wasn’t until junior year that I thought about studying it seriously. I applied for an internship to study coffee in Hawai'i.

I sent some emails out and they bounced around different coffee science people in Hawaiʻi until it eventually reached a professor at UH Mānoa [who], a year later, offered to let me pursue horticulture in Hawaiʻi. I thought, Two years in Hawaiʻi? That can’t be so bad. So I went. I liked school and I liked coffee and thought maybe I could pursue this, so I got my Masterʻs in horticulture and then my PhD in tropical plant and soil science. [Laughs] That’s what you do when you have a hobby you’re really passionate about and someone’s paying you to learn about it.

What do you think of the recent trends towards more sophisticated coffee culture and coffee shops in Hawaiʻi today?

It reminds me a lot of the foodie scene, where a few places led the change and then it sort of developed from there. There have always been cafes since I’ve been in Hawaiʻi, but Hawaiʻi wasn’t really a geeky coffee spot until 2010. When Dennis [McQuoid] opened Beach Bum, things started to take off.

There are some coffee shops that produce and sell really good coffee. Most places don’t make good coffee or don’t have good materials (to make good coffee), but if you produce a product that people will buy, why on Earth change?

Coffee fits different needs for different people. For some, it’s a social thing. For others, it’s a status thing—being seen at a certain place drinking a certain coffee. For others, it’s about the taste. And all of these things are okay; coffee is a medium by which to connect with others.

Has learning about coffee led to answers or conclusions about the different people who drink it?

There’s one example that comes to mind. In 2009, I was hired by the Puerto Rican government to help them with speciality coffee types and brands. After one farm tour, I had beers with the farmer and we spoke about a particular coffee from Panama—Esmeralda Geisha—that had fetched the record price at auction: $134 a pound, unroasted. Keep in mind that the average price was probably something like $1.30 a pound. So a hundred times that.

The farmer asked if I had tried it and when I said that I hadn’t, the farmer told me he had some and offered to brew me a cup. This rare and expensive coffee—I was thrilled! He warned me it was about a month old and a little stale, but I tried some and it was floral, complex, and amazing. I loved it.

The farmer told me that he didn’t like it, that it tasted too much like tea. I agreed that it was like tea in the sense that it was delicate, complex, and dainty but I left that day not understanding how he didn’t like it.

It took me time to realize that what may be considered good or bad and what someone may or may not like don’t necessarily correlate. Coffee is like every other product in the sense that the arbiter of quality is the consumer. There are lots of people making coffee, lots of different types, and all may be good for people—just not for the same person.

What do you think about Hawaiʻi’s coffee scene? What would you like to see develop or what do you think the local community needs?

What’s amazing about Hawaiʻi is that we’re a producing place AND a consuming place for coffee. Most places in the world that create coffee do so as a cash crop and don’t drink it. Or they drink the crappy stuff because they’re selling the good stuff. It’s unique for us to have both.

I want the Hawaiʻi coffee industry to tell people that these islands have lots of different coffee for people. Everything is still largely Kona coffee-centric now, but there are different ways of defining coffee and different markets for different products and we need to promote things accordingly.

Ultimately, coffee is not rocket science. Do I want everyone to drink [and understand] it like I do? Sure. But coffee can be as simple as just a beverage that keeps you awake, or a complex experience that makes you stop and think. There’s a journey that you can take or not take and it’s all good either way.

Has all your experience with coffee changed how you drink it?

My mother has this really simple coffee maker in my childhood home in Kansas. The kind where you choose how many cups you want and it just kind of quickly grinds up beans and hot water and spits it out. Anyone can do it. But whenever I return home to visit, my mother insists that I make it. Because of my PhD, I’m the one who hits the button.

[Laughs] Is that frustrating?

Nah. It’s sweet.