From high in the Makaha mountains to a cup in Bonita

Pavaraga coffee beans are popular among corporate execs, foreign dignitaries, and one President Barack Obama.

An antique campfire coffee roaster once used by the Pavaraga family to cook beans on the beaches of Hawaii.
  • An antique campfire coffee roaster once used by the Pavaraga family to cook beans on the beaches of Hawaii.

The oldest coffee roasting company in San Diego hails from Hawaii. Over 100 years old, family company Pavaraga Coffee goes back five generations, boasting 50 farms scattered across several Hawaiian islands. Last summer, Pavaraga quietly opened its first coffee shop outside of Hawaii — in Bonita. Within the next month, it plans to open another shop in Pacific Beach (at 1484 Garnet Avenue).

Pavaraga Espresso Bar

4250 Bonita Road, Bonita

For most local roasters, Hawaiian coffee is very expensive. Even before import and brokering fees, labor costs are significantly more on U.S. soil than for farm workers of coffee-producing nations in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Pavaraga keeps cost down by operating on a vertical model: it owns the farms, roasts the beans, and serves the coffee exclusively in its own shops. President Leo Pavaraga Javar says, "We do some roasting here, but our big roasters are in Hawaii." Nevertheless, it gets here fresh. "We get overnight delivery on Hawaaian Air," he explains. "We get things quick."

That said, one coffee you'll find at Pavaraga is the most expensive on the planet. A 10-year aged civet coffee dubbed Grande 10 sells for an unfathomable $250 per cup (with proceeds donated to civet preservation). Other aged coffee beans sell for $100 and $60 per cup, and Javar notes premium tins of Pavaraga beans sold in the shop are popular among top corporate executives, foreign dignitaries, and one President Barack Obama.

Coffee drinkers shouldn't be scared off, though. Most coffees sell comparable to typical café prices. First-time customers are even treated to a cold-brew tasting flight to explore differences between beans grown in Maui, for example, and the west coast of Oahu. Other beans hail from different elevations near Kona, on the Big Island. Flavors and complexity change based on the farms' soil and proximity to the ocean.

Most exciting to experience are so-called expedition beans. Only served on weekends, these rare beans are picked from coffee trees on forgotten farms, ranging between 75 and 200 years old. Javar describes the history of a particular 130-year-old tree that grew untended for decades in the wilderness. "The last person who had it, on record, was back in 1885. It used to belong to the royal family. [It's] a six-hour hike up in the Makaha mountains [on western Oahu]." Using historical records and a GPS, Pavaraga located the tree, and got permission from the state to harvest its wildly complex beans. "The varietal is so inbred and mutated that it is its own varietal," he says, "It doesn't even look like a coffee tree anymore."

Since Pavaraga's coffee service developed over the past century, well outside current third wave — or even Starbucks — standards, the ordering process here is unique. Customers pick their bean of choice, then select from several brewing methods. Then they may choose additions including premium milks and dairy substitutes, house-made syrups, and even something called coffee jelly. Variations are endless, often involving coffee that tastes like nothing else available on the planet, let alone in San Diego.

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