Q&A with Shawn Steiman of Grok Coffee

Meet Shawn Steiman, PhD, founder and owner of Grok Coffee. A two-time graduate of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, Shawn moved to Hawai‘i to study coffee. Shawn also owns Coffea Consulting, a firm that provides knowledge and assistance to coffee farmers and businesses. He’s published scientific papers, magazine articles, and several books about coffee and strives to promote and celebrate Hawai‘i’s coffee industry, from seed to cup.

We asked Shawn about the inspiration behind Grok Coffee, how his UH education has helped him in his career and what he loves most about his work.

What inspired you to create Grok Coffee?

To share a secret, Grok Coffee was created to put a name on a farmer’s market booth I had inherited. Once I settled on a name, I realized I had an opportunity to build a company to do all sorts of coffee things locally that my coffee-centric consulting company (Coffea Consulting) couldn’t do. In a way, Grok Coffee is an expression of my coffee culture and community rather than my coffee academia.

You received your MS in Horticulture and your PhD in Tropical Plant & Soil Sciences from the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. How has your UH education translated into your career?

I moved to Hawai‘i to study coffee for that MS degree. I loved it so much I designed a PhD project on coffee, too. (I then did my post-doc at UH on coffee!) My graduate career became the foundation of my coffee knowledge in all arenas: science, community, culture, consumption… Without UH and the education it offered me, I’d definitely not be an international coffee consultant and local entrepreneur.

What’s something about your work that really excites you?

Just one thing?! Coffee was a hobby that morphed into a career and a lifestyle. So many things excite me!

  • Coffee is accessible to all people of all ages (pending parents’ permission, anyway). When discussing or teaching coffee, this means I have to gauge someone’s life experience and knowledge to best provide information. What a great challenge!
  • Although commonplace, coffee can be quite the intellectual rabbit hole. While I spent 8 years in grad school studying coffee, it wasn’t nearly enough! I know relatively little about the social science of coffee and I can barely keep up with the practical knowledge (brewing, culture, technology…). Put another way, I always have coffee books on my shelf that I haven’t gotten to yet but I’m very eager to crack open. As it all relates to my work, learning is a necessary part of my job description!
  • Coffee is tasty! Coffee was/is a hobby because I love the taste and much of my work requires me to explore the range of coffee tastes and then offer them to people who probably don’t spend a moment’s thought on it. Every time someone is surprised by how yummy a coffee is that I’ve sourced or brewed for them, I get excited that they may have just had a eureka moment.
  • Travel! My consulting work has taken me to many countries for coffee related work. Each trip is a chance to explore, learn, and be challenged by a new environment.

What’s something about coffee that the average person may not know, or would be surprised to learn?

Here’s a few:

  • Coffee does not dehydrate a person; the water in the coffee replaces any that is lost (though, yes, caffeine is a diuretic).
  • A darker roast of a given coffee will have statistically significantly less caffeine than the same coffee roasted very lightly. However, the difference is so small that someone who drinks a cup of coffee a day probably won’t notice it!
  • Coffee is not the 2nd most traded commodity after petroleum. If that were ever true, it was true a long time ago.

Something really cool about Grok is the emphasis on education. We imagine there’s so much to be learned when it comes to coffee. What are some of your favorite topics to teach and why?

My favorite topics tend to relate to practical things for consumers. For example, roasting and freshness, brewing, and taste all are fun because almost any audience appreciates them as practical knowledge. At heart, I’m an academic, so I really enjoy teaching about coffee production, factors that influence cup quality, and origin authentication. Truth be told, if I have an interested listener, I’m pretty excited to talk about any coffee related topic.

University of Hawai‘i Alumni