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The Rise of Kau Coffee

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Kau coffee’s success took almost two decades of hard work

Loreto “Lorie” Obra and her husband, Restituto “Rusty” Obra, were unlikely coffee farmers. They had emigrated from the Philippines to New Jersey in 1972 to begin their careers, Rusty as a chemist and Lorie as a medical technologist. However, while visiting his parents in the late 1990s in the Kau District of Hawaii Island, Rusty and Lorie were inspired to take early retirement and try raising coffee in Kau.

Kona coffee was already world famous, but Kona had a century-long history of growing coffee, with many well-established farms and well-known brands. Kau coffee farmers like Rusty and Lorie started with nothing and a steep learning curve to master the complex art of coffee growing and processing.

By 2006, some 40 farms were producing but struggling to survive. With no roasting facilities for miles, most farmers had only raw beans, pulped (peeled) and sun dried, and no market for them. The only prospective buyers were the Kona farmers, who told the Kau growers their product was inferior and offered only rock-bottom prices.

In the early years, Rusty was the inspiration for his fellow growers. “My friend Rusty Obra had encouraged me,” Will Tabios says. “ ‘Things will get better,’ he told us.”

Rusty was right. Today, thanks to the farmers’ dedication and courage, Kau is the Cinderella of Hawaii coffee, with many successful farms and award-winning brands. Sadly, Rusty did not live to see that success.

Demise of Sugar

The rise of Kau coffee began with the collapse of sugar. C. Brewer and Co. closed its Kau sugar mill in 1996, ending the district’s 135 years of dependence on sugar cane. State and county officials strove to find an agricultural replacement and coffee seemed a good choice. Coffee trees had been introduced to Kau in 1895, though the crop could never gain traction as more-profitable sugar cane absorbed every arable acre of the rich volcanic soil. But the conditions were right: Coffee is grown in a band around Hawaii Island, roughly from 1,000 to 2,300 feet in elevation. It needs a balance of sun, rain and, some say, a kiss of vog.

After sugar’s fall, C. Brewer provided 5-acre plots on 15-year leases for $150 an acre per year, with the first five years free. Displaced sugar workers received specialized training in the new crop. Lorie and Rusty applied for a lease, but were initially turned down. However, they later qualified for a 15-year lease because his parents had worked for C. Brewer. They named their company Rusty’s Hawaiian and picked their first crop of coffee beans in 2002.

That year, they formed the Kau Coffee Growers Cooperative, with Rusty as the founding president. The coop’s dream was to make Kau coffee as popular and profitable as Kona coffee, but the reality in those early years was they were barely breaking even, even with the cheap leases. Many wondered if they had made a huge mistake.

“I was ready to quit,” recalls Will Tabios, who had invested 18 years as a heavy-equipment operator at the Kau sugar mill. He hadn’t even wanted to be a farmer. “I remembered farmers from the Philippines, standing in the rice fields with their pants rolled up. I didn’t want to be one of them!”

When the plantation closed, he left town and found work in a lumber mill. But, on a trip home, a drinking buddy convinced him to try coffee farming. With his wife, Grace, and other family members, they launched Rising Sun Will and Grace Farm in 2000 on 7 acres of former sugar-cane land at the 1,700-foot level, above the old sugar mill town of Pahala.

In those tough early years, Tabios remembers, when he was ready to give up, Rusty Obra encouraged him to persevere. “I’m an optimistic guy. The Rising Sun is a symbol of optimism. So we hung on,” he says.

Tabios’ persistence eventually paid off, but Rusty was not there to celebrate; after a brief illness, he died in 2006. Without her partner, Lorie Obra was devastated, but she, too, decided to keep trying.

New Landowners

Around that time, C. Brewer put its vast Kau holdings on sale – thousands of acres of abandoned cane fields. California investor and philanthropist Edmund C. Olson acquired 13,000 acres on the island, 8,000 of them C. Brewer lands. In 2006, Christopher Manfredi and his partners in the Kau Farm & Ranch Co. purchased 2,000 acres, including all 40 tenant farms.

Managing partner Manfredi saw the difficulties for Kau coffee, but he also saw a way out: Create a reputation, an appellation for Kau coffee, and build the image and the sales under the existing, highly favorable identity of Hawaiian Coffee.

The standard of quality in the coffee business, like it or not, is set by international “cupping” contests. Each year, teams of experts taste coffees submitted by growers or roasters and score them much like an Olympic ice skating competition. A high score immediately affects the reputation, and price, of winning coffees.

In 2007, Chris Manfredi collected sample beans from 15 of his lessees and entered them in the Specialty Coffee Association of America Roasters Guild Cupping Pavilion competition, held that year in Long Beach, Calif.

“I figured if we won, great! If we lost, no one would even know,” he recalls today. To everyone’s surprise and delight, two Kau coffees came in among the top 10 in the world: the entries of Will and Grace Tabios, and Marlon Biason.

Suddenly, Kau was no longer a backwater, it was one of the prime coffee-growing locations of the world, a unique terroir of quality.

The following year, Kau coffee scored again at the SCAA event. Manuel Marques came in 11th with his Kau Forest Coffee. In 2009, Bull and Jamie Kailiawa of Kailiawa Coffee Farm took seventh place out of 134 entries from around the world at the SCAA Expo in Anaheim, Calif. Kau coffee was enhancing its reputation by leaps and bounds.

The new $1.5 million Kau Coffee Mill, constructed and operated by the Edmund C. Olson Trust II. (Below, left to right): Will and Grace Tabios with their son William of Will & Grace Farms at the Kau Coffee Festival promoting their Rising Sun coffee; Lorie Obra of Rusty’s Hawaiian; Ed Olson at the Miss Kau Coffee Pageant with winner Tiare-Lee Shibuya. The pageant was held at the Kau
Coffee Mill.

Photos Courtesy: Edmund C. Olson Trust II,  Will & Grace Farms, Soma Han, Geneveve Fyvie

Lab Experience

With years of scientific experience in the medical laboratory, Lorie Obra brought her analytical skills to the growing, processing and roasting of coffee. Processing particularly intrigued her: pulping, washing, fermenting and drying are accomplished by different methods in different countries. The combinations and variations are endless; multiply those permutations by the six varieties of Arabica beans on her farm. For years she conducted exacting tests, sending out the results to a mainland roaster for evaluation. Coffee Review magazine, in a 2009 article on Bourbon varietal coffees, selected Rusty’s Hawaiian Bourbon with a top score of 95 – the first hint of what was to come.

Lorie’s friends, fully aware of her dedication to the craft, asked her why she wasn’t winning cupping competitions. “I told them to be patient, I just wasn’t ready yet,” she recalls.

Her breakthrough year was 2010: The Hawaii Coffee Association named Rusty’s Hawaiian Grand Champion of Hawaiian Coffee.

That same year, Will and Grace Tabios scored internationally for the second time, their brew earning a spot in the top 10 of the SCAA Roasters Guild 2010 Coffees of the Year.

Rusty’s Hawaiian tied for the top score (92 points) in Coffee Review’s March 2010 article, “Island Coffees: Hawaii and the Caribbean,” and scored first (95 points) in the magazine’s “Brandy and Surprises: The New Naturals.”

The Speciality Coffee Association of Europe recognized her efforts and named Lorie Obra the 2010 Outstanding Producer of the Year. This award is presented annually to “a smallholder, estate, cooperative, mill or farm in origin that has worked extensively or done research into improving the production or preparation of green coffee.”

Kau coffee was on a roll. In 2011, Lorie Obra repeated as the Hawaii Coffee Association’s Grand Champion of Hawaiian Coffee. Back-to-back wins had never been seen before. And Bull and Jamie Kailiawa again scored in the top 10 of the SCAA Roasters Guild Coffees of the Year.

The U.S. Barista Guild each year hosts an annual competition for coffee servers. Each contestant must prepare 12 drinks for six judges: four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature drinks, all within 15 minutes. Pete Licata was declared the national winner in 2011 – the first time Hawaiian coffee had been served in the competition – with a combination of Rusty’s Hawaiian and beans from The Kona Coffee & Tea Co.

In 2012, Kau coffee hit a grand slam trifecta. At the SCAA Roasters Guild, out of 250 entries from 26 countries, three Kau growers placed among the top 10 for Coffees of the Year: Will and Grace Tabios, Lorie Obra, and Trini and Francis Marques.

This year, the Specialty Coffee Association of America did not hold an open cupping, but its Roasters Guild hosted a competition for roasters only at its annual meeting in Boston (the weekend of the Boston Marathon). Twenty-nine roasters from around the world submitted 25 pounds each and two Kau coffees scored in the top 10: Rusty’s Hawaiian at No. 5, Lorie Obra roaster, and Kau Coffee Mill at No. 9, Lee Segawa roaster.

New Kau Coffee Mill

Landowner Ed Olson saw the need for a coffee-roasting facility in Kau and in 2010 announced the construction of the Kau Coffee Mill and Visitor Center upslope from Pahala in the fertile Wood Valley. The $1.5 million facility opened on Jan. 21, 2012, welcomed by the local growers who no longer have to haul their dried beans (parchment) west to Kona or north to Puna for roasting.

The Edmund C. Olson Trust II, in addition to financing the new mill, supports the Kau coffee industry in many ways: sponsoring local participation in the international cupping competitions, developing more land for farm leases (Will and Grace Tabios have signed up for 7 acres), supporting the annual Kau Coffee Festival and hosting the Miss Kau Coffee Pageant. The festival celebrated its fifth anniversary in May and the pageant stage was erected, appropriately, on the broad drying platform of the new mill. Olson personally crowned the lovely queen, Tiare-Lee Shibuya.

“Kau coffee has doubled in value in the last three years,” says Chris Manfredi, and he should know. Not only did he enable the stunning series of international awards, he has kept the Kau publicity ball rolling. Wearing one of his many other hats, president of Kau Local Products, he brokered the 2011 deal that placed Kau coffee in 250 Starbucks outlets in the U.S., Canada and Japan. Not just any Starbucks, but their Reserve shops, which specialize in ultra-premium coffees. The number of participating outlets is projected to reach 500 soon.

“A short five years ago, the industry had not heard of Kau,” Manfredi says. “Recognition by Starbucks and inclusion in their exclusive Reserve program certainly verifies that Kau has arrived.”

Kau coffee now stands tall in the world market and the entire district is reaping the benefits. Will and Grace Tabios and Lorie Obra echo the same selfless sentiment, “We are not promoting our own brands, we are selling Kau coffee.”

Rusty would be proud.

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