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The Rise of Kau Coffee

(page 2 of 2)

Kona Coffee in Trouble

In September 2010, coffee farmers along the Kona coast were blindsided by an invasion of coffee borer beetle, a pest that bores into the ripening coffee cherries and renders them worthless for harvesting.

Since the beetles arrival, Kona coffee quality has steadily deteriorated. Tom Greenwell of Greenwell Farms Inc. told the Associated Press in January that none of the green bean coffee he processed from some 300 farms last winter could be graded Extra Fancy, Fancy or even No. 1. He warned that the international market for Kona coffee could soon be affected as buyers realize that certain grades were no longer available.

Efforts to eradicate, or even contain, the CBB have failed and the Kona Coffee Farmers Association is frustrated by the lack of government support.

A February letter from the association and other farming and business groups explained the emergency to President Barack Obama and federal Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsak. “This invasive insect pest has increased exponentially to the level where the beetle now exists in the billions, and has infested many farms to the point where some crops cannot be commercially harvested,” the letter said. “This has already forced some farms to close, leaving abandoned plants that further produce pests in large numbers.

“Despite emergency local action programs to help combat this invasive pest, it continues to increase in destructiveness and more growers are threatened with each passing day.”

The Hawaii Legislature in May passed HB 353 for “Emergency CBB Research and Farmer Assistance.” However, while passing through various committees, the requested funding was cut in half, the agency appointed to do the research was switched from the highly qualified U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, and the $250,000 allocated for 2013-14 was made contingent upon matching government or private funds.

Chairman of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association’s legislative committee, Bruce Corker of Corkers’ Rancho Aloha, reported to the membership: “The reductions to the minimally adequate appropriations in the ‘Original HB353’ – and the inclusion of provisions which make it uncertain that even the reduced amounts will actually be spent — indicate that even after the passage of almost three years since CBB was discovered in Hawaii County, the Legislature, the HDOA and the Abercrombie administration are still not viewing CBB as an emergency which threatens the economic viability of Kona and other Hawaii-grown coffees.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono advised the Kona Coffee Farmers Association on May 23 that Vilsack has responded to her request and will provide $1 million for the CBB emergency “ASAP.”


Coffee Farms on Each Island

Source: Latest available figures from National Agricultural Statistics Service.

20 Years of Hawaii Coffee

2013 marks the 200th anniversary of coffee growing in Hawaii. In 2012, there were 830 commercial coffee farms in Hawaii, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Most are small family farms on Hawaii Island, with about 700 in Kona. Statewide in 2012, coffee was cultivated on 8,000 acres, which earned $31.4 million at the pre-roasted stage (parchment equivalent). After roasting, commodity coffee sells at bulk prices, but specialty coffees – estate-grown, hand-picked and custom-roasted – retail at prices ranging from $13 to $75 a pound.


Here Comes Puna Coffee

Brandon Damitz examines ripe coffee “cherry” drying at the Big Island Coffee Roasters processing facility.

Photo: Courtesy Big Island Coffee Roasters

In 2010, Oregon transplants Kelleigh Stewart and Brandon Damitz bought a small coffee farm 1,300 feet up the rainy north slope of Mauna Loa, about halfway between Hilo and the smoldering Kilauea Caldera. They renamed the farm Big Island Coffee Roasters and began to learn the business.

Stewart already had some background in coffee roasting and retailing. More important, she is a former sommelier and brings a wine connoisseur’s palate and sophistication to her new trade. Estate-grown coffee deserves the same attention to detail and salesmanship as estate-bottled wine, Stewart believes, and she demonstrates it in a convincing manner.

As she and Damitz polished their farming, processing and roasting skills, they built sales locally by knocking on doors and internationally via their website, They soon discovered that 3 acres of coffee trees produce only 1,000 pounds of roasted beans per year. How to grow the business?

Five ways: buy green beans from other growers and roast them to increase sales volume; offer contract roasting to other growers; create custom roasts for clients like Big Island Candies; add products such as tropical flowers and macadamia nuts to the consumer menu; and, the ultimate challenge, raise the quality (and the price) of the basic product.

Thanks to a century of Kona coffee precedent, Hawaiian coffee is already recognized as a premium brand. So Stewart and Damitz positioned their beans as elite among the premium.

How They Did It

When you cut open a raw, red coffee “cherry” you find, nestled inside a sticky, sweet film, two matching beans, not unlike the halves of a walnut. In 3 to 5 percent of the cherries, however, there is only a single, small, oval bean. This is a “peaberry,” some say the flavor bud of the coffee plant. It can be roasted separately to produce a finer aroma and taste, the very essence of that variety of tree.

Stewart and Damitz separate and collect the peaberries from their trees, a limited amount each year, and custom roast them to produce a new and exclusive product. To confirm its superior quality, early this year they submitted a sample to the Coffee Review for grading. It scored a 93. In his review, Kenneth Davids wrote, “This would be a striking and unusual coffee from anywhere in the world, but it is a complete surprise coming from Hawaii, where sweetness and balance is the norm rather than startling aromatic originality.”

“Fewer than 10 percent of all Hawaiian coffees have ever scored a 93,” says Stewart with pride. Her 100-percent Puna Kazumura Peaberry, a blend of 11 varieties grown on the estate, with “flavors of sandalwood, caramel and melon,” sells for $25 in a six-ounce packet. Do the math.
Stewart has entered the Hawaii Coffee Association’s fifth annual cupping competition being held this month.

Kona Coffee Absent

On its Internet portal, Big Island Coffee Roasters offers ground or whole-bean Puna, Kau and Hamakua coffees, but not Kona. “We do not currently offer any Kona coffee,” Stewart says, “because we have not found any which meets our standards. Since the coffee-berry borer has ravaged Kona coffee farms, farmers have been forced to make a decision.”

Kona coffee farmers can either:

  1. Maintain high quality by sorting out defective, CBB-damaged coffee beans. This means less coffee and much more work, as farmers have to separate flavorful beans from damaged ones.
  2. Use everything by blending good crops with damaged ones, which ruins the famous Kona flavor.


Accolades for Kau Coffee

2013 Specialty Coffee Association of America Roasters Guild Roasters Choice Coffees

Fifth place: Lorie Obra, Rusty’s Hawaiian, Pahala, HI

Ninth place: Lee Segawa, Kau Coffee Mill, LLC, Pahala, HI

2012 SCAA Roasters Guild Coffees of the Year

Will and Grace Tabios, The Rising Sun – Will and Grace Farms

Lorie Obra, Rusty’s Hawaiian Trini and Francis Marques, Alii Hawaiian Hula Hands Coffee

2011 SCAA Roasters Guild Coffees of the Year

Bull and Jamie Kailiawa, Kailiawa Coffee Farm

2011 Hawaii Coffee Association Grand Champion of Hawaiian Coffee

Lorie Obra, Rusty’s Hawaiian

2010 SCAA Roasters Guild Coffee of the Year

Will and Grace Tabios, The Rising Sun – Will and Grace Farms

2010 Hawaii Coffee Association Grand Champion of Hawaiian Coffee

Lorie Obra, Rusty’s Hawaiian

2009 SCAA Roasters Guild Cupping Competition

Seventh Place: Bull and Jamie Kailiawa, Kailiawa Coffee Farm

2008 SCAA Roasters Guild Cupping Competition

11th Place: Manuel Marques, Kau Forest Coffee

2007 SCAA Roasters Guild Cupping Competition

Sixth Place: Will and Grace Tabios, The Rising     Sun – Will and Grace Farms

Ninth Place: Marlon Biason

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