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Kau Coffee

It hasn’t been all that long ago that the Big Island’s vast southernmost region of Ka’u was better known for growing sugar cane.  After the demise of the sugar cane industry in 1996, many growers and displaced workers turned to the then fledging coffee industry in the region as a means of surviving.

Fast forward just a mere 11 years when in 2007 two Ka’u grown coffees received recognition when entered in the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) competition placing in the top ten.  

Since then, Ka’u coffee has consistently risen to gain recognition and place in competitions.  In the 2010 Hawai’i Coffee Association cupping competition, Ka’u grown coffee placed 1st, 3rd, 5th and 10th.  The other top ten were five from Kona and one Maui coffee grower.

It hasn’t been easy. The first few years were rife with problems as the former sugar cane farmers and workers had to change gears completely to learn how to grow coffee.

Today the Ka’u region counts around 50 small farms growing coffee on approximately 400 fertile volcanic acres.  

Ka'u CoffeeDuring a cupping competition, coffees are evaluated by several very subtle characteristics; aroma, acidity, body and finish or ‘mouth feel’.

Aroma is determined, of course, by smell, but also by inhaling through the mouth.  Acidity is determined by slurping a mouthful, holding it on the tongue and then rolling it in the mouth before swallowing. The body tells when a coffee is weak, robust, fruity, nutty, etc.  Last, is to determine the finish or “mouth feel” which tells you whether a coffee is smooth, mellow, rough, heavy, light and dry and if it leaves an after-taste.

Next time you drink a cup of coffee, consider this fun fact; it takes an estimated 4000 regular coffee beans to make a pound of coffee after roasting. An average tree produces 10 to 12 pounds of ripe cherries which in turn ends up as one tenth of that amount after the coffee is roasted.

Considering that it takes 90 days for a coffee seed to germinate, the first coffee trees in the area were not planted until sometime in the year 2000 and that it takes 5 to 6 years for a coffee tree to produce enough cherries to brew a cup of coffee, it is remarkable that the region of Ka’u has risen to prominence in such a relatively short time.

Coffee farmers Francis and Trinidad Marques, owners of the Ali’i Hawaiian Hula Hands coffee farm count about a thousand coffee trees in their approximately 20 acre farm located at the 1800 elevation in the Moa’ula area 4 and a half miles above Pahala town in Ka’u.

With the help of their family and seasonal pickers, this single origins coffee farm produces, harvests and processes an estimated 79,000 pounds of coffee a year.  The roasting is done for them by expert roasters in Kona.  The label offers medium, medium dark and dark roasts.

Although not organic, they are happy with the use of fertilizers developed especially for Ka’u coffee needs; they also put the pulp back into the ground to condition their already fertile soil.  Watering is dependent on rain alone with no need to irrigate.

Constant monitoring of their trees and good housekeeping has prevented their farm from being infected with the coffee berry borer beetle and they maintain and monitor traps to help them detect if any infestation is present at an early stage.

Although both their families came from sugar plantation background and also grew coffee right across each other in South Kona at Papa Homestead, Francis and Trinidad did not know each other as kids.  But Trinidad, explains, the trees they planted at their own farm came from the original Papa Homestead.

Their three daughters and grandchildren help with the work on the farm and expect to continue the family tradition.  “It takes hard work, dedication and creativity to be a successful coffee grower,” says Trinidad, “like everything else, once you don’t enjoy doing it, it is time to quit”

Trinidad and fellow coffee farmer Rusty Obra put together the plans to launch the Ka’u Coffee Growers Cooperative so that growers could band together, take Ka’u coffee to competitions and call attention to their coffee to people outside the region.

Trinidad was instrumental in getting the 1st Annual Ka’u Coffee Festival off the ground serving as co-chair and also chaired the 1st Annual Miss Ka’u Coffee Pageant.  She also assisted with the pageant on the second year.

The Local BuzzThe Local Buzz is the label under which Paradise Meadows Orchard and Bee Farm is selling their Ka’u grown coffee.

Megan Collins, owner of the single origin 100% Ka’u coffee farm, farms a total of 88 acres, 13 of which are planted in coffee trees at the 1,800 foot high elevations in rich volcanic soil above Pahala.  The farm also owns acreage on South Point Road where more coffee trees as well as other fruit trees provide nectar for their bee hives.  The farm also grows vegetables in an aquaponic greenhouse.

For the last seven years, Megan, with the help of family helpers Scott and Chris Buske, Lili Rodriguez and Erin Buchanan grow, harvest (with the help of hired pickers), process and dry their coffee beans to parchment and use dedicated processors to husk, sort and roast their coffee to their specifications.  The label currently offers a medium and a dark roast and is experimenting at the moment with a light roast.

Although not classified organic, the farm uses only organic fertilizers and IMO (indigenous microorganisms) foliar spray and no chemical herbicides or pesticides.  As Megan says, they incorporate generous amounts of sweat to keep the grass levels low and to make sure their coffee fields are nutrient rich.

The farm is receiving enough rain most of the time to maintain production but is planning of putting in an irrigation system in the near future.

No coffee berry borer beetle has been detected in any of their trees, but they are very diligent in making certain that any bags returning from the roaster is isolated and frozen for 24 hours upon return to eliminate any possible contamination.  They also keep the fields clear of old berries to prevent the borer from wanting to move in.

The Local Buzz placed 3rd in the 2010 Hawaii Coffee Association cupping competition and 2nd in the Ka’u Region.  The farm was selected as an Outstanding Coffee Farmer by the County of Hawaii, 2010 and elected as a Director of the Ka’u Farm Bureau and also elected as an Alternate Delegate to the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.

When asked how she felt about being a coffee farmer, Megan replied “We love it. It’s wonderful having a product you can feel great about. And as growers we get to drink what we believe to be the best coffee in the world, roasted just the way we like it, every single day. What’s not to love?”

The Local Buzz label from Paradise Meadows Farm is available in the store.