Market Reports

Hawaii’s coffee farmers are building a bright future

The Hawaiian coffee industry has been quietly working behind the scenes to edge its way back onto a world specialty stage. Malian Lahey spoke to those who worked through new regulations and attracted the expertise needed to propel growers forward.','none','

Over a plate of eggs and rice, Wally Young tells me he’s not looking to get rich over night – all he wants is to be able to sell his entire crop for a decent price. We are at the Hana Hou Restaurant in Nã‘ãlehu, eating breakfast with a group of six or so smallholder coffee farmers in the Ka’ district of the island of Hawai‘i.  These men and women were in the original group of what are now around 80 smallhold farmers who raise coffee in Ka’.  Many of them grow coffee as a side business to complement their income from construction, teaching or other jobs.  Young runs a towing and engine repair business out of his home.

Like many growers in this up and coming community of coffee producers, Young was once an employee of the now-defunct C. Brewer sugar mill, which closed down in 1996. As part of the severance package, cheap leases were offered to the laid-off workers. Some of them had been involved in coffee cultivation in Kona, and decided that coffee was the cash crop they could best use to stay afloat economically. Some of the lands belonging to the mill, including what are now about 280 acres of coffee trees, were sold off and are now managed through Ka’ Farm and Ranch, LLC. 

Manuel Marques, a former sugar mill employee, grew the 11th ranking coffee in the Roaster’s Guild Coffee of the Year competition in 2008. He’s reminiscing about a picker that he once saw pick 1200 pounds in one day. 

“That’s when they would pick anything they see,” says Ah San.

“You only can do that about once a season… but, I cannot vouch that he gets 100 per cent red,” puts in Marques.

“That person he’s talking about, he’s married to my niece,” Young tells me.


John Ah San jumps in: “The first time we had them try to pick reds, the previous season we were taking pretty much everything and then these professional roasters worked with us and said you shouldn’t do that, you should pick only red, and (the pickers) were angry at us… But, when they pick only red instead of stripping the tree, it’s a matter of five to seven days that pickers have got to come back, as opposed to two to three weeks before they come back to that field again. Because the ripe coffee has a lot more content than the unripe bean, it’s a lot more dense. Before, the bag full weighed about 90 pounds (40 kilograms) something like that, but with the ripe beans it’s like 105 (48 kilograms).  So they get paid a lot more.”

Ah San is referring to the involvement of coffee experts Miguel Meza, of Hula Daddy, Kona; Andrew Hetzel of CafeMakers, LLC and; Tracy Allen of Brewed Behavior Co. in a 2009 United States Department of Agriculture sponsored grant, intended to improve the quality of Ka’ coffee. The experts involved analysed every aspect of coffee growing, starting from varietals and ending with the drying methods. 

This extraordinary opportunity came about after Ka’ Farm and Ranch’s Chris Manfredi had taken some Ka’ coffees to the 2007 Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) competition, where Meza was one of the judges for the Pacific regionals of the Roaster’s Guild Cupping Pavilion Competition. During the blind cupping, Meza had noticed two coffees that possessed flavour characteristics he had never experienced before.

“They just stood out,” he recalls.  However, when Manfredi approached him after the cupping to discuss Ka’ Coffee, Meza assumed they would never speak to each other again. “Being a green buyer from the US at the time, for us, Hawai‘i was considered kind of a joke – an overpriced, novelty coffee.” Meza changed his tune when seven of the top 10 coffees in the Hawai‘i/Asia/Indonesia region came from Ka’ estates and the two unusual coffees he had noticed, also from Ka’, ranked sixth and ninth in the overall Roaster’s Guild competition. “Suddenly I was like, ‘where was that business card again’?” 

Meza ended up procuring the entire lot of coffee from sixth ranking Willy Tabios’ Rising Sun estate that year and has gone on to be a promoter of Hawai‘ian coffees in general. Rising Sun estate has since won the prestigious Coffee of the Year Award at the 2010 SCAA.


Since that time, Ka’ grown coffee has risen in the ranks of competitions worldwide, partially thanks to the consultations provided to local farmers through the grant, which was written by Obra’s daughter and son-in-law in two weeks. The results of Q-cuppings show that the average score in the region overall went up several points and Obra’s own Rusty’s Hawai‘ian won the Hawaii Coffee Association’s 2010 cupping competition, as well as the 2010 Outstanding Producer Award from the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe.

According to Ah San: “We get extra fancy and fancy a lot more. We were averaging about 60 to 70 per cent in the extra fancy category where (we were) used to 40 to 50 per cent per bag.” 

Barista Pete Licata, of Honolulu Coffee Co., swept the Southwest Regional Barista competition and won the US Barista Championship with a performance centered on a Kona coffee from Waiono Meadows and Rusty’s Hawai‘ian beans. Licata’s extraordinary effort involved picking his own beans from each field, processing and roasting them personally. Photographs documenting the work he did to produce the coffee that he serves the judges accompany his routine. When asked what influenced his decision to choose a Ka’ coffee, he replied: “I’ve tasted some coffee from Rusty’s and I know that it’s really good and I know Lorie and like working with her a lot. But honestly, the work they have been putting in to make better coffee is very noticeable at this point. It’s one of those natural choices to want to work with it.” 

In spite of the drum roll of accolades gathering under the Ka’ name, turning a profit for these farmers is still not easy. For one thing, a picker in Hawai‘i earns between 35 cents and 50 cents per pound (USD). A study accompanying the grant put the average cost of raising coffee at US$7.30 per pound, parchment, which means that in order to turn a profit, Ka’ farmers must aim for the high-end, specialty coffee market. 

Added complications arise in the international market, where some buyers still recall the Kona Kai scandal of 15 years ago. It involved imported Latin American coffee being sold under the Kona name for Kona prices. The Hawai‘ian legislature took measures to protect the Kona brand and in 2002 enacted labelling laws to regulate how the name can be used.

“There are no labelling laws in the 48 states,” says Trent Bateman of Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation in Kona, who helped to legislate the 2002 law.

“In Hawai‘i you must label by per cent.” In 2009, laws were enacted requiring growers to register their cherry weights with the Department of Agriculture, which issues a certificate of origin.”


Ka’ growers are increasingly feeling the pressure to develop their own regional brand and with good reason. “There does seem to be some more or less consistent taste differences. Over in Ka’ we tend to have coffees that have more sweetness and acidity. The flavour is a little different – it tends to be a little more berry-like or fruity in contrast to Konas, which tend to be a little nutty and citrusy… we get some lime-like citrus notes, but we tend to have more floral notes,” says Meza.

“On average, elevation is higher than Kona, where coffee is grown mostly around 1500 feet (450 metres), which is the lowest here. At 1600 to 2000 (480 to 600 metres) feet elevation it’s a cooler environment, (which) will allow a slower maturation, higher density, larger bean size and more complexity to the cup,” he says.

Ka’ is advancing further towards its own identity with the establishment of the Ka’ Coffee Mill. The first large scale processing facility for coffee in the region, it aims to provide pulping, drying, hulling and roasting services to regional farmers. Additionally, the mill’s website is already a marketing platform linking to the websites of about a dozen smallholders. The Edmund C. Olson trust, which owns the coffee mill, also owns 40 acres of land under coffee cultivation and leases about 100 acres dedicated to diversified agriculture, including to coffee farmers. Mountain Thunder and Ka’ Farm and Ranch have both taken steps in the direction of establishing processing facilities in Ka’. 

May 14 and 15 in 2011 saw the third annual celebration of the Ka’ Coffee Festival, to promote interest from the tourist sector as well as the coffee industry. Members of the Coffee Festival Committee have planned a reverse trade mission to bring buyers from mainland United States to Ka’. They’ve also organised an online auction, a recipe contest and a full roster of musical acts. The festival is a big community effort that further highlights the marketing savvy that these sunburnt farmers have had to muster in the face of economic challenges. Many of them have web stores. Some, like the historical Aikane Plantation (est. 1894), have institutional accounts around the island and others have partnered with marketing professionals like the Local Buzz. The growers here realise that they can use coffee to help their community prosper while preserving the agricultural, rural quality of life they prize.

Bull Kailiawa, whose coffee ranked seventh at the 2009 Roaster’s Choice competition, is concerned with preserving Hawai‘ian culture through traditional agriculture. “Everything is getting more modern. Seems like life’s getting harder. But, we do it the traditional way. I take care of my ‘ohana (extended family).” Kailiawa backs up his words with deeds. On his coffee farm he has integrated taro, watercress, Hawai‘ian medicinal herbs like popolo for the lungs and a special type of banana (Kaiholena) that is orange inside when ripe. He traps the invasive wild pigs, raises and butchers them, then donates the meat to Marshallese and Micronesian churches. For him, coffee is a way to get people interested in sustainability and he’s not alone. Manuel Marques has been using biologically active organic fertiliser on his farm for years and Merle and Phil Becker of Aikane have taken their whole operation completely off the grid. 

The involvement that Ka’ coffee farmers have in sustainability just tops off the ever-growing list of their credentials. As an intelligent, proactive growing community that plans to be around for the long term, it is certain that Ka’ will continue to strengthen its stake in the coffee industry.

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