Hawaii's Kau coffee joins ranks of elite
|Video: Coffee industry bearing fruit|
|Video: Coffee: Different islands, different tastes|
By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Sean Hao
Hawai'i coffees ranked among the top brews in the world in a recent international competition. The state's high ranking may not be surprising. Rather, what's raising eyebrows is where the coffee was grown — the Big Island's Ka'u region. Ka'u coffees ranked sixth and ninth in a major annual international taste test in Long Beach, Calif., in May.
Coffee is Hawai'i's fifth-largest agricultural export, and the distinct taste of Kona coffee has made it by far the most sought-after local variety. However, for Ka'u's nascent coffee industry and other non-Kona growers, the taste test provides proof that Hawai'i can produce world-class coffee outside of the well-known Kona region. Hawai'i is home to hundreds of coffee growers strung out from O'ahu to Moloka'i; however, no local coffee commands the recognition and high prices generated by Kona growers. For non-Kona growers that equates to about 50 percent lower wholesale prices.
That makes the recent recognition of Ka'u coffees by the Specialty Coffee Association of America especially sweet.
"I'm very happy because right now Ka'u coffee is recognized as one of the best coffees in the world," said William Tabios, whose Will & Grace Rising Sun coffee placed sixth. Tabios, a former sugar-cane farm worker, has grown coffee on seven acres in Pahala since 2000.
Another Ka'u grower, Aroma Farms, placed ninth.
The tasting competition already has gotten added attention from potential Mainland buyers, said Lorie Obra, co-president of the Ka'u Coffee Growers Cooperative and another Pahala coffee grower. It's also gotten Ka'u coffee on the radar of local celebrity chef Alan Wong, who plans to add a variety of Ka'u brands to the menu at his King Street restaurant.
"We're going to put it on the menu and see if people like it," said Wong, who visited Ka'u coffee growers after learning about the competition results.
Ka'u coffee joins other Big Island coffees including Kona brands as well as Kaua'i brands on the restaurant's menu.
"I love the Kona coffees, but it's always good to have competition," Wong said.
Ka'u coffee "has got enormous aroma — great body, great flavor. It's got great potential," he added.
KONA COFFEE UNRANKED
So if two coffees from Ka'u ranked in the SCAA's top 10 specialty coffees in the world, where did Kona coffees rank? They didn't. That's because no coffees from Kona — Hawai'i's most renowned coffee-growing region — were entered in the annual cupping contest even though several Kona coffee companies attended the SCAA's annual conference. Overall, 104 coffees competed in the contest.
"As far as we know they haven't participated (in the tasting contest) in the last three years," said Rick Havacko, a spokesman for the SCAA. "This is the major tasting competition in the world."
That lack of Kona representation likely won't be repeated next year, said Roger Kaiwi, general manager for Captain Cook Coffee Co., which was present at the trade show but did not compete.
"You'll probably have 20 entries from Kona next year," he said. "A lot of people will probably feel they missed the boat. This is probably in all reality a great wake-up call. Come on, Kona, represent yourself."
However, it's not like Kona coffee necessarily needs the publicity. Kona growers already are getting near-record prices amid lower production in the wake of a bumper crop in 2006.
There are 3,800 acres of coffee on the Big Island, of which 3,350 are in Kona, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The rest — about 450 acres — can be found in Hamakua, North Hilo, South Hilo and Ka'u, among other locations.
SMART MOVE FOR KA'U
Jim Wayman, president of both the Hawaii Coffee Co. and the Hawaii Coffee, Association, said the coffee tasting competition proves there's a lot happening in Hawai'i outside of Kona.
"Kona has 100 years of marketing behind it, while something like Ka'u has 10 years behind it," he said. "They're trying to get recognition for their brand, so anything you can do, you do. This is a first step in getting them some strong recognition and attention to their brand."
With well more than 100 years of history Kona coffee also is Hawai'i's biggest, most recognized and highest-priced coffee. Ka'u's coffee history is more limited. The region got a boost in the late 1990s when the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Economic Transition Assistance Program helped 30 or so displaced sugar-cane workers start coffee farms in Ka'u.
Since then things haven't gone as planned, with growers at times finding it difficult to find buyers.
"It's been a bumpy ride," said Obra, who has farmed coffee in Ka'u since 1999.
Kona also is the only Hawai'i coffee with its own regional trademark, though Ka'u growers are considering pursuing similar protection via a Ka'u coffee trademark.
Ultimately what's good for Ka'u coffee is good for Hawai'i coffee, Captain Cook's Kaiwi said.
"We all win," he said. "We're all brothers and sisters in this whole fight. This was probably one of the better business moves by Ka'u."
Reach Sean Hao at email@example.com.