Climbing into the hills of Kau, the Big Island’s southeastern district, there’s a breathtaking, sun-streaked view of coastal plain and shoreline that stretches from the far-off lava fields of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to the cattle-dotted, green pastures now surrounding me.
I’m riding in a truck that’s absorbing most of the bumps on a country road once used for hauling sugar cane to mills in nearby Pahala and Naalehu towns. Clutching a box of mouth-watering breakfast malasadas from Naalehu’s Punaluu Bakeshop, my gaze is pulled toward the shimmering blue horizon where ocean blurs with sky.
A couple of questions surface in my thoughts. The first contemplates the rural weekday pace here in Kau on a Friday morning. The second? Still stifling a few yawns, thanks to the predawn crowing of Naalehu roosters, I’m wondering how close I am to a cup of coffee of any sort.
The answer to the coffee question is mercifully quick as the truck cuts through a patch of wild cane at the edge of Cloud’s Rest, the leafy growing area where Rusty’s Hawaiian is producing coffee that’s garnering attention as a standout in the international specialty brew industry. Today, I will be treated to caffeinated tastes that transcend your average cup of joe.
Situated about an hour’s drive south, then north, from the hillsides above Kona, the island’s more globally renowned coffee-growing region, Rusty’s Hawaiian is one of about 50 Kau growers tapping into roughly 350 acres of fertile, mineral-rich volcanic topsoil on the remote southern slopes of massive Mauna Loa volcano. The Kau District’s planted coffee acreage is about one-tenth of that in the Kona District. But, these days, at the close of a five-year winning streak in prestigious international cupping contests, Kau’s stature in the coffee industry is soaring.
Rusty’s and two other Kau growers, The Rising Sun farm and Alii Hawaiian Hula Hands Coffee, earned top-10 spots in the 2012 Roasters Guild Coffees of the Year competition—the only United States coffees to do so. Other winners in the blind-judging event, in which producers from 26 countries submitted more than 250 entries for tasting, included farms in Honduras, Columbia and Ethiopia.
As the Kau District continues to emerge as a gourmet coffee sweet spot, “everyone’s game is stepping up,” says Joan Obra, who works at Rusty’s 12-acre farm alongside family members and roastmaster R. Miguel Meza. She adds, “It’s good to know that we’re part of that—a whole region that’s capable of producing great coffee.”
What is it, exactly, that’s ushering Kau beans into coffee’s elite circles?
“It’s a little bit of everything,” says Chris Manfredi, who four years ago served as a driving force behind the inaugural Kau Coffee Festival, now an annual event held each May in Pahala. “It’s the climate. It’s the soil. It’s varietals. It’s the passion and the meticulousness of farmers. It’s how the coffee is processed. It’s how it’s stored. It’s how it’s picked.” Continues Manfredi, “So many things go into making Kau what it is. There are a lot of things you can do to screw up coffee. In order for it to come out the way it does, you have to do everything right.”
Much of the coffee out of Kau is grown in the Pahala area, established more than a century ago as sugar plantation acreage. In the aftermath of the mid-1990s shuttering of C. Brewer & Co.’s Pahala sugar mill, Manfredi and investment partners purchased 6,000 acres of sugar land. Most of that acreage was dedicated to cattle-ranch work, but a small slice of land was leased to farmers such as Rusty’s Hawaiian.
Due in large part to the growing reputation of Kau coffee and the award-winning success of farms like Rusty’s, however, Manfredi says plans are in the works to expand acreage dedicated to growing coffee.
In the late 1990s, Rusty Obra was looking forward to an active and outdoorsy retirement from his work as a chemist. With his wife, Lorie, a medical technologist, he pieced together a plan to move from their home in suburban New Jersey to tiny Pahala, population 1,500. Many of the town’s residents at that time, Rusty’s parents among them, had emigrated to Hawaii from the Philippines and had been employed by Pahala’s then recently shuttered sugar business.
Casting about for a mom-and-pop retirement business to pursue, the Obras considered opening a bed-and-breakfast or purchasing a gas station. When the couple heard that displaced sugar workers and others were taking up coffee farming, they visited a few startups. Standing amid trees loaded with ripe red coffee cherries while soaking in serene views of the Pacific from the 2,000-foot elevation of Mauna Loa, Rusty and Lorie looked at each other and, without discussion, knew. Coffee was going to be their retirement business.
“When they told my brother and me, we just looked at them like they were crazy,” says Joan Obra, recalling her reaction to her parents’ plan as we sit on the comfortable lanai (porch) of a red shack-shelter near rows of Rusty’s Hawaiian coffee trees. At the time of her parents’ announcement, Joan, then a recent college graduate, had only visited Pahala during school breaks.
“They didn’t even drink coffee. They were tea drinkers,” adds Joan, raising her eyebrows with an incredulous expression, laughing.
That has changed. When Lorie Obra and her two happy-go-lucky dogs, Mele and Chance, take a break from midmorning farm work to join Joan and me at the lanai’s picnic table, she immediately pours herself a cup of Rusty’s Hawaiian limited-edition natural yellow caturra and eyes the remaining lilikoi (passion fruit) malasadas and other breakfast options before her.
“Most of the time, it’s bright and fruity,” Lorie says of the beans that have earned a top score in Coffee Review, a coffee industry guide. The guide’s blind assessment raved of Rusty’s yellow caturra coffee: “Complex and balanced flavor and aroma: orange-toned citrus, cherry, cedary aromatic wood, a hint of baking spice. The acidity is extraordinary: deep, powerful yet roundly rich and sweet. The mouthfeel is full and syrupy, the finish long and fruit-saturated.”
I take a few sips. My first thought: “I could drink a lot of this.” Beyond that, I think, “Yes, fruity. Hint of nutmeg? Tasty and smooth. So smooth, I’m not even reaching for milk or cream.”
I begin wishing I could pinpoint the real-deal sensory subtleties—aroma and body to balance and aftertaste—as do coffee connoisseurs and competition judges. Alas, my coffee-tasting thus far in life has been limited to brews less sophisticated than the current Rusty’s brew in my cup, which is fetching prices of about $25 for a 3.5-ounce bag of roasted-to-order whole beans.
Lorie and the farm’s roastmaster, Miguel, experimented with how to most effectively dry and otherwise process, and then roast, the farm’s fickle yellow coffee cherries for a year-and-a-half before they were finally pleased with the product.
“You know how winemakers try to find the best expression of a particular grape?” asks Joan. “This is the best expression of this particular coffee variety that we’ve found, so far.”
The yellow caturra, along with Lorie’s personal favorite, Rusty’s Grand Champion Red Bourbon (winner of the Hawaii Coffee Association’s 2011 statewide cupping competition), are among the farm’s highest rated and rarest coffees. Others, such as Rusty’s popular Kau Classic, made with the mild-and-sweet typica variety bean —the most common Hawaii-grown coffee — sells for about $25 per 8-ounce bag.
In 1999, when Rusty and Lorie first planted on their acreage, leased from Kau Farm and Ranch Co., they started with a hodgepodge of seedlings collected from other area farms and very little coffee-growing knowledge. Over the next several years, the Obras and other growers struggled to make a go of it.
Joan recalls her father remaining optimistic even when exhausted novices talked about quitting the business. He encouraged them to stay and further develop the coffee, which he believed had the potential to make a name for the district.
“It was his big dream to turn Kau into one of the celebrated coffee regions of the world,” says Joan.
The realization of that dream began to take shape in 2007, when Manfredi, managing member of Ka‘ū Farm and Ranch Co., gathered up coffee samples from farmers working on the company’s land and entered them in that year’s SCAA Roasters Guild Cupping Pavilion Competition. Then a coffee-business neophyte, Manfredi was simply looking for a baseline from which to gauge the Kau area’s potential.
“I thought, ‘If it did well, great. If not, probably nobody would hear about it,” Manfredi says. Two of the samples, which had not been prepped in any particular way for judging, finished with top-10 wins—sixth place and ninth place in the world.
Today, the buzz about Kau continues as winning farms build upon one another’s reputations for vigilance in hand-picking and sorting ripe coffee cherries, sun-drying techniques, as well as processing and roasting in small batches. Sadly, Rusty Obra would not get to see the district’s name and awards count grow. Less than a year before that first, pivotal SCAA cupping competition, Rusty passed away from lung cancer.
Before his death, Rusty and Lorie worried that the farm would be too much for her to shoulder alone, and plans were made to sell rights linked to the land. Family members thought Lorie would return to the Mainland, where Joan and her brother had established careers in journalism and the culinary arts, respectively. But when a purchase offer fell through, Lorie decided to stay on and run Rusty’s Hawaiian on her own.
Spurring that decision, Joan says, was a wish to push on toward fully realizing Rusty’s dream.
“We were all scared when this happened,” Joan says, laughing lightly at the memory of her family holding its collective breath.
On one hand, Lorie was taking on a demanding job, with harvest-time workdays sometimes beginning before dawn and ending near midnight. On the other, she was expressing her devotion to her husband. Known by everyone connected to the Kau coffee business as a tireless worker, Lorie would later be described in a Wine Spectator feature about Big Island and Maui coffees as “obsessive and meticulous” in her processing and roasting of the farm’s coffee.
Those two perfectionist-personality traits also describe R. Miguel Meza. Heralded in coffee industry circles as a rock-star roaster even before he moved to the Big Island in 2008 as a means to working with top-notch coffees in a bean-to-cup setting, Miguel soon after began working with Lorie at Rusty’s.
“There’s a whole plethora of tastes and styles that we can produce here in Hawaii, and we want to highlight the best of those,” says Meza, joining our conversation on the red shack’s breezy lanai.
Joan Obra and her husband, Ralph Gaston, moved to the Islands last year to round out Rusty’s crew. Together, says Joan, they are “curators as well as developers.”
“We create and select the green beans and roasted coffee that best meet our standards for maintaining my father’s legacy.”
The steamy summertime humidity of midmorning is fading as rain clouds settle against the aptly named Cloud’s Rest hillside. Reliable afternoon showers allow Kau area coffee to grow at a relatively slow pace, which some say yields beans with greater flavor possibilities than those grown in more arid terrain.
I follow Joan and Miguel from the lanai to the side of the red shelter, jokingly called the “love shack,” where they grab empty buckets before entering into Rusty’s Hawaiian’s rows of trees. While checking for harvest-ready coffee cherries, they share some plans for the farm’s future.
Last year, Rusty’s launched a sister business, Isla Custom Coffee, a sourcing and developing outfit that tailors coffees to the preferences of clients such as importers, roasters and retailers, cafés and restaurants. As part of the new business, Miguel is providing guidance to farmers in Taiwan who have begun growing coffee beans that, he says, show promise. Isla Custom Coffees showcased the Taiwanese brew a few months ago at a specialty coffee industry event in Tokyo. The new business is also forging ties with coffee farmers in India.
“We’re really starting to pull in coffees from other areas and put a twist on roasting them,” says Joan.
I ask Joan what she supposes her father would make of Rusty’s whirlwind rise in the specialty coffee industry as well as successes elsewhere in the Kau region, which now has more coffee buyers clamoring for its beans than available product.
Joan pauses for a moment. Smiling at the thought of what Rusty would say, she says, “I don’t think he would have doubted we could do it.”