By Mark Inman, Olam Specialty Coffee, Roasters Guild Executive Council Chair
The Ka’u Coffee festival is held annually in Pahala on the island of Hawaii. I was was fortunate enough to be invited to attend and speak on behalf of the Roasters Guild at the event this year, which was held May 8th through 11th. This event attracts producers, roasters and café owners from the entire state as well as the public. Attendance hovers around 3,000 people, with around 800 being from the coffee community. The following is a brief account of this trip.
Friday, May 9 | Farm Tours
We started on Friday with a tour of a handful of farms in Ka’u. Most of the farms in this area hover in the 10-20 acre range, mostly planted with Typica. There were a handful of farms with Maragogype, Red and Yellow Bourbon and SL28. The majority of this coffee is washed/fermented with a very small amount natural process. The attention to detail in the farming/processing here was some of the best that I have seen. Trees were extremely healthy (even with berry borer present on the island) with good soils, scheduled pruning and meticulous cleaning of branches and leaf litter to avoid the spread of pests and disease.
Ka’u, like Kona has to compete with coffee growing countries offering similar specialty coffees (in cup score) selling at a fraction of the price. But unlike Kona, Ka’u does not have the name cache that aide in the fetching of prices hovering around $22.00/lb. green. In addition unlike the remainder of the coffee producing world, coffee pickers are paid above minimum wage in the United States for harvesting coffee, making between $200-$500/day. Land values for coffee growing are much higher, justifying the current prices charged for Kona and Ka’u coffees.
There is a lot of experimentation going on in Ka’u: The planting of new varieties, soil building techniques, sorting and processing innovation all leading to a quality renaissance in a state that has been plagued with the reputation of selling “mediocre coffee to tourists on vacation.” This has been known in the Specialty Coffee industry for the past decade as coffees from Ka’u and Kona have regularly placed in or won the Coffees of the Year (COTY) competition and the Roasters Guild Roasters Choice Competition. The coffees I cupped during the day were outstanding cupping well above the 85+ mark, a level that is very desirable amongst buyers of Specialty Coffee.
The festival is part agricultural fare, part community party and part educational, with Sunday being dedicated to the “Coffee College,” focusing on speakers from the industry at large. Saturday of the Ka’u Coffee Festival is the largest day in attendance, with numbers reaching 3000 people. Music, dancing, Miss Ka’u and Peaberry competition, food from local chefs and educational booths offer a lot to those visiting the festival. Numerous growers were also selling their coffees to the public, who also came to learn more about the coffees of Hawaii, allowing them to capture additional income by capturing roasted margins for their coffee. The event was an all-day affair ending after sunset. In my opinion, this festival is valuable as it connects growers to their communities, and the tourists to the products produced in this area. Similar to many areas that offer food tourism, to a coffee lover, the Ka’u Coffee Festival offers a unique opportunity for one to taste and purchase coffees of different varieties, different processing and roast levels from numerous producers in one location.
Sunday, May 11 | Ka’u Festival Coffee College
Sunday at the Ka’u Coffee Festival was dedicated to producers and roasters and was closed to the public at large. The Coffee College focuses on various issues in the industry that are relevant to producers and roasters at the time of the event. This year, the topics of the presentations centered on the “value proposition,” which the presenters outlined ideas and methods to attract high quality buyers to the coffees of Hawaii. In addition, there was a concern about the market volatility that has been rearing its head for the past 5 years. Finally, dealing with pests and disease were covered by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, followed up by a vibrant Q&A with the speakers which lasted 2 hours!
At this year’s event I as well as Blake Hanacek from AGRO Roasters in British Columbia, Canada and Robert Curtis from Hawaii department of Agriculture presented to a group of around 80. My topic focused on the “Intrinsic Value Proposition” comparing Specialty Coffee to other Specialty Food industries finally circling back to a series of quotes made by SCAA’s Executive Director, Ric Rhinehart comparing wines made from the same varieties with one selling for $18.00/bottle and the other selling for $245.00/bottle. This was relevant to the growers of Hawaii as they were the latter end of the example and struggling to justify their higher prices to buyers who were flocking to other coffee origins seeking similar quality coffees at much lower prices.
I also spoke about the Roasters Guild and its desire to work with Hawaii: From organizing Roasters Guild Origin Trips to Ka’u and Kona (very well received by the audience), to informing them about the changes to both COTY and Roasters Choice Competitions, and SCAA’s overall desire to work with Hawaii and World Coffee Research (WCR). There is a willingness from the producers and organizations in Hawaii to participate with the Roaster’s Guild , the SCAA and WCR as Hawaii is in the midst of a rebirth and wants to show itself anew to the specialty coffee market. I told them that we would remain in contact and work together to forge alliances.
Overall, my experience in Ka’u was very informative and valuable. Hawaii is a part of the coffee growing world often overlooked or deemed “niche” or not really relevant in the larger picture by many coffee buyers. I learned on this trip that Hawaii is a coffee growing area that should be paid attention to as they are moving fast, making real improvements to their growing and processing practices and are studying what buyers are looking for and are willing to pay for. I strongly believe that both the Roaster’s Guild and the SCAA have a real opportunity to work with a coffee origin that is wanting, willing and able to form a mutually-beneficial partnership and has a desire to assist in the creation of a blueprint for a stable supply of sustainable specialty coffee for the world.