By CHELSEA JENSEN
What is it about Ka‘u coffee that the southern Big Island-grown brew is winning top honors among coffees worldwide?
A sweet taste, lack of bitterness, the love farmers put into growing and harvesting the beans, and the name “Ka‘u” were among the many reasons residents and visitors alike said makes the regional coffee top-notch.
“It’s just the flavor — it’s not bitter,” said self-proclaimed “coffee addict” John Booker who spent Saturday with his wife, Marsha, perusing the fifth annual Ka‘u Coffee Festival in Pahala. “They’ve also done great marketing the name Ka‘u.”
Mountain View resident Lori Calip said the coffee’s good taste has a lot to do with taking the brew to the top. However, she added that it’s also popular among locals because it is grown here.
“It represents the Big Island,” she said with a coffee sample in hand.
Added California resident Jan Tubiolo: “It’s not like the brands you buy at the store. It has a different taste — there’s no sting to it, it doesn’t have a bitter burn, and it is very rich.”
The Bookers, Calip and Tubiolo were among the scores of people who traversed the Pahala Community Center during the Ka‘u Coffee Festival and Ho‘olaule‘a. The annual event is held to raise awareness of Ka‘u as a world-class coffee-growing region, promote its success and have a positive economic and educational effect on the rural area.
Coffee was first introduced to the Ka‘u area in 1894. However, coffee did not reach large-scale production in the district until after the end of the sugar plantation industry in 1996.
Today, some 50 farms and 500 or so acres are in production, said Chris Manfredi, the event’s main organizer. Data on the amount of coffee harvested this season was not available.
This year the festival was expanded to a week filled with various Ka‘u-coffee related events and activities like dinner and live entertainment, a recipe contest, flume system hike, stargazing, the festival and a coffee college where people can learn about the industry.
“We’re expanding our reach in creating a one-to-one interaction making farms and features of Ka‘u more accessible,” said Manfredi. “We’re creating more environments in which those personal connections can be made.”
Since 2007, Ka‘u-grown coffee has earned top honors among coffees grown in Hawaii as well as around the world. At the state level, Ka‘u district coffees earned four Hawaii Coffee Association Grand Champion awards since 2009.
The coffee first earned worldwide recognition at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual Roasters Guild in 2007 when Ka‘u coffee took home sixth and seventh place Coffee of the Year awards. The next year, the coffee earned an 11th place Coffee of the Year award.
In 2009, the district’s coffee was named seventh place Coffee of the Year and in 2010 ninth place Coffee of the Year. In 2011, the coffee earned fifth place Coffee of the Year, according to the guild.
An especially proud moment for the district came in 2012 when out of more than 250 coffee samples, three Ka‘u coffees placed among the top 10 judged, earning them the coveted Coffee of the Year title.
Among the winning farms were: The Rising Sun, which took sixth place in the world and first place in the U.S., Alii Hawaiian Hula Hands, which earned ninth place in the world, and Rusty’s Hawaiian, which took 10th during SCAA annual competition held during April in Portland, Ore.
Ka‘u coffee’s hot streak was snapped this year, however. The SCAA Roasters Guild Coffees of the Year awards was not held in 2013. According to the guild, the event is being reworked and will return in 2014 in Seattle.
Despite the hiatus, Manfredi said, Ka‘u coffee growers are eager to enter their brews in the 2014 event with the hope of Ka‘u remaining among the best.
“The crema certainly rises to the top,” he said about what makes Ka‘u coffee able to beat out other well-known coffee-growing regions.
Email Chelsea Jensen at email@example.com.