To talk about coffee from Hawaii would be next to impossible without the mention of Ka’u coffee. As one might guess, Ka’u coffee hails from the Ka’u region on the Big Island of Hawaii and is distinguished by its full-bodied, smooth taste, with notes of caramel, chocolate, and fruit. Ka’u Coffee has grown in popularity in the past three decades – however, the success story of Ka'u coffee starts long before that/
The Origin of Ka'u Coffee
Green pastures; a pleasant ocean breeze; dense jungles surrounding mountains in the distance. This is likely what you’d experience in the late 19th century when coffee farming first reached the Southern region of Hawaii’s Big Island.
J.C. Searle is widely recognised as the first farmer to plant coffee trees in Ka’u, around the year 1890. A local farmer of the Wood Valley, Searle quickly influenced the other farmers in the region and, soon, many more local farmers started planting and harvesting what we enjoy today as Ka’u coffee.
Now, you might be wondering what made the Southern Region of Ka’u a capital of coffee farming? It might surprise you that sugar played an integral role in the expansion of the Ka’u coffee industry in its infancy.
Coffee With or Without Sugar?
When J.C. Searle brought a coffee plant to Ka’u, the region was abundant with sugar plantations. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, sugar was a booming business in Ka’u; large corporations were investing in modern farming infrastructure for sugar farms. At its peak, over 30,000 acres of land were devoted to sugar cultivation in Ka’u.
By the 1940s, however, after droughts, hurricanes, and labor strikes, the sugar industry in Ka’u was facing a rapid decline, and could no longer compete with the output and prices of international competitors. With so much fertile land and eager farmers, the question remained: what would be Ka’u’s next star crop?
Over the course of three decades, what started as a few small farms and family owned plantations blossomed into a coffee capital, a development facilitated by the farming infrastructure left in place from the sugar plantations and an eager workforce ready to get back to work.
Flying Under the Radar
In the late 20th century, Ka'u coffee competed heavily with another Hawaiian coffee bean, Kona Coffee, which was already being enjoyed internationally. Both coffees were carefully cultivated and had distinctive flavors. Ka’u coffee was enjoyed because of its silky taste, while Kona offered a bright flavor profile with undertones of fruit. However, due to heavy marketing efforts and established trading relationships, Kona Coffee was being enjoyed world-wide.
Due to Kona’s popularity in the mainland USA and internationally, many perceived Ka’u Coffee to be an inferior beverage. Thankfully, however, this perception abated in the 1990s, when coffee drinkers worldwide began to take note of Ka'u coffee's smooth taste and the responsible farming practices underscoring its production. Ka’u coffee is now held in high esteem as a prime source of responsibly cultivated coffee.
Ka’u Coffee Today
While the Ka’u coffee industry may have originated to stimulate economic growth, it is now deeply embedded in their local culture, and is enjoyed widely today outside the region of Ka’u, by coffee connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike.
Coffee farming in Ka’u has evolved to incorporate modern cultivation practices while at the same time maintaining a local farming culture. In fact, many of the farms in Ka’u are still family run and uphold high standards for responsibly cultivating their coffee.
To understand precisely what Ka’u coffee means to the locals of the region, and to guests who attend from far and wide, we need look only at the annual Ka’u Coffee Festival, founded in 2009. The festival hosts coffee lovers from all over the world, celebrating with events such as: coffee tastings, brewing competitions, farm tours, instructional sessions for roasting and brewing, as well as music and performances.
Growing Ka'u Coffee the Modern Way
As a rule, Ka’u coffee is farmed with patience and precision. It typically takes between three to five years from planting for the coffee plant to produce cherries. The harvesting season sees countless farms cultivating coffee cherries from August to February, almost always hand picked to ensure consistent ripeness and quality. In 2020 alone, Ka’u produced 2.8 million pounds of coffee!
At Paradise Roasters, we are proud to have contributed to this massive growth in Ka'u coffee production, working closely with the local farmers during harvesting season, to ensure that we uphold and continue to refine the reputation for quality that Ka’u has slowly, but surely accrued since the turn of the 20th century. Ever experimental, we cultivate both caffeinated and decaffeinated K'au varieties, to expand the global appeal of this wonderful region.
If you’re looking for caffeinated coffee (us too…) we invite you to consider our Ka’u Classic, a soft and sweet roast, featuring dried apricot, cream and dark chocolate, with just a hint of citrus – this one’s exceptionally smooth in the finish.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a little less caffeine, consider our Champagne Natural Half-Caf, which boasts half the caffeine as our Ka’u classic, but equal amounts of flavor: tropical and floral aromas, with notes of strawberry, plum, guava, and milk chocolate.
A Sip of Ka’u Coffee, a Sip of History (Closing Considerations)
When sipping your next Ka’u coffee, alongside enjoying the full-bodied taste, we hope you can now also enjoy the storied past of a fine source of coffee – perhaps, if you’re particularly inspired, you might even recall the green pastures and ocean breeze, which we imagine Searle himself experienced when he brought his first coffee plant to Ka’u. Perhaps your next cup of Ka’u coffee might even inspire you to pack your bags and jet off to attend the annual Ka’u Coffee Festival. Will we see you there?
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Our specialty coffees have been rated 93 - 97 points by Coffee Review on over one hundred occasions since 2002!
We curate with an emphasis on distinction, seasonality, and emerging origins. As often as possible our coffees are purchased direct from the farmer and sustainably grown, and all Paradise coffees are roasted to order.
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Did you enjoy this article? Good news - it was just a taste. For more caffeinated wisdom, click here:
- Kona Coffee vs. Ka’u Coffee
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- The History of Kona Coffee