Rusty’s Hawaiian Site Visit: Pahala, Hawaii

In early April 2011, both Cafe Hounds took a journey to Hawaii in search of the storied Kona coffee, in addition to some sunshine and snorkeling – oh, and Kris had a conference for the Association for Asian Studies  (AAS), which he presented at. During out visit we had the pleasure of sampling some wonderfully crafted coffee drinks on the island of Oahu before we jumped on a short flight destined for the beautiful Big Island, where we landed in Kona.  Once there, we decided to casually sample a few plantations in the immediate area near our Bed & Breakfast in south Kona (Ka’awa Loa). In short – they stunk.

Ka'awa Loa B&B

So the ONE big coffee related adventure on Big Island was our visit to the wonderful farm of Lorie Obra and her family in the Ka’u District (in Pahala, Hawai’i). It was amazing. The Obra family house and farm is located in the small and relatively impoverished village of Pahala – with less than 1,350 inhabitants just east of the southern tip (South Point – Ka Lae). According to 2010 Census Data, more than  80% of the population is Asian/Pacific Islander or a mix of the two. Many of the inhabitants descend from the Philippines – a country that Maher Hound used to live in until a volcanic eruption destroyed his home in 1991. This fact made visiting the volcanic island of Hawai’i that much more special.

Maher, Miguel and Lorie On The Farm in Pahala, HI

Lorie agreed to meet with Kris and Maher on relatively short notice and coordinated the meeting with her coffee consultant – and friend – Miguel Meza. Lorie’s daughter Joan Obra and her husband Ralph Gaston joined the group as well – after somewhat recently arriving in Hawai’i themselves to join the family business after most of their lives on he mainland.

I drove us all up the road a mile or so to their farm where we were then able to walk around and experience the relatively young and VERY well planned out coffee farm of Rusty’s Hawaiian. The brand and the farm were started  in 1999 with the seedling of a dream by Rusty Obra, a retired chemist who sadly passed away in 2006 – leaving his wife, Lorie with the tough decision of whether to continue his dream…or cut her losses and move on. She bought into his dream and kept forging forward in a naturally advantageous habitat for superb coffee – planted on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano, which makes up the majority of Hawai’i’s biggest of islands, Big Island. Standing on the farm you can see the ocean off in the distance looking south towards South Point where one can find Green Sand Beach – where the sand is colored in such a way due to chemical and gaseous reactions from volcanic/lava eruptions with ocean water.

On the farm, Miguel and Lorie have experimented with several varietals – but the five that we had the pleasure of cupping that day were the:

  1. RH Lot 24 Tipica
  2. Bourbon (red)
  3. Yellow Caturra Natural Dried FRUKO
  4. Red Caturra
  5. Yellow Caturra Natural Dried

The farm currently has no certifications at all – though they stated that they plan to certify organic eventually. They stated the reason was because achieving certification is not viable and – probably mostly – it is not viewed as an important aspect of quality in their sales strategy. (aka – their buyers don’t care about certification as much as their unique flavor profile and superb quality control). Thus far, they have not experienced broque (bug diseases).

Cupping With Miguel At Lorie's Home

One of their most important variables in annual yields is rainfall – 1) they don’t have an irrigation system 2) volcanic soil doesn’t really retain water very well. To that end, Miguel shared with me that the average commercial farm in the Kona district (where he also engages in coffee consulting for other farms) yields about 1,000 pounds per acre (due to higher rainfall counts) compared to averages ranging from 400 to 600 pounds per acre at Rusty’s farm. This relatively limited annual yield capacity for Rusty’s creates a situation where demand outstrips supply by far. For this reason, the $80 per pound for some of the coffees we sampled was understandable.
The hospitality shown to Kris and I at Rusty’s Hawaiian farm and home was exceptional and encapsulates not only the Hawaiian way, but reminds me fondly of my (Maher) time in the Philippines. Hopefully, there will be more to come on Rusty’s Hawaiian and Miguel Meza – and the change that they are catalyzing in Hawaii’s specialty coffee industry.
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One response to “Rusty’s Hawaiian Site Visit: Pahala, Hawaii

  1. Pingback: Data Science: Exploring CoffeeReview.com Top Coffees (Cntd.) | Cafe Hound

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