Photo courtesy of Ka’u Coffee Festival

Ka’u coffee is one of Hawaii’s best kept secrets

Jenn Rice
March 01, 2018

A trip to Hawaii means one thing to coffee drinkers: an ideal time to stock up on the best beans in the world. Up until my last trip to Hawaii, Kona coffee was my go-to, but I recently tried Ka’u Specialty Coffee at Owens & Co. in Honolulu, and let’s just say Ka’u coffee deserves all the hype and then some. I don’t plan on breaking up with Kona anytime soon, as it still holds a special place in my heavily caffeinated heart, but I’m adding Ka’u to my weekly coffee rotation.

The Ka’u district, located on the Big Island of Hawaii, is the southernmost district of Hawaii County. Big Island Coffee Roasters notes that most Ka’u coffee is produced in “mountainous pockets” above Pahala, with diverse terrain ranging from green grass pastures to “lava-crusted landscape.” With ample annual rainfall, plenty of sunshine and chilly evenings, the soil is perfect for growing coffee. “Like the deep soil in many parts of the region, Ka’u coffee tends to be delicately rich and nuanced, possessing more sugar than many Hawaiian coffees we have tried,” the company says.

Compared to other coffee regions, it’s relatively new. Prior to 2007, Ka’u was mainly grown and sold directly to the Kona coffee market, giving farmers hardly any recognition. It was grower Manuel Marques, of Ka‘u Forest Coffee, who put Ka’u on the map by placing tenth place in the international cupping competition in 2008 at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s yearly conference. From there, a many farmers have taken home ongoing, noteworthy coffee awards and have gained worldwide recognition for the region.

I tapped a few coffee experts to dish about Ka’u’s characteristics, where to find it, and even how to brew the perfect cup at home.  

Photo by Yuko Ishikawa

It’s one of Hawaii’s best kept secrets
Called Kona’s cousin, Ka’u is one of Hawaii’s best kept secrets for several reasons, one being that it’s predominately farmland and is super sleepy compared to other bustling districts like Kona. Christopher A. Manfredi, organizer of the Ka’u Coffee Festival, relays that compared to Kona, growing on a whopping 3,000-4,000 acres, Ka’u is currently growing on less than 800 acres, so it's anticipating a “more gentle development.”

It has won many awards
“Ka'u has won more international awards than Kona has in the last ten years, including eight Coffee of the Year awards at Specialty Coffee Association of America, one Specialty Coffee Association of Europe award, as well as two times Grand Champion of the Hawaii Coffee Association between 2007 and 2012,” says Alla Kostenko, Ka’u Specialty Coffee’s General Manager.

Photo courtesy of Daylight Mind Coffee Company

It has its own festival
As aforementioned, there’s an entire two-week festival dedicated to the Ka’u region. Held April 21 to May 6 this year, the multi-day event allows guests to interact with Ka’u farmers and roasters, sample multiple cups of coffee, visit farms and roasters firsthand and experience local cuisine.

It’s a lot cheaper than Kona coffee
While worldwide recognition has caused Ka’u coffee prices to go up, the beans are a fraction of a price to coveted Kona coffee, which can run upwards of $40 to $50 per bag depending on the grower. Ka’u beans, on the other hand, will only set you back on average $25 per bag of beans, making it much more affordable.

It tastes damn good
Known for its “balanced cup and rich flavors,” Manfredi uses the terms “floral, citrus, grapefruit, winey, orange, honey molasses, sweet, chocolate, spice, tea, melon, apricot, nutty, cherry and coconut,” to describe its characteristics. According to Big Island Coffee Roasters, Ka’u District’s Ka’u Morning Glory, is reported to have tasting notes of “pecan, caramel, cinnamon and butter with juicy elements of apricot, vanilla, a long, sweet finish.” Taste will vary between roasters and farmers, but you get the drift—Ka’u coffee is fruity, sweet and smooth across the board.

Photo courtesy of Ka’u Coffee Festival/Jesse Tunison

How to brew the perfect cup of Ka’u, according to Dr. Coffee
Shawn Steiman (a.k.a. Dr. Coffee), owner of Coffea Consulting, knows a thing or two when it comes to the perfect cup. He holds a doctorate in coffee science, after all. “I'm a big fan of full immersion brewing and while the press pot is the most famous of these methods, I'm partial to the Sowden Softbrew,” he says.   

For full immersion coffee, Steiman recommends a medium-large grind. “I prefer a ratio of water to coffee of about 18:1, but everyone should explore the range of 15:1 all the way to 19:1. In actual quantities, 18:1 is about 1 liter to 55 grams or about 33 ounces to 2 ounces. Put the (freshly roasted and freshly ground) coffee in the brewer and add water that is at 200 (+/- 5) degrees Fahrenheit. After about 30 seconds, stir the water/grounds mixture for a few seconds (to settle the coffee).  Then, end the brewing after a total of 4-5 minutes.” If this sounds too whacky, Steiman reiterates that there’s a ton of wiggle room and to not be afraid to “explore and experiment” to find your own version of perfection.

Where to find the best beans
On island, Manfreddi suggests checking out ABC Stores, Duty Free Shops, and KTA Super Stores. “We welcome you to try them all,” he says. “Ka’u coffee is found in Starbucks Reserve [roasteries] worldwide. A favorite producer is Rusty’s Hawaiian, found online and at Naalehu Farmers Market.” Steiman adds that Rusty’s is the most well-known farm and brand in Ka’u. “There are a few other farms whose coffee can be found on the Big Island or on Oahu, but they are more reflections of perseverance rather than in high demand,” Steinman says. “Some of them are Aikane Coffee, Hawaii Local Buzz, and Ka’u Coffee Mill. There are a handful of roasters in Hawaii that roast and sell Ka’u coffee, but I wouldn't say they are ever-present or in very high demand.” Roasters to take note on are Daylight Mind Coffee Company (in which Steiman co-owns), Big Island Coffee Roasters, Downtown Coffee, and Maui Oma Coffee Roasting.”

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