Hawai‘i Coffee Geeks Are Jolting the World’s Coffee Scene
A look at the young and the caffeinated in Hawai‘i.
Miguel Meza and Lorie Obra of Rusty’s Hawaiian cupping coffee (how experts taste coffee).
Photos: Joshua Fletcher
We came down the mountain from Cloud Rest, a region of Ka‘u where the clouds hang low and a soft rain falls every afternoon. Miguel Meza of Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee had invited me over for a cup of coffee on the lānai. The first thing I noticed was the scale—a tool of the trade for any serious barista, but Meza’s was snow-white and a dead ringer for an Apple TV. It connected wirelessly to his iPhone, and, as he poured water through the coffee grinds, it displayed and measured—in real time—the volume and rate of water poured. With the app, he could also track the coffee grind size, the water temperature and the brew time, and share it with the online community of coffee aficionados.
I had entered the full-coffee-geek zone. I’d been falling down the rabbit hole for a week so far: “Drink me,” beckoned endless cups of espressos and pour-over coffee. When I first started this research, I was like the average coffee drinker: I knew pretty much nothing about how the bean became my beverage. Now, when I go to a serious local coffee shop and ask what’s in the espresso blend, and the barista answers: a washed Maragogype from Kona and a natural red Caturra plus washed Typica from Rusty’s, I know what all those words mean. And it’s a little bit exhilarating (or maybe that’s the caffeine rush) and a little bit isolating, because there are very few people I can communicate with in my newfound language.
A flowchart of all the different ways you can grow coffee (taking into consideration shade, elevation, fertilization and pruning methods), process it (natural, washed, honey), roast it (light, medium, dark) and brew it (Chemex, French press, siphon) ends up looking like a tightly woven spider web with flies of complicated and confusing words stuck to it.
So it attracts a lot of nerds. It’s similar to wine-making, in that there are so many ways you can affect the final drink, from the growing of the fruit to the fermentation, except that coffee lures a younger, tech-savvy crowd that doesn’t adhere to old-school traditions. Maybe it’s because coffee is relatively young and there are few traditions.
Miguel Meza, 32, of Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee.
Miguel Meza started a coffee-roasting company at the age of 19. “I wanted to taste coffee and travel the world,” he says. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do by the time I was 16.” It was his parents’ Gevalia catalogs that did him in. Living in Minnesota at the time, he’d flip through the Swedish mail-order coffee company’s catalog, escaping into descriptions of warm, exotic coffee-growing regions. He was 12 and “too young to drink something like wine to appreciate the differences,” he says. “But coffee, the idea of understanding why these different coffees from different places have these different taste profiles, is always something that’s stuck with me.”
He named his roasting company Paradise Roasters. That’s where Lee and Karen Paterson of Hula Daddy in Kona found him. “I was doing research on who was the best roaster in the United States, and [Meza] kept coming up over and over again,” Lee Paterson says. “What’s he got going that he’s taking coffees other people are getting average scores on, and he’s getting top scores? He’s a brilliant natural roaster.”
Paterson called him and asked him to move to Kona. Meza showed up two weeks later.
“I had gotten as far as I thought I could get with understanding and making good coffee,” says Meza. “The next step was to make coffee at the farm level.”
Before Meza joined Hula Daddy, the farm’s coffee was receiving scores around 85 on the Kenneth Davids Coffee Review scale, the coffee equivalent of Wine Spectator scores. By the time Meza had finished overhauling all of Hula Daddy’s processes on the farm, Hula Daddy’s Kona Sweet had achieved a score of 97, the highest rating Davids has ever doled out, and it is still the highest rating ever given to a Hawai‘i coffee. Davids described the coffee as “delicate, silky mouthfeel, very sweet, continued coffee cherry, molasses, nut, aromatic wood, a hint of dusk flowers, all of which suggest at moments the most subtle milk chocolate imaginable.” (Even Hula Daddy can’t beat its own score; its most recent entry, the High Mountain Io Fancy Light Roast, received a 92.)
Some of the changes Meza made: While most Kona coffee is picked at varying stages of ripeness, Hula Daddy chooses only the reddest, ripest cherry. In addition, most Kona coffee is “washed,” meaning the outer layers of cherry and mucilage are removed before the bean is dried. With its Kona Sweet, Hula Daddy uses the “natural” method, in which the entire fruit dries intact. Because Hōlualoa is too damp for the coffee to dry properly, Karen Paterson leases space near the Kona airport where her beans can bake.
While Meza worked at Hula Daddy, he moonlighted on weekends with Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee in Ka‘u. At the time, in 2008, hardly anyone knew Ka‘u as a coffee-growing region. That’s what attracted Meza to it. “It’s a new place that doesn’t necessarily have the baggage of established places,” he says. “You go to most coffee-producing regions like Kona, Guatemala and others, and things have been done a certain way for 100, 200 years and it’s very difficult to change what is already defined.”
At a regional coffee conference, he tasted two coffees “that clearly stood out, and I found out they were from this place, Ka‘u. A place that has amazing coffee that you’ve never heard of is pretty exciting. It’s seeing a virgin region and there would be this opportunity to improve the quality and to understand the essence of what makes quality.”
Meza worked for Hula Daddy for two years and then moved to Ka‘u and joined Rusty’s. He lives in the house right next to Lorie Obra, who took over the coffee farm when her husband, Rusty, died. He shares the house with Joan Obra and Ralph Gaston, Lorie’s daughter and son-in-law, who also help run Rusty’s. Their coffee mill and roaster (tiny little operations barely bigger than the lānai on which we were sipping coffee), sit behind Lorie Obra’s house. The farm is about a 10-minute drive up the mountain.
But Meza’s coffee world does not exist solely in this small patch of Ka‘u. Between consulting and buying beans for his specialty coffee business, Isla Coffees, he travels to nine different countries a year. He was in Japan recently, sipping coffee aged in a barrel for 18 years, which had rendered it thick like syrup. This year, he sourced coffee from India and Taiwan, two regions with even less coffee cachet than Ka‘u. “I have a particular interest in developing coffee in regions that are not known,” Meza says. “It’s the places people have never heard of that have the specs or potential to grow great coffee. Those are the places that excite me.”
Kelleigh Stewart and Brandon von Damitz, both 32, of Big Island Coffee Roasters.
Back in 2010, Kelleigh Stewart and Brandon von Damitz were hoping to buy a farm in Portland, where they lived. The hard part was finding a bank that would lend them the money for one. One sleepless night (a common ingredient in any coffee geek’s story), von Damitz browsed the Portland Craigslist listings and found a farm … in Hawai‘i. It was 3 acres in Puna, full of coffee trees and including a house, all for less than the price of a home in Portland. They flew down, met the owner, Bob, “an old guy from Oklahoma,” and bought the farm on a handshake. They didn’t go through any banks; Bob carries the entire loan.
Stewart and von Damitz pay Bob with money they make from their coffee business, Big Island Coffee Roasters. If anyone was worried that neither Stewart nor von Damitz knew anything about growing and processing coffee, and that Puna was on absolutely no one’s radar as a decent coffee-growing region, it wasn’t enough to stop the sale.
They didn’t even know what coffee varieties they were growing. In Kona, the dominant coffee variety is Typica. Bob had planted Typica, but it didn’t do well in Puna. So he had taken it out and planted a bunch of different varieties—somewhere between 12 and 25, Stewart isn’t sure. She still doesn’t know what a lot of the varietals are on the farm. Stewart goes down the line of trees and points out the ones she can identify: Catuai (pronounced caught-you-EYE-ee), yellow Caturra, pink Bourbon (bor-BON). Listening to her list all the coffee varieties, especially the way she enunciates them so precisely, is like hearing poetry. Or a recitation of the Star Wars planetary system.
Tom Greenwell of Greenwell Farms.
While established farmers like Tom Greenwell, a fourth-generation Kona farmer, process upward of a million pounds of coffee on the opposite side of the Big Island, Stewart and von Damitz were starting from scratch. They turned to YouTube.
They learned how to harvest coffee cherry, dry and ferment the beans, roast them. They learned to cup—how coffee experts taste coffee. “We were doing it every day,” Stewart says. “When you don’t have a lot to do and you don’t know any people, you just keep doing it and doing it. We learned from reading, we learned from Google searches, we learned from just about everything except other people.”
Over the course of three years, they began to unlock the complexity of coffee. “We had always understood Kona coffee as being Kona coffee, where all of them are supposed to be the same,” Stewart says. “But we found this one tastes different from that one. After we learned to cup and taste things, we started realizing there were really wonderful pockets. We started poking around, playing and experimenting more than anything else. We both loved the way something can be different depending on how it interacts with the landscape, and how the landscape can impart these unique qualities.”
One day, they were hiking the Kazumura lava tube, which extends 40 miles from the Kīlauea crater toward the ocean. They tasted something familiar in the humid air. It took a while for them to pinpoint what it was. They let the water from the ceiling drip onto their tongues. And then they knew: It tasted like their coffee. They named their signature coffee the Puna Kazumura.
In 2013, two years after starting their coffee adventure, they submitted the Puna Kazumura and a honeyed yellow Caturra to the Coffee Review. (“Honey” refers to the process in which the bean is dried without the outer skin, but with the sticky fruit.) “It’s a good way to get feedback if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Stewart says. But apparently they did know what they were doing. Kenneth Davids awarded the coffees 93 and 94 points, the latter the same rating as the coffee Miguel Meza submitted that year. They were both listed as one of the top coffees in the world. Davids described Big Island Coffee Roasters honeyed yellow Caturra as an “elegant flower-bomb. Exhilarating, refreshing meadow flowers, roasted cacao nib, almond in aroma and cup. Soft but lively acidity; smooth, plush mouthfeel. Gently but decisively flavor-saturated finish.”
Kelleigh Stewart and Brandon Von Damitz of Big Island Coffee Roasters, drying coffee.
In their three short years in the business, Stewart and von Damitz have learned that, “at every single stage, there are all these different ways to drastically manipulate what you experience. It’s complicated. When we first got here, we were really enamored of the complexity.”
Stewart pauses, thinking. “What’s that saying? ‘I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time’? There’s an incredible art in brevity and simplicity, but it takes a lot of thought to do that. That’s been the theme of this year for us. Trying to refine and simplify.”
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