New, Improved Kaua‘i Coffee Taste

In 2009, I had my first, and what I thought would be my last, sip of Kaua’i Coffee. It was terrible. Although I like to support local businesses, I avoided the temptation whenever I saw the gleaming blue packages at the grocery store. But I changed my mind at this year’s Westin Princeville Jazz and Wine Festival, where Kauai Coffee was offering fresh brewed cups. I gave it another shot and was pleased by the smooth and flavorful taste. The difference was immense, and I had to find out why.

“Our coffee was junk,” says Melissa Gregory, sales and logistics coordinator for the Kaua’i Coffee Company. Myself, my husband Dan, Gregory, and Steve Davis – Kaua’i Coffee’s territory sales manager – are driving through the 3,100-acre Kalaheo plantation.

“Some people are steadfast,” Gregory continues, as we bounce along a dusty red dirt road in a silver Ford F-150 pickup. “They say, ‘I tasted it 10-years ago and it was awful. I’m sure it’s still awful!'”

Before 2010, Kaua’i Coffee – owned by real estate and land company Alexander & Baldwin – specialized in selling un-roasted, “green beans” to Mainland markets. After a visit to Kaua`i, Massimo Zanetti bought the company in 2010.

Massimo Zanetti Beverage Group, headquartered in Treviso, Italy, owns 50 companies in about 100 countries that cultivate, trade, process, roast, package and distribute coffee throughout the world. Zanetti evaluated Kaua’i Coffee and made significant changes, bringing a subpar coffee up to super-premium specialty coffee standards. In fact, it’s the highest graded retail coffee in the Zanetti portfolio, and the largest coffee estate in the United States.

“Now, I’d put our coffee up against any in the world,” says Davis, who has been in the coffee industry since 1979.

Davis stops the truck in the middle of the coffee farm, the ocean glistening in the distance. Kaua’i Coffee stretches from Kalaheo to the sea, and from Ele’ele to Po’ipu. Three Korvan shaker harvesters hover over the coffee trees, gently removing the cherries. Egrets scamper for bugs, a pheasant pecks at the ground, and three green parrots fly overhead.

“One of the reasons for the difference in flavor is the way it’s processed,” explains Davis, a former Kaua’i Coffee harvest supervisor. “There’s a two-hour window between harvesting and processing the beans. That means they don’t ferment, and that’s why our coffee doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste.”

Davis attributes the improved flavor to a host of reasons, including mature trees, a drip-irrigation system that feeds water and fertilizer right to the roots of each tree, and compost and mulch made of unused portions of the coffee cherry.

Once the beans are harvested, they are driven to a weigh station where they are given a lot number, weighed, wet-processed and sorted. Harvest season usually begins in September, and goes 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until sometime in November.

“We harvest about 300,000 pounds a day,” says seasonal harvesting supervisor Norman Bonilla, “which covers about 55 acres.” He’s tall and lean, and wears a cowboy hat, boots and dark jeans.

“We do bring in seasonal workers from Micronesia,” adds Gregory. Kaua’i Coffee hires about 70 additional people during harvest season. “We provide them with Occupational Safety and Health Administration-inspected and certified housing, and each year that they come back, they make a higher pay grade. We’d love to hire strictly local, but it’s challenging to fill those spots because only one in 10 pass the drug test.”

The Kaua’i Coffee Company employs more than 180 people to harvest, process, roast and package the coffee. From tree to cup, it’s 100 percent made in the USA. The super-premium beans, packaged in gold bags, are only available at the Visitor Center and Museum, located on the farm in Kalaheo. The blue packages contain premium beans and can be found at the Visitor Center, as well as stores statewide. Anything under the premium grade is sent to Mainland stores.

At the Visitor Center, guests can browse the gift shop and sample Kaua’i. The day we are there, there are 32 of Kaua’i Coffee’s 38 flavors to sample. Free, guided tours are at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m., but you can take a self-guided tour anytime. Hawaii residents receive a 15 percent kamaaina discount on everything in the store, and on Friday, Dec. 8, you can get free shipping at the Visitor Center.

“Every year, we host a free Open House for the community,” says Gregory. “We offer free shipping all weekend, plus the kamaaina discount. We have face painting, a jumpy house and we bring in Santa for the kids. It’s a great way to save shipping costs on holiday gifts.”

About 30 local businesses competed in the 2012 Kauai Coffee Agriculture Business Plan Competition. After going through intensive training to create a marketable business plan, the top three won a total of $35,000. Salty Wahine Gourmet Hawaiian Sea Salts won first place, and $20,000. You can learn about their plans for the money in the Nov. 21 issue of MidWeek Kauai.

The sun turns the sky pink as it sets over the ocean. “A lot of people think we’re a big Italian company,” says Davis. “But we’re really not. We’re still the little neighbor on Kaua’i.

We care about the island and our community, and we pump a lot of money into the local economy.”

Kaua’i Coffee Company
870 Haleweli Rd.,
Kalaheo
335-0813
Open everyday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information about the farm, read this week’s Farmers Markets column.

Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.

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