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Farm to Cup in Kona, Hawaii: Part One

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

How we process our 100% Kona coffee

O'Ka'Aina | 'Of The Land'

The coffee we drink every day is truly an anomaly—a coveted byproduct of fruit. The methods used to process the coffee cherry into the world's most coveted cup can vary significantly from region to region and even farmer to farmer.

Our process at Ulu Coffee is a craft we're often refining.

With growth comes adaptability, but no matter the nuance of the task or the madness behind our method, our goal remains the same—to deliver the purest expression of the land through the quality of our whole bean Kona coffee.

So that it's never a mystery amid its quality, we're breaking down the ins and outs of our coffee process in this four-part blog series.

From sourcing and fertilizing to picking and pruning, we're dishing out everything you want to know about how we grow, process, and roast our coffee from Keiki to full-grown.

Keiki to Full Grown

Man picks coffee cherries at Ulu coffee farm in Kona Hawaii
Harvest 2021 at Ulu Coffee in Kona, Hawaii

Despite its 200 year history on the Big Island, the coffee tree is not a native species to the biodiverse climate of Hawaii. But along the old Mamalahoa Highway in Kona, it's grown wild long enough for anyone to assume otherwise.

The heirloom variety is known today as 'Kona typica' arrived on the Big Island of Hawaíi in 1828. Its legacy is a story of pride and perseverance, a testament to the land and the families who preserved it.

Our small estate comprises four little orchards, otherwise known as micro-lots. We grow a variety of coffee from the traditional Kona typica to sl34 and most recently added the elusive Gesha.

All sourced (except for our wild-growing typica, aka our 'Bird Brew'), as Keiki from our friends Kraig and Leslie at Kona Farm Direct, a coffee farm and nursery down the street.

While Kona trees thrive in this perfect microclimate for growing coffee, they do so surprisingly under a constant threat. From wood-boring beetles to the Island's newest pest, leaf rust, these upright shrubs require a close eye.

Thanks to the regenerative mastermind Brooks at Dragon Heart Farm—a local tree farm specializing in organic fertilizers—we're able to source sustainably.

Tinctures and fertilizers like biochar, garlic spray, and spirulina tonic feed and protect our trees while keeping our promise to preserve the land.

The Pick

The first pick of the harvest season happens as early as August. It often feels synonymous with the mainland's anticipation of crisp autumn air and the changing colors of fall.

The comparable harvest buzz creates quite a stir for slow Kona.

By September, the town is in a full-blown harvest frenzy, racing to hire helping hands to pick the fruitful gift of coffee cherries brought by rainy season's abundant irrigation.

Our participation in this communal commotion took three years of patient cultivation. From sapling to maturity, it takes coffee trees three to four years to produce enough for a proper crop, making 2020 the first official year for Ulu's first full harvest.

Grateful for Mother Earth and the gifts that she brings, if there's anything we value more than caring for the land that nourishes us, it's caring for the people who share the arduous labor of our love.

Coffee pickers in Kona Hawaii pose for camera at Ulu Coffee farm
Ulu Coffee crew after harvest pick, 2020

Often lost on the consumer when considering the cost of a bag of specialty Kona is that coffee farming in the United States is a rarity. Fair wage labor means nothing if not competitive pay. As exciting as picking season is, it's just as laborious.

Early in the morning, when the sun feels close enough to touch, our team comes to pick. Clothed in jeans and long sleeves during the hottest part of the day, they protect their arms and legs from bees, centipedes, and other stinging insects while selectively picking each red cherry by hand.

From treetop to bottom, they pick around the green fruit, leaving it to hang for the next pick while walking row by row bearing the weight of their own bucket on top of volcanic elevations.

And that's just the beginning.

Hundreds of pounds of cherries (if not thousands) are bagged in burlap for the night while they wait to begin their post-harvest process, known as the wet method or the washed process.

Prelude to the pulp

Whether from Kona or Ethiopia, specialty coffee producers will likely display one of three words on their packaging.

Washed, natural, or honey.

These are the three different processes a coffee cherry will undergo to become that coveted cup of coffee the world cherishes daily.

How do they differ?

It's all about how and when the producer removes the cherry skins and the other little layers that rest in between the skin and the center bean.

Washed coffees start by removing the cherry skin and washing them clean of their layers and mucilage before they lay out to dry. Indicative of their process, these coffees typically have a clean flavor and finish.

Natural coffees claim the oldest processing technique known today and are commonly used in regions with limited access to water. Opposite of the washed process, natural coffees are dried with the fruit and skins intact. Giving these coffees fruitier notes and a more full-bodied mouthfeel.

Honey processing is sort of a combination of the two previously mentioned methods. With Honey processing, the cherries are pulped, then dried with the mucilage layer on the parchment. Honey coffees are known to deliver great sweetness with balanced acidity and are less powerful than Natural coffees. When done properly, Honey coffee can be a real treat.

So why Washed coffee for Ulu, and where and how do we carry out the entire process for our single-estate Kona coffee beans?

Find out next time with part two of Farm to Cup in Kona, Hawaii.


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