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Cultivating Ulu: New coffee varieties take root on the traditional slopes of Kona

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

A five-minute drive down the old, winding Mamalahoa highway was all the time it took to pick up 200 SL-34 coffee saplings. In Kona, Ulu Coffee sources quality trees from an energetic supplier whose 27 years of expertise comes standard in customer service. Doing business with Kraig at Kona Farm Direct is warm, hospitable, and invariably enlightening. When Ulu's Phil Hodson drove to pick up the latest coffee variety to cultivate on the Ohana farm, his short commute returned with new coffee trees and a wonderment of restored energy.

"So, you came at an exciting time, Phil," Kraig said with a straight face. Hands folded, shoulders back-- Kraig's eyes gleamed above his blue collared shirt as he looked sternly west toward the mounting sun. A smile soon followed. Evidence that whatever he was about to say was bound to be noteworthy. But not without a profuse kind of narrative. A jaw-dropping, sit on the edge of your seat, cliff-hanging--kind of chronicle.

In Kona, this is known as talkin' story.

Moments before Phil arrived, Kraig learned his coffee won 1st place in the first-ever Isla Hawaii Private Collection Auction. The noble result of that cupping competition--held in partnership with the Alliance for Coffee Excellence--inflated Kraig’s quirk that day. And rightfully so. Adding to this excitement, Kraig announced that the SL-34 coffee trees Phil came to pick up were of the very offspring from that winning cup.

Phil lit up. With a smile that rivaled, he let out, "No way, man! Congratulations!"

"You wanna see the beans?" Kraig asked.

Without hesitation, he continued, "Come on up, check this out!"

Phil followed, and the two celebrated the win, hovering over a sample roaster beneath another one of Kona's golden sunsets. It was a big win. Not just for Kraig but for all of Kona. The small region in the United States has grown exceptional coffee in Hawaii since 1828. But the region’s long-standing traditions don’t always gain such buzzworthy recognition among its global counterparts.

Kona typica--the coffee variety produced to perfection for hundreds of years under the traditional, sun-dried Hawaiian process —created Kona's flagship coffee. The signature cup of Aloha is known for its clean, full-bodied, and fruit-forward profile. Here, typica is a tradition —an heirloom. Rising, however, is an experimental shift—new, irrevocable things are happening on Hualalai's volcanic slopes. Farmers like Phil and Kraig crave variation and exploration in their craft. Their adventurous mindset carries reasoning that questions: Why only cultivate one type of coffee by one process in a region that substantiates the perfect microclimate for it to grow?

It's this pursuit of "what if's” that recently opened the eyes of Scott Conary, the Isla Hawaii Private Collection Auction head judge.

"As head judge, I was able to cup these coffees multiple times, and each time I had my eyes opened for what was possible in Hawaiian coffee." The complexity and flavors he recalls are what "every tourist wishes they could take home with them from their trip – from juicy stone fruit to tangy tropical fruits, all sweet and very transparent in their character."

Planting variety amid a flagship

The five-minute drive back to Ulu carried more than just the weight of 200 new coffee trees. It carried restored energy for coffee farming in Kona. Cultivating new varieties brings a humble excitement for new opportunities with specialty coffee in the United States.

The traditional Hawaiian, sun-dried process remains prominent for Ulu's cultivation itinerary. And Kona typica will continue to represent their signature roast. But experimental methods aren't out of the question for the family farm. And neither are the explorative new plantings such as SL-34 and the upcoming--and rather elusive--Gesha. These new varieties taking root on Ulu’s volcanic soils are selected for their unique complexity, elegance, and multidimensional profiles. They vocalize the small estate’s pedigree for farming specialty coffee. And by cultivating them, share Kraig’s hope about the auction that this will “allow our global industry to experience the quality and diversity of coffees possible from Hawaii.”

Ulu Coffee produces a product that balances the nature of a Third Wave mindset while upholding deep-rooted regard for one specific tradition--Malama 'aina. From organic cultivation to hand-harvesting, their methods will always remain with one significant principle--to take care of the land.

References: ACE announces winners of first Isla Hawaii auction. (2021, February 18). Retrieved from

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