Kona Typica, SL-34, and Gesha
Updated: Mar 26, 2021
An introduction to the cultivar of Ulu’s Kona coffee farm
Last week, Ulu coffee gained its third official orchard. The planting of 200 new SL-34 saplings comes in addition to the estate's 3-year-old Kona typica. With another planting soon underway of the sought-after Gesha variety, a brief introduction to the farm's high mountain selections give insight into the quality coffee Ulu produces on the single estate in Kona, Hawaii.
Coffee trees are of a botanical classification known as Coffea, an evergreen shrub or small to medium-sized tree existing with over 120 individual species. With coffee, the two main species known to the market are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora, most commonly known as Robusta. Robusta-being a parent plant to c. arabica- is largely a commercial crop originating from west Africa. But it's the ever-loving arabica that keeps the undivided attention of producers cultivating coffee in higher elevations.
Arabica is a coffee species that originated in Ethiopia and South Sudan. It's a species that's hard to grow, disease-prone, and costly to cultivate. Despite its temperamental characteristics, arabica makes up about 70% of global coffee production. These coffees are known for their exceptional quality. Typically smooth in texture, more complex, and sweeter in flavor than its Robusta counterpart.
Because Ulu coffee farm sits high in altitude, offers sunny mornings followed by afternoon rain, and averages temperatures that range from 60-80 degrees-it's a perfect place for growing some of the world's best coffee. So perfect, in fact, the highland coffee tree flourishes there naturally--producing a world-renowned cup of coffee known as Kona.
The cultivar of Ulu's 100% Kona
When you break down the taxonomic hierarchy, variety sits just below that of a sub-species. Typica and Bourbon coffees are subspecies of c. arabica. Listed below are cultivated variants of these sub-species, making them known as a cultivar.
Although coffee's introduction to the Big Island began in 1828--thanks to a missionary named Samuel Ruggles--it was an Ohau grower named Hermann Widemann that introduced a typica variety from Guatemala. After several years of cultivation, the new variety proved superior to Ruggles' Brazilian variety, making it the dominant varietal of the Big Island's Kona district. Since its introduction, other arabica varieties introduced by experimental farmers made their way. But it's Kona typica that grew naturally on the small Ulu estate, breaking out of the volcanic rock wall as if begging to be collected. The first harvest of Kona typica coffee trees-brought by flora and fauna--became known as Ulu's 'Bird Brew.' And today, remain the inspiration behind the three--soon to be four--coffee orchards that grow there today.
Characteristics: sweet, clean, full body
Learn more about coffee fermentation on the Kona coast
The second cultivar planted at Ulu is a well-known variety created by the former Scott Agricultural Laboratories in Kenya. World Coffee Research notes that "forty-two trees of various origins were selected and studied for yield, quality, drought and disease resistance" between 1935-1939. Deriving from a single tree--labeled as the "French Mission" on the Loresho Estate in Kabete, Kenya--SL-34 indicates to be of Typica variety in recent genetic testing. The tall tree has excellent yield potential with adequate rainfall. The most recent orchard planting of SL-34 saplings happened on the Ulu estate just weeks ago in a small southwestern pocket of the farm, which envelops the breathtaking sight of Hualalai in its rearview. In just a few years, they'll grow just as tall and parallel to the estate's two-year-old SL-34s that flourish in the second orchard.
Characteristics: complex acidity, full mouthfeel, fruity flavors
Rare, expensive, and otherworldly, this variety of coffee gets its name from its provenance in eastern Ethiopia, near the town of Gesha, where it is believed to have originated. It's known as a delicacy far more demanding for attention than most and grows only in the tiniest of microclimates. Put on the map in 2004 by the Peterson family of Hacienda La Esmerelda, this supreme variety broke records in 2018, selling for $803/lbs at the Best of Panama green coffee auction. With Ulu's micro-lot sitting at an altitude of 1800 feet, their upcoming Gesha planting will be an anticipated drink.
A note about Gesha/Geisha: The elusive and highly sought-after variety is known to many but commonly spelled two different ways. Simply put, Gesha and Geisha are synonymous with one another. The historical document transcribed by the British consulate reports the discovery of this variety with incorrect spelling as the region of "Geisha" in Ethiopia is nonexistent. However, research indicates the region of "Gesha" was likely to be the intended origin reported.
Characteristics: sweet, floral, complex, chocolate, honey, jasmine
Traditional Hawaiian Process
It's hard to believe that coffee cultivation in the United States is a process almost 200 years old. Ulu coffee is grown organically in Kona, Hawaii, and harvested traditionally by hand. Roasted in Chicago for mainland freshness, one sip of this 100% Kona takes you to a warm and sunny place.