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Farm to Cup in Kona, Hawaii: Part Four

Growing, processing, and roasting, Chicago's only 100% Kona coffee

If you've ever ventured the Big Island of Hawai'i, specifically the elevations of Hualalai or Mauna Loa volcanoes, you can likely recall a distinct aroma. Something similar to burnt cocoa and fresh tobacco. It's a scent that strolls down the mountain and tantalizes palates to no end. It's the smell of just processed Kona coffee roasting fresh directly on the farms.


The experience you can have when greeted with this unique characteristic of Kona is immersive, and, if you're anything like us, it sticks with you. When we imagined Ulu Coffee farm, we knew we had to deliver the transformative experience to our Ohana and customers on the mainland.


To do that, we knew we couldn't roast our coffee at the farm like our counterparts. To offer the best Kona coffee in Chicago, we made the decision early on to ship our green beans 4,221 miles directly across the pacific to roast fresh in small-batch for the mainland.


In this final segment of our four-part blog series, we're walking through the final steps of coffee processing in Kona to private roasting in Chicago.


Parchment to Extra Fancy and even Peaberry

The last step in the coffee process before the beans are sorted, graded, and roasted is a stage called the milling process. When the coffee beans are dry, a silvery, paper-thin layer known as parchment surrounds them. This layer gets removed, and the bean--polished at this time. Then, the beans are ready for sorting and grading.


Along with geographic statutes, the grading classification in Kona is unique. Because of Kona's vulnerable susceptibility to counterfeit and consumer fraud, The State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture inspects the beans for quality and authenticity.


If you're looking for the real deal, avoid buying Kona coffee at national retailers such as Walmart or Costco. Look for bags that state 100% Kona. If you can find a single estate, that's even better! Blends you can find anywhere, but beware, by law, they only need to contain 10% of Kona grown beans to use the name on their bag.


These sought-after beans enjoy a date with a gravity table for further classification outside of their geographic indications. The vibration of the table separates the beans by density and discards defective beans. Then graded by size, shape, moisture content, and the number of defects, the beans are categorized.

Graphic chart describing Kona coffee classifications

Within these classifications, there are two types of coffee beans. Type one are beans that grow in pairs meaning, two beans per cherry and, most common among the commodity. They are flat on one side and convex on the other.


Type two are beans that grow singularly inside a cherry. And when processed, they appear round. This phenomenon is known as Peaberry and is of premium quality. Its flavor profile packs a pleasantly fruity punch that is rare and highly regarded. The special reserve is something we're thrilled to offer very soon from our family farm!


Sweet Home Chicago

The reason founders Phil and Jordan chose to roast Ulu Kona coffee in Chicago is simple. It's the one place on the mainland they both call home. With this decision came the next, which was relationships and, even further--logistics. Where and with who would we look to toll-roast our single-estate Kona coffee beans?

Ulu Kona coffee bags sit on display in a local Chicago wine shop
Ulu Coffee sits on display at our exclusive South Loop vendor, Printer's Row Wine Shop in Chicago, 2020

The values behind this decision lay within maintaining the integrity and quality of the bean and the relationship with the roaster. To deliver the unique experience one gets while in Kona, we had to ensure our roast profile reflected only the microclimate, the sense of place from which these special beans came.


Because of this, a small-batch, medium roast became the name of our game. Working closely with the talented folks at Groundswell Coffee Roasters, our whole bean Kona coffee roasts fresh 20 lbs at a time in the drum of their Giesen.


But why small-batch? Why medium roast? What does any of that even mean?


Well, to start, small-batch coffee typically means super fresh coffee. Large-scale companies can roast tons of coffee in a day. Tons. Meaning, its life expectancy in that warehouse is long past its expectancy to stay fresh. Roasting in small batches means more back and forth to the roaster but better quality for premium coffee.


Quality control, innovation, and passion are other reasons for our quest to roast small. We're in expert hands with our partners to measure, monitor, and tweak each roast to perfection, delivering a medium roast to strive for a more balanced brew throughout flavor, aroma, and acidity. The detailed art of dialing in this profile is how our Signature Roast developed the bright, herbaceous, and zesty profile it's known for today.


The relationships we've gained from our farm-to-cup experience are treasured, irreplaceable. From the source of our saplings and regenerative soils to our independent roaster and local Chicago vendors, we seek to make real connections with the people who help us deliver the quality and spirit of our special beans.


Are you someone interested in wholesale for artisanal goods and unique finds like Kona coffee? We'd love to connect with you! Click here to ask us your inquiries.

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