April 20, 2017

Experimental Processing & Specialty Coffee in Ka’ū, Hawaii


Ever tried specialty coffee from Ka’ū? This region of Hawaii has been growing coffee for only 20 years, and it’s quickly making a name for itself.

Since 2007, Ka’ū coffee has placed high in international open cuppings run by the SCA and the Roaster’s Guild. And this year, at SCA, Ka`u Specialty, LLC will be pulling shots and serving pour overs of some of the region’s best coffees at the Hawaii Coffee Association booth (Saturday 1:30–2:30pm, booth #2707).

And so, ahead of SCA, we spoke to Malian Lahey of Ka’ū Specialty Coffee. She told us what sets Ka’ū apart as a region, what tasting notes you can expect from a typical Ka’ū coffee, and how the region has adopted three different experimental processes.

Lee este artículo en español Café Especial y Procesamiento Experimental en Ka’ū, Hawái

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Malian Lahey of Ka’ū Specialty Coffee. Credit: Pepperblack Studios 

What’s Sets Ka’ū Apart?

Ka’ū is the southernmost part of Hawaii Island, sat between Kona and Puna. It contains much of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which gives the region nutrient-rich volcanic soil perfect for crops like coffee.

It also has abundant rainfall and most farms are situated 1,500–2100 feet above sea level. The weather tends to be cool, allowing the coffee to ripen slowly and more sugars to develop.

Malian tells me that “Ka’ū’s deep volcanic and soft soils, and cool climate… allow slower maturation of the beans”. She’s aware of the importance of good-quality soil – and of farming in a sustainable manner that helps protect that soil. She’s studied courses in soil microbiology with Dr. Elaine Ingham, permaculture with Dave Jacke, Korean Natural Farming, and biodynamic techniques.

See also: More Than Kona: 4 Things You Should Know About Hawaiian Coffee

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Ripe coffee cherries drying on raised beds in Ka’u, Hawaii. Credit: Ka’ū Specialty Coffee

With this great terroir for coffee, you might expect coffee-growing to have a long history in Ka’ū. But actually it’s a new industry here; the crop was first planted in 1997. Today, the region boasts of 50 farming families that produce 180,000 kilos a year. Malian works with 20 of these.

And while farming is young here, the region has been producing high-quality coffees. Malian tells me that Ka’u produces a wide variety of cup profiles, but typically you would expect to taste “fresh tropical and crisp citrus flavors [which] delicately complement the sweetness of honey and caramel”.

What’s more, the region has also been quick to adopt innovative new processing methods.

Covered raised coffee beds in Ka'u Hawaii

Coffee drying in Ka’ū, Hawaii. Credit: Ka’ū Specialty Coffee

Experimental Processing Methods

After  the ripe coffee cherries have been picked, the flesh needs to be removed from the seeds: a step called coffee processing. Typical methods include natural/dry processing, washed processing, and honey.

Malian, however, has been working with innovative coffee processing methods in the hope of further enhancing the coffee’s best notes. These include carbonic maceration, a freezer process, and an innovative use of mineral water for their washed process – methods that are new not just to Ka’ū but also to the entire state of Hawaii.

She tells me that these processes have increasingly resulted in better cup profiles (and will be on the table at SCA). So what are they?

Coffee cherries in washed carbonic maceration tanks

Cherries in the washed carbonic maceration tanks. Credit: Ka’ū Specialty Coffee

1. Carbonic Maceration:

In 2015, Sasa Sestic won the World Barista Championship with carbonic-macerated coffee – a technique he borrowed from the wine industry. And he’s been working with Malian to help her use the exact same technique.

The idea behind carbonic maceration is to washed-process coffee under stable conditions so that the microorganisms can be controlled. Malian explains that they process the coffee in stainless steel containers. “The containers are sealed and the tank is filled with carbon dioxide.”

As for its impact on the final cup, Sasa tells me that “[For] acidity and flavour, the complexity is improved”.

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Coffee dries after carbonic maceration. Credit: Malian Lahey

2. Freezer Process:

Google “freezer process coffee” and you’ll get debates over the best ways to store roasted coffee. But this proprietary technique is something very different: it involves freezing coffee for a period of time during processing.

Doing this, Malian tells me, has proven key for developing the coffee’s sugars and complexity.

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Coffee dries on raised beds after being washed. Credit: Ka’ū Specialty Coffee

3. Mineral Water:

Want to brew great coffee? Use great water. And Malian believes the same is true of processing coffee. Washed processing uses a lot of water, and she tells me that mineral water leads to better flavour development.

Ka’ū Specialty uses water from the Ka’ū Forest Preserve, high on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano.

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Ka’ū green coffee in El Salvador during the PDG Micro Coffee Festival. Credit: Ka’ū Specialty Coffee

Malian tells me she wants Ka’ū to become a leader in quality, innovation, and sustainability. By working with smallholder farmers and industry leaders, she tells me that they’re achieving high-quality coffee, fair living wages, and restorative agriculture – something she is proud to be a part of.

Just 20 years in, this region is already producing exceptional coffees – and Ka’ū Specialty is using unique processing methods to further enhance these coffees. We look forward to seeing how coffee production in the region continues to develop.

Want to taste Ka’ū’s coffees for yourself? Heading to SCA Global Coffee Expo? Remember, Ka’ū Specialty Coffee will be at the Hawaii Coffee Association booth, where they will be pouring a washed carbonic maceration coffee and pulling shots of an award-winning washed process Ka’ū’s coffee. Turn up on Saturday between 1:30pm and 2:30pm, booth 2707, to make your own mind up about Ka’ū’s potential.

Please note: Ka’u Specialty Coffee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind. 

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