(Goin') Rusty's Hawaiian

June 16, 2010

image courtesy of Rusty's HawaiianHey, remember when biscottiinterviewed Kona Earth a few weeks ago?  We became so captivated with the special conditions for coffee farming in Hawaii that we pressed our editors to send us on a vacation “business trip” to Hawaii for amazing surfing “research.”  We were dead set on getting you the untold, blood & guts story of Hawaiian coffee farming.

Our editors laughed and said, Fat chance, biscotti – but we do have another fantastic coffee farmer AND roaster in Hawaii for you to interview.  Here – call Lorie Obra, co-founder of Rusty’s Hawaiian 100% Ka’u Coffee.  “Grrrreat,” we mustered.  “Hey, if you video Skype them, maybe you can *see* Hawaii in the background,” they offered.  #FAIL

Shows you what we know.  We had a dandy conversation with Lorie, who retired to the small town of Pahala, in the Ka’u District on the southern side of the Big Island of Hawaii with her late husband Rusty in the late ‘90s.  Said Lorie – My in-laws live here, and we have been coming to Hawaii since 1989. We decided that when retirement came, this place was where we wanted to stay.

That’s exactly what happened. They moved from New Jersey, having already made the decision to become coffee farmers when they settled in their new home.  Little did they know, their new home was an award-winning coffee region!  At 2,000 feet above sea level, the pesticide-free trees on the Ka'u Coffee Growers Cooperative thrive in rich soil, morning sunshine, afternoon mists and cool nights.  The group of 30 Ka'u coffee farms now included Rusty’s Hawaiian, which began harvesting coffee beans in 2002.

Image courtesy of Rusty's Hawaiian

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Both Lorie and Rusty had scientific backgrounds.  She had been a medical technologist, and he was a former chemist.  And because of those backgrounds, the two ran the farm like a laboratory. They tested different processing methods and roasts, looking for what would bring out the best flavors in Ka'u coffee.

Tragedy struck in 2006 when Rusty passed away.  Lorie was at a real crossroads.  She wanted to maintain the farm and fulfill Rusty’s dream….but do you know how much manual labor is involved running a farm & roastery !?!  Beans must be planted, then hand-picked, sorted, pulped, fermented, dried, re-sorted, roasted, then cupped and re-cupped.  Lorie chose to run the farm almost single-handedly.  She also took over Rusty’s role as president of the Ka'u Coffee Growers Cooperative.

Actually, some of those manual labor steps I listed above are elective.  For instance, coffee cherries don’t have to be sorted.  But doing so allows you to discard any unripe or overripe fruit.  What remains is fruit at its peak, which creates a sweet flavor in Rusty’s Hawaiian coffee.  Similarly, sorted cherries don’t have to be immediately pulped them to release coffee beans inside, but Lorie knows that pulping the fruit on harvest day is another way to maintain the Ka’u coffee’s sweetness.

image courtesy of Rusty's Hawaiian

Lorie’s scientific background comes into play with how she’s decided to ferment her ka’u coffee beans.  After trial and error, she now carefully controls the small amount of water she allows for this process.  Her unique fermentation method brings out bright flavors and floral, berry and citrus undertones in Rusty’s Hawaiian coffee.

The attention to detail doesn’t stop there.  Through every remaining step, Lori – along with guidance and encouragement from acclaimed roastmaster R. Miguel Meza – refines her processing experiments and roasting techniques, constantly bringing out more of Ka’u’s natural sweetest and other bright flavors.  Meza saw the rising star potential in Ka’u coffee and left his own specialty coffee company in Minnesota to consult for the entire Ka'u Coffee Growers Cooperative in late 2009.

With so much work involved, we asked Lorie why she wanted to take on roasting, in addition to coffee farming.  Simply put, she and Rusty felt that only by doing the processing and roasting in addition to the farming, would they be able to offer the best coffee to their customers from field to cup; they didn't want any interruption in the flow of how their ka’u coffee is handled.

image courtesy of Rusty's Hawaiian 

When it comes to roasting, Lorie depends on her hearing and sight.  She uses a timer, but it’s almost secondary.  She prefers to use a small barrel roaster, not a digital or pre-programmed one.  She is a tried and true artisan roaster.  For example, with her yellow caturra beans she eliminates the pulping and fermenting steps, and instead she dries the whole cherries “naturally” on elevated racks. This way, the coffee beans can absorb sugars from the fruit.  It’s a risky method, because if the beans rest in the wet fruit for too long, the fermented fruit will give the beans a sour, yeasty taste. Lorie circumvents this by drying the cherries quickly via raking them frequently on elevated screens.  Old fashioned trial and error has led to similar processing tweaks for her other varietals, such as the pulp natural method, Kenya-style method and wine, seawater, or cola process.

Cola?  As in, like, soda-Cola?

Yes, and that’s timid compared to her closely guarded, trade-secret “Drunken Coffee.” 

Exsqueeze me – did she just say “Drunken Coffee?”

Yes.  As the word implies, the ka’u coffee beans get wasted!  Lorie soaks them and/or ferments them in wine/liquor.  She wouldn’t reveal which elixir she uses, but let slip that it has had very positive cupping results so far.  She hopes to market it very soon and so do we!

When her beans don’t come from her own twelve acre farm, she gets them from right next door: the other farms in the Ka'u District.  The bonus when working with her own beans is obvious: there is no change of hands in the field-to-cup journey. Says Lorie, I nurture the trees, pickers pick only the reddest, ripest cherries, I personally process the coffees, then I custom roast them for the customers. For coffees that come from other Ka'u farmers, I use only the reddest, ripest cherries. The rest of the process is the same and also done by me.

With so much work involved, could Lorie possibly pick her favorite part?  Oh, definitely, she told us.  It’s the anticipation of bringing the coffee to life in the cup. I want my customers to experience the taste of loved and nurtured coffees.

The heart really came through in her next sentence:  I treat these coffees as my own children, believe it or not.  It is my husband's legacy.  I treat them with much love and respect, and I hope it shows in every cup.

image courtesy of Rusty's Hawaiian



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