One thing is for sure. Kupa’a Farm’s coffee is turning out to be “not your average cup of joe.” Instead, it rises like cream to the top of Hawaii’s best.
Last month, the small Kula farm placed second overall in the Statewide Cupping Competition, behind No. 1 Rusty’s Hawaiian out of Ka’u. This means both farms beat out all of the Kona coffee district’s entrants.
This is HUGE news for Maui! While it was reported in small piece in this newspaper a while back, it’s big enough to merit more details. In fact, it’s reminiscent of the historic Judgement of Paris wine tasting in 1976.
Remember the movie “Bottle Shock”? It was about a Paris wine competition in which judges set the world on its ear by ranking a Northern California wine over top French varietals in a blind tasting.
Well, Kupa’a, meaning “firm” or “solid” in Hawaiian, is like a fine wine. Laced with subtle nuances and complexities that are appealing to connoisseurs, it’s gathering steam and putting Maui on the world coffee map.
“The expert panel of cuppers said, “It’s a well-balanced coffee with great complexity. The cup has a delightful, bright fruitiness with hints of blackberry, strawberry, apple and lemon and it is accented with a wonderful sweetness and viscous body with tones of black tea.”
This esteemed panel of cuppers placed only one Kona coffee farm in the top five, yet Kona had more than half of all of the entries in the state. The event was held at Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa in Kona.
“What this cupping competition is saying is there are a lot of great coffees being produced in Hawaii that very few people know about,” says David Gridley, president and owner of Maui Oma Coffee Roasting Co. in Kahului.
“Both Ka’u and Maui are emerging as world-class coffee districts,” he continues. “Two in Ka’u have gotten international recognition as well.”
But before we go “roasting” Kona coffee in a whole new way, let’s remember it remains among the most prized in the world and will continue to be so.
“Kona is like the granddaddy of coffee culture in Hawaii,” says Gridley. “They’ve opened a lot of doors. Other farmers say they want to be like Kona. But I tell them, ‘No, create your own identify, uniqueness and diversity. Bring it to the table and then accentuate your own positives.’ “
That’s just what Kupa’a Farm’s owners, Gerry Ross and Janet Simpson, have done. They use only organic farming practices and handpick coffee cherries on their land, where they also nurture organic fruits and vegetables. Their dedication also helped them win as District Champion of Maui in this year’s event, giving them a jolt of excitement.
“We were sitting at the banquet and we were just like, ‘Wow!” says Ross. “We were so pleased. We didn’t think we would do as well as we did.”
Even last year, at the first Statewide Cupping Competition, their coffee placed seventh. “Anybody has a chance to place once. But to get in the top 10, two years in a row, is really quite impressive,” says Gridley.
In addition, Shim Coffee and Protea Farm on Little Road in Kula placed in the top 15 this year, and Keokea Farm placed in the top 10 last year.
But this next bit of news is just starting to filter out among the caffeine-sipping set, gathering up steam like a Krup’s machine at a coffee klatsch.
“For the longest time, there was only a Kona Coffee Cupping Competition every year and no other Hawaii coffee districts could enter,” says Ross. “It was privately sponsored by Gevali, a Swedish company that is a division of Nestle. Then, Ka’u went to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, where coffees are cupped by origin. They outstripped everyone in Kona and came out ahead.”
This caused other, lesser known coffee districts such as Maui to get their first coffee “break.” What then transpired was much better than a “brewhaha” among farmers.
“That’s when the Department of Agriculture decided to come in with significant funding to host the first statewide cupping competition last year at Maui Tropical Plantation. They brought in international cuppers.”
Ross spoke at his lower Kula farm, which is hot and going through a drought like everywhere else. In the cool dining room, he offered me French-pressed Kupa’a Farm coffee after grinding the beans – and it was liquid gold.
In fact, I’m now jaded. How can I ever go back to drinking the cheap, bitter and acrid store-bought coffee that I unfortunately have at home? Mine is like swilling Boone’s Farm compared to his elixir-of-the-gods Chateau Montelena.
I took another sip – and it was the icing on the coffee cake. Feeling a warm glow, I started pondering life as an Kula organic coffee farmer.
Ross broke my reverie. “Our farm is at 2,000 feet and it’s not a good coffee-growing region. Here, it’s hot, dry and we’ve had only two inches of rain since January. Erosion rates are 10 times faster on ag land than on regular land. But we offset all of that by creative farming practices. We plant shade trees to provide the coffee trees the environment they need.”
They are also applying for a federal grant to help them out with the cost of production.
Even so, Ross and Simpson are vacillating back and forth about whether their cup is half empty or half full. They’ve only got three-quarters of an acre planted in coffee on their 4-acre farm and Ross says their current supply will most likely run out at the end of September.
So where can you buy it?
“Right now, Longhi’s is the only place that sells it by the cup,” says Ross. “We also sell bags at the Upcountry Farmers Market at Kulamalu from 7 to 10 a.m. Saturdays, and we bring it to the Makawao Farmers Market Wednesdays.”
Several years ago Longhi’s Wailea and Lahaina upgraded its coffee service by adding French-press coffee to its beverage list. General Manager Michael Rose was looking for an organic Maui coffee, and Gridley suggested Kupa’a Farm.
“At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the brand, but the coffee tasted great, so we went with it,” says Rose. “What a lucky break for Longhi’s!”
A French-pressed carafe of Kupa’a coffee at Longhi’s costs $10, while a one-pound bag fetches upwards of $40, making it among the state’s most expensive. So a hill of beans is worth much more than it used to be.
“Maui coffee growers have invested time, education and dedication to raise the overall quality. Kupa’a Farm’s win is a direct result of their efforts,” says Tom Greenwell, president of Hawaii Coffee Association.
“No one works harder than Gerry and Janet,” says Sydney Smith, owner of Maliko Estate Coffee and vice president of Maui Coffee Association.
“They have focused on the quality of their coffee, literally from the ground up. Through organic soil amendment, shade and other sustainable methods, they’ve created a healthy environment for their orchard and it comes through in the delicious flavor of their coffee.”
So what’s brewing for Kupa’a in the future?
Kupa’a Farm will be featured in the 30-minute documentary “Ingredients.” The film about the local food movement by Brian Kimmel, producer and cinematographer, and Robert Bates, writer and director, includes recent visits to Kupa’a Farm, Maui Cattle Co., Hana Hana Health Center and other locations recently. It’s scheduled for release in December.
In addition, Ross is this year’s president of the Maui Coffee Association and he has big plans percolating.
“Our next step is the Maui Coffee Festival,” he says. “Maui County provides $400,000 of funds of for cultural awareness for the Maui Onion Festival and other ag fairs. We also use our share of the money to bring in top experts from Kona and from Switzerland to teach us courses and to bring awareness to what coffee is all about.” Now, that’s grounds for excitement.
* Contact Carla Tracy at email@example.com.