Documentary now available about history of Ka’u coffee on Big Island
In a new, 20-minute film available on YouTube, find out how former sugar workers reinvented themselves to grow award-winning Ka‘u coffee.
“The History of Ka‘u Coffee” is presented by the Ka‘u Coffee Festival and Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, with videography by Ruslan Kuznetsov and Hawaiian music by the Keaiwa band of Ka‘u.
The documentary highlights the pioneering spirit and challenges of coffee growers in the state’s largest agricultural region, which sprawls windward to leeward on the southern half of the Big Island.
Short interviews with Ka‘u coffee growers and those who helped them achieve success share what it took to create an award-winning coffee while establishing Ka‘u as a premiere coffee region.
Those featured include: Trinidad Marques of Ali‘i Hawaiian Hula Hands Coffee; Merle Becker of Aikane Plantation; Joan Obra of Rusty’s Hawaiian and Isla Custom Coffees; Brenda Iokepa-Moses, former land management analyst of Ka‘u Agribusiness; John Cross, former manager of Ka‘u Coffee Mill; and Chris Manfredi, Ka‘u Coffee Festival organizer.
Using historic photos, the film opens to illustrate how Ka‘u sugar plantations laid the framework for everyday life in Ka‘u, providing the community’s economic engine and infrastructure for decades.
When the last sugar plantation closed in 1996, some residents decided to grow coffee, and the film reveals why. The prospective growers got U.S. Department of Agriculture grants for seed money, which helped them transition from a plantation system to private enterprise, where farmers were in charge of their own success.
The compelling documentary chronicles the early challenges faced by Ka‘u growers. However, a turning point in the fledging coffee industry was when 15 samples of Ka‘u coffee entered the 2007 Specialty Coffee Association of America Competition. Two entries placed sixth and ninth in the worldwide field of entries.
“Ka‘u coffee became front page news and talked about within the international specialty coffee scene,” Manfredi said in the film. “This success brought a resurgence in community pride.”
Manfredi details how farmers rolled up their sleeves and returned to their abandoned fields.
“We hired consultants who taught Ka‘u growers best farming practices, how to ID bean defects and store coffee,” he said.
The collective goal among the growers was to offer a higher volume of Ka‘u coffee to attract buyers.
The film conveys how five subsequent Specialty Coffee of the Year Awards put Ka‘u on the world-class coffee map.
The Ka‘u Coffee Festival debuted in 2009 to promote and celebrate the now famous brew, its premium coffee origin and the Ka‘u District as a visitor destination. In 2022, the festival was held virtually.
Footage reveals how the festival offers opportunities to meet the growers and sample coffee, take a farm tour, learn how to brew coffee a variety of ways, and immerse in the community over 10 days of activities like stargazing, a ranch tour and an indoor-outdoor ho‘olaule‘a celebration with local hula, Hawaiian music and local non-profits selling broke-da-mouth food.
The film is dedicated to the spirit of hard-working Ka‘u coffee growers — past, present and future — and ends with a message of hope for Ka‘u coffee farming to successfully continue in the verdant valleys of Ka‘u while keeping Ka‘u families connected to the land. Watch it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnIME-30ABg.
For information and additional 2022 virtual Ka‘u Festival offerings, visit www.KauCoffeeFest.com and follow K’au Coffee Festival on facebook and @kaucoffeefest on Twitter and Instagram. Support is provided by Hawai’i Tourism through the Community Enrichment Program.