It snowed in Ka‘u in May.
The van rolled to a stop in a coffee field at Cloud Rest. Half a dozen people got out, filled their lungs with the fragrance of a million white blossoms, and counted themselves fortunate.
This area, crouched under a cloud layer at the edge of wilderness behind Pahala, could be considered the fertile crescent of a small yet increasingly distinguished coffee industry. An alliance of factors — plentiful rainfall, excellent soil, just enough sun and something that is harder to measure — have conspired to birth a beverage worthy of a place at the table with the world’s finest coffees.
For Leonard Castaneda, who owns the 10 flourishing acres, it has also been hard and not always clean work — labor that was the focal point of celebration in Pahala during the Ka‘u Coffee Festival.
“Before, this was an abandoned field. No one take care,” Castaneda told the visitors. He pointed to leafy young plants.
“They grow quickly. Just one year, they’re giving flower already,” he said.
An hour earlier, people stood in line at the Ka‘u Coffee Experience to sample five preparations of coffee from this farm and others in the region. Holding three small sample cups of Castaneda’s Natural Red Cattura jammed between her fingers, Tiffany Tanaka of Oahu said she thinks people take pride in the science of coffee.
“I’d rather have an $8 cup than a $4 cup that’s average Joe,” said Tanaka, owner of Fresh Cafe in Honolulu. “It’s cool to see the Ka‘u coffee scene come up. I think supporting the growers and bringing Hawaii coffee into the specialty coffee scene is important. I don’t think it’s been represented to its highest potential, but it’s coming.”
Born and raised here, Amery Silva was voted Miss Ka‘u Coffee 2014 for a combination of costume representing the coffee growers, her hula skills and other talents. At Saturday’s hoolaulea, she performed the He Lei Aloha, a dance written by her grandmother.
Coffee has been the name of the game in Ka‘u since sugar died out in the mid ’90s, said Silva, a retail associate at Ka‘u Coffee Mill, which was ranked in the top 10 worldwide in the 2013 Roasters Choice Competition. Growers in Ka‘u have received high honors at national and international coffee competitions over the past few years.
“They all take turns winning,” Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi said. “Beating up Kona coffee. It’s just amazing.”
Lissa Laybourn of Hilo tapped her foot to the tune as she watched Silva sway through the dance. Under doctor’s orders to stay on decaf, Laybourn had a special chance to go off her diet.
“I can monitor myself,” she smiled. “Whenever I go out and sample coffee, I ask if they have decaf, and if they don’t, I just add water.”
“This is great for Pahala,” she added. “It’s come a long way.”
John Cross, general manager of the Ka‘u Coffee Mill, explained to visitors how a water system far up in the hills had been rediscovered with Indiana Jones-style exploration, refurbished with suspension bridges flown in by helicopter, and used to cultivate the region’s new coffee just as it had the sugar cane in the 1920s. Part of the coffee celebration was a challenging 5-mile hike to the old system of tunnels and flumes.
The 40 people on Wednesday’s hike were treated to amazing encounters with native forest and birds, Cross said.
“It just blew their minds.”