Growing Award-winning Coffee In Cloud Rest

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - June 03, 2009
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Jaime Kailiawa, Lyndon ‘Baba’ Kailiawa-George and Thomas ‘Bull’ Kailiawa grow and process award-winning coffee on their Ka’u farm

When Alan Wong first tasted Bull and Jaime Kailiawa’s coffee, he knew it was something special. The problem was, it wasn’t for sale.

“I told Jaime that I really liked the coffee and I’d like to buy it for my restaurant,” the chef says, “and she told me, ‘Oh we don’t sell it, we just give it away to our friends.’”

But Wong is a quietly persistent sort, and in becoming the Kailiawa’s first customer, he ensured a steady future supply for his restaurant. Good thing, too, because the Kailiawas’ coffee has just been named one of the top 10 coffees in the world. At last month’s international gathering of the prestigious Specialty Coffee Association of America (where more than 8,000 coffee aficionados gather annually to share knowledge about the industry and compare notes from around the world), Kailiawa Coffee placed seventh in the worldwide finals.

The phone calls and e-mails won’t stop coming. “I can’t keep up now,” Bull says.

Ka’u coffee has been gaining national attention in the world coffee community these past few years, with coffee from several small farms being well-received in international competition. But the 1,900-foot elevation of the Kailiawas’ farm, plus its unique location at Cloud Rest, Pahala, adds an element that’s impossible to replicate.

“The rain plays a big part,” says Bull. “I get rain every day, and mist, too. In the afternoon, the clouds come down and sit over the farm. That’s why they call it Cloud Rest. The other farmers, the ones just a quarter of a mile below my place, they don’t have the rain and the mist.”

It makes early rising essential for Bull, Jaime, their nephew Lyndon “Baba” Kailiawa-George and their daughter Roslyn Ho’opii. “You have to work early in the day or you get rained out,” says Bull.

Born and raised in the Portuguese sugar camp in Pahala, Bull worked a variety of jobs in Hilo, but he knew he wanted to come back someday and live in Pahala. When his aunties needed help with their coffee farm, he and Jaime were happy to return. Through years of rainy afternoons, though, he never imagined a day when his coffee would be among the most-coveted in the world.

“Let me tell you, I was so happy when we got that call saying we’re No. 7,” he says.

The coffee is quite stunning in its complexity. It’s marked by a low acidity, beautiful aroma and roundness/fullness on the palate. There is an almost chewy, chocolatey kind of texture that’s almost addicting.

Each sip makes you want to go back for just one more.

Wong says it’s the climate that comes out in the cup.

“When you go there and look at the environment, the sunshine, the rainfall, the ocean, the whole thing,” he says, “you see where the coffee comes from. Ka’u has rich volcanic soil.”

The excitement doesn’t show any signs of slowing down back on the farm, but Bull and Jaime are taking the kind of low-key approach you’d expect. For Bull, it’s all in a day’s work.

“I guess hard work pay off, eh?” he says.

To hear an interview with Bull Kailiawa, go to Coffee at Alan Wong’s Restaurants while supplies last; on Oahu; it also is served at Ihilani Resort and Spa.

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