Big Island Energy: Meet Big Island Coffee Roasters

Sparked by a Craigslist ad, Big Island has forever changed Hawaiian coffee, elevating local farming practices and challenging negative views of U.S.-grown coffee. Learn more about them, their story and what makes them unique in the interview below.

What inspired you to take a leap of faith in purchasing a coffee farm in Hawaii through Craigslist? Could you share that moment of decision with us?

I think it was a combination of desire, gut feel, and perhaps faith in our capability. That, along with nothing else to lose that contributed to the decision.

Turning a struggling farm into a successful business must have been quite the journey. Can you share some of the biggest challenges you faced and how you overcame them?

There are a range of challenges. First, farming takes a lot of time and the feedback loop isn't quite as fast and easy to gain and glean information. In some of our learning periods it would take an entire year until the crop matured to learn from techniques we were testing.

Another struggle was gathering information and trying to figure out what information you can use and what not, and how to discern what to trust.

For example, one time we were told to get rid of the yellow cherry trees because those ones are no good, and we kept it.We honey processed those yellow cherries and they turned into a honey Yellow Catura which we got a high coffee review. And it continues to be one of my favorite coffees today.

Can you take us back to the moment you learned your coffee scored a 93 from Coffee Review and won the Grand Champion award? What did that moment mean for Big Island Coffee Roasters?

The coffee that one was different from the coffee that scored a 93.

The coffee that won was our Puna Pink Bourbon. Every year we submitted our coffee to the statewide cupping competition really just to see how we were doing. It was a chance for us to get professional reviewers and Q graders to score our coffee. We never really expected to win, we just hoped that we were doing better.

When our friend, Sean Steinman, call to give us the news Brandon was actually camped out in our van waiting for the best vendor booth spot for Maku’u Farmer’s market - which is just what we had to do every weekend for our farmer’s market circuit back then. Anyways, when we won the Overall Grand Champion that year I called Brandon and told him, “come home, we don’t have to do that anymore!”. We celebrated for a little while and as the news got around we were able to leverage that award and the press from it to get more sales. It was a moment of confidence of like, okay, we're doing this right.

When we earned 93 with coffee review, initially the coffee reviewer was skeptical and he thought that we had counterfeited our coffee because he hadn't tasted a Hawaiian coffee like that before. So he asked us to send him green coffee. And so we did and he looked it over and confirmed our 93 points.

Farming on an active volcano in Puna sounds extraordinary. How do the volcanic soil and environment impact your coffee's flavor profile?

Volcanic matter has a lot of sulfur in it, and sulfur is a fundamental component and an important component of a lot of aromatic compounds.

This is how we would explain the explosive aromas that we would get from our coffee and, and why we thought that it was so different and so much more intense than other coffees that we were smelling and tasting.

What led you to choose Red Katura, Yellow Kature, and Red Kazuma for your farm, and what makes these varieties stand out?

We didn't actually choose to plan to get any of them. They were already there from the previous owner. We only sorted, separated and marketed, roasted them differently and create, created different products with each.

So Puna Kazumura was just our blend. Yellow Katura was our Honey Yellow Katura coffee that got a 94 with coffee review.

You've been instrumental in changing the narrative around Hawaiian coffee. What do you think were the key factors that contributed to this shift?

That's very flattering. I think that key factor initially was that we really did think that Hawaiian coffees were terrible. We were just happy to learn how to farm coffee and roast and homestead.

And so I think the moment that began to show shift is when we realized it wasn't bad. It was a handling that was bad. And that there were a lot of different coffees that when handled handled well, they tasted different and reminded us of the wines of Willamette Valley in their distinction and their elegance.

We were all deeply moved by the tragic events in Lāhainā this past August. How have these events influenced your operations and relationships with coffee suppliers? Additionally, could you share any specific changes or challenges in your production process that have arisen as a result?

Yeah, this is a big one. One of the the largest farm in Maui, Maui Grown Coffee, was deeply affected by the fires. We don't know if they will return or when they will return, but they were our greatest single source of coffee.

Because they're mechanically harvested, they're more affordable than a lot of the Hawaii Island and Big Island coffees. So, them being essentially eliminated from the industry has affected supply, it's affected pricing, and it's affected our willingness to do blends. We’re still in the middle of trying to problem solve how to shift our product arrays around so that they are less dependent on Maui coffees but we're not the only people in this situation. It's all very devastating to the Hawaii coffee industry to have lost that farm and that operation.

Your dedication to sustainability is impressive, particularly with investing over $6 million into local family farms and your commitment to using 100% renewable electrical energy. Can you share how these significant contributions align with the core values of Big Island Coffee Roasters and the impact they have had on the local farming community?

This is truly a core value of Brandon and I that I always pictured myself as a conservation biologist or working for the Forest Service and not doing what I'm doing. We can't separate ourselves from a deep rooted care in the planet in the wild and beautiful places of Hawaii and of everywhere.

The impact has been that it has allowed farmers to continue farming. So we are trying to help people keep their land and to keep farming on it, that it's not always perfect because sometimes farming is messy.  Ultimately we’re always working with farmers to help them reduce the amount of harmful inputs and infrastructure.

By using 100% renewable electrical energy, you've prevented the emission of over 29 tons of CO2, an impact comparable to the carbon sequestration of 33 acres of forest in a year. How do you believe this significant achievement could influence environmental sustainability practices in the wider global coffee industry?

I would hope that they would influence the wider industry. I really have no idea. While I think that there is some motivation to influence there's also just doing what you can and when you can because it's part of your values.

What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the world of coffee farming, particularly in unique environments like Hawaii?

Just focus initially on being a really good farmer and being a really good processor and creating interesting coffees, that is really the first step.

There is some interesting research on the economy of coffee and what the research has shown is that there are only two primary ways of making money in coffee.

One is you have a small farm and you have a family and keep all of your labor costs in-house/ in-family. And the other is that you have a huge farm and an economy of scale like, 20 acres, 50 acres, 100 acres to make a living for you and your employees and your team.

Businesses in the middle and farms in the middle of those two have a really hard time surviving.

What message or experience do you hope people take away when they sip a cup of your coffee?

I wish I could take everybody out to a farm and have them harvest, process, and roast just one pound so they could see how much work is involved. It takes most people over an hour to harvest 8 pounds of coffee cherry which will end up yielding only 1 pound of roasted coffee. So I'd like them to recognize that there have been hands involved in every step of this process. There's just a lot of work and a lot of different people involved in every step of the process. So I think appreciating the flavor, appreciating that it's genuinely handcrafted and then taking a moment to experience the nuance in, from one coffee to another.