I love Hawaii. I have been a handful of times in my life, and every time I visit I pause before heading home–just for a moment–to soak up one last memory of the sun, sand and surf. Hawaii is truly a magical place that captures the hearts of anyone who has the opportunity to visit any one of its islands.
There’s no way you can spend any amount of time on the Hawaiian Islands without encountering Kona Coffee. Hawaii is unique in the fact that it is the only state in the U.S.A. to commercially produce coffee. There is an increasing trend in Southern California to grow specialty coffee but this is still much in its infancy. For now, Hawaii is still very much unique in its claim to grow and export coffee in the USA. But what you might not know is that not all Kona coffee is created equal.
And this is why I am beyond excited to share the story of KONA ROASTED COFFEE and to have them as our Coffee Roaster of the Month for July. Kona Roasted only offers Ultra-Premium 100% Kona Coffee, and there is a difference between their coffee and much of what you will see labelled as “Kona Coffee” on grocery store shelves. I had the chance a few months back to get my hands on some of their coffee including their Ka’U Natural which was super exciting as I am personally a huge fan of naturally processed coffees.
I reached out to Kona Roasted to get to know more of their story and what makes the unique when it comes to specialty coffee in Hawaii. I had the chance to speak with Chris Rabago and here’s what he had to say.
Q: So who is the team behind Kona Roasted?
My name is Chris Rabago and I grew up for much of my life in California on the mainland. My wife, however, is originally from the Big Island and moving to Hawaii to pursue coffee has been something we have discussed for many years. Over the last 17 years I ran a large food manufacturing company in California. I was very much looking for a change of pace and interested in starting something new. In early 2019 the stars finally aligned for us to make the move.
What’s your backstory in specialty coffee?
Food and flavour have been my passion for as long as I can remember. I worked as chef through college and my previous company did a lot of product development for large global food brands. My focus has always been to apply my passion for flavour and food science into whatever I’m doing. I found coffee to be a great vector for that.
Who were some of your early influences?
Not directly coffee related but my biggest influences are definitely chefs – Thomas Keller, Ferran Adrià, etc. I’m fascinated by their attention to detail and uncompromising approach to presenting the absolute best version of something.
Can you tell us a bit about the history of Kona Roasted?
After spending almost 20 years running a large food production facility in California–as I mentioned earlier–I was looking for an opportunity to start something new. Hawaii coffee is something that I gained an appreciation for over the years while visiting my wife’s family in Hawaii.
When looking for my next venture I was intrigued by the Hawaiian coffee industry because it meant if I lived in Hawaii I could have constant access to the farmers and their farms, something not common for many roasters who import coffee from other countries. I also knew that if I wanted to provide the best Hawaiian coffee possible, I would need to live on the island so that I could build farmer relationships and better navigate the daily challenges of the industry. We relocated to Hawaii in early 2019 and I worked on creating the company for almost a year before launching in early March of 2020.
I am the sole owner and I personally meet with each farmer and walk their farms often. Kona Roasted takes a different approach in that we do not grow our own coffee but choose to showcase micro lots from smaller farmers from many different Hawaiian coffee growing regions. These micro lots are often commingled with other smaller farmers and sold based on region only with no distinction given to the specific farm. The unique advantage of living on the Big Island is that I have access to visiting these farms multiple times throughout the year. My trips to origin are not limited to once or twice a year like many other coffee roasters who have to travel great distances to get to these coffee producing countries.
We chose the name Kona Roasted for fairly clear reasons: it’s Hawaiian Grown & Roasted in Kona. We do all of our sample roasting on a Mill City sample roaster to establish roast profiles for each of our coffees. Then for our full-scale roasting we do that on our Giesen.
Q: In your opinion, what’s the specialty coffee community like in Kona/Hawaiian Islands?
The majority of coffee on the islands is geared towards tourism. These coffees tend to be a darker roast and often pre-ground. There are however some great specialty coffee roasters that have really elevated the perception of Hawaii coffees and we hope to assist with this momentum. I love the island-life and the culture, especially on the Big Island. The pace is much slower, which to me allows more time for reflection on what’s required to provide a truly amazing product.
One thing I am particularly excited about here on the Big Island is a current collaboration with a coffee education company named Pacific Coffee Research that provides training and support for farmers, baristas, cafe’s, etc. The project we are working on together is an online coffee tasting course. Samples of Hawaiian coffee are sent to each attendee and then brewed and experienced with the instructors assistance during the online course. We hope the new found knowledge and confidence gained from these courses will empower the attendees to purchase our coffee in the future.
Q: Can you tell our readers what separates your KONA coffee from many of the “Kona” coffees they will likely see on supermarket shelves or in the airport when the visit Hawaii for summer vacation?
Kona Roasted only provides single-origin coffees that we name after the farmer(s) to provide a personal connection and transparency. Unlike the cheaper blends often found in the supermarkets, our coffees are 100% from the origin stated. Another big difference is that we roast in very small batches and ship to the customer directly so that you receive your coffee days after roasting to ensure the best possible experience.
Tell our readers what is special about Kona-grown coffee? What are some of the more common tasting notes that a coffee drinker can expect from a cup of KONA? Your website says that the four most common varietals grown in Hawaii are Yellow Caturra, Red Catuai, Typica, and Mokka. Why do these varietals grow well on the Hawaiian islands?
Kona and Hawaii coffees tend to have a floral and bright flavor profile with a very smooth, non-bitter finish.
The most common Hawaii varietal and most popular is Kona Typica. This varietal does extremely well within the unique Big Island Kona Coffee Belt’s micro climate. This micro climate has a consistent weather pattern that includes full morning sun and early afternoon rain almost all year long.
Yellow Caturra, Red Catuai, and Mokka can also be found in Hawaii and are more popular on islands like Maui, Kauai, and Oahu. Each island and farmer has multiple reason on why they choose to grow each varietal.
One unique difference between the islands is harvesting method. The Big Island continues to harvest all the coffee cherries by hand while many of the other islands harvest mechanically. There are many reasons for this, but the most common one is definitely the rough Big Island lava rock terrain that would make machine harvesting very challenging. Hand picking lends to the incredible quality of the cherries that are selected which all results in the ultra-premium Kona Coffee that we can offer to our customers.
Q: So speaking of coffee, what are you drinking/enjoying right now?
I keep samples from each production roast batch to test and ensure consistency and quality. Each day I brew about 2-3 different cups from across our offerings, usually using a pour-over method.
Tell the readers of commonly coffee about some of your recent accomplishments. Or any upcoming announcements?
We were fortunate that our latest collaboration with Pacific Coffee Research was featured in an article in Forbes. Also, our top three coffees just received these excellent scores from Coffee Review – 100% Kona Coffee – Gary & Valerie 92, 100% Kona Coffee – Salvador 91, and 100% Ka’u Coffee – Rus & Alla 92.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers? Maybe why do you love Hawaiian coffee, and why should others on the mainland USA & Canada pay more attention to Hawaiian coffee?
One thing I like to mention is how the cost of Hawaii coffee compares to more popular growing regions. We get this question often as many people are surprised at the price difference. The biggest reason for the higher price is that Hawaii coffees are grown in the US, which means everyone receives a true living wage for their efforts.
Find their beans:
If you’re looking to get your hands on some beans then definitely check out their web-store for what they’re currently roasting!
Thank you so much to Chris for sharing about Kona Roasted and for being such a huge contributor to the coffee culture in Hawaii! Keep up the great work!