I heard about the company, Big Island Coffee Roasters, recently, and thought their story was so interesting, I wanted to share it with you readers. Owned by Kelleigh Stewart and Brandon von Damitz, the company is a micro roaster, mill, and farm located on the east side of the Big Island of Hawaii.
Brandon and Kelleigh are living the dream—how many of us have imagined what it would be like to quit what we’re doing and head to the tropics to buy a coffee farm? In 2010, Kelleigh and Brandon did just that: originally from Portland, they headed to Hawaii at age 28 to buy the 1,800-tree farm “on a handshake,” kelleigh says. “Owner financed, no banks or home inspections involved.”
“When we moved, the farm was dilapidated: over-grown, under-nourished, and scrappy,” Kelleigh remembers. “We had no idea if the coffee was any good because few had heard of ‘Puna coffee,’ and most of the coffee we’d sampled was horrible. We decided to import a Diedrich IR-7 to practice roasting with the 500 pounds of old coffee the previous owner had left.
“For the first 2.5 years, we worked our tails off with pruning, de-suckering, and fertilizing the field. We were also trialing different processing and drying methods, roasting and cupping, and trying to “live sustainably” with 50+ chickens, 12 sheep, five cats, a 3,000-square-foot garden, and an exotic fruit orchard.
Last year, Kelleigh and Brandon’s third year in Puna, all that work started to pay off:
• Big Island Coffee Roasters was named Grand Champion in the Hawaii State Cupping Competition out of 99 entries
• Their Puna Peaberry earned a 93 in Coffee Review
• Their Honeyed Yellow Caturra earned a 94 and #19 in “Top 30 Coffees of 2013”
• They received a Hawaii Senate Certificate for working with farmers in east Hawaii to improve coffee quality
• They received a $13,000 grant to purchase east Hawaii’s first, and only, coffee grader. “This is a huge part of improving coffee quality in east Hawaii,” Kelleigh says.
“I should also mention that we’ve been creative with our funding (farming is expensive),” Kelleigh continued. “We work as a micro-mill and toll roaster for local coffee farmers; we source coffees from other excellent farmers; and we run a seasonal internship ‘coffee school‘ program which focuses on farm-level quality control and roasting techniques for Hawaiian coffees (both delicate and expensive).
“Our coffee internship has been really popular, especially with baristas. We receive 50+ applicants each year, but only have the time, space, and energy to select 6-8 people.”
I wanted to know what the roast was like—when I’ve been in Hawaii in the past, the coffees have been roasted pretty dark. Here’s what Kelleigh had to say: “We roast quite a bit lighter than other Hawaiian roasters, though we offer ‘dark’ roasts as well (our ‘dark’ roast is a bit before second crack). Lately, we’ve been playing around with Nordic roasting styles on Hawaiian coffee with wonderful results!”
Want to learn more about Kelleigh, Brandon, and Big Island Coffee Roasters? Check out these links.