Mana Up "Meet the Makers": Big Island Coffee Roasters

Big Island Coffee Roasters Talk About the State of the Industry, Counterfeit Coffee, and How a Craigslist Ad Changed Everything

Disclaimer: Big Island Coffee Roasters is known to ruin all other coffee experiences.

“We’ve heard it so many times,” laughs co-founder Brandon von Damitz. “People tell us ‘Now that we’ve had your coffee, we can’t drink the coffee we used to.'"

Jokes aside, Brandon and co-founder Kelleigh Stewart are totally serious about growing, sourcing and roasting some of the world’s most flavorful coffee.

They’ve been pursuing that mission since 2010, when the pair answered a Craigslist ad to purchase a three-acre coffee farm on the remote and wild side of Hawaiʻi Island known as Puna.  

In those early years, the curious couple learned all they could about growing and processing coffee. Meanwhile, they set their roots within the tight-knit community and began connecting with likeminded farmers.

Rebuilding Trust in Hawaiʻi’s Coffee Industry

As a relative newcomer, in 2013, Big Island Coffee Roasters won Grand Champion in the Hawaii Coffee Association’s Statewide Cupping Competition. That award put Puna coffee on the map, and gave Brandon and Kelleigh the confidence to keep going.

It was a particularly sweet accolade given Hawaiʻi’s complicated history with counterfeit coffee. Since the 1990s, so-called “Kona Coffee” has flooded the market, pushed by unscrupulous retailers looking to capitalize on the popularity of Hawaiʻi-grown coffee.

“That really dropped the Kona reputation because most people now question the authenticity of the Kona Coffee they see on the market,” explains Brandon, who adds that some people assume any coffee from Hawaiʻi is “Kona Coffee.” 

Brandon and Kelleigh are working to reverse this trend, starting with their own quality control. In 2017, Kelleigh became the sixth Hawaiʻi resident to earn the Coffee Quality Institute’s coveted Arabica Coffee Q Grader license. That’s a fancy way of saying she can sniff out the highest-grade coffees, down to the finest subtleties. Her in-house expertise leaves no bean unturned.

That premium flavor is now folded into the company’s popular espresso bites bars, which come in three options—classic, sea salt espresso, and latte bar espresso—and look and taste like chocolate, but surprisingly contain none. Instead, these clever confections are made with the company’s award-winning coffee.  


Growing Coffee, Growing Community

In addition to roasting their own, Brandon and Kelleigh partner with neighboring growers to showcase Hawaiʻi’s flavor diversity. 

“We’re always seeking coffees that are really expressive of the terrain—or terroir—and we’re adamant about the quality we’re after,” says Brandon.

By sourcing from local farmers, Big Island Coffee Roasters can prepare small batches that are made-to-order. 

“Put simply, your order comes in, then we roast the coffee,” says Brandon. “This ensures our customers get super fresh coffee that retains its flavors and aromas.” 

Big Island Coffee Roasters is determined to rebuild Hawaiʻi’s coffee reputation through transparency and integrity—and of course by serving up extraordinary flavors. It starts by understanding the source, says Brandon, who is on a first-name basis with each of the two dozen or so coffee farmers he works with

“We’re not simply buyers who sit behind a desk looking at spreadsheets. We spend time in the field talking to our growers and learning about our product from the ground up.”

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