Lorie Obra of Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee

Did you know that freshly picked, unroasted coffee berries have a soft white flesh?

I was savoring the rarity of this chance to taste one and  its surprisingly pleasant sweetness, as Lorie Obra informed me that because there was only one white bean that came out of the berry that was in my mouth, it was a peaberry. Very special. Rare.

We were standing in Cloudrest, an elevated area in Ka’u, where many of the coffee growing families’s farms are. I’m told that this place lives up to its name. A friend was here a few months ago and came early enough to be treated to some dramatic mist lingering just above the seven hundred trees on Lorie’s farm. But this afternoon, it was the happiest and bluest sky you ever saw.

How it must have felt for Ka’u.

Remote. Nearly 922 square miles that was home to an active volcanic crater, moonscape lava fields, ranches, a string of townships, not quite 6,680 people, and recently cultivated coffee farms. When the international coffee spotlight fell on Ka’u, lingered on Lorie Obra.

This was no strike of luck. This was the result of a concerted effort of thirty newly established, family-run independent coffee farms that, against the prevailing cannibalistic business models, decided to help each other. Through trials and tribulations, they organized and committed their hearts to proving that in Ka’u, an exceptional coffee could be cultivated. The awards started coming in.

In 2007, two of the Ka’u family farms captured 6th and 9th place in the Roaster’s Guild Cupping Pavilion Competition. Also, seven Ka’u farms ranked in the SCAA’s top 10 Hawaii/Asia/Indonesia regional competition. In the following year, another farm came in 11th in the Roaster’s Guild Coffee of the Year competition. In 2009, yet another Ka‘u farm placed 7th in the Roaster’s Guild Coffee of the Year competition.

Most of these farmers were the last of multiple generations to work at the sugar plantation which long ran the Ka’u economy before closing operations in 1997. Old plantation land became available at reasonable price and these families decided to make a go of it and planted coffee trees. What Ka’u decided to do however, was not simply grow coffee. They were aiming for exceptional coffee.

When the sun gets too strong, Lorie and I walk towards a small red cabin raised on stilts. There’s a picnic bench under an eave that extends from the little. It’s cool and quiet. The grove slopes up toward the mountains, the trees are planted in orderly rows. Lorie tells me that I just missed the blossoming of the coffee flowers, by a week! Darn. She jokes that it looked like it was snowing up here.

I follow her gaze, the little red cabin behind me, it too has a story. Rusty’s brother-in-law called it The Love Shack, she mused, joking about it’s isolated, romantic look. It was a place that they and their help could to run to for shelter when the rain came.

Lorie was moving her hand through hundreds of brilliantly red coffee berries nestled in her picking basket when I noticed the small elegant script eternally drawn into her left hand. Rusty.

It was 1999 when, after several trips home visiting his family in Ka’u, that Lorie and her husband, Rusty, decided pack up their life in New Jersey, move to Hawaii and grow coffee. The two of them did not having any coffee growing experience, but what they did have were meticulous natures and an understanding of the workings of chemistry, which is of course, is all about the nature of nature. Rusty was a chemist and Lorie was a medical technician. As their website says, this contributed to the spirit of culinary experimentation and open-air laboratory that still exists at the farm.

After six years of building their farm together, she lost Rusty in 2006.  She tells me that when he got very ill, he made her promise to sell their farm. He didn’t want her to be burdened with running the farm alone.

It was a huge undertaking, but Lorie kept the farm. She decided to continue her and Rusty’s dream.

She’s been running the farm alone. Her berries are hand-picked and she is constantly experimenting with all kinds of processing techniques, working closely with good friend and roastmaster R. Miguel Meza, extending her knowledge of all things coffee. She is also currently president of the Ka’u Coffee Co-op, still 30 families strong, an organization started by Rusty. The co-op could be thought of as backbone that brought the Ka’u growers deep into serious international coffee competition.

When I ask her to tell me what she can’t live without, the farming scientist tells me “water.” Then as we walk through a row of trees, she shows me the delayed, unripened berries, an effect of the heavy recent vog. I ask her what she dreams of, not skipping a beat, Lorie lets me know. What she wants is not just for her business, but for all of Ka’u coffee to be recognized as perhaps the best the world has ever known. She wants that for Ka’u. And for Rusty.

Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee web site

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3 Responses to “Lorie Obra of Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee”

  1. Cris Pamilar says:

    Hi! Lorie I happened to friend searching and I bump in to your name you probably don’t remember me I was a classmate in FEU med tech. It saddened me to hear that kuya rusty had passed away.
    The last time I spoke to him was when he was sill in New Jersey. Any way congrats for being a successful enterprenuer I’m pretty sure these it what kuya Rusty envision. stay safe and GOD BLESS!!!!!!

  2. s ke says:

    Hi I’ve been trying to get a hold of Rusty’s hawaiian coffee so purchase some coffee at wholesale. please email me if that would be possible. mahalo

  3. Colin Jevens says:

    Ka’u is a special place that perhaps is looked after directly by Madame Pele to this day. The volcano is active, the lands are lush and green. Now there is specialty coffee. What a wonderful story. I look forward to visiting Rusty’s and speaking with Lori.

    Keep up the great work.

    Thank you for sharing this and other stories on SGF.