Unlike any other, this year certainly provided us with some rare and treasured opportunities.
With kids Jessica and Jorgen at home on the farm and my wife Gigi teaching remotely, I’ve had a ton of time to experiment with our coffee and chocolate crops. We lost a little in the way of progress and forward movement, and like many others in the world during this COVID-19 pandemic, we made the best of our down time.
Looking back, it feels like 2020 started in mid-March and not January. While on our fifth straight annual trip of slipping away to the Northeast for winter hockey (oh, how we miss our friends in the Upper Valley this winter), Jorgen and I found ourselves on an earlier-than-expected flight back to Kauai in mid-March. It was only a couple of weeks removed from his Storm hockey team wrapping up an exciting triple overtime New Hampshire state Pee Wee championship.
Our team, however, did not get to compete in the regionals in Rhode Island, which were canceled because of coronavirus concerns. At that time, the lockdowns were beginning on the East Coast, so it was time to get out of Dodge and return to the Garden Isle, where residents were still far removed from the nationwide alarm and impending storm of changes to societal norms.
The trip home was strange. Boston’s Logan Airport and our hotel were mostly empty, but we did see a few college students preparing to fly home.
The scene was drastically different at LAX and the Hawaii-bound gates, where hordes of people of all ages were heading out for spring vacations as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
Once back on Kauai, we self-quarantined, acclimated, and, after a couple of weeks, settled in for the lockdown that eventually began here.
Spending time only on the farm with just an occasional trip out for food and supplies provided a nice surprise — 100 percent family time. For a few weeks it was jigsaw puzzles, board games, little school work, and all of us wondering what the future was going to look like, especially for our farming livelihood that relies heavily on tourism.
After that we all settled into a pretty good routine, with Gigi learning to teach online and even making YouTube math lessons for her students to work with.
Jorgen started seventh grade early and actually got in a baseball season in the Lihue Baseball League. Jessica, as always, got ahead with extra courses for the summer, along with teaching herself to play piano and continuing her amazing painting.
As far as the farms and business, we made the decision in early April to plow under our crop of whiskey corn that our friends at Beck’s Hybrid were growing on the westside of the island. We also decided to skip the cigar tobacco growing season because of the 95% drop in visitor arrivals to Hawaii.
With two very important legal victories being won against the federal Food and Drug Administration’s premium cigar rule making, and a huge inventory of Kauai Cigar tobacco we thought it would be nice to switch gears for a bit in 2020.
Wondering how best to spend the summer, Tai, Trevyn and I decided on several ambitious projects because it just isn’t in our nature to do nothing.
Our first project was to finally turn our farm’s cacao into a commercial venture. It only made sense since we’ve been delighting friends and visitors with our chocolate for years but never got around to making any for sale.
We also reached the point of having a ton of unused cacao beans in the aging room. How much chocolate can one and his friends eat, right?
The first order of business was to go to work designing and printing the packaging. We then spent time creating custom chocolate molds and learning how to use our new tempering machine. With the ability to make about 8 pounds of chocolate per batch, or 40 3-ounce bars, we were off and running by mid-July.
Chocolate is a long and involved process and somewhat similar to everything else we do with our coffee, cigars, and bourbon. All four crops involve growing, harvesting, processing, and perhaps the most important step of all, fermentation. The microbial magic in post-harvest production of these crops is amazing, transformational, and essential in the processes we guard with strict secrecy!
About the same time that we decided to start making chocolate for sale, we realized that we would need to grow more cacao in anticipation of market growth. So we went ahead and selected the best pods from the healthiest trees on our farms for seed and began a nursery.
Also of note, we collected pods from an original “white seed” criollo cacao tree in Kilauea that was originally introduced by a woman named Helen Ferris, who was an early pioneer of chocolate on Kauai.
We also brought in some select pods from a fellow cacao grower and friend, Ken Melrose, who owns and operates Primavera Chocolate farm in Kona on the Big Island. With the best seeds in hand, we started around 1,500 trees, but ultimately ended up only planting around 600. We sold the other 900 trees to others on the island and perhaps that cacao will come back to us some day for processing and the making of chocolate.
This wonderful, but very limited Blair Estate chocolate is sold almost exclusively at our farm store and online at Coffee Times. The Wine Shop in Koloa, and also Princeville Wine on the North Shore are the only two retail outlets on Kauai that carry our fine chocolate.
The second project — and just as exciting as the chocolate — was the launch of our Kauai-grown Kapahi Bourbon, and Virgin Kea Moonshine! Kauai Distilling is the culmination of research and development that started in 2014, followed by several years of growing corn and making whisky.
Having been dealt numerous setbacks as a result of anti-farming neighbors on Kauai and a regressive and backwards-thinking local government, the launch of these products was especially sweet. After all, the road to success is never an easy one.
In fact, we decided to sell one of the farms along with a proposed 5,600 square-foot agricultural processing building to a local electrician who will no doubt put his new purchase to great use despite the Kauai County Government dictatorship.
In the end, though, we couldn’t be happier with the results, and the best part is that the whisky keeps getting better as it continues to age and we dump the larger barrels at our Washington state distillery.
Sales in the Hawaii stores have been tremendous and we are thankful for those Kauai Distilling retailers who picked us up and launched us during these difficult economic times. Our hard working sales force consisting of Donald Fernelius on Oahu, Lei Hayashi on both Maui and the Big Island, and Tai Erum on Kauai have done an excellent job in continuing to reach stores that sell our Kauai Cigars in a logistically difficult year. Perhaps what has made us the most proud is the fact that the majority of our cigars and bourbon are being bought by our fellow residents. Many times our unique Hawaii-grown offerings are discovered, bought, and consumed by visitors, but 2020 has offered us new insight into who our customers actually are with tourism sales having all but dried up.
As a matter of fact, we learned that 25% of the goods we produce on our farms are actually bought and consumed by our fellow Hawaii residents, and that is such a great feeling. With the many choices out there, they decided to buy from a local grower and producer. We’ve always known that a Hawaii, USA-grown brand was powerful, but when you match that label with a quality product, it is an almost invincible combination for business.
Our third project for 2020 was the re-creation of our LBD websites. This seemed like a no-brainer since there was an overabundance of free time in the farm office over the summer. Admittedly, we had previously kind of neglected the updating of these sites to accurately reflect what is currently happening with our brands and on the farms that produce them.
In 1995, Coffee Times was on the Internet as one of the first sellers of 100% Kona coffee. Our Blair Estate Coffee farm website followed in 2001, with the Kauai Cigar Company starting up in 2006 before the recent addition of the Kauai Distilling Company.
Since ’95, Andrew Nisbet of Nisbet Business Services oversaw the development and hosting of all of our websites and e-commerce. He did a masterful job for 25 years and we couldn’t be more thankful for his service. Times, though, are a changing, and it felt like 2020 was the right time to bring all these websites home to the farm so that we could have a more immediate touch on what we are projecting to the world from our tiny end of the farming universe.
Tai, our operations manager, created two new online storefronts for our coffee, honey, chocolate, and cigars, and I re-created the LBD website along with Blair Estate and the Kauai Distilling Company.
The Coffee Times site, which encompasses 25 years of published articles, will take some time to rebuild. Some articles were only in print and others were published both in our magazine and online, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of archived stories to be transferred to the new site. The added reward is that many of the early printed monthly magazines from my Big Island days will survive and be preserved on the Internet.
Needless to say Tai is just thrilled to have all of this job security, but probably wishes for an early end to the pandemic so that he can go back to his normal everyday revenue generating activities on the farm!
Finally, I have found my 2020 idle time to be personally beneficial for new business discovery. I have been conducting new rounds of research and development with this year’s bumper coffee and chocolate harvests.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always followed the prescribed methods laid out by those who pioneered the coffee industry in Hawaii, but in this down time, I pondered some “what ifs.”
Sure, the systematic fertilizing, pruning, milling, fermenting, washing, drying, sorting and classifying coffee always produces a great-tasting cup. But while learning how to ferment chocolate, I wondered what would happen if we changed things up a bit in how we ferment coffee.
While you’re busy trying to improve every other aspect of the business, it sometimes may seem like there is a limit to the improvement of an already “value-added” crop. But is there a limit?
Could there be a great new discovery and a better taste to be had in our coffee, chocolate, cigar or dram of whiskey? That has been the burning question for me in 2020 while I’ve been experimenting, tinkering, and thinking outside of the box while processing our coffee and chocolate.
Ahhh, but how much I wish to share these discoveries with others in this ultra-competitive world of value-added Hawaii farming is the only question that begs an answer.
Maybe some things are better kept a secret. After all, it’s the great diversity in the world of coffee, cigars, chocolate and whiskey that makes these products so much fun to produce and enjoy.
We hope everyone has been afforded the same opportunities for thinking and tinkering in 2020 and that 2021 and beyond will yield great results from the changes we all made!
Special thanks to Nick Abramo, my fellow hockey buddy and ex pat from New England, who proofread this year’s newsletter. Nick writes a great local blog that can be found at Bedrock Sports Hawaii. Nick even wrote a nice piece on yours truly this summer. Times must surely be slow!
Happy Holidays, everyone and all the best in 2021!
Les, Gigi, Jessica, Jorgen, Tai, Trevyn, Lei and Donald