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Gimme some sugar: Kuleana Rum grows fresh sugarcane for first Hawaii Island distillery

Updated: 
September 26, 2017 - 1:15am

NORTH KOHALA — Steve Jefferson, Chris Schlarb and Charlie Sander have incorporated Kuleana Spirits Inc., a rum company with 40 varieties of Hawaiian heirloom sugarcane currently growing on the lush slopes of Kohala Mountain.

They’re ahead of the crowd with their product in America, but rum agricole — the making of rum from fresh sugarcane juice using fermentation — has been a primary commodity on the French owned isle of Martinique for more than 200 years.

Jefferson and his wife, Jackie, were living the dream, sailing in the Atlantic Ocean with their two children in 2006, when they landed in Martinique and sampled rum agricole for the first time. Once they tried it, “We were blown away,” he said. “It was like having an heirloom tomato when your whole life you’ve only had refrigerated ones from the supermarket.”

And when they thought about Martinique and its similarities to Hawaii with the same latitude, volcanic presence and ideal growing conditions they thought, “We have to move back to Hawaii and start a rum distillery.”

It wasn’t going to be easy. Making rum using fresh sugarcane juice is difficult; so difficult, in fact, that only 3 percent of the world’s rum is made that way. Most of it is made with molasses, a byproduct from manufacturing crystallized cane sugar.

Conversely, rum agricole is made from locally grown sugarcane that’s cut and pressed into fresh juice. Over the course of two to three days the fluid ferments before being distilled and rested in stainless steel or aged in wooden barrels. The result is an intensely grassy, floral, citrusy and earthy spirit that is at once delicate and dynamic.

In the U.S., rum agricole remains a mostly undiscovered and therefore underrated spirit. But while it may not be for everyone, once the taste for it has been acquired, the fun, grassy and savory notes can elevate a rum cocktail to the next level.

That gorgeous quality, and the fact that rum agricole is made entirely from sugarcane, were among the reasons why the Jeffersons felt it was an ideal product to grow, produce and sell in Hawaii.

“Like a maile lei, it conveys a sense of Hawaii in a very intimate and embracing way,” he said.

The Kuleana team wants their product to be one example of a business based actually on agriculture. Even better, “It’s Hawaiian agriculture,” Jefferson said. “It literally came with the first people and it’s a story of this place.”

When he and Jackie returned to the islands and began looking for sugarcane, there weren’t many crops to be found. While sugarcane was once one of Hawaii’s most lucrative crops, a downturn in the price of sugar led to the closing of Hawaii’s sugarcane factories, with the final one closing last January, leaving the formerly productive sugarcane fields fallow.

Luck struck when the Jeffersons stumbled upon Noa Lincoln and his body of work.

Lincoln’s nickname in the islands is “the ko (sugar) guy” for his work on indigenous Hawaiian sugarcane varieties. After completing his PhD at Stanford University, in 2015 he was named an assistant researcher at the University of Hawaii in a newly created position focused on indigenous crops and cropping systems.

Lincoln’s “unbelievable gift,” Jefferson said, was to share cuttings from 40 varieties of sugarcanes that he and his associates had collected from throughout the state and DNA tested. The species are uniquely Hawaiian heirloom canes, all of which are derived from canoe plants.

As part of his research, Lincoln gathered the cane from people throughout the community, and learned its moolelo — story, tradition and history — and names, because several of them had more than one.

“We got cuttings from him and replanted,” said Jefferson, who speaks so fondly of the canes you might think he is discussing his children. “We are so enamored and delighted with them. Obviously they’re really pretty, and they all have slightly different flavors and look quite different, too.”

A cut of sugarcane, when planted, will typically have about 30 stalks. In nine to 18 months, depending on the variety, elevation and water, they can be harvested, and once mature they sometimes produce two or three harvests per year.

The original cuttings yielded the nursery, which is now providing the feedstock for the cane from which Kuleana Rum will be juiced.

For its sugarcane field, the company has committed 45 acres near the Upolu airport and Hawi.

“We picked that area because it has a 1,000-year history and is super rich in agriculture,” Jefferson said.

And, sugarcane used to be grown there by the Kohala Sugar Co. It’s also in North Kohala which is significant.

“Kohala is a very authentic, wonderful place and I think agriculture resonates with the people who live here,” he said.

The overall business plan for Kuleana Rum is to contribute to the economy by being an agriculture based business.

“Sugarcane isn’t dead,” Jefferson said, echoing what Lincoln often says. “It’s just changing into something that could be much more intentional and much more interesting. It’s no longer a commodity but rather a high value horticultural crop.”

With that in mind, Jefferson is happy to share cuttings with farmers just as Lincoln did with him.

“We’ve shared with a number of people already and if others want to grow it, we’re happy to give them cuttings. We’ll actually buy it back, too,” he said. “We want to give money to the farmers because it’s just as important to us that they’re getting something out of it. This can actually be a crop for whoever wants to grow it.”

And what about that elusive first glass of rum?

“We’re getting closer and are committed to making it work,” Jefferson said, who voluntarily left a good job in corporate communications last October to devote himself to the business full time.

Kuleana has its federal permit and is currently finishing building its distillery in Kawaihae — the first distillery on Hawaii Island. With those steps in place, the business may release its first bottle of rum by the end of the year.

But they refuse to be rushed. The team is focused on doing things right, with intention, deliberation and respect.

“What we’re doing carries with it a sense of responsibility to honor the story of the canes. We want to celebrate these really awesome, thoughtfully cultivated plants that people have been growing for literally 3,000 years or more, and transported by the wayfinders,” Jefferson said.

“They were a society way, way ahead of the game with respect to the navigational feats and agricultural systems they used, and we hope to honor that legacy,” he concluded.

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