Spotlight on Business: Sugar cane and rum in Hawaii — Back to the future

  • Rare strains of Hawaiian sugar cane are ready for planting at the Kuleana Rum Farm in North Kohala. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Young sugar cane thrives at the Kuleana Rum Farm in North Kohala. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Rare strains of Hawaiian sugar cane grows at the Kuleana Rum Farm in North Kohala. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • A rare Hawaiian sugar cane grows at the Kuleana Rum Farm in North Kohala. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Around 20 acres of Hawaiian sugar cane is planted at the Kuleana Rum Farm in North Kohala. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • A rare Hawaiian sugar cane is ready to be planted at the Kuleana Rum Farm in North Kohala. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Steve Jefferson checks on sugar cane at the Kuleana Rum Farm in North Kohala. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Sugar cane grows at the Kuleana Rum Farm in North Kohala. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Steve Jefferson checks on mature sugar cane at the Kuleana Rum Farm in North Kohala. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

There’s a unique new business venture that reaches back to the past and reworks it for the future that has taken shape in Kohala recently.

It’s something that honors the unique sense of place that is Hawaii, marries that to emerging trends in the craft beverage industry, and puts a smart value-added spin on a local agricultural resource.

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The business is Kuleana Rum Works.

Readers may have recently read about the soon-to-open Kuleana Rum Shack in Queens’ MarketPlace. It’s a cool new place to try out mouthwatering and unique beverages and food for sure, but it’s much more than that. There’s a back story that offers a fascinating look at entrepreneurial savvy accurately represented in the name the company chose: Kuleana, a set of rights based on responsibility. When a person accepts their kuleana, they do it with deliberate intent and personal accountability, and Kuleana Rum is intentionally drawing on Polynesian mastery of sugarcane cultivation as an identity for their brand.

In a lot of ways, for better or for worse, the modern history of Hawaii could be said to be the history of sugar cane. Sugarcane, “ko” in Hawaiian, originated in New Guinea and was brought to the Hawaiian islands about 1,000 years ago by Polynesian way-finders as one of their “canoe plants.” From the original plants of the first settlers about 40 varieties were cultivated. But by the time of the vast sugar plantations of the 19th and 20th centuries all that variety had been abandoned for a few commercially efficient strains. The development of those sugarcane plantation economies in many ways shaped the Hawaii we see today, with its mélange of racial groups and unique sense of place.

Sugar cane can be refined down into a variety of sugar products, but it is its refinement into one of those, rum, that interested Kuleana.

Most rum on the market today is produced from molasses, a byproduct of processing white sugar, with the different tastes and appearances produced by different brands being the result of added flavorings or color. There is another kind of rum though, “Agricole Rum,” a type originally distilled in the French Caribbean islands from freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. Agricole is produced in Martinique under tightly controlled rules allowing AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) designation, much like some French wines, and is the basis for the Kuleana Rum brand.

“The story of Kuleana Rum began 12 years ago when Jackie and I were sailing around the Caribbean with our then 1- and 3-year-old children,” said Steve Jefferson, CEO and co-founder of Kuleana Rum Works. “We made it to the French islands and were pretty stoked to be back in civilization. Martinique, in many ways, is a lot like Hawaii. It’s a volcanic island on the same latitude as the Big Island, managed by a first-world country, but really an island nation. As a cool day trip, we hiked to the top of Mt. Pelée and found a sugarcane plantation with its own rum distillery. Remember this was when the industry in Hawaii was only about 10 years dead. Then we tried the rum, Agricole rum, and that was it for us. The rum was fantastic, and it immediately struck us that rum production like this was an obvious fit for Hawaii.”

Agricole rum is also distinguished by its method of distillation.

“A lot of rum is distilled at 94 percent alcohol by volume,” Jefferson said. “It’s then proofed down to 40 percent (or 80 proof) and then sugar and/or coloring and sometimes flavorings are added. Our Agricole rum, however, is distilled at between 50 and 75 ABV, meaning that 25-50 percent of the actual cane juice comes out as rum. This is a distilling method we adapted from the AOC Rules controlling Martinique rum production, and it’s a method that allows lots of flavors to come through.

“When we got back to Hawaii, we were lucky to run into now professor Noa Lincoln, who was working on identifying the varieties of the original sugar cane stocks the ancient Hawaiians cultivated as part of his Ph.D. thesis. We planted those in 2014 and now have 40 heirloom cane stocks under cultivation and thriving at our farm in Hawi.”

Kuleana Rum Works currently has 20 acres planted in Hawi and is sharing heirloom cane cuttings with interested farmers, is distilling Agricole Rum and producing blends using its Agricole at its distillery in Kawaihae and will soon open the Kuleana Rum Shack in Queens’ MarketPlace for retail and dining.

On the horizon is agritourism and the production of other cane-based products, and more rum shacks.

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“Our intention was to create a business that demonstrated how interesting and dynamic Hawaii and its people are,” Jefferson said. “And to offer an authentic experience we would be proud to share with visitors and customers all over the world.”

Dennis Boyd is the director of the West Hawaii Small Business Development Center, which is funded in part through the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

  1. Mossback January 7, 2019 5:20 pm Reply

    We had ruhm, as the Tahitians spell it, from a distillery on Taha’a. It was Agricole and fantastic. Looking forward to the Hawai’ian version.


  2. ClutchCargo January 8, 2019 2:02 pm Reply

    Be nice if they can compete with Kauai’s excellent Koloa rum at a reasonable price.


  3. antifaHI January 19, 2019 10:10 pm Reply

    How it will go: Paradise Beverages buys cheap rum. Slaps the Hawaiian name onto the bottles. Sells it below cost of local rum to tourists, hotels and bars.


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