Reviving ancient wisdom, Shaun Roberts is using the red coffee berry to create a super-healthy drink

As the legend goes, there was once a humble Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi who followed his goats wherever they roamed. If they were thirsty, they would find the deepest watering hole; if they were sleepy, they would find a cool spot never touched by the sun; if they were hungry, they knew which bushes were flowering with fruits. The goatherd trusted his goats the way old women trusted the wise oracle in the cave, and the village people noticed Kaldi was acting more and more like the goats he kept.

One day two young boys thought they would play a trick on old Kaldi and they walked long into the day to find the herd grazing in a distant valley. By the time they arrived they were so exhausted from the heat and crumbling roads, they gave up their prank and arrived in the shade of Kaldi’s herd, begging for a sip of water and a piece of flattened bread. Kaldi was a gracious man and after giving them a drink of water, he plucked a handful of berries from a nearby bush and said, “This will replenish you faster than any bit of bread or dried piece of meat.”

The two boys laughed at old Kaldi. “Save those bitter berries for your goats, old man!” they said.

“Ah, the ignorance of youth. Watch.” And Kaldi swiftly began to chew on the berries he had offered. Soon the old goatherd was dancing and singing the songs of his youth, chirping and climbing a nearby tree with the glee of a child.

“Don’t you see?” he called to the boys still exhausted from their long walk, “my goats know the secrets to these cherries: vitality and good health!”

“What’s to lose?” one boy said to the other, and began to munch on the bright-red fruit. In no time at all, he, too, was romping about as if he had just woken from a night of cool sleep.

The boys convinced Kaldi to bring a bushel of coffee cherries back to the village, and so began the celebrity of the coffee plant in the Ethiopian desert.

Unlike red Kona berries, says Shaun Roberts, Kaua‘i coffee is golden yellow

Flash forward a millennia or two to the islands of Hawai’i – the only state in the nation to grow the beloved bush and produce some of the world’s finest grinds. What has long-since been forgotten by the lattemocha-frappuccino set has been rediscovered by Kaua’i entrepreneur and coffee-cherry guru Shaun Roberts. The Ethiopian goatherd had it right: It’s not the bean inside the fruit where all the vitality and benefit lie, but the fruit of the plant itself (called cherries or berries).

Kona Red Coffee Fruit Wellness Elixir is the product that Shaun Roberts and his partners in Sandwich Isles Trading Company have developed, produced and introduced as the next “super-fruit” antioxidant hero.

“Part of our mission,” he says, “is to educate people about the benefits of antioxidants – it’s a commonly used term, but not many people know exactly what antioxidants do and why they’re important.”

Imagine you have a room in your house crawling with termites. You could call the local pest-removal company and spray chemicals to neutralize those multiplying bugs, but instead someone gives you a cage full of colorful butterflies that love the taste of termites. They tell you to release the butterflies, close the door and in no time the problem will be solved. Nature fighting nature.

Antioxidants do the same job of gobbling up free radicals, just as the butterflies might do to the termites. If there are too many free-radicals multiplying in our bodies, cancer, diabetes and other degenerative disease take hold. But if you can neutralize and balance those harmful scavengers with healthy habits or powerful superfoods (like coffee cherries), you’ll have a good chance of restoring balance.

Roberts explained that after a year of testing and refinement, their product, made from the otherwise thrown-away fruit of Hawai’i’s coffee cherry, claimed a whopping number of ORAC units (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity). Where powerful pomegranate punches a score of about 11,000, and awesome açai about 16,000, Roberts found his coffee cherries claim 407,600 ORACS for the same 100 grams.

“Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity is a method of measuring antioxidant capacities in biological samples, jointly developed by the National Institutes on Aging and the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging,” Roberts states. “It is believed that high ORAC foods possess the power to slow down or prevent detrimental changes to the body and brain caused by aging and illness (free-radical damage).”

Roberts didn’t move to Kaua’i to develop health foods or start an antioxidant revolution. He and his wife of 12 years, Dana Roberts, had just finished their master’s degrees in economics and marketing (respectively) at San Diego State University. Their mutual love for scuba diving and the ocean made Hawai’i a dream destination.

“I had been coming to Kaua’i my whole life,” explains Roberts. “My grandparents started taking me on vacation here when I was just 2 years old. I feel like I kind of grew up on Kaua’i.”

In 2001, after working in the “green cleaning products” business in Southern California, the couple and their daughter decided it was time for a change. “We had been here on vacation and made the decision. We put an offer on a house here and went back to California to sell everything else.” Shaun, Dana and Jordan Malia Roberts (a baby then) moved to Kaua’i with the thought they might open a scuba-diving business.

“We had met 16 years ago at a scuba dive shop – we were both instructors,” he says.

The Roberts ohana: Dana and Shaun with children Jordan and Nathan

Yet with business minds and strong ambitions, the couple saw a different possibility emerge. “We launched Malie Organics in 2004” – the delectable all-Hawaiian sourced beauty line featured at Halele’a Spa at Princeville’s St. Regis Resort, as well as many stores around the Islands. “We wanted to utilize the amazing ingredients and resources from the islands and produce the highest quality spa and beauty products. No one else was doing it on the level we envisioned.”

Four years later, with a successful business and another child, Nathan Michael Roberts, Shaun was ready for a new business venture.

“Twenty million pounds of coffee fruit is thrown away each year in Kona and Kaua’i,” he says. “We want to take this wasted material and repurpose it into something incredibly beneficial — this is a sustainable, value-added product.”

As Roberts began to do the research, he discovered the ancient Ethiopian drink called qishar. Made from the cherry, not the bean, “this drink was taken by Ethiopians on long sea voyages and treks, it kept them healthy and able to travel with very little food,” he explains. “My business partner and mad chemist, Steven Schorr of Bioponic Phytoceuticals, began to process the cherries into hydrosol distillations and freeze-dried powder. We went through a very expensive year of research and development, then professional testing and what we found was those ancient Ethiopians knew what they were doing!”

The coffee bean is only second to oil on the world’s commodities trade, but very few of us have ever tasted the fruit that shelters the bean of our morning cup.

“It was definitely one of those ‘aha’moments,” says Roberts. “Immediately we saw the potential for selling the raw ingredient as well as producing a consumer product.”

Roberts named his company Kona Red and got to work. “There are different varietals of the coffee plant – here on Kaua’i the fruit turns yellow, while the Kona varietal turns red. Thus the names: Kona Red and Kaua’i Gold.”

Kona Red was launched with fruit from Mountain Thunder and Greenwall Farms on Kona, and Roberts says he plans to use next year’s Kaua’i Coffee harvest to produce the first line of Kaua’i Gold.

Kona Red berries at a low boil in the brewing process

“We are calling on a multitude of mainstream companies to use this as an additive to their product,” he says. Lion Coffee is launching its Kona Red “flavor” this season. “They use the antioxidant ingredient the way they use a flavor like vanilla or hazelnut; it’s sprayed onto the bean after roasting and then diffuses into the cup of coffee.” Other non-coffee companies such as Ocean Spray are in Roberts’sights: “Originally I thought we could just sell the fruit, but now we have 13 major ingredient/additive accounts, with more planned.”

Juggling family and two major entrepreneurial ventures keeps Dana and Shaun very busy. “If I wasn’t running all this I’d be hiking in Koke’e, fishing or at Polihale Beach. We love Kaua’i — it’s an incredibly special place. We are so happy to be raising our kids here. San Clemente was just too crowded.”

He says that making sure he puts the cell phone away and consciously carving out time for his personal world is the secret of their success.

They applied for and were given a state economic development grant, financing the rest of the company on their own. With Kona Red, they’ve had investors and partners. “Having partners makes the responsibility that much greater, but it also gives us a lot of confidence to keep pushing to make this a reality. I believe in this product.”

Roberts says Kona Red passed toxicology tests with flying colors (no amounts being toxic for consumption) and without hesitation gives some of the elixir to his children. “If they come home from school with sniffles, I give them half a serving of the Kona Red elixir and bam! The cold is gone by morning … In a sense, we are reviving a drink once cherished and utilized by ancient peoples,” he says. “Our job is to make an excellent product and educate the consumer about its benefits.”

For more information, visit www.konared.com.

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