The coffee plant was brought to the Kona district in 1828 by Samuel Reverend Ruggles from Brazilian cuttings. English merchant Henry Nicholas Greenwell moved to the area and established Kona coffee as a recognized brand later in the 19th century. The former Greenwell Store and Kona Coffee Living History Farm have since become museums.
In other parts of the Hawaiian islands, it was grown on large plantations, but the 1899 world coffee market crash caused plantation owners to lease land to their workers. Most were from Japan, brought to work on sugarcane plantations. They worked their leased parcels of between 5 and 12 acres (49,000 m2) as family concerns, producing large, quality crops.
The tradition of family farms continued throughout Kona. The Japanese-origin families have been joined by Filipinos, mainland Americans, and Europeans. There are approximately 800 Kona coffee farms, with an average size of less than 5 acres (20,000 m2). In 1997 the total Kona coffee area was 2,290 acres (9 km2) and green coffee production just over two million pounds.
Kona Coffee is a world-renowned coffee that is exclusively grown on the slopes of two volcanoes on the Big Island. The porous and mineral rich volcanic soil combined with the often sunny mornings but cloudy or rainy afternoons, little wind, and mild nights give coffee from the Big Island a unique taste.
Our Kona Coffee guide walks you through the history of coffee on Hawai’i. We try to explain why Kona Coffee is so tasty (and expensive) and also introduce you to a few other very good coffees from the Big Island.
THE HISTORY OF KONA COFFEE
The first attempt to grow coffee in Hawai’i is credited to the horticultural experimenter don Francisco de Paula Marin. Marin introduced numerous plant species to the Hawaiian Islands but failed to do so for coffee plants in 1817.
Samuel Ruggles succeeded in bringing coffee to Hawaii in 1828. During the subsequent 150 years coffee took the proverbial backseat to the sugar industry and has known many ups and downs. Only in the last few decades sugar has all but disappeared from the Hawaiian islands and (Kona) coffee is stronger than ever!
In the following timeline we highlight important milestones in the history of Kona Coffee. This whole timeline is summarized from the excellent book “A cup of Aloha”
- 1817: Don Francisco de Paula Marin brings the first coffee seedlings to Hawai’i, but the plants perish.
- 1828 – 1860: Samuel Ruggles plants the first coffee in Kona (1928). More and more coffee plantations open in the following decades, but in the 1850’s hard times begin due to lack of labor, bad weather, and pests. In 1860, coffee is all but gone from the Hawaiian islands.
- 1873: Henry N. Greenwell is honored at the World’s Fair in Vienna for the excellent Kona coffee. (Unrelated but interesting: this World’s Fair was widely considered a magnificent failure. It lost today’s equivalent of 170 million USD because of a devastating combination of the world’s first truly international financial crisis and Vienna’s last cholera epidemic.)
- 1892: Hermann Widemann introduced the ‘Guatemalan’ coffee variety to Hawaii from Guatemala. Today, this variety is known as “Kona Typica” and is the most generally preferred variety in Hawaii. Coffee productions starts to pick up again
- 1899: A severe drop in coffee prices again almost causing coffee to disappear from the islands.
- 1917-1918: World War I sharply increases the domestic demand for coffee, and a frost in Brazil destroys its coffee crops and causes a world shortage in coffee. Things are looking up again for coffee in Hawai’i.
- 1929: Start of the Great Depression. Coffee prices plummet. In the decade after debts continue to rise and coffee prices continue to drop. Dark times for Kona Coffee (and for the rest of the USA).
- 1941-1953: Both army purchases of Coffee as the US enters WWII and steadily increasing coffee prices after the war is over help Coffee on Hawai’i recover. This is supported by another frost in Brazil (1953) which yet again causes a worldwide coffee shortage.
- The 1960s: Coffee is on the rise again in Hawai’i with record harvests. The tourism industry starts to compete with the coffee plantations for labor.
- The 1970s: Low prices, high costs and a shortage of labor bring on the last great demise of coffee in Hawai’i.
- The 1980s: Coffee prices pick up again in the mid-seventies, and a new crop of coffee farmers rises. Kona coffee is now considered as a “specialty coffee” and starts picking up more and more fans.
- 1991: The 10% Kona coffee blend statute (HRS 486-120.6) was introduced. This law allows blended coffee that contains only 10% Kona coffee to be labeled as “10% Kona coffee”.
Growing and harvesting Kona coffee
“Kona” is the market name for coffee produced on the slopes of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa Mountains in the North and South Districts of Kailua-Kona. Don’t think you can name your coffee brand Kona—only coffee cultivated in the Kona region of the Big Island can be titled as such. By growing the coffee in rich volcanic soil at a high elevation in the area’s characteristically wet and dry tropical climate, Hawaii Kona Coffee has a unique advantage over most other types of coffee grown in other countries such as Brazil and Columbia.
Where to find Kona coffee
There are several coffee shops across the Big Island that serve 100% Hawaii Kona coffee. If you want the full Kona coffee experience, visit one of the coffee plantations on the island, such as Greenwell Farms, Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, Hula Daddy, and Kona Joe as well as many others. You can either take a tour or do a self-guided tour and sample the various roasts along the way that way. You’ll also can learn about the culture and history of the coffee plantations first hand. For extended learning opportunities, check out the Kona Coffee Festival, an annual festival that happens every year around November. This 46-year-old tradition celebrates and promotes the heritage and culture of behind Kona’s famous coffee. The festival has created a map to help you discover coffee plantations along the South Kona District.