Did you know that Hawaii grows some of the best coffee in the world? Coffee Kona is a very special delicacy.
Table of Contents
What is Kona coffee?
Kona coffee is an Arabica coffee grown, harvested and produced in the Mauna Loa and Hualalai hills in the northern and southern counties of the Kona region on the stunning island of Hawaii.
Kona coffee gets its name from the region where it grows. Cheese, wine and other foods are also produced in this region.
However, like all types of coffee, Kona coffee can have different flavors depending on the roast and how it is prepared.
Most of the time, however, it is soft, medium-bodied, with a chocolate flavor and earthy nuances. In addition, its aroma has a sweet blend of butter, caramel, cocoa and fruits.
The Origins of Coffee Kona
To retrace the origins of Kona coffee, we need to look at the following key moments:
1817: Gardener Don Francisco de Paula Marin brings the first coffee plants to the island of Hawaii. Unfortunately, the plants are dying because they cannot adapt to the ecosystem.
1828: Reverend Samuel Ruggles brings coffee plants from Brazil to the Kona districts of Hawaii, where the plants begin to thrive rapidly. However, coffee is not initially considered a priority as Hawaii is a major exporter of sugar.
1830 – 1850: The owners of sugar plantations gradually begin to switch to coffee plantations.
1850 – 1860: Coffee production begins to suffer due to inclement weather, labor shortages and pests. By the 1860s, coffee had all but disappeared from the Hawaiian Islands.
1873: English merchant Henry Nicholas Greenwell, who had moved to the Kona region to establish coffee as a recognized brand, achieves his goal by being recognized for his excellent Kona coffee at the World’s Fair in Vienna, Austria.
1892: Hermann Widemaan introduced a type of Guatemalan coffee bean to the island. This strain is now known as “Kona Typica” and is the most popular strain in Hawaii.
1899: The global coffee market collapse caused by oversupply causes coffee prices to plummet, prompting coffee plantation owners to turn to sugar production.
1917 – 1918: Things begin to improve for coffee in Hawaii as World War I greatly increases domestic demand for coffee.
1929: With the outbreak of the Great Depression, coffee prices fall. Many farmers default on their loans.
1930 – 1940: Debt continues to mount and coffee prices continue to fall, creating a difficult situation for Kona coffee.
1941 – 1953: The entry of the United States into World War II and the significant increase in coffee prices after the end of the war give Kona coffee a boost. Similarly, the 1953 freeze in Brazil led to another world coffee shortage, which also helped Kona coffee recover.
1950: The University of Hawaii holds several meetings to encourage plantation owners to grow more coffee. In addition, the exchange of information about the crop between researchers, farmers, processors and consultants at the University of Hawaii will be encouraged.
1959: Hawaii officially becomes a state of the United States.
1960 – 1969: Thanks to bumper harvests, Kona coffee is reintroduced in Hawaii. Also, the coffee plantations are beginning to compete with the tourism industry for labor.
1970: The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival takes place for the first time.
1970 – 1979: High production costs, labor shortages and low prices lead to the final decline of coffee in Hawaii.
1980: The Kona rating system is born.
1980 – 1989: Coffee prices rise again and a new generation of coffee farmers emerges. Additionally, Kona coffee is beginning to be viewed as “specialty coffee,” leading to a growing following.
1991: A law is passed allowing coffee blends containing only 10% Kona coffee to be labeled “10% Kona coffee”.
1993: The Kona Coffee Council, a regional coffee association, attempts to protect the “Kona Coffee” name by registering its logo with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. However, the union is unsuccessful as companies such as Captain Coffee Co, Hawaii Coffee Company, Kona Kai Farms and Hawaiian Isles Enterprises object.
1993 – 1996: Kona Kai Farms coffee supplier Michael Norton used deceptive labeling to sell cheap Central American coffee as 100% Kona coffee. Because of this, all coffee exported from Hawaii must be certified by the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture to prove its authenticity.
2000: The Hawaii Department of Agriculture registers the “100% Kona Coffee” certification mark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The certification is then granted to the Hawaii Coffee Company.
2010: The coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei), the most harmful insect to Arabica coffee, is discovered in Kona coffee plantations by a University of Hawaii student. As a result, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture imposes a quarantine on all green beans leaving the island.
2011: The Hawaii Department of Agriculture permitted the importation and use of a concentrated natural fungus called Beauveria bassiana to control the coffee berry pest.
2019: Kona coffee farmers file a class action lawsuit against some of the largest retailers in the United States for marketing Kona coffee under a false designation of origin.
Safeway, Amazon, Kroger, Costco and Walmart are among the companies being sued by Kona coffee farmers.
2021: Several of the sued companies agree to pay a total of more than $13.1 million in favor of Kona coffee farmers.
How is Kona coffee harvested?
The Kona coffee tree typically blooms in February and March. During this time, small white flowers can be seen, which locals call “Kona snow” because they give the impression that the plantation is covered in snow.
Green berries develop from these flowers later in April.
At the end of August, the coffee cherries turn red, indicating that it is time to harvest.
It is remarkable that each Kona tree can be harvested multiple times in a period from August to January. Additionally, each tree can yield up to 15 pounds of cherries, which is about 2 pounds of roasted coffee.
Now every cherry has to go through a pulper within 24 hours of being picked.
After the beans have been separated from the pulp, they are placed in a fermentation tank overnight. The fermentation time for Kona beans is 12 to 24 hours.
After the fermentation process is complete, the Kona beans must be rinsed before being placed on a special rack to dry.
The beans take 7-14 days to dry, ideally to a moisture content of 10-13%, to meet the strict quality standards required by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture for the production of Kona coffee.
This control is carried out because too much moisture in coffee can be hazardous to human health due to the formation of a harmful substance called ochratoxin when the moisture level is too high.
After the Kona coffee has reached the optimal moisture level, it is stored as parchment and then roasted or sold wholesale.
At every step of the Kona coffee harvest, farmers take great care to ensure that the end result is of high quality and meets the standards of the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture.
Kona coffee sorting
The Hawai’i Agricultural Society instituted a rating and grading system for Kona coffee in the late 1980’s to ensure Kona coffee was not being sold fraudulently.
For this reason, the coffee beans are sorted by seed. Factors such as weight, number of defects and moisture content are considered.
So, there are two types of coffee.
Coffee type Kona 1
- Type 1 beans are characterized by two opposite beans.
- They are sold under names such as “Kona Prime”, “Kona Select”, “Kona Fancy”, “Kona Number 1” and “Kona Extra Fancy”.
Coffee type Kona 2
- Type 2 beans are characterized by having only one bean per cherry.
- They are sold under names such as “Peaberry 1”, “Peaberry Prime” and “Peaberry Number 3”.
There are also coffee blends that only contain 10% Kona coffee and the remaining 90% come from producing countries such as Brazil or Colombia. These blends are sold by some retailers under the name “Kona Blends” and can also be identified by terms such as “Kona Roast” or “Kona Style”.
The Kona coffee belt
The Kona Coffee Belt is the name given to the main growing area of this popular coffee in Kona County, Hawaii.
This area is approximately 48 kilometers (30 miles) long and 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) wide and lies at an elevation of 152 meters (500 feet) to 762 meters (2,500 feet) along the western slopes of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes.
It is worth noting that most of the Catetos grown in Kona are of the Typica variety. However, to a lesser extent, the Blue Mountain coffee variety can also be found.
The area is also known for its diversity:
- Uniform temperature fluctuations between day and night (sunny mornings and cloudy afternoons).
- Well drained, slightly acidic volcanic soil.
- Flowering time during the dry season.
- Western slopes sheltered from the wind.
- Fruiting during the rainy season.
Price of Kona coffee
1 kilo of Kona coffee can cost up to $120.
This value is very high due to numerous factors affecting production, such as equipment, land, and labor.
Kona coffee is grown in a small area, so retail supply is limited. The size of a farm in Kona is less than 20,000 m 2 (5 acres), while in other countries farms average 73,000 m 2 (18 acres). Expanding the land on which the coffee is grown would not be possible as it is located on the sloping terrain of two volcanoes.
Because Kona coffee grows on an island like Hawaii, it must be loaded and transported by ship. Therefore, the cost of transportation is high, which makes the product significantly more expensive. This also applies to all the equipment that has to be imported for coffee production, such as machines, tools, fertilizers, bags, etc. Because of this, growing coffee in Hawaii is much more expensive than in other countries such as Indonesia.
The labor is more expensive for two reasons:
- First, the Kona coffee is grown on volcanic slopes, so no machines can be used to pick the coffee cherries as the volcanic terrain does not suit them.
- Second, coffee pickers in Hawaii make a lot more money than other countries. This is because, as part of the United States, Hawaii has to adhere to the country’s strict labor regulations, while other parts of the world don’t apply the same labor regulations to coffee farmers. Significantly higher wages have to be paid for picking coffee in Kona.
Advice on Kona coffee
Due to the Michael Norton scandal in the mid-1990s, a group of Hawaiian farmers, processors and retailers who grow, process and sell Kona coffee decided to form the Kona Coffee Council (KKC). An organization whose primary purpose is to protect the interests of the Kona coffee industry by ensuring buyers receive 100% genuine Kona coffee.
Here are some of the Kona Coffee Council’s goals:
- Seek legislation to protect the Kona coffee name.
- Promoting 100% Kona coffee at national and international trade shows.
- Promotion and protection of 100% pure coffee.
- Placing ads in national magazines to promote 100% Kona coffee.
- Creation of a mentoring program for new members.
What makes Kona coffee so special?
There are several factors that make Kona coffee special, such as:
Low Altitude: Kona coffee is grown at an altitude of 500 to 3200 feet above sea level, which gives the coffee a very mild flavor.
Hand Picking: All Kona coffee is hand-picked, unlike most coffee-growing regions where mechanical harvesters are used to pick the cherries. This is because the island’s steep volcanic slopes do not allow for the use of harvesters.
Steep Slopes: The island’s steep volcanic slopes create an ideal drainage system so that rainfall does not inundate the coffee crops. This allows for conditions similar to those in other parts of the world at much higher elevations.
Curious details about Kona coffee and Hawaii
- There are approximately 600 Kona coffee farms averaging less than 12 acres, most run by Japanese, American, Filipino and European families.
- Former Hawaii County Mayor Stephen Yamashiro, who served from 1992 to 2000, is credited with developing the “100% Kona Coffee” logo and emblem used in the industry today.
- Kona coffee accounts for just 1% of the coffees in the industry, making it one of the rarest, and therefore most expensive, coffees in the world.
- Hawaii consists of about 137 islands.
- Many of the coffee farms in Hawaii use modern marketing strategies and invite the public to tour the plantation and see and taste Kona coffee up close.
- Hawaii State labeling regulations require that the words “100% Kona Coffee” be prominently displayed.
- In the world of Kona coffee, there is only about 5% of the peaberry variety.
- Kona coffee farmers earn higher wages than coffee farmers in Guatemala or Ethiopia, two of the largest coffee-producing countries in the world.
- Total Kona coffee acreage in 1997 was exactly 2290 acres and coffee production exceeded 2 million pounds.
- Kona coffee has a caffeine content similar to other Arabica coffees, at 1.5%.
- Hawaii is the only state in the United States that grows coffee.
- Unopened Kona coffee typically has a shelf life of two to six months.
- Henry Nicholas Greenwell’s descendants have carried on the family tradition and are now the owners of the successful Greenwell Coffee farms.
- Kona was the only coffee-growing region in the United States, but over the past 25 years, as the sugar cane industry collapsed, several Hawaiian Islands began growing and selling coffee. These include Ka’u, Maui, Kauai and Moloka’I.
- Coffee farmers in Hawaii produce just 55,000 bags of coffee beans a year, while production in countries like Brazil can be 1,000 times that.
- Kona coffee is available in some webshops, gourmet shops or very specialized import coffee centers. However, the annual production is not very rich, so it can be difficult to get hold of.
The finest selection of Kona coffee
Here are some of the best Kona coffee options:
Coffee Kona Peaberry – Volcanic
- It’s a top coffee.
- They refer to it as the “champagne of coffee” for its smooth, full flavor and low acidity.
- It comes from the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano, which are characterized by fertile soils, sunny mornings and constant rainfall.
- It has a more intense flavor than regular Kona or Kona extra fancy coffee.
- Volcanica donates 1% of sales to charities that provide clean, safe drinking water in developing countries.
- The peaberry cherries are handpicked by over 600 small Volcanica partner farms.
Royal Coffee Konna – Imagine
- These are gourmet beans classified as Extra Fancy, that is, they have a rich and intense flavor with caramel notes without any hint of acidity or bitterness.
- The beans are air roasted making them ideal for drip coffee, coffee machines, French press and cold brew coffee.
- Imagine was awarded the Paris Gourmet Gold Medal and scored 95 points on Whole Cup Coffee Consulting’s website.
Kona Bloom – Big Island coffee roastery
- Consists of the finest Extra Fancy Kona beans.
- The beans are hand-picked and washed before being roasted weekly over medium heat in small batches.
- The coffee has a buttery taste with light and sweet notes, but other notes such as cocoa, caramel, flowers, nougat and peach are also possible.
- It is ideal for filter coffee or as an accompaniment to cakes or sweet Belgian waffles as it is soft and light.
Royal Kona Coffee – Hawaiian Coffee Society
- Has a fruity, light and clean flavor profile due to being lighter roasted than most Kona coffees.
- 100% Kona Private Reserve – Mountain Thunder
- The beans are grown, processed and roasted on the slopes of Hualalai Volcano.
- The beans are cleaned, sorted and then processed with a Satake optical color sorter, which removes orange, black and yellow beans that can leave a bitter taste.
If you want to learn more about Kona coffee, you can visit any of the more than 600 Kona coffee farms that exist today.
Many of these farms host tours where visitors can see how the coffee is grown and processed and also sample the coffee produced on the farm.
Kona Coffee Festival
The Kona Coffee Festival was first held in 1970 and has served to promote and preserve Kona’s coffee heritage ever since.
During the celebrations, nearly 50 events will take place over 10 days, including the following:
- Visit to the farm and mill
- Golf tournament
- Coffee and Art Walk
- International Lantern Parade