The Full History of Kona Coffee

The name “Kona Coffee” became, and remains, synonymous with coffee of extraordinary quality in texture and taste.

Let’s explore the history of Kona Coffee, from being first brought as plants to the volcanic Hawaiian Island to becoming the massive $50 million dollar industry it is today.

A Brief History of Kona Coffee

When Was Coffee First Brought to Hawaii?

History tells us that the first instances of coffee being brought to Hawaii is attributed to a horticulturalist named Francisco de Paula y Marin. Marin is also credited to introducing one of the most popular delicacies to Hawaii – the pineapple. While Marin did bring coffee plant seedlings to the Hawaiian Islands in 1817, the seedlings did not fare well and thus died soon after.

King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu

Just a few years later in 1825 coffee was brought again to Hawaii aboard the H.M.S. Blonde during the tragic incident when King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu died from measles while on a visit to England. The King and Queen’s bodies were shipped back to Hawaii, and during the journey the crew stopped in Rio de Janeiro. Governor/High Chief Boki obtained some arabica coffee plants and together with John Wilkinson, an ex-West Indies settler and agriculturalist who then planted the trees on Boki’s land on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. Although during this time coffee had not gained much traction as a popular beverage, making the plants more of a curiosity then a serious agricultural endeavor.

Introduction of Coffee into Kona

Unfortunately in 1827, Wilkinson suddenly died and the coffee trees he was caring for were soon to become

neglected, but a year later in 1828, the Reverend Samuel Ruggles came to visit Oahu from the Big Island, and was able to take cuttings from what was left of Wilkinson’s coffee trees.

Ruggles planted the cuttings as ornamental curiosities at his home on the Big Island near what is now Captain Cook.  The coffee trees thrived in the climate on the Big Island and as coffee began to take hold as the new hot popular drink, farms began to grow coffee for local consumption.

Within 10 years, cultural changes appeared and coffee came to be more popular as a beverage. In 1840 the first coffee exports from Hawaii to California started to take place and the Hawaiian coffee trade started.

Start of the Hawaiian Coffee Industry

About two years later in 1842, the first large-scale endeavor to grow coffee commercially took place on the island of Kauai. One-thousand acres of land were planted with coffee trees. The first export of coffee was a measly 245 pounds, but this was just the start of things to come…  unfortunately the bright side of Hawaii’s coffee industry had a long time to come, as during the time a combination of labor shortages, drought and blight ended this first coffee venture on Kauai in 1855.

When Kauai was venturing into commercial coffee-growing, small agriculturalists on the Big Island of Hawaii, wanted to jump on the coffee train too. These farmers grew more than enough coffee to start exporting and selling their beans to the mainland.  Though this, coffee started to become more of a popular drink on the island and Kona coffee started to be known for it’s unique qualities. Coffee of course was being grown in several areas on the Big Island of Hawaii, not just Kona (such as the Hamakua district coffee).

However, Kona coffee took front-and-center stage in the popularity contest, as well as raw production levels and it began to be noticed that coffee grown in the District of Kona was vibrant and grew well.  Kona coffee beans grown in the hot equatorial sun are bigger in size than most varieties and when the beans are roasted the coffee possessed a remarkable taste loved by many. Thus, Kona Coffee became highly prized by coffee connoisseurs and even average drinkers around the country.

World Famous Kona Coffee

By 1870 the Kona coffee industry had picked up rapidly, exporting more than 208 tons of coffee from the Big Island.

Now to really get into world popularity – A merchant by the name of Henry N. Greenwell who had moved from England to the Big Island of Hawaii began growing and exporting his Kona Coffee to United States and Europe. As coffee became more respected as a desirable drink, the magical name of “Hawaiian Coffee” brought an exotic excitement into the cup of coffee drinkers.

At the infamous 1873 World’s Fair in Vienna, Austria. the President of the Kaiser’s Exposition awarded the Greenwell for his amazing Kona Coffee, and thus Kona Coffee gained worldwide recognition. The event was a disaster as you may already know but it was still an effective plug for Kona’s industry.

Introduction of Kona Typica

Flash-forward a decade and a fellow by the name of Hermann Widemann introduced to Hawaii a Guatemalan coffee plant variety which we now know by the name of ‘Kona Typica’. Kona Typica is even more enjoyable for most due to it’s light, sweet qualities and “floral notes”. With this new variety comes more demand and coffee productions starts to pick up again in 1883.

Kona Typica Coffee

By 1899, a remarkable 3 million coffee trees had grown throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Still, however the prices of coffee continued to drop due to factors including global competition and the sugar tariff being removed in 1900 which made it more profitable to use land for sugar cane rather than coffee. (Ironically nowadays it’s quite the opposite) As a result a boom in sugar cane agriculture sprouted on the Big Island and many coffee farmers understandably switched crops.

WW1 and the Coffee Industry

During the beginning of the first World War in 1918, coffee suddenly became in high demand. Another heavy player in the coffee industry, Brazil, experienced a frost which caused the coffee trees to drop their beans, effectively destroying their harvest. As supply rules demand, local farmers had a new hope for growing coffee as a profitable crop on their Hawaiian farms.

While the sugar cane industry boom did it’s fair share of damage to the Big Island’s coffee industry, it did not smother it completely. Still many local small coffee farms continued to produce Kona Coffee, however as times moved forward into the Great Depression, the ability to market it successfully shrunk and prices continued to drop throughout the decade.

WW2 and the Coffee Industry

Moving into the 1940’s we come into the start of WW2. Demand for Kona coffee rises as the US enters war and this demand increases the price accordingly  Hawaii’s farmers get a slight recovery but the market stagnates through the years.

However, another frost in Brazil in 1953 that leads to another shortage of coffee worldwide. This causes a short spike in the demand for Kona coffee, although it doesn’t pick up much for the next 2 decades.

Technological Advancements

Coffee Pulper Machine

Then in the 1975 Kona’s coffee industry gains traction due to a surge in price. Factors such as easier processing methods thanks to the technological advancement of coffee bean processing machinery combined with the US’s cultural awe of Hawaii at the time helped garnish this spike. By the late 1980s, Hawaii’s coffee production methods had evolved rapidly.

From 1975-1989 Hawaii’s coffee industry continued to rise along with the price which rose above the the average Colombian Mild Arabica (CMA) price. Good news right? Well if one source is more expensive than another, marketers are sure to exploit this being as there were no industry regulations to define what exactly “Kona Coffee” is.

Price Drop – Counterfeiting

US Customs found that a grower of Big Island coffee was cutting the mix with cheaper coffee beans while still selling it as “100% Kona Coffee”. Once this was exposed, a huge negative reaction came from buyers around the world and a lot of trust was lost in Kona Coffee.

100% Kona Coffee

Counterfiet Kona Coffee beans had disastrous effects on local farms in the coffee industry and Hawaii had to take measures to prevent this fraud and the bad brand image it created. In order to protect the hard working local Kona Coffee farmers, The State of Hawai’i Department of Agriculture started officially certifying and grading all Hawaiian coffees.

That means any farmer wishing to sell labeled 100% Kona Coffee must have their coffee beans inspected by the state.

However, it is still perfectly fine to sell blended coffee as long as it is marketed as such. This is the 10% Kona coffee blend statute (HRS 486-120.6) (full text) which allows blended coffee that contains only 10% Kona coffee to be labeled as “10% Kona coffee”.

For 100% Kona Coffee, The State of Hawaii has a certification and grading process that enables consumers to verify that their coffee is indeed 100% pure Kona grown coffee. An agent from the State requires a sample that will be analyzed and graded as Kona Fancy, Kona Extra Fancy, Kona Prime, Kona Number 1, Kona Select or Peaberry. More information about Kona coffee grades here

The Kona Coffee Industry Today

In 2014 the the USDA Hawaii Field Office reported over $50 million dollars in total farmgate revenue, however in recent years the industry has taken a dip to $43.4 million in 2018.


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