Even if you have never been to Kona, chances are you have heard about Kona Coffee. Being cultivated for over 200 years, Kona coffee became a world-famous coffee variety recognized for its rich, fresh, and mild taste.
The island’s fertile, volcanic soil and mountain slopes proved an ideal climate for coffee growing. At its peak, in the early 1900s, the industry encompassed 6,000 acres. Today there are approximately 650 farms cultivating coffee in the Kona district (some who’ve been in the business for five generations), covering roughly 3,500 acres with annual production valued at $14 million.
About Kona Coffee
Coffee trees thrive on the cool slopes of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa Mountains in rich volcanic soil and afternoon cloud cover. This unique environment gives Kona coffee a distinct advantage over coffee varieties grown in other parts of the world. Coffee trees typically bloom after Kona’s dry winters and are harvested in autumn. Coffee cultivated in the North and South districts of Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii is the only coffee that can genuinely be called Kona Coffee.
Before being graded, Kona coffee is hand-picked, pulped, dried, and hulled. Machinery at the coffee mill sorts the beans into different grades by size and shape. Peaberry is top of the line. A peaberry bean is formed when one side of the flower fuses with the other leaving only one bean in the coffee cherry. This gives the peaberry a more concentrated flavor and makes up only about 5% to 10% of the total Kona Coffee harvest. Top grades include extra fancy, fancy, No.1, and prime.
Kona Coffee is sun-dried, then custom roasted depending on desired results and differences in the beans’ moisture. A good roasting process (and processor) can make a world of difference. Roasting is referred to as an “art form” by many in the trade. Dark roasts are typically called French Roasts, Italian or Espresso. Medium roasts include Full-City and Vienna. Flavored coffee is sprayed or powdered immediately after roasting for the best absorption of the added flavor. Just after roasting, the oxidation process begins, and coffee is at its freshest. Growers suggest buying whole bean form and grinding it just before brewing each pot.
To purchase 100% pure Kona Coffee, check the label. KONA BLEND means it may only contain 10% Kona beans. These are usually mixed with lower-grade beans from Brazil, Central America, Africa, and Indonesia. If you’re coming to the Big Island of Hawaii and the Kona Coast, check out the numerous farms and coffee mills in the Kona Coffee Belt. Many offer farm tours and amazing product tastings.
Kona Coffee History
First Coffee in Kona
Missionary Samuel Ruggles planted the first coffee in Kona in 1828 or 1829. These first arabica trees were taken from cuttings planted on Oahu a few years earlier. Coffee and Kona were a perfect match – Kona with its rich volcanic soil, hard-working family farmers, and ideal climatic conditions. Taste Kona’s coffee, and you’ll sense its strength, the hand-picked quality that sets it apart.
Kona: Perfect for Coffee Cultivation
The first written mention of coffee in Kona was noted in 1840. Coffee was planted in several Big Island locations but is best suited to the Kona district. A few coffee fields are now in production outside Kona, but the vast majority of coffee is grown here.
Working these tropical coffee fields has always been laborious because everything – from planting to picking – is done by hand. Native Hawaiians and Chinese laborers first worked the large coffee plantations owned by Caucasians in the mid-to-late-1800s. Then, during the 1880s and early 1890s, Japanese immigrants began their coffee legacy in these same Kona fields.
Turn-of-the-Century Shift in Coffee Production
When the world coffee market crashed in 1899, the large plantations shifted to small Japanese-owned family farms. As the plantations gave up, the land was divided into small 3- to 5-acre parcels and leased to the laborers. The cost of these early leases was one-half the crop; by 1910, only Japanese coffee farms survived. The first Filipinos arrived to work the coffee farms in about 1920, picking coffee during the season and returning to the sugar fields in the spring.
Kona Coffee Legacy and Heritage
Today many Kona farmers can lay claim to being fifth-generation coffee farmers. Coffee is an economic mainstay of Kona, where farmers continue the tradition and honor their heritage with every harvest.
Kona Coffee Cultural Festival
The best way to experience Kona coffee in all its varieties and flavors is to visit the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival held each November in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii. November is the time of the coffee harvest that has sustained Kona’s agricultural community for nearly 200 years. This year, this award-winning Festival will celebrate over 50 years of its rich cultural history.
Organizers of the first Festival, held over a single weekend, wanted to help put Kona coffee in the international spotlight and increase the island’s visibility as a destination. Now, the Festival spans over ten days and includes nearly 20 events, including farm tours, barista training, a recipe contest, coffee-themed art exhibitions, a community festival, and a high-stakes cupping competition. This year we will be hosting events both virtually and live in person!
The Festival starts brewing November 4th through 13th with ten days of events promoting Hawaii’s unique culture and diversity and supporting the Festival’s mission to preserve, perpetuate and promote Kona’s unique coffee heritage. Everyone is invited to come together and visit Kona during the coffee harvest season and celebrate the culture behind the cup.
Throughout the 10-day Festival, celebrate the harvest as Kona coffee farms offer a firsthand look at growing this world-famous crop, the coffee art scene fills with inspiration, and music and dance enrich cultural exchanges. Kona coffee and food events offer tastings, and hands-on cultural events help tell the story of Kona’s rich coffee history.
To learn more about the Festival’s events, visit their website.
Why Try Kona Coffee
Coffee has many health benefits, but not all varieties are created equal. Many variables contribute to its taste and quality, including soil and climate conditions and how it is cultivated. Most of the coffee producers in Kona are small, family-owned farms that take great pride and care in what they do. The coffee is hand-picked, carefully, and masterfully dried and roasted, ensuring the best quality and taste. You won’t find a mass production here, but rather a collection of artisan coffee growers putting love and Aloha into everything they do.
The varieties of Kona coffee are multiple, and every one has its own taste. It is usually quite rich yet mild, so you will most likely enjoy the Kona coffee even if you are not a coffee lover. It does not knock you off your feet, even if it is a dark Espresso roast, but delivers a smooth and velvety experience delicately growing on you as you sip it. As mentioned above, trying 100% Kona coffee is key and will give you the best-tasting experience. Try it for yourself, and let us know what you think!
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We hope to see you soon – a hui hou!