The Legacy of Hawaiian Kona Coffee
Updated: Jul 24
Microclimate, micro-lots, and the craft of coffee cultivation
There's one wonder of Hawaii's Big Island that garners worldwide recognition. For the lasting enchantment and sense of place, it offers long after visitors have come and gone. Or whether or not one has come at all.
Hawaiian Kona coffee is a rare and highly sought-after arabica variety. It's known for its often light, fruity, and full-bodied flavor. Even Mark Twain recalls "a richer flavor than any other, be it grown where it may and call it by what name you please."
Here, small, independent producers such as Ulu Coffee farm are setting new trends among ancient methods. Taking the cultivation traditions of Kona to greater heights and livelier ecosystems. Ulu Coffee farm looks to regenerative farming solutions. Taking pride in preservation with organic practices, eliminating harmful sprays, irrigation, and machinery altogether. A mission that puts vitality back into the soils that the coffee itself gives out.
But the history of coffee cultivation in Kona is rich. The heirloom dates back nearly 200 years. And here, we'll explore its chronicle, what makes Kona coffee so special, and how to find the best Kona coffee farm for your favorite cup.
A brief history - 'Kanaka Koppe' to 'Kona Typica'
The first attempt at cultivating coffee in Hawaii was by a horticulturist named Don Francisco de Paula Marin in 1817. An early calling that landed short of success. Sometime later, the governor of Oahu, Chief Boki, brought coffee clippings from Brazil and subsequently were introduced to the Big Island in 1828. The missionary responsible--a man named Reverend Samuel Ruggles. From the clippings, it's speculated he planted a bourbon variety in several areas of the island. But growth for the coffee plant flourished best in the western volcanic region of Kona. Where it earned its original name 'Kanaka Koppe,' meaning 'Hawaiian coffee.'
Coffee farming in Kona during the early years was humble. If not bleak. Scale infestation and the trade reign of sugar made the commercial viability for coffee seem inconceivable. In the beginning, native Hawaiians and Chinese laborers worked tirelessly to succeed. Through meticulous hardships of farming on Kona's steep, friable terrain, they managed to sustain a living. Their farming methods improved and reluctantly wiped out the infestation. Allowing the market to stabilize by 1850.
The world recognized Kona coffee as a verified brand after English merchant Nicholas Greenwell introduced it to the World Fair in Vienna in 1873. Winning an award for excellence, he amplified the achievement of Kona coffee. Placing it among specialty success within the global consumer market. But many changes, trials, and tribulations would be responsible for the exquisite, full flavor cup the world knows today.
A great shift happened nearly 20 years after the victory at the World Fair. In 1899 a sugar farmer named Herman Weidemann introduced a Guatemalan variety to help bolster Hawaii's Brazilian stock. This new 'Typica' varietal outperformed the original Brazilian plantings. And when general store owner Kunigoro Yokoyama planted 100 acres of Guatemalan coffee seeds, he sparked a trend, officially setting the region's standard-bearer. Recognized then as 'Meleken Koppe' (American coffee) or the Guatemalan variety. A name that officially changed to 'Kona typica' 100 years later to avoid confusion among consumers in the specialty coffee market.
But what happened in those one hundred years? Why is Kona coffee still one of the world's most expensive and sought-after varieties? And what really makes it so darn special?
A movement among a microclimate and the craft of cultivation
Mineral-rich but fragile, the soils in Kona crumble at the sight of machinery. Volcanic slopes were kryptonite for sugarcane. Mechanics coffee growers did without, and such, coffee prevailed. But it wasn't just this prophetic dust--the multi-nutrient, well-draining, drought-resilient soil that saved the day for Kona. We must look back generations. At the people, the community, who were just as tenacious and resilient as the microclimate itself.
On the Big Island, Kona nestles on the height of two volcanoes, Hualalai and Mauna Loa. Here, coffee farms are able to produce quality by a distinguishable weather pattern. A microclimate that boasts early morning sun, afternoon cloud, and abundant rain. Cool evenings follow warm mornings. And a cool, dry season offers a dormant period for the trees to synchronize the opening of their buds with spring. It's an atmosphere suited flawlessly for quality coffee—a perfect match for the temperamental needs of Coffea arabica. Fording only 2 miles wide and 22 miles long, Kona is one of the smallest growing regions in the world. Representing only 1% of the global market, it's the only place in the world where Kona coffee is grown.
Among the island's biodiverse ecosystem, 800 coffee farms currently cultivate in soaring elevation. Today's processing traditions and the existence of small farms, however, arose from an early movement. When Japanese farmers dominated coffee production and sought independence from large estate holders in the late 1890s. Despite extreme financial disposition, they made a move toward leasing land and cultivating their own coffee.
During these formative years in Kona, Japanese farmers toiled ceaselessly in the fields to hone the craft of cultivation. And by 1898, they established the Kona Japanese Coffee Producers Association to further improve processing and market a higher value product. Later joined by Filipinos, mainland Americans, and Europeans, the movement created a symphony of small family farms. And today, the labor-intensive process remains tradition.
Prideful processing to private labels
The cost of Kona coffee has long been a topic of great discussion. It's a price that reflects the quality and rarity of the climate from which it's grown. But most importantly, it reflects the fair wage labor that pays for the meticulous tasks done by hand. From August to January, farmers pick thousands of pounds of ripe coffee cherries. On foot, day in and day out, carrying the weight of hundreds around their shoulder with each pass.
After picking, cherries are rinsed, pulped, and left to soak as fermentation occurs overnight. Then the coffee is spread out on large decks or sheds and raked several times a day to ensure even drying under Kona's morning sun.
One pick can take a small farm such as Ulu Coffee roughly three weeks to complete using the wet-process, sun-dried method. And for many, this is where the process ends. Once dry, the coffee is considered parchment. Containing a silvery layer of skin, the beans are often sold at this time. Where the parchment is removed through the milling process, sorted, then graded.
But with arduous labor comes immense pride.
Of the 800 farms in Kona, roughly 100 of them hold a private label. Moreover, a single lot. Meaning the farmer grows, picks, processes, and roasts all from their own farm. Instead of selling cherries or parchment coffee to larger farms in the area, small farms like Ulu Coffee oversee their crop to the roast, just shy of extraction. Handling the entire process for their coffee adds value by protecting its nuance and truly delivering a sense of place. Justly turning heads for those who savor a specialty cup.
How to find the best Kona coffee
Know your farmer
If possible, talk to the farmer. Many websites will outline their processes and practices. But if the information isn't readily available, try reaching out. If you're looking for sustainable coffees grown without chemicals or harsh sprays, you can look no further than Ulu Coffee. From fertilizers to compostable bags, Ulu Coffee values the meaning of Malama aina. Always putting people and the environment first.
Check the label
For Authenticity, steer clear from blends. Because of fraudulent labeling and unethical marketing scandals, laws were put in place to protect the consumer and the integrity of Kona. Be sure to look for a label that clearly states "100% Kona coffee". If the bag doesn't say 100%, you're likely about to consume or purchase a Kona blend. Currently, the law only requires 10% of Kona coffee for producers to call it "Kona." Meaning it's blended with coffee from other regions and is not entirely if hardly Kona. Many consumers, unfortunately, succumb to this trickery and find themselves wondering what all the hype is about. Make sure to get the real deal and double-check your label.
For freshness, shop for small-batch, whole bean coffees. And be sure to check the label or bag for a roasting date. Most quality roasters will stamp the bag with the roasting date in plain sight. For the most part, Kona farmers roast their coffees right on the farm, so keep in mind the shipment across the pacific. Ulu Coffee ships their whole bean to ohana in Chicago and roasts to order in small batches for guaranteed freshness!
Looking for a farm-specific, micro-lot Kona coffee? Many farms sell to larger Kona farms. Meaning the coffee is 100% Kona but blended with other farms' coffee within the region. To get that unique sense of place, look for a small farm label where the producers are in full control of the fruit and processing quality.
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History of Agriculture in Hawaii, hdoa.hawaii.gov/blog/ag-resources/history-of-agriculture-in-hawaii/.
Facebook. “Kona Kai Scandal of 1996- from Gerald Kinro's ‘A Cup of Aloha’ Pub. 2003, Pages 109-111.” Kona Coffee Farmers Association, 8 Aug. 2019, konacoffeefarmers.org/topics-of-interest/news/kona-kai-scandal-of-1996-from-gerald-kinros-a-cup-of-aloha-pub-2003-pages-109-111/.
Kinro, Gerald. A Cup of Aloha: the Kona Coffee Epic. University of Hawaii Press, 2003.
Love Big Island. “Kona Coffee: Our Definitive Guide (History, Background and Coffee Facts).” Love Big Island, 11 June 2020, www.lovebigisland.com/kona-coffee-hawaii/.
“HAWAII COFFEE HISTORY.” Hawaii Coffee Association - History, hawaiicoffeeassoc.org/History.