With a history that spans nearly 200 years, it’s no wonder why Kona coffee has become so popular across not only Hawaii but the rest of the country, and even the world!
A Short History of Kona Coffee
The first coffee planting in Hawaii was by Spanish physician Don Paulo Marin in 1813 on the island of Oahu, just behind Honolulu. Unfortunately, this planting was unsuccessful. However, in just 14 years time, after moving the crop to Manoa Valley, agriculturalist John Wilkinson had mature coffee plants that were ready to produce.
Just a year later, in 1828, because of Wilkinson’s success, Reverend Samuel Ruggles brought cuttings from Manoa to Napoopoo, South Kona.
In 1841, coffee plantations were established in the Kona district, and by 1873, Kona Coffee had made it out of the country. At the World’s Fair in Vienna an award for excellence was given to Henry Nicholas Greenwell, a pioneering Kona coffee merchant.
In 1910, 80% of the farms were family run operations, giving the lead to Kona Coffee as Hawaii’s source of income over tobacco and sugar cane.
In 1914, World War I begins and the first price raise of Kona Coffee is witnessed due to U.S. Army purchases.
In 1932, Kona’s pubic school vacation schedule changes to August through November to align with coffee production.
In 1940, World War II leads to higher prices for Kona coffee and the U.S. government caps price.
In 1950, production of Kona coffee was at its highest at 22 million pounds of green bean produced annually, and by 1957, Kona coffee crop valued at $6.5 million.
In 1981, only 1,600 acres of coffee remain grown by mostly small independent farms run by aging immigrant farmers and their families. However, today there are about 650 farms cultivating coffee in the Kona district. The typical size of a Kona coffee farm is 3 acres. Kona coffee represents approximately 95% of the coffees produced on the island. There are about 3,500 acres of land utilized in Kona coffee farming, producing about 3.8 million pounds a year, valued at about $14 million.
Growing & Processing
Between February and March, small white flowers known as “Kona snow” cover the Kona coffee tree. By April, these flowers turn into green berries, which eventually ripen into red fruit, called “cherry” (because of resemblance to a cherry) for picking by late August. Trees are hand-picked several times between August and January, providing about 15 pounds of cherry, which result in about two pounds of roasted coffee.
“Kona Snow” (left), Kona Coffee Trees (right)
Within 24 hours of picking, the cherry is run through a pulper. The beans are separated from the pulp and then placed overnight in a fermentation tank. The fermentation time is about 12 hours at low elevation, or 24 hours at higher elevation. The beans are rinsed and spread to dry on a hoshidana or drying rack. Traditional hoshidanas have a rolling roof to cover the beans in rain. It takes 7 to 14 days to dry the beans to an optimal moisture level of between 10 and 13%. Too much moisture content in coffee allows the growth of ochratoxin A, a harmful mycotoxin, hazardous to human health.
From here, the beans are stored as “pergamino” or parchment. The parchment is milled off the green bean prior to roasting or wholesale. Kona coffee beans are classified according to seed. Type I beans consist of two beans per cherry, flat on one side, oval on the other. Type II beans consist of one round bean per cherry, otherwise known as peaberries.
Further grading of these two types of beans depend on size, moisture content, and purity of bean type. The grades of type I Kona coffee are ‘Kona Extra Fancy,’ ‘Kona Fancy,’ ‘Kona Number 1,’ ‘Kona Select,’ and ‘Kona Prime.’ The grades of type II Kona coffee are ‘Peaberry Number 1’ and ‘Peaberry Prime.’ Also, a lower grade of coffee, called ‘Number 3,’ can not legally be labeled as “Kona.”
So, Why is Kona Coffee So Expensive?
In 2011, Kona coffee prices ranged anywhere from $7 – $55 per pound, with a $20 price range being typical for a bag of 100% Kona coffee (organic ranging up to about $35 per pound). So, why is Kona coffee so expensive? The answer: hard human labor.
The actual Kona Coffee Belt land is too steep and rocky to navigate with machinery, and hard human labor is needed to plant, grow, and harvest the crops. Harvests vary depending on annual rainfall patterns or damage by pests. To be honest, no one ever got rich by farming coffee. It always has, and always will be, a labor of passion!