Just like the 54% of Americans that consume coffee daily, I enjoy a cup or two each morning. I won’t claim that I am an aficionado on coffee but I do have a ravenous interest in the history of any subject. One particular morning I stopped in at the local 7-11 store for a cup of coffee. As I scanned the different varieties, I realized that one of my usual picks, Vanilla Macadamia Nut, was a “Kona Blend.” I wondered to myself, “what constitutes a blend?” My reverie led to an extensive investigation about Kona Coffee that appeased my insatiable appetite for historical facts….and coffee.
History of Kona Coffee
The history of coffee can be traced to the 13th century, with roots in Arabic regions. A well travelled plant, it became a cash crop of the Latin Americas around the 1700’s. According to historical documents, a Spaniard by the name of Francisco de Paula y Marin brought the first cuttings of an Arabica plant to the island of O’ahu in 1813. Marin was a confidant to King Kamehameha I and is credited with introducing many agricultural crops such as grapes, pineapples, sugarcane, mangoes, and cotton. He also supplied the King with brandy and rum from his experimentations with these crops. A valuable asset to any administration if you ask me! Not much is known about the eventual outcome of the coffee plants first introduction to Hawai’i, but it’s second migration left an indelible mark on the 50th State’s storied coffee history.
Some of today’s Kona Coffee trees are the scions of coffee plants from Brazil brought by John Wilkinson in 1825. Wilkinson established the plants on the Manoa Valley estate of Kamauleule, or Governor Boki as he was more commonly known. Soon, coffee plantations sprung up in Niu Valley and Kalihi Valley on O’ahu. The first plantation to appear on Hawai’i Island was in Hilo. Reverend Joseph Goodrich grew coffee, or Kanaka Koppe (Hawaiian Coffee) to demonstrate sustainability for his mission and native Hawaiian students. In 1828, Reverend Samuel Ruggles, was transferred from Hilo to Kona, bringing with him cuttings from Governor Boki’s estate and planted them near the Kealakekua Church. It would take a considerable amount of time before the plants would thrive, but when they finally did, Kona Coffee was born.
Throughout the 1800’s, coffee was grown in other parts of the Hawaiian Islands with the first coffee mill constructed in 1880 by John Gaspar Machado in Kealakekua. In 1873, Henry Nicholas Greenwich, an English Merchant, brought some of his Kona Coffee to the Vienna World’s Fair where it won him an award for excellence. Thus the Kona brand was introduced to the world. The 1899 market crash caused many of the Hawaiian coffee plantations to close. The Kona plantations hung on by leasing land out to laborers, many of which were Japanese immigrants, working on 5-12 acre parcels whom eventually diversified the plantations by growing other products such as Macadamia Nut. But what makes Kona Coffee so prized and pricey?
Kona Coffee ranks in the top 10 of the most expensive coffees in the world. The events that led to itʻs popularity are pretty intriguing. Hawaiʻi has long been a rich market for agricultural products and during the era of the California Gold Rush, Hawaiʻiʻs coffee was in high demand for export. The imposition of coffee by “mainlanders” drove the prices up, which gained the interest of European and American investors. A freak frost event in Brazil caused the U.S. Army to acquire coffee from Hawaiʻi during World War I, World War II and the Korean War, once again, increasing retail prices. And in the 1980ʻs, a world wide demand for gourmet coffee contributed to the market boost for Kona Coffee products. Up until this time, Kona Coffee was always pure, never blended. In 1994, a drought caused the steep decline of coffee production and it split the market with single estates introducing a Kona Blend comprising of 10% Kona Coffee and either Colombian, Brazilian, or other foreign coffee varieties. This niche market helped to propel 100% Kona Coffee products to itʻs current status.
If youʻve ever had a cup of 100% pure Kona Coffee, which sells upwards of $30 a pound, youʻd get a wonderful mixture of tastes on your palate from creamy and smooth, to clean and sweet with hints of a chocolaty finish. I donʻt mind a Kona Blend so much if thatʻs your price point because they come in so many rich flavors. As I previously exclaimed, Iʻm no aficionado when it comes to coffee. What I am, is a student of history, and everything indeed bares a history. My research regarding Kona Coffee has given me an appreciable insight of the crop that has surged to the forefront of Hawaiian agricultural prominence in the last 200 years. Before I conclude this article, Iʻd like to leave you with a few facts about Kona Coffee for your reading pleasure. A Hui Hou!!
Interesting Facts About Kona Coffee
- Small white flowers aka “Kona Snow” appear on coffee trees in February and March. The green berries appear in April, and the red fruit or “cherry” appears in late August. This is picking time!
- Each coffee tree can yield up to 2 pounds of roasted coffee.
- Kona Coffee is classified according to seed…type 1 consists of 2 beans per cherry, and type 2 consists of 1 bean or “pea berries.”
- Hawaiʻi law requires blends to state only that a product contains 10% Kona Coffee. It is not required to provide the accompanying information on itʻs labels.
- Coffee is grown across the state of Hawaiʻi, but Hawaiʻi Island is responsible for most of the production. Aside from Kona, there are plantations in Kaʻu, Puna, Hamakua and Hilo.
- Kona has nearly 700 independent coffee farms on 3-7 acre plots located in the “coffee belt” or “coffee country” which encompasses a 30 mile long and 2 mile wide area ranging from 500 ft. to 3,000 ft above sea level.
- The cultivated land used for coffee farming is leased by the Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estates. Per the will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, these lands are not to be sold so that it may generate eternal income for the Kamehameha Schools.
- Donkeys were once used to transport coffee from rocky terrains to the coffee mill up until 1940, when they were replaced by the Jeep. Many of these donkeys were released into the wild and lived along the slopes of Hualalai. Eventually, they were adopted by other farmers or air lifted out of the area.
- Hawaiʻi remains the only commercial producer of coffee in the United States.
- The most expensive coffee in the world is Kopi Luwak, produced in Indonesia and retails at approximately $160 per pound. Now how do you like Kona Coffee?