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How Kona Coffee Came to Hawai'i

Updated on May 17, 2014
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Stephanie Launiu is a Native Hawaiian lifestyle & cultural writer. She has a degree in Hawaiian Pacific Studies. She lives on O'ahu.


If you love Kona Coffee, stock up now!

The coffee borer beetle, an insect native to Central Africa that lives, feeds and reproduces in both immature and mature coffee berries,has had a devastating effect on Kona Coffee crops. As a result, the cost of Kona Coffee is expected to rise sharply before eradication efforts can make a difference.

The coffee borer beetle was first found in Kona in 2010. It is now widespread; some coffee farms claim that the beetle has affected 80% of their crops. In 2011, the beetle was found in Kona's neighboring district of Ka'u where coffee is also grown. The beetle has not yet been found on coffee farms on Maui or Kaua'i.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawai'i) reports that Kona coffee farmers have lost more than $9 million in revenue during the past two years, which is a 25% drop. Most coffee farms are family-owned, and some are being forced to lay off workers and/or to cut working hours.

The U.S. Dept of Agriculture (USDA) has set aside $1 million to help local coffee growers to fight the effects of this invasive, destructive pest.

The Big Island is home to more than 700 coffee farms. In 2011 in Hawai'i, coffee farmers produced more than 8 million pounds of coffee valued at more than $30 million.

I sure hope the USDA can help Kona's coffee farmers to beat this beetle into submission!

Kealakekua Bay, Kona
Kealakekua Bay, Kona
Ripe coffee cherry almost ready for picking
Ripe coffee cherry almost ready for picking
Coffee beans are dried, sorted, graded by size and weight, and roasted
Coffee beans are dried, sorted, graded by size and weight, and roasted

The small growing region for Kona Coffee

In the Kona District on the Island of Hawai’i in the Hawaiian archipelago – isolated from major land masses by the Pacific Ocean – grows a world-famous coffee bean known as Kona Coffee.

The growing region for Kona Coffee only spans a 30 square mile area. The finest beans grow at an altitude above 800 feet. Below that, Kona’s weather is too dry and hot to allow coffee crops to grow abundantly. To complicate matters, optimal growing can only be done between 800 and 2500 feet above sea level. In heights higher than the 2500 foot level, rain patterns encourage the natural growth of rain forests. In such an environment, coffee would fruit and bloom all year long and farming premium-quality coffeewould be difficult or impossible.

Pauoa stream area, Lulumahu waterfall
Pauoa stream area, Lulumahu waterfall | Source

The History of Kona Coffee

Visiting sailing vessels first brought coffee to Hawai’i. Story has it that the first coffee was brought to the islands and planted in the early 1800’s by Don Paulo Marin, a Spaniard who is also known for planting the first Hawaiian pineapple crop. Marin is said to have planted his coffee near the highest point of Pauoa stream in the Nuuanu area of Honolulu, but Marin’s coffee plants aren’t those that today’s Kona Coffee is traced to.

Chief Boki and wife Liliha.  Boki later became Governor of Island of O'ahu.
Chief Boki and wife Liliha. Boki later became Governor of Island of O'ahu.

In Kona Coffee From Cherry to Cup, author Don Woodrum writes "In 1825, King Kamehameha II, his wife Kamamalu, and a retinue that included Boki, Governor of Oahu, visited England. A few weeks after the arrival of the party both the King and Queen died of measles. The British government arranged to have the bodies returned to Hawai‘i on a British warship, the Blonde, commanded by Captain George Anson, Lord Byron.”

Woodrum goes on to write that Governor Boki, while he was in England, had arranged with John Wilkinson, an agriculturalist who had farmed in the West Indies, to plant coffee and sugar on Boki’s property in Manoa Valley on the island of O’ahu. Wilkinson sailed on the Blonde with Governor Boki, and the ship stopped briefly at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to secure some coffee plantings for the initiative.

Wilkinson planted a coffee field and several acres of sugar, but he passed away in 1827 before his crops could mature. After he died, no one took care of the coffee fields but it had been proven that coffee could grow well in the islands.

Hanalei Valley, Kauai is known today for its rich taro fields.
Hanalei Valley, Kauai is known today for its rich taro fields.
Rev. Samuel Ruggles
Rev. Samuel Ruggles

Hawaiian coffee was commercially grown for the first time in the island of Kauai’s Hanalei Valley. Records show that in 1845 about 250 pounds of coffee was exported from Hanalei.

Reverend Samuel Ruggles, an early American missionary to Hawai’i, most often receives the credit for bringing coffee to Kona. Hawaiians say that in 1828 he brought coffee from Governor Boki’s field in Manoa to Napo’opo’o in the South Kona area. Against all odds, the cuttings grew fervently in Kona’s soil that was fertile with volcanic ash. Many years later in 1892, Herman Widemann brought a coffee bean from Guatemala that Kona farmers and their brokers found was of better quality. This is the bean that later became known as Kona Coffee or Kona typica.

Guatemala in Central America is 4240 miles from Kona, Hawai'i
Guatemala in Central America is 4240 miles from Kona, Hawai'i
Kona Coffee is harvested between July and December.
Kona Coffee is harvested between July and December.

Despite the evolution of the coffee industry in Hawai’i beginning with the first Spaniard to the English agriculturalist, and on to the Manoa coffee field, the Hanalei Valley exports, the American missionary in Kona and finally…the Guatemalan bean – the Kona Coffee bean is the only one that grows in the fast-draining soil on the slopes of two sleeping volcanoes – Hualalai and Mauna Loa. Kona Coffee has surpassed its Guatemalan ancestor to become Hawai’i’s uniquely-grown premier brew.

Kona Coffee Pioneer Miyoshi Moromoto

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© 2013 Stephanie Launiu


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