Kona coffee is internationally acclaimed for its unsurpassable quality. Sweet, heavy in body, and mildly acidic, Kona coffee boasts a flavor profile with notes of chocolate and wine, with just a hint of spice. Coffee connoisseurs assure that you would be hard pressed to find higher quality coffee in the United States. But you need not possess the refined tastes of an expert to know for yourself that Kona coffee is truly superior. A visit to any Kona coffee farm will have you instantly hooked on the personality of Kona coffee’s flavor and history.
Why Kona Coffee is So Good
Climate is largely to thank for Kona coffee’s uniquely vibrant flavor. The mineral-rich volcanic soils that characterize the slopes of Mauna Loa are perfect for a Kona coffee farm. These soils provide ample nitrogen, potassium, calcium, zinc, and boron, which are essential for a healthy plant and flavorful coffee. The coffee plant thrives at altitudes of 1,500-3,000 feet—another reason that coffee grows so well on the slopes of the Big Island’s volcanoes.
Kona’s stable weather patterns, which feature hot, sunny mornings and cloudy, drizzly afternoons, are perfect for the hearty coffee plant. Coffee is quite durable and enjoys ample sun, but it also benefits from Kona’s frequent rains and cloud cover. The porous quality of Kona’s sloping soils enables ample root penetration while permitting sufficient drainage to prevent over-hydration. Further, at the altitudes at which coffee grows, temperatures are stable at approximately 70 degrees Fahrenheit. These warm and stable temperatures are perfect for a Kona coffee farm.
The coffee plant begins to flower at the end of the dry season during the months of March and February. By April, when rain typically begins to fall, the coffee plant starts to fruit. By September, the plant is adorned with bright red cherries slightly larger than jellybeans. Fruit from the same tree will mature at different rates. Thus, each plant requires continuous picking between September and January, when rains begin to dissipate.
The Origins of Kona Coffee
The origins of the Kona coffee farm lie in the efforts of Samuel Reverend Ruggles. Ruggles introduced cuttings of Brazilian coffee to the North and South Kona districts in 1828. However, production was slow to gain traction, and coffee producers endured a host of setbacks over the ensuing century and a half. The first Kona coffee plantations emerged in 1841. Lack of labor and poor weather conditions induced production setbacks in the 1860’s. However, Hermann Widemann’s introduction of a Guatemalan species, now called Kona Typica, in 1892 reinvigorated the industry. Today, Kona Typica is the most prevalent coffee species propagated in Kona.
Henry Nicholas Greenwell also played a large role in incentivizing coffee production in the late 19thcentury. In fact, Greenwell’s coffee became internationally acclaimed when it was honored at the World’s Fair in Vienna in 1873. Indeed, Greenwell is still a huge name in the Kona area, and their Kona coffee farm continues to produce high-quality coffee. By 1899, the coffee industry began to resemble that of sugar, featuring large plantations. At that time, 3 million coffee trees were producing fruit on 6,000 acres of Kona land.
Setbacks and the Transformation of the Industry
The international coffee market faced a severe crash in the early 20thcentury, compelling the dissolution of several Kona coffee plantations. Plantation owners were forced to lease their land to migrant workers, predominantly of Japanese origin. Thus, the crash created an industry comprised of several simple units: small, family-owned and worked coffee farms.
By 1910, 80% of Kona coffee farms were family-run. The legacy has prevailed over the course of the last century. To this day, Kona coffee is primarily produced on small farms. At present, Kona produces roughly 3.8 million pounds of coffee annually, hailing from 650 Kona farms averaging 3 acres in size. In the last 20 years, coffee has come to replace sugar as the staple agricultural commodity to Kona’s economy.
The Great Depression caused another setback for the Kona coffee industry. But yet again, the industry prevailed in spite. In fact, in 1932, “summer” break was adjusted to fall between August and November so school children could assist in the coffee harvest. The advent of World War II caused a spike in the demand for coffee, reversing the negative effects of the Depression. In 1950, the industry achieved peak production, generating 22 million pounds. The 1953 frost in Brazil reduced the international supply of coffee, further increasing demand for coffee from Kona. Though production is no longer as high as it used to be, the industry continues to thrive.
Producing Kona Coffee
Those who work on a Kona coffee farm take careful steps to produce a superior quality product. The processing method, referred to as the wet-processing method, requires more time and effort than production processes in other regions.
The first step, of course, is to pick the coffee cherry when it turns from gold to bright red. It takes approximately 7.5 pounds of cherry to produce 1 pound of coffee beans. After picking, farmers “pulp” the coffee, using a machine to separate the bean from the flesh, within 24 hours. The beans then undergo a 12-24 hour fermentation process in water, which lends the final product its brightness. Finally, the coffee is left out to dry to an optimum moisture level of 9-12% before roasting.
Of course, not all Kona coffee is the same. There are two primary types of Kona coffee: Type 1 and Peaberry. A Type 1 coffee fruit contains two beans, each with a flat side and a curved side. A Peaberry fruit contains a single round bean. Peaberry is said to be superior in quality to Type 1, as its small size and unique curvature make for an even roast with a rich, fruity taste. Beyond the two prior classifications, Kona coffee is intricately classified into various types to indicate the quality of the bean.
Buyer Beware; many coffee producers use deceptive marketing tactics to provide cheaper, more profitable “Kona” coffee that isn’t from Kona. Some sell Kona coffee “blends” that only contain the minimum stipulated amount of 10% Kona coffee. Others sell “Hawaiian,” coffee, which is Kona coffee of the lowest grade. If you’re seeking the true Kona coffee experience, make sure you are purchasing coffee labeled “100% Kona.” Stay away from Kona “Roasts,” “Styles,” or “Blends.”
Why is Kona Coffee so Expensive?
Kona coffee is one of the most expensive types of coffee. Of course, its superior quality renders it much higher in value than your conventional store-bought coffee. But there are additional factors that impact the cost of Kona coffee.
Because Kona lies within the borders of the United States, it is subject to minimum wage laws. At the very least, a formal employee can expect to make at least ten dollars an hour picking Kona coffee. This is in stark contrast to the coffee industry in third world countries, which can get away with paying meager wages to poor and desperate workers. Their labor costs are thus far lower, meaning a cheaper but far less ethically oriented product.
It costs approximately $8 in labor to pick just a pound of coffee. However, when you factor in the costs of production and non-labor inputs, it actually costs farmers $44-$60 to produce a single pound of coffee.
Kona Coffee: An Intimate Experience
95% of the coffee produced on the Big Island of Hawaii hails from Kona. There are over 200 private coffee labels in Kona. However, due to the incredibly high cost of production, most farmers sell their fruit to larger processing companies. A standard bag of Kona coffee thus derives from several different farms. That means different beans hailing from different climates to produce a unique blend of flavors. In fact, private labels tend to diverge markedly in taste, as Hawaii’s unique microclimates generate coffees of diverging flavors.
Buying 100% Kona coffee of any kind is a great way to enjoy exquisite flavor while supporting small farmers. If you want to go the extra mile for a unique, intimate coffee experience, buy from a Kona coffee farm that roasts its own coffee. Get to know the farmers, their process, and their product. Taste for yourself how their unique microclimate impacts the subtle flavors of their coffee.
To learn more about coffee production and coffee farming, schedule a Farm Tour with us! We grow, process, and roast the beans from our Kona coffee farm. We take pride in providing our farm community with the experiencing of enjoying coffee from start (planting) to finish (enjoying a fresh cup of coffee).