For most people, the first thing that comes to mind about Hawaiian coffee production will be one word: Kona. Kona coffee is among the most expensive in the world, and it has become more well known in recent years following some legal battles over labelling.
However, while Kona is perhaps Hawaii’s most well-known coffee-growing region, there are thousands of farms across the state in total.
Coffee first arrived in Hawaii around 1820. Today, it is the only state in the US where coffee is grown on a commercial scale. Furthermore, its volcanic soils and tropical microclimates make it perfect for growing specialty coffee.
To learn more about the diversity of the Hawaiian coffee sector, I spoke to two coffee professionals based in the state. Read on to find out what they told me.
You may also like our article on four things you should know about Hawaiian coffee.
A brief history of Hawaiian coffee
Brandon von Damitz is the co-founder and co-owner of Big Island Coffee Roasters – located on the eponymous island, which is the largest in Hawaii.
He tells me: “The history of Kona coffee dates back to 1828, when it was first introduced to the Big Island by Reverend Samuel Ruggles, who brought seeds from Brazil to Hilo. Soon after, seedlings made their way over to Kona – the humble beginnings of what is now a globally recognised coffee origin, protected by state law.”
“At the 1873 World’s Fair in Vienna, Kona coffee received its first international accolade,” Brandon tells me. “The Hawaiian coffee industry was developed mostly by the efforts of smallholder farmers and migrant workers.”
Many of these workers originally came from Japan and China. However, Brandon says that native Hawaiians also helped the regional coffee industry to grow. At the time, most farms were owned and operated by European and American colonists.
However, Brandon explains that commercial agriculture in Hawaii has not historically favoured coffee as a cash crop.
“While coffee has been in Hawaii for nearly 200 years,” Brandon explains, “sugar and pineapple remained the dominant crops of the islands during the 19th and 20th centuries.”
Hawaiian coffee survived, expanding and contracting in the 20th century, until about 30 years ago, when things started changing.
Brandon says: “During the 1980s, sugar and pineapple production started declining in Hawaii. At the same time, global specialty coffee production started gaining momentum. As coffee enthusiasts around the world sought higher quality and more ethically sourced coffee, Kona was able to claim and maintain a brand of excellence in the eyes of coffee lovers.”
Hawaiian coffee today
Since the 1980s, Hawaiian coffee production figures have soared. More Hawaiian farms now produce coffee than any other crop. In January 2021, the USDA reported that some 6,900 acres of land across the state are used for coffee cultivation.
Brandon says: “Hawaii produces approximately 5 million pounds (2.3 million kg) of green coffee per year.”
While this does represent less than 1% of all coffee grown in the world, the country’s coffee sector is still worth some US $250 million – split between production and consumption.
Juleigh Burden is a research assistant at the Hawaiian Agricultural Research Centre. She says: “Arabica is the main species commercially grown in Hawaii. There are small amounts of robusta grown, but these aren’t commercially available.
“Liberica is used sometimes as a rootstock for Kona if there are known issues with pests, such as nematodes.”
The root-knot nematode damaged coffee trees across Hawaii during the 1990s, affecting production volumes as a result. However, researchers were able to graft arabica plants onto liberica roots to create pest-resistant plants.
Coffee has also spread further afield since arriving in Kona in the 19th century. While Kona remains the best known of Hawaii’s coffee-growing regions, arabica is now cultivated all across the state.
“The main coffee growing regions are Kona, Ka‘u, Puna, Hamakua (all located on the Island of Hawaii), Maui, Kauai, O‘ahu, and Molokai,” Juleigh explains. “These are the largest in terms of commercial production, but coffee can be cultivated nearly anywhere on the islands.
“There are even a few backyard farmers who grow coffee as a hobby for their own personal consumption.”
What makes Hawaiian coffee unique?
Since Hawaii is a US state and must follow federal minimum wage laws, coffee grown in Hawaii represents one of the most equitable coffee supply chains in the world.
For example, an average of approximately 5% to 10% of the cost paid by consumers goes to coffee farmers around the world. However, in Hawaii, it’s estimated that 40% to 60% (or more) of the cost paid by consumers goes directly to the producer.
Juleigh adds that the terroir of the Hawaiian islands has a unique effect on the coffee grown there.
“Hawaii has suitable temperatures, soils, and infrastructure in place to make growing, selling, and exporting coffee profitable.”
She goes on to explain that climate, in particular, is a key point.
“One of the most important factors to consider when planting coffee is the climate,” Juleigh tells me. “Temperature is largely determined by latitude and altitude.”
This is why, unlike many other producing countries, coffee can be grown at significantly lower altitudes in Hawaii, at a maximum of around 1,000 m.a.s.l. This generally means less acidity in the cup, which is why Hawaiian coffees are often noted for being sweet.
However, Juleigh adds that Hawaiian coffees shouldn’t be generalised, as there can be key differences across the different growing regions. While average temperatures generally remain the same across the islands, rainfall fluctuates significantly from region to region.
For example, the Kona district is mostly dry and sunny, whereas Puna, on the opposite side of the same island, is significantly wetter. This means the state can offer a range of flavour profiles and coffee experiences as diverse as the growing conditions.
Coffee growing regions of the Big Island
The western Kona district is the largest coffee-growing area in the state, comprising some 900 farms alone.
The Kona Coffee Belt lies between the slopes of the Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes, and is a perfect location for growing coffee, thanks to its nutrient-dense, volcanic soils. The majority of coffee grown on the Big Island is from Kona.
Kona coffee trees bloom from January to February and the fruits are harvested from August to December. After processing and drying, coffees are then graded according to size and quality. Notable Kona grades include “Kona Extra Fancy”, “Kona Fancy”, and “Kona Peaberry”.
Many varieties are grown in the Kona region, including the unique Kona Typica mutation. While there are no botanical records, it’s believed that when Guatemalan beans were imported into Hawaii in the late 19th century, they naturally mutated as they adapted to the islands. However, Brandon notes that other varieties are also grown in Kona.
“At Big Island Coffee Roasters, Kona Peaberry is our top seller, but we’re also known for providing a diverse array of specialty-grade Hawaiian and Kona coffees roasted with care and attention to detail,” he says.
Kona coffee, popularity & labelling disputes
Over the years, Kona coffee has gained a reputation in the coffee industry for its unique history and highly-prized flavour profiles.
Throughout the 1980s, Kona was considered one of the highest quality coffees in the world. It was renowned for its mild, sweet, and chocolatey flavours. Today, it still commands a premium price; roasters buying 100% Kona green (unroasted) coffee often pay over US $25/lb.
However, with its reputation and high value came many imitation products which have threatened to drive down the quality of coffee labelled as Kona. As a result, in the early 1990s, the State of Hawaii introduced a 10% Kona coffee blend statute.
This law requires any coffee packaging that advertises the word “Kona” must contain a minimum 10% Kona coffee by weight in order for the Kona name to be used.
However, over the years that followed, many brands took this as an invitation to label coffee as being “Kona coffee” when it contained just 10% of the expensive Hawaiian beans. The remaining 90% were often of considerably lower quality, creating a cheaper blend that didn’t represent 100% Kona coffee.
In a landmark case in March 2021, several US brands paid a total of US $13 million in a class action settlement, concerning products that were falsely advertised as Kona coffee. Following the suit, the Hawaii County Council passed a resolution urging state legislators to ensure that all blends labelled as Kona include at least 51% Kona coffee.
Before coffee, the southern region of Ka’u was a prominent sugarcane producer. The first coffee tree was planted in Ka’u in 1997.
As well as being home to rich volcanic soil, Ka’u is known for having a good volume of rainfall and plenty of sunshine.
Despite being a relative newcomer to coffee production, the region has flourished and scaled quickly over the past 25 years. In the 2016/17 crop year, it grew more than 351,000 lbs of coffee.
Much like Ka’u, Hāmākua was also known for its sugarcane production before it switched to coffee.
With only 45 small farms, Hāmākua (which is located in the northeastern part of the Big Island) produces smaller amounts of coffee in comparison to Kona, Maui, and Ka’u. However, it is rapidly making a name for itself in the Hawaiian coffee industry.
Varieties, processing, and cup profiles
“At scale, the primary processing methods in Hawaii are washed and semi-washed,” Juleigh tells me.
However, experimentation with processing is becoming more common, as Brandon says. “In the last few years, yeast-inoculated washed coffees have really started gaining traction. Honey and natural processed coffees are also becoming more common as farmers learn how to diversify their crop offerings.”
Juleigh adds: “More recently in Hawaii, some producers have started taking advantage of innovative processing technologies, including new styles of fermentation.
“The annual state coffee competitions typically highlight these successful innovations, as well as the unique varieties being grown.”
Brandon tells me that Big Island Coffee Roasters prides itself on offering a wide range of different coffees to really explore the breadth and diversity of Hawaii’s terroir.
“Some of our coffees include a washed Ka’u Maragogipe, a natural Ka’u Maragogipe, a barrel-aged Puna Caturra, and a black honey Ka’u Typica, for instance,” he says.
As for a cup profile, Hawaiian coffee naturally varies depending on variety, terroir, processing method, roast profile, and a number of other factors.
However, Kona coffee is usually described as being smooth and delicate with a silky mouthfeel. Common tasting notes include milk chocolate, caramel, and florals. Meanwhile, coffees from Ka’u are generally described as being more robust, rich and complex, similar to Colombian coffee.
As for varieties, Brandon says: “The most commonly grown variety across the state is Typica: you can find it on almost all coffee farms. It also grows wild.”
He also tells me more about some of the other varieties that grow across Hawaii, including in Maui.
“In terms of acreage, Yellow Caturra is the most planted. Other common varieties include Red Caturra, Red Catuai, Red and Yellow Bourbon, and Maragogipe. Gesha is also starting to increase in popularity with the more progressive farms.”
Juleigh, meanwhile, notes that Mokka and Mundo Novo are both prominent, and tells me that “many other varieties are grown in varying quantities”.
Hawaii may not account for much of the world’s coffee supply, but production is expected to increase significantly in the years to come. However, don’t let that detract from your perception of it as a coffee origin: its beans are unique, complex, and well worth trying.
Thanks to its distinct climates and varieties, and its rich, volcanic soil, Hawaii’s reputation as an origin seems set in stone for the years to come. Just make sure that when you do look for Hawaiian coffee, whether it’s from Kona or elsewhere, you buy from a roaster who ethically sources high-quality beans from farmers who love what they do.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on coffee production in Madagascar.
Photo credits: Big Island Coffee Roasters
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