Celebrate the history, culture of Kona coffee

  • Kona coffee cherry is produced in abundance on farms and is even found growing wild in the forest understory of West Hawaii. (Voltaire Moise/Courtesy Photo)

The Kona Coffee Festival is gearing up to be 10 days of tropical agriculture, art, history, music, politics and much more. It commenced with the Holualoa Coffee and Art Stroll, and Friday will be the Kailua Village Lantern Parade and Bon Dancing. For the many events, activities and tours, check out the Kona Coffee Festival website.

Kona coffee has experienced a quiet birth over a century ago, growth, expansion, almost death and a rebirth that has put Kona on the map as a No. 1 producer of top quality coffee. Our coffee has finally made its mark as ichi ban or No. 1. According to some top coffee marketers, Kona coffee is now considered to be one of the world’s most sought after gourmet coffees. To celebrate, the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival has attracted coffee aficionados and tourists from around the world.


It has been an opportunity for kamaaina and visitors to get acquainted with farmers, processors and restaurants serving our coffee. A drive through mauka Kona is a beautiful sight, especially when our coffee is in bloom or fruit. We now have more coffee grown in Kona and the state of Hawaii than at any time in years. This expansion of Kona’s coffee is not the first time we have had a boom but now that our coffee is considered gourmet, we are working together to avoid the boom and bust syndrome of the world’s coffee industry.

The Kona coffee industry was born with a few coffee trees brought over from Oahu. They were first planted in 1828 by a missionary-teacher, Samuel Ruggles. These were descendants of plants that came to Oahu from Brazil a few years earlier. Over the next 150 years, Hawaiian coffee has had many ups and downs, but creative marketing and cooperative efforts have ensured a bright future.

Coffea arabica is the species grown here exclusively. Other species of any commercial importance, but not grown here, include Coffea robusta and Coffea liberica. Examples of these and several related species may be seen at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Experiment Station in Kainaliu. Call 322-4892 to arrange a visit. The extension and research staff there has been instrumental in the success of the coffee industry.

Kona coffee is comparable to the finest of Central American mild coffees. The beans are heavy and flinty, with relatively high acidity, strong flavor, full body and fine aroma. It has been in demand as a blend, and in recent years as 100 percent pure Kona.

Although coffee can be grown in many areas of Hawaii, the Kona district is ideal. Being situated on the western leeward slopes of the central highland mass of the Big Island, it is protected from the prevailing north-east tradewinds by the Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes.

The rainfall pattern is characterized by a dry period from November through January and rather frequent, almost daily afternoon showers during the remainder of the year. The average annual rainfall within the relatively narrow coffee belt of Kona, which follows the contour of the Mamalahoa Highway between 600 to 2,000 feet elevation, is 60 to 70 inches. Afternoon cloud cover and rainfall combine to create the perfect environment for top quality. Good coffee is being produced elsewhere in the state but it does not yet have the international recognition of Kona coffee.

Coffee has a long history in Kona. It has persisted despite many adversities, overcome economic depressions, and for many decades was considered to be the economic backbone of the Kona District. Growing coffee has not been a limiting factor, since it grows wild in the understory of upland forests. The problems are the intense labor involved in pruning, fertilizing and harvesting.

For many years, local schools allowed students vacation time to help farm families harvest the crop. When this ended, farm help from Central and South America came to our rescue.

The late Edward Fukunaga, a well-known and respected coffee expert in Kona, pointed out to me that when he first became Kona County Agricultural Agent in September, 1941, the coffee industry was in a terrible state. The farmers were deeply in debt, yet world coffee prices continued falling. Debt adjustments and government relief were the order of the day. Over 1,000 acres of coffee were abandoned in 10 years following the price crash. Another 1,500 acres were to be abandoned before 1950.

Perhaps the most tragic thing that took place during the coffee depression was the exodus of the younger people from Kona. Only the aged were left to tend the farms in many families. However things perked up after the war as world coffee prices rose and farmers thrived through the ’50s.

During the ’60s and the ’70s, fields were again neglected and coffee beans wasted for lack of harvesters. Tourism was the new kid on the block and everyone wanted to work at the fancy hotels and restaurants.

The awakening of today’s vibrant and romantic coffee industry is complicated, but the key was teamwork. The concept of gourmet coffee, according to Curtis Tyler Jr. who was manager of the American Factors Coffee Mill in Kailua came up as early as the ’50s, but it took years to bring the concept to fruition. Wing and Mayflower Coffee companies were the first to roast and package the highest quality Kona, but it was tourism that ultimately exposed Kona coffee to the world. Pacific Coffee Cooperative led by Mr. Yoshitaka Takashiba and Kona Farmers Cooperative managed by Les Glaspey and Bill Koepke were active in revitalizing the Kona Coffee Council. Tom Kerr, as chairman of the council, was instrumental in bringing all the diverse interests of the industry together. Today we have a new breed of coffee farmers producing world-class estate coffees. Some original farms have survived the years and are thriving. Others are owned or operated by entrepreneurs from the mainland, Japan, Southeast Asia and Latin America.


We cannot be sure of what the future will bring, but judging by the commitment and stamina of coffee farmers and processors coupled with production of one of the finest coffees in the world, the outlook is very promising.

Mahalo to the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival for expanding our special coffee to become a celebration that will attract visitors to our little bit of paradise and remind us how blessed we are to be kamaaina.