history of kona coffee

History of Kona Coffee

The History of Kona Coffee

Kona Coffee has a fascinating history that is anything but a straight line. The first coffee trees planted in Hawaii weren’t even on the Big Island (never mind Kona), and the first attempts at creating a coffee industry were a complete disaster. And yet, its troubled history helped shape the kona coffee industry in to the thriving gourmet industry it is today.

The First Planted Coffee Tree

Did you know that the first coffee trees weren’t planted on the Big Island? They were planted on Oahu, in 1913. A Spanish advisor to King Kamehameha I named Don Francisco de Paula y Marin, planted the first coffee trees on Hawaiian soil. Don Francisco had no plans to start a new industry on the island: he just liked the way they looked in his garden. No one knows what happened to those coffee plants.

John Wilkinson, a farmer, brought several coffee plants over from Brazil to Hawaii. Governor Boki provided some land for Wilkinson to plant his trees. Unfortunatley Wilkinson died in 1829, and the coffee trees he planted did not survive.

The first coffee trees planted on the Big Island were actually planted on the Hilo side of the island. Reverend Joseph Goodrich took some trimmings from Oahu to his Hilo missionary to try and make his missionary self-sustaining. The coffee did not thrive on that side of the island (although today there some coffee plantations in Hilo!)

The First Kona Coffee

kona coffee history

Reverend Samuel Ruggles


The first coffee tree planted in Kona was by a missionary named Reverend Samuel Ruggles (which I think is an awesome name) around 1828.
But all was not well after that. The first attempts at creating a commercial industry failed, for reasons including the ‘white scale’ infestation, and the conversion of land into sugar plantations. Kona’s volcanic slopes were not ideal for growing sugar canes, and is one of the reasons that coffee farms managed to endure there. Coffee plantations started up on Kauai around this time, but were also not successful and were converted into sugar plantations (Kauai has just recently started converting their sugar plantations into coffee plantations). source

The Greenwell Era:

history of hawaii coffee

Henry Nicholas Greenwell


The commercial viability of kona coffee began to stabilize in the 1850’s. the introduction of ladybugs successfully took care of the white scale infestation, and growing methods became more skilled each year.
Henry Nicholas Greenwell came to the Kona region around 1850 and purchased a large amount of land. He opened a retail store and grew many different kinds of crops on his land, including coffee. At the 1873 World’s Fair in Vienna, Greenwell won an award for excellence, which helped build brand awareness of the name ‘Kona’ throughout the world. Greenwell’s descendants have continued the family tradition, and to this day own the very successful Greenwell Coffee Farms.

The Economic Crash and the Beginning of the Japanese-farming era:

In 1899 the economics behind the coffee industry crashed. Tariffs between Hawaii and the United States disappeared when the U.S. annexed Hawaii into the union. Sugar plantations benefitted and industry thrived from the annexation. Coffee plantation owners were devasted. They were forced into leasing out their land to plantation worked, many of which were of Japanese origin. By 1910, only Japanese coffee farms would survive. The legacy of Japanese-origin families who own coffee plantations continues to this day.

Also in 1899, a great shift in Kona Coffee was made when Kunigoro Yokoyama planted 100 Guatemalan coffee trees in Kona. The Kona Typica trees that grow today owe their lineage to these Guatemalan coffee plants.

In the 1920’s many Philippinos made their way to the Big Island to work on the coffee farms.

The 1930’s Great Depression depressed prices even more, and many farmers defaulted on their loans. Prices rised gradually over the next twenty years as WWII and a frost in South America caused coffee prices to rise back up.
After Hawaii officially became a state in 1959, the explosion in the tourist industry led to some ideal coffee growing land being used for tourist accomodations. Still, the post-war era has been one of relative stability for kona coffee.

Modern Day Kona Coffee: Trends and Challenges

There are tons of trends out there right now, but there are three main trends going on that will shape the Hawaii coffee industry for years to come:

  • Sugar Plantations Becoming Coffee Plantations – Since the 1980’s sugar plantations have been closing all over Hawaii. Most of those regions are being converted in to coffee plantations, and now coffee is being farmed in Ka’u (south of the Kona district), Maui, Molokai, and Kauai.
  • Coffee Borer Beetle – In 2010 an infestation of coffee borer beetle, the arch nemesis of Arabica coffee, was discovered. While decimating the 2010 and 2011 crops, efforts at containing the borer beetle appear to be working. Still, though, coffee farmers in 2012 estimated that about 10% of their crops are still infested.
  • 100% Kona vs. Kona Blend – It’s a debate that even kona farmers get in to with each other. While 100% kona coffee retails at about $30/pound, there are ‘kona blend’ coffees out there that sell for significantly less. The Kona Blends are usually only 10% actual kona beans. Some want to ban such a practice, so that only 100% kona can use the name ‘kona’ on their packaging. Others consider the blending a necessary evil, and make money selling their coffee to companies that will blend it.

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