Kona Coffee and the story about the Hawaiian coffee

Kona Coffee is one of the things people immediately connect with Hawaii. The sunny US state, famous as the birthplace of Jason Momoa or Barack Obama. And one of the best beans in the world. Or just the priciest?

What is Kona Coffee?

You have probably already heard about Kona Coffee. Something about Hawaiian beans sounds exotic. Especially when you hear those are some of the best beans in the world. But are they? Or they are just another great story, like Kopi Luwak?

Kona is not a new coffee type. It is a name for coffee grown exclusively in the Kona region. Think of it like sparkling wine from the Champagne region or brandy from the Cognac region. So, you can’t grow this coffee in any part of the world, except for the Kona region. 

There are other Hawaiian islands where the coffee is grown:

  • Ka’u – 500 coffee farms
  • Hamakua – 15 coffee farms
  • Puna – 20 coffee farms
  • Maui – 315 coffee farms
  • Kauai – 3 coffee farms
  • Molokai – one coffee farm

Kona is not the only Hawaiian coffee but certainly is the most famous one. And for a long time, Hawaii was the only USA state that grew coffee. Nowadays, California joined the race. The FRINJ organization gathers almost 70 California farmers. However, it is far from industrial coffee farming.  

But let’s get back to Kona Coffee.

Kona coffee means green coffee processed from cherry coffee which is grown in the geographic region of Kona and which at least meets the minimum requirements of Kona Prime green coffee.

Hawaiian Department of Agriculture

Kona Coffee – humble beginning

The history of Hawaiian coffee is exceptional and complicated. That’s the case with every other part of the coffee universe. It includes pirates, king Kamehame, diplomats, London coffee houses and much more. It deserves a solo article, so here is just a glance. 

  • 1817. Don Paulo Marin tries to plant coffee in Hawaii and fails. However, the idea is born.
  • 1826. Agriculturalist John Wilkinson plants the first small coffee field in Manoa Valley (Oahu).
  • 1828. Reverand Samuel Ruggles brings those cuttings to South Kona. Success!
  • 1840. First written trace of coffee in Hawaii. 
  • 1850’s. Great coffee crisis. Pests, uncommonly bad weather and lack of workforce unite against the coffee.
  • 1860. Coffee is almost extinct in Hawaii
  • 1873. Henry N. Greenwell, a pioneering coffee merchant, won the award for excellence at the World’s Fair (Vienna) for his Kona Coffee.
  • 1880. John Gaspar Machado builds first coffee mill in Hawaii
  • 1892. Hermann Widemann brings Guatemalan beans to Hawaii. That coffee variety is now known as Kona Typica or Kona Coffee.
  • 1898. The world coffee market crashed. 
  • 1899. Three million coffee trees growing in Hawaii

20 century challenges

  • 1917-1918. Increased demand for coffee due to WWI. Catastrophic frost destroys crops in Brasil. Coffee in Hawaii is again popular.
  • 1922. Kona District is the only part of Hawaii where the coffee is grown
  • 1929. Great Depression in the USA. Coffee prices and demand are the lowest ever. 
  • 1941-1953. World War II increases the coffee demand around the world. Another frost in Brasil (1953) causes another coffee shortage.
  • The 1960s: Golden age of coffee in Hawaii. The yields are excellent
  • The 1970s: High cost, lack of workers, low prices…history repeats itself. Also, the First Annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival was held that year. 
  • The 1980s: Game-changer decade. Start of the speciality coffee movement. Only small coffee farms are left, and they produce extraordinary beans. 
  • 1991. Famous blend statute. Every blend needs to have at least 10% of Kona beans to be sold as Kona Coffee.

Nowadays, the Kona district has around 900 coffee farms. Some of the first coffee farms are now museums. The fifth generations of coffee farmers proudly grow their beans. Kona coffee farms produce around 1200 tons of green beans every year – net worth about $14 million. 

Where does Kona Coffee grow?

Kona Coffee grows in the Kona region of the Big Island in Hawaii. Specifically, in the north and south districts of Kailua-Kona, on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa Mountains.

That area is known as the Kona Belt. About 50 kilometres long and 3-4 kilometres wide, on an elevation that ranges from 150 m to 1000 m. Rich volcanic soil, high altitude and favourable climate make these beans top quality and one of the best ones you can buy.

Kona Coffee belt explained on the map of the Big Island of Hawaii
Kona coffee belt

Elevation

All the best beans in the world are grown high. At higher altitudes, the environment is more challenging, and coffee cherries develop slow. The rain is the only source of water, and the soil doesn’t absorb that much humidity. That results in dense, flavorful beans.

Although Kona beans grow at lower altitudes (compared to the other top coffee beans), they have one significant advantage. Hawaii is placed north of the equator. Hence, it has a colder climate when compared to other coffee-growing countries. So, the Hawaiian Kona Beans grow as high as they can possibly grow. 

Soil

Volcanic soil is a rich source of natural minerals. It is also porous, so the water never stays there too long. At last, volcanic soil acts as a natural fertilizer for the coffee plant. 

Climate

Kona region has a kind of microclimate. Most of the days have little or no wind, sunny mornings and shady afternoons. The night temperatures are not too cold. Sunny and rainy seasons also help in the perfect progress of the coffee plant. The temperatures go around 21 C but never below 12 C. 

The harvest

Kona Coffee trees bloom twice a year: in January and May. The trees produce beautiful small white flowers that locals call Kona Snow. It takes around four months for the first cherries to appear after the bloom.

Only the ripe red cherries are carefully picked by hand. The harvest takes time, as the experienced pickers have to return several times to pick out the best cherries.

The cherries are then dried in the sun. After that, they are ready for the next steps in the coffee process. Not quite like growing coffee in your apartment, right?

With an apple, all you do is pick it and eat it. But with coffee, first, you have to pick the coffee cherries, extract the beans, ferment the beans, wash and dry them before you can remove the parchment (dried hulls). Then you get green coffee that still has to be roasted, ground and boiled before you drink it.

Norman Sakata, a retired third-generation coffee grower

Grading of Kona Coffee

Kona Coffee is one of the greatest buzzwords in the coffee universe, along with Kopi Luwak, gourmet coffee or vegan coffee. Naturally, everyone wanted to ride that Kona train. So, it didn’t take long for “Kona stylebeans to appear on the market. 

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture came up with a grading system for the Kona Coffee beans to protect farmers from unloyal competition. When grading, four main factors are considered:

  • Shape and size of the bean – bigger beans are better
  • Colour
  • Moisture content 
  • Number of defects

The rest of the factors are roasting quality, aroma and flavour. But first, they need to be classified by the bean.

Grading Kona coffee by the seed

Type I Coffee has two seeds per coffee cherry. Hence, a normal-type bean.

Type II Coffee has only one bean per cherry. This is considered an anomaly. The usual term for these beans is peaberries. 

Type I Kona beans

All type I Kona beans must have a high moisture percentage  – between 9% and 12%. The other differences are the nuances that distinguish good coffee from top-class coffee. 

  1. Kona Extra Fancy

Truly the best of the best. The largest beans, green colour, high moisture content. Only 8 imperfections per 300 grams are allowed. Just 2% of each crop is graded Kona Extra Fancy.

  1. Kona Fancy

Very large beans, green colour and same high amount of moisture. Difference? Twelve imperfections per 300 grams are allowed.

  1. Kona Number 1

Yes, the third-best is called Number 1. Medium size, green colour, and the same moisture percentage. However, they can have up to 18 defects per 300 grams.
Kona Number 1 is the usual blend you will find in most Hawaiian restaurants. 

  1. Kona Select

Usually small beans, no colour requirements. A maximum of 5% defective beans is allowed.

  1. Kona Prime

The smallest beans, no colour requirement. These lowest grade beans can have up to 20% of defective beans. 

Type II Kona beans

Also known as peaberries, type II beans are a genetic mutation. Peaberries have full, round beans with an even concentration of flavours. Around 5% of each harvest are peaberry beans. And you guessed it, peaberry coffee is pricier. 

Kona Peaberry Number 1

Large beans, 9-12% of moisture and a maximum of 18 defects per 300 grams. 

Kona Peaberry Prime

It has no size requirements and up to 25 % defective beans. However, the moisture content must still be 9-12%. 

As you see, Kona Coffee is also thoroughly graded. So, next time you see the words Kona on a coffee label, be sure to check the small letters too. 

Why is Kona Coffee that expensive?

Kona Coffee has two main reasons that keep her price up. The first one is exclusivity. These beans are grown in a specific part of Hawaii. Hence, it can be grown only there, usually in micro-lots. Also, those micro-lots are on the slopes of volcanoes and mountains. You can’t get any heavy machinery there. And everything else you need must be transported by boat.

The second part is the paycheck. Most of the world’s coffee farms are located in third-world countries. However, Hawaii is part of the USA. That means that labour cost is much, much higher, especially for precise hand picking. Hiring experienced pickers costs even more. 

Coffee pickers in Columbia are paid around $0.15 for every kilo of cherries they collect. A good picker having a good day can pick 200 kgs and earn $30. 

In Hawaii, pickers are paid $1.5 – $2 per kilo.

It usually takes 8 kilos of cherries for 1 kilo of roasted coffee. It’s already a difference of at least $11 per kilo of coffee. And that’s just one of the factors.

Some might say that Kona Coffee is expensive, but others claim that other beans are undervalued. Or even worse, the human rights of those workers are on a disputable level. However, we are still far away from lab-grown coffee, so we will have to deal with this problem.

Kona coffee in nature
Photo by Ekrem Canli

Where to find Kona Coffee?

Kona Coffee is a specialty coffee. Hence, it is usually not available on the usual store shelves. Your best bet is to visit the Kona region and have a tour of the plantations. If you missed this 2021. Kona Coffee Fest, be sure to prepare for the next one in 2022. Of course, any Hawaiian supermarket should also have it. 

For people that don’t visit Hawaii as often as they should, Kona coffee is available online. You can always order it directly from the Hawaiian farms and roasteries. Or some retailers, but be very picky with their names. Some of them got sued for false advertising. But more on that further in the article.

How to buy Kona Coffee

Where there are tourists, there are tourist traps, too. And some companies have a weird definition of marketing, especially when we talk about honest marketing. So, here is a quick guide on how to buy Kona Coffee.

  • Kona Roast: Means absolutely nothing.  The term is not protected. There is no special roast for Kona beans. Hence – you probably get zero Kona beans inside.
  • Kona Style: Means absolutely nothing. If there is no mention of the percentage of Kona beans – you get coffee from a shady source.
  • Kona Blend: Must contain at least 10% Kona Coffee. Still, 10% of coffee doesn’t mean that much.
  • 100% Kona coffee: The real deal. This is why you came here.

Bonus: Kona coffee and scandals

Sometimes people forget that the coffee industry is enormous. Millions of dollars are changing hands as we speak. And, of course, somebody always wants to scam someone. Be it by cheating your Kickstart supporters or something else.

Kona Kai Coffee Scandal in the 1990s

Meet Michael Norton, owner of Kona Kai Farms, businessman and visionary. Michael had a brilliant idea. He imported almost 1600 tons of coffee from Panama and Costa Rica from 1993 to 1996. Then he labelled them as Pure Kona Coffee and sold them to roasteries around the USA. Some of his customers were Peet’s, Starbucks Coffee Co., Peerless Coffee Co., Hills Brothers, and other smaller and bigger coffee industry names. 

At that time, Panamian beans were sold for around $2 per pound. Pure Kona coffee was worth $7 per pound. By some estimates, our handy Michael pocketed around $14 million. Part of that he hid on his Swiss account. 

Michal was placed under arrest after someone tipped the authorities about his little game of switching beans. The thorough investigation included protected witnesses, videotapes and financial police.

In 2002. Michael got 30 months in prison. Also, he was ordered to pay $475,000 in restitution and $440,000 in delinquent taxes for diverting $1.3 million to a Swiss bank account.

Every coffee (retailer) you can think of has been a victim. I suspect there’ll be a wake-up call within the industry.

Mark Dankel, a senior special agent with the Customs Service in San Francisco.

How was the Kona Kai scandal that successful?

First, Michael didn’t import rubbish. That would be too simple, and he would be (probably) caught immediately. He imported good beans from Panama and Costa Rica. 

Second, Kona Coffee is a too small player in the world’s market. Most people don’t have the slightest idea how it should taste.

Imagine an average coffee buyer from a large coffee chain. Alright, we will say it. Imagine a teenage kid with a large personalized plastic cup filled with coffee, syrups, sprinkles, whipped cream and every other gizmo.  Most of them don’t know what Kona is, but they heard the buzzword. They are willing to pay a lot more per cup just to get the Kona coffee. And they got it, or at least they think so. They did get a good cup of coffee.

Just not what they paid for.

This scandal inflicted catastrophic damage on the Kona Coffee farms. Their reputation was badly tarnished, and it took years to get it back. The good thing is that now every bag of Kona Coffee that leaves Hawaii must have a certificate from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

Still, buyer beware.

Kona Coffee scandal in 2019.

Again, a new scandal that involves these fine beans. Coffee farmers from the Kona region filed a civil suit against eight US-based roasteries and some of the largest retailers. The list includes Walmart, Costco and many others.

The lawsuit is long and detailed, but it comes to this:

Even though only 2.7 million pounds of authentic green Kona coffee is grown annually, over 20 million pounds of coffee labelled as ‘Kona’ is sold at retail. That is physically impossible; someone is lying about the contents of their ‘Kona’ products.

Following this lawsuit, Hawaii State Legislature passed a bill (HB144 HD1). The new rules will be that any product labelled as Kona must have at least 51% Kona beans. 

That will be the end of that buzzword 🙂

And a happy end. In 2021, at least 6 companies have settled with small coffee farmers to avoid further litigation. Although they didn’t admit to doing anything wrong, the small farmers will get $13.1 million. 

Conclusion

Over the last decade, Kona beans have lost some of their popularity. The sudden rise of small farms and micro-lots made Kona coffee less special. However, it is still great coffee. Of course, if you buy the 100% one.

Buying 10% Kona coffee does make little sense, at least in my opinion. You will pay significantly more and get none of that Kona experience. Buy the real deal, or don’t buy anything. 

Author