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History and Origin of the World Famous Kona Coffee

Wondering how an unexpected frost in Brazil could influence a tiny island’s economy thousands of miles away? The answer lies with Kona coffee history.

Follow along as we trace the intriguing backstory of Kona coffee.

The Early Years of Kona Coffee (1828 – 1860)

Hawaii is home to the famous Kona coffee beans (the best of which you can find here). Although Hawaii has several regions well-suited to growing coffee, the plants are not native to the big island.

The first crop was brought to Oahu in the early 19th century, but it failed to thrive. In 1828, an American missionary, Reverend Samuel Ruggles, was transferred from Oahu to the Kona region, particularly in the Hills of Mauna Loa and Hualalai, and carried some fledgling coffee plants.

In Kona, the coffee trees found the perfect combination of climate and soil, and commercial coffee plantations grew in number over the following two decades. In 1849, the California Gold Rush provided a boon for all of the big island’s agricultural products, and the fledgling coffee industry reaped the benefits.

Related: Where is Kona Coffee Grown?

Unfortunately, pests, diseases, and labor shortages marked the following decade, and many coffee growers across Hawaii turned to the more robust sugarcane. In Kona, however, the mountainous landscape was unsuitable for sugar’s mechanized farming methods, so coffee plantations persisted.

Kona Coffee Breaks Through (1860 – 1914)

Kona coffee’s first big breakthrough came at the 1873 World’s Fair in Vienna, where a Kona coffee merchant named Henry Nicholas Greenwell received an award of excellence.

Winning the award was the first hint that Kona coffee might be something special.

In 1892, Hermann Widemann introduced the ‘Guatemalan’ coffee variety to big island Hawaii, where it quickly found success. It remains the main varietal grown in the region to this very day, where it is now known as ‘Kona Typica’ (1).

Around the turn of the century, another price drop sent the industry into a crisis. Many of the larger plantations crumbled. The massive farms were subdivided into small lots of 5 to 15 acres, then leased to mainly Japanese immigrant families. This structure of independent, family-run coffee farms continues even now, and it’s thought to have contributed to the industry’s resilience.

Wartime Influences (1914 – 1960)

As with many industries, the arrival of the First World War revitalized Kona coffee. Demand skyrocketed as the military bought up coffee supplies. At the same time, an unexpected frost in Brazil destroyed much of its coffee crop, leading to a worldwide shortage.

Alas, Kona coffee’s wartime success was short-lived, as the Great Depression struck in 1929. The following decade saw prices plummet, and bankruptcies soar in nearly every sector of the economy, and coffee was no exception. By 1939, Kona was once again the only remaining region on the big island that still farmed coffee.

The Second World War saw another increase in demand for coffee to fuel desperate soldiers on the front lines, and the Kona coffee industry rebounded. In 1953, another freak frost destroyed the Brazilian crop, increasing demand for alternative sources like Kona. Several cooperatives formed to represent farmers’ interests better.

The Modern Era (1960 – Present)

In the 1970s, the cooperatives controlling Kona’s production lost their monopoly, with more farmers choosing to operate independently.

The 1980s saw the emergence of second-wave coffee, in which customers developed an appreciation for specialty coffees. Kona’s newly independent farmers were quick to understand the value of Kona coffee beans (2).

There are customers who are willing to pay high prices for top quality. But no Kona coffee farmers are getting rich selling coffee.

A shift occurred in 1991 when they passed a law allowing beans marketed as “Kona blends” to contain as little as 10% Kona coffee. This law diversified the industry, creating the various Kona coffee grades and giving rise to the niche market for 100% Kona coffee beans, which provides some of the best Kona coffee brands.

The timeline of Kona coffee history in the big island
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Final Thoughts

The Kona coffee industry has weathered plenty of economic ups and downs over the last two centuries but has emerged an agricultural success story. And with Kona coffee beans now among the most prestigious on the planet, its future looks nothing but bright.

FAQs

Kona coffee is special because the region has the ideal combination of climate, elevation, and volcanic soil to produce top-quality coffee beans.

The right way to brew Kona coffee depends on your taste, but we love it as a French Press or pour-over. We have a guide on how to brew Kona properly here.

Yes, Kona coffee beans do have more caffeine than many other green coffee beans. However, roast and brewing ratios will have a bigger impact on how much caffeine ends in your cup.

  1. Paterson, K. (2011, November 27). How Typica is Your Kona Coffee? Retrieved from https://www.huladaddy.com/articles/how-typica-is-your-kona.htm
  2. Ryan, C. (2017, June 27). On An Island: Hawaiian Coffee’s Tricky Price-Quality Relationship. Retrieved from https://www.baristamagazine.com/hawaiian-coffees-price-quality/
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I love trail running, rock climbing, coffee, food, and my tiny dog — and writing about all of them. I start every morning with a fresh Americano from my home espresso machine, or I don’t start it at all.

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