History of Hawaiian Coffee and Kona Coffee in the Modern Day

History of Coffee in Hawaii and Kona

How did this ornamental tree imported into Honolulu in about 1813 by Kamehameha the Great’s Spanish interpreter and physician Don Francisco de Paula y Marin become Kona’s economic mainstay? The history of Hawaiian coffee is quite interesting!

The British warship H.M.S. Blonde brought coffee trees, to Hawaii, from Brazil in 1825. Chief Boki, Governor of Oahu, had acquired coffee trees in Rio de Janeiro, on his way back from London. The coffee was planted in Manoa Valley on Oahu, and from a small field, trees were introduced to other areas of Oahu and neighbor islands. Hanalei Valley on the North Shore of Kauai was home to the first coffee plantation. Coffee was established in the valley in 1842, but was wiped out in 1858 by coffee blight, a scale insect.

J.M. Horner coffee plantation 1907 via Wikicommons

The first coffee was planted in Kona by missionary Samuel Ruggles in 1828 or 1829. These first arabica trees were taken from cuttings planted on Oahu a few years earlier. Coffee and Kona were a perfect match – Kona with its rich volcanic soil, hard-working family farmers, and perfect climatic conditions. Taste Kona’s coffee and you’ll sense its strength, the hand-picked quality that sets it apart.

The first written mention of coffee in Kona was noted in 1840. Coffee was planted in several locations around the Big Island but was best suited to the Kona district. A few coffee fields are now in production outside Kona, but the vast majority of coffee is grown right here.

Working these tropical coffee fields has always been laborious because everything – from planting to picking – is done by hand. Native Hawaiians and Chinese laborers first worked the large coffee plantations owned by Caucasians in the mid- to late-1800s. During the 1880s and early 1890s, Japanese immigrants began their coffee legacy in these same Kona fields.When the world coffee market crashed in 1899, the large plantations shifted to small Japanese-owned family farms. As the plantations gave up, land was divided into small 3- to 5-acre parcels and leased to the laborers. The cost of these early leases were one-half the crop, and by 1910, only Japanese coffee farms survived. The first Filipinos arrived to work the coffee farms about 1920, picking coffee during the season and returning to the sugar fields in the spring.

Today many Kona farmers can lay claim to being fifth generation coffee farmers. Coffee is an economic mainstay of Kona, where farmers continue the tradition and honor their heritage with every harvest.

Kona Coffee Has Royal Ties

It’s a rarely recognized fact, but one of the mainstays of the world famous Kona coffee industry is an institution that has never planted a coffee tree, never harvested a crop and never roasted a bean. And, likely, many coffee farmers hard at work in the field give little thought to the fact that the land from which they gather their harvest has a direct connection to King Kamehameha the Great, the warrior king who first united the Hawaiian Islands.

“Coffee plantation on island of Hawaii” via Wikicommons

Most of the coffee grown in North and South Kona is cultivated on land owned by Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate (KSBE). Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate leases tracts to more than 600 farmers in the Kona area who produce the majority of the region’s coffee, plus macadamia nuts, exotic flowers, avocados, vegetables and fruits. It is the Kona coffee, though, that reigns as monarch of Kona’s varied produce. Average size of the farms leased from KSBE is seven acres. In all, more than 1,200 acres of KSBE-owned land are now in Kona coffee production.

Some coffee farms leased from KSBE have been in the same family for four or five generations, since the Estate was created in 1884. The KSBE charitable land trust was created by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last direct descendant of King Kamehameha the Great. The majority of the lands she inherited are on the Big Island of Hawaii. Pauahi’s husband, banker Charles Reed Bishop, enlarged the land trust when he purchased the West Hawaii ahupuaa of Kaahauloa and Honaunau. (An ahupuaa is the traditional Hawaiian land division, a wedge-shaped parcel stretching from a base along the seashore to a point on the mountain slopes.)

In her will, Pauahi directed that her lands be used to generate income for the creation and operation of the Kamehameha Schools, and that the lands not be sold, so that the schools would be supported forever. In carrying out the terms of her Will, the trustees of the Princess’ estate were instrumental in creating the long-­term agricultural leasehold system which continues to serve both the schools and Kona’s coffee growers today. Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate owns 295,000 acres of land on the island of Hawaii. Of that, nearly half has been in agricultural use for more than a century

KSBE serves 3,000 students at the main campus on Oahu, and now is in the process of building four new schools, one of which will be in West Hawaii. KSBE also operates a network of preschools throughout the islands, and supports a college scholarship program for Hawaiian students. And all of that is supported in part through the leasing of land to Kona’s coffee growers. Just a little something to chat about over your next cup of fine Kona coffee.

Current production on other islands

 As of this writing, there are attempts to revive production on Maui after the Maui Coffee Company went under. Kauai continues to crank out coffee. And in the districts of Kau and Hilo on the big island, they are trying to produce coffee. But the model of coffee farming on the other islands is large plantation/low elevation/flatland/mechanical harvest model, like Brazil. True Kona coffee has climactic advantages and soil conditions, but even the highest farms are already “low elevation” compared to other coffees. I mean, we buy a coffee from 3200 feet, but most everything in Central America we buy is over 1200 meters, 3900 feet! That’s the lowest grown … the highest is bordering on 7000 feet! Take away the average 1500 to 2000 feet altitude of Kona coffee, take away the special well-draining volcanic soil and mild climate, and you are not left with much. We have bought the special Moka variety from Maui because it was very unusual, and have carried Kauai Peaberry several years ago, but in general these cannot compete with a really good Kona in olfaction or gustation. I would love to find small-farm production of quality high elevation coffee, of quality cultivars (like the Kona Typica) on other islands, and invite anyone to please let me know if there is any, Thanks -Tom

A kook at the 2004 Kona Culture Festival. I was a judge at the  2004 and 2005 Kona Coffee Competition … that is the 2004-2005 Kona Culture Festival Queen, Shardae Grace

Kona Coffee Grades

Kona Extra Fancy
Size:Will not pass through a 19/64″ round hole
Moisture Content: 9% to 12%
Defects: 10 or less, full imperfections per lb.
Other Beans: 50 or less, other type beans per lb.
Undersize: No more than 10% by weight

Kona Fancy
Size: Will not pass through a 18/64″ round hole
Moisture Content: 9% to 12%
Defects: 16 or less, full imperfections per lb.
Other Beans: 50 or less, other type beans per lb.
Undersize: No more than 10% by weight

Kona Number 1
Size: Will not pass through a 16/64″ round hole
Moisture Content: 9% to 12%
Defects: 20 or less, full imperfections per lb.
Other Beans: 50 or less, other type beans per lb.
Undersize: No more than 10% by weight

Kona Prime
Moisture Content: 9% to 12%
Defects: 25% defective beans, by weight.
Included therein no more than 5% by weight sour or black beans.

Roasted, green and parchment coffee at the Kona Cupping Competition.

Some Comments on the Competition from a Judge, Mainly for the Kona Farmers:

Since I have been one of the four judges in the competition for the last 2 years (and sure hope to continue to be in the future), I wanted to make a couple comments that farmers might find useful. Be warned, these are very candid comments … please don’t think I am trying to be a know-it-all. I don’t know jack about coffee farming. But I am trying to offer some thoughts from my perspective as a guy who has seen a lot of coffee farms and mills in a lot of places, including Kona.

First of all, people who grow coffee need to learn to roast and to taste coffee. It is kinda BS for a farmer to say “I have the finest coffee” or even to say “it has fine floral character, blah blah…” and then put out a table of 6 Kona coffees and say “find your coffee here.” How many could do that? How many really, really understand the cup character of their own coffee? Okay, I admit that is a hard line to take, and a possibly a tough cupping test. But if I set up a table of a Red Catuai grown at 1000 feet, a Yellow Caturra from 1500 feet, a Kona Typica from Koloko Mauka at 2500 feet, a Kona Typica from Honaunau/South Kona at 1500 feet, and a coffee like the Bateman’s 3200 feet Typica, you should be able to find yours, if yours was one of them.

Hawaii Coffee Cherry
Kona Typica on an original tree, 80-100 years old.

Farmers need to roast and taste their coffee throughout the crop, from beginning to end, to taste the different lots, the different grades, separate the faded from the average green from the opal green. I know, it’s a lot to ask of people who have a lot on their minds already while running a farm, but it will separate those who just grow cherry to sell, from those who offer “estate” coffee, from those who offer “estate” coffee and REALLY know their coffee.

If farmers did this, than the results of the competition would not seem so random. The fact that last year’s winners come in the lower percentile would make sense, and would not be an insult or mean that their coffee is bad (it doesn’t mean that at all).

The fact is this: the competition is linked to the festival, and it seems that in most years it happens too early in the coffee season. That may or may not ever be changed, but what it means is that the competition is really evaluating who had the best parchment coffee THAT week the samples were due. Now, you could call this unfair, but you would be calling your soil, your altitude, your rain and your sun unfair. It’s agriculture; there’s always an X factor. You could have the competition Dec 15 or Jan 15 and have a different set of “winners” for sure. But the agricultural reality of that X factor, when a coffee peaks for a certain farm, would never go away. My wish would be that the competition could be in January, and those who feel their best coffee was in November could simply hold it in parchment, in climate control, until it is ready to mill and submit to the competition.

I think you can see the difference in the JBM cultivar and the Kona Typica – the cherry is more round, equally large, and the mark left by the flower bud (the circle on the end) is large and pronounced.

Anyway, if you place low in the competition, I mean really really low, I think you should know why. I think, privately, the judges should be able to tell you, or write to you, about what we experienced in the coffee. I would say there were 10-12 defective samples of the 57, ones we found unanimously defective, and another 5 that some of us found defective, not all. Cupping is about communication. It’s a form of feedback, not a final judgement. A great, great coffee can be defective because of 1 bad seed, every farmer knows that. If a coffee was fermenty, phenolic or hard tasting, if it was dirty tasting, then these are processing defects that can easily be addressed (if the farmer knows about them). So I hope there would be a way (it is certainly possible via the web using secure logins) to return private results to each farmer about their coffee.

Now granted, a lot of these results would not be so informative. The bulk of coffees we cupped are just good, solid Kona coffees, clean, defect free, but not stand out samples. They might lack body, or acidity, or special aromatics. What that means to me (usually) is that your coffee is not at it’s peak yet. I mean, if you are at 2000 feet, there is some positive brightness in the cup, but it has a thin body, and an almost greenish cast to the flavor, it is too “young”. Maybe you were just barely able to get a sample together of ripe cherry. We can taste this “immature” flavor in the coffees, and I felt there was a bit more of it that usual this year. The other thing that made sense to me is the volume of coffee cherry might adversely affect the cup. Now, this might be bugaboo, but I don’t think trees stressed out with overproduction of cherry, leaves turning yellow, drooping, are going to be concentrating the usual amounts of compounds in their seeds that result in the best olfactory and gustatory experience. Farmers love to see volume, but I am not sure it makes cuppers so happy.

It source would be nice if less farmers had to rely on wet-milling and dry-milling services. There is newer equipment available that allows you to be a true “estate”, to process coffee from start to finish. Then again, I realize this is just not possible technically, spatially, economically. I wish the mills all had electronic color sorting. Some do. Trent does. I know that the opinion is that, if all the other equipment is working right, the “electric eye” is not necessary. But I keep getting beautiful Kona XF or F, and plopped in the middle is a full-on black bean. Do you know what a full black bean does to a pot of coffee? It will mean one of the worst coffee experiences of your life, seriously. The machine would take care of that.

Lastly, many Kona farms are direct marketers of their own coffees. This is great in order to return the highest price to you for all your work. But in order to distinguish themselves from others, a lot of sites are sorta making up stuff about their coffee. What needs to be hammered in for consumers is altitude, soil, micro-climate, small farm production, hand-picking, excellent Typica cultivar. When people start up with poetic “kissed by Pele” or fanciful agriculture ideas like using a trellis to grow coffee, trying to make associations to viniculture, I don’t think this helps then general effort to get the best prices for all the farms, and the best recognition to those who farm seriously. I guess I feel like everyone with low-grown should just sell cherry to go into Kona Blend, and there should be a real naming convention that communicates the level of care a farmer puts into a coffee. If you live on your farm year round or nearly, if you are out trimming and hauling and mowing, if you are hand-pulping and patio-drying, if you are on an old, traditional farm with some serious altitude, then I think this deserves some special recognition. The fact that some estates sell coffee in their estate bags which is comprised of cherry they bought on the road, and that competes with you, the small true-estate farmer, I don’t think that’s exactly right.

Back to the competition: Judging coffee is tricky, imperfect, but I hope everyone knows that we do our best. I know the work that goes into producing that sample, and we give each cup our full attention, going back and forth between them, bringing back the ones that have potential for the 2nd round, reranking them for the finals. We have no idea who grew what, all we have is numbers and samples. We are presented with the parchment, green and roasted simple to look at, but we don’t judge the coffee that way. You don’t cup with your eyes. You use a spoon and your sense of smell and taste. That’s what we do, as best we can, looking for the best Kona coffee, the best character for Kona: aromatic, floral, sweet, some brightness (acidity), balance, medium body, delicate, mild, clean aftertaste … and then hopefully some other special nuances that are Kona-like in character. That means if you plant SL-28, or Yemen Moka, or Red Catuai or Catimor, you probably won’t win here, even if your coffee is nice. Now, I like experiments and as a buyer might be interested in unusual cultivars except the Red Catuai or Catimor (we like Rita’s JBM). As far as the Fukinagwa (not the cut, but the Liberica root with Typica graft) I am not sure if I could cup the difference. I do know that the offspring from the graft might lack quality though and won’t cup like the original. Grafter beware! Okay, I have said my piece – or peace?.

Some of this information is gathered from the Kona Culture Festival web site: http://www.konacoffeefest.com/

Kowali Farm: Rita and Skip Cowell

We sourced coffee for years from Rita Cowell. They have a unique mix of different cultivars and were very careful to store their dried parchment in a controlled environment. Their farm is gorgeous, located in the mountains outside Honaunau

rita cowell kowali farm kona green coffee beans
Up the hill from Honaunau, in South Kona, is the Cowell’s farm, Kowali Estate. It’s 10 acres they have farmed actively since about 1985, but was a very old farm from way back when. They have 100 year old typica trees, but pictured here is Rita Cowell with her Jamaica Blue Mountain trees. It’s a small plot they have of this unique tree (also a Typica cultivar, but rounder cherry and seed, skinny leaf).
Jamaica Blue Mountain variety coffee At Kowali Farm
Can you ever take enough pictured of coffee cherry? I cannot, clearly. This is the JBM tree, and shows some green, some ripe, and some over-ripe cherry on one branch. That’s why you rely so much on the skill of your pickers to select the right ones! And notice how loaded the branches are – as mentioned, 2005-2006 is a huge crop.

A Portrait of one of the small farms we sourced coffee from: Moki’s Farm

(Note: the family retired and sold the farm several years back). In 2001 the Rittenhouse family planted 900 new trees. The trees are planted in the “new style” enabling weed control by mowing and easier harvesting for the pickers. Today both new and old trees are thriving and producing exceptional coffee. In it first entry in the annual Kona Coffee Cupping Competition, Moki’s farm received honorable mention. In 2004 they received a top spot in the competition!

The new trees soon after planting. I was at the farm this year and they are 10 – 12 feet tall, a dense coffee forest, as you see in the background of this picture.

Hawaii red coffee cherry
Here you see a typical mix on a single branch of coffee ready to pick (some that REALLY needs to be picked, that is, turning dark crimson) while other is yellow-green and will ripen in a few weeks or a month. Actually, this branch is more uniform ripening than you will see in other origins where pickers make 5-6 passes on the same tree. This year, there is so much cherry in Kona, the mills are backed up and the picking crews are in very high demand. Some farmers fly in experienced coffee pickers from Mexico and other coffee origins to harvest, since local labor doesn’t fill the need.
At the Rittenhouse farm to visit Roger and Vivian; Moki’s Farm as our customers know it. This is a huge crop and the trees are bending, almost at breaking point, with the weight. The cherries are big and beautiful. These are ready for picking. This and the next image are from 80-100 year old trees that remain along the periphery of Moki’s Farm.

Typical branch on a 100 year old tree at Moki’s. No, coffee doesn’t ripen evenly and picker’s must make multiple passes to pick the same tree. That’s why good coffee is a lot of work!

Who is Moki? The name Moki’s Farm comes from a song that Vivian learned as a child in Hawaii in 1959. 1959 was the year Hawaii became a state. The song was about Moki and how he would bring Hawaii’s aloha to the rest of the country.
The “Moki song” became a fixture in the Rittenhouse family, sung on long car trips, camping trips and to the children. When the farm was purchased the name Moki’s Farm seemed natural.

moki's kona typicamoki's kona typica
An incredible abundance of coffee on the trees all over Kona. We went over to the Rittenhouse farm to visit Roger and Vivian; Moki’s Farm as our customers know it. This is a huge crop and the trees are bending, almost at breaking point, with the weight. The cherries are big and beautiful. These are ready for picking. This and the next image are from 80-100 year old trees that remain along the periphery of Moki’s Farm.

Estate Coffee Moki’s Farm sells Estate Coffee. Estate Coffee is the product of one farm, unmixed with coffee from other farms. Estate coffee is grown, processed and roasted under the control of the estate farm. Estate coffee is unique to an individual farm. Estate coffee is comparable to estate wines, which are also the unique product of one farm.

Gevalia Kaffe
Kona Coffee Cupping Competition
Official List of Entrants

1. Po’okele Enterprises LLC
2. Full Moon Coffee
3. Heavenly Hawaiian Farms / The Other Farm
4. Kona Cafe
5. Kona Mountain
6. Kiele O Kona
7. The Kona Coffee & Tea Co.
8. Long Mountain Kona Results: 2nd Place
9. Lions Gate
10. DHC Ohana Farms
11. Kona Blossoms
12. Konacopia Farm (organic)
13. Zuma Farm
14. Pearl Estate Organics (organic)
15. Lehuula Farms
16. Rancho Aloha (organic) Results: 1st Place
17. Royal Palms Coffee Estate
18. Pumehana Plantation
19. Cherry P.I.E. Kona Coffee Co.
20. Hubbard & Sons Coffee Co.
21. Sacred Grounds Coffee Farm
22. Moki’s Farm
23. Captain Cook Coffee Co.
24. Sunbean
25. G P Farms
26. Kowali Farms
27. Carroll Estate/ Mauka Fire Coffee
28. Kaloko Bayou
29. Holualoa Kona Coffee (organic)

30. Kona Safari Farms
31. Pau Hana Estate ( organic)
32. Hula Daddy
33. Honu Kona Estate Farm
34. Panda’s Bamboo Ranch (organic)
35. Buddha’s Cup (organic)
36. Kona Rainforest Farms (organic)
37. Mamalahoa Trading Co. LLC
38. Haole Boy Coffee
39. The Funny Farm (organic)
40. Madison Kona Coffee
41. Ueda Kona Coffee
42. Cornerstone Farms
43. Kanalani Ohana Farm (organic)
44. Paradise Found Farm
45. Aikane Kona Coffee Results: 3rd Place
46. Greenwell Farms
47. BrocksenGate Estate (organic)
48. Blue Hedge Farm
49. Makapueo Farms
50. Lafayette Coffee (organic)
51. Kainaliu-Kona Coffee Co.
52. Arianna Farm’s Ono Kona Coffee LLC
53. Lani Hau Farm (organic)
54. Koa Coffee Plantation
55. Lei’s Beans
56. Ahiwai Farms (organic)
57. Kaibab Farms