What is Kona coffee? Kona coffee refers to coffee that has been grown in the Kona region of the island of Hawaii – commonly referred to as the “Big Island”. With a rich history of generational farming and unique volcanic terrain, Kona is one of the most prized varieties of coffee grown in the USA.
How is coffee grown in this region, and what makes it so special?
The arrival of coffee in Hawaii
Initially, coffee seedlings were planted on the island of Oahu in 1813. These first seedlings were planted alongside the first sugar plantation in the Manoa Valley. Initial attempts to establish sustainable crops, however, were less than successful and in 1828 Rev. Samuel Ruggles transplanted some cuttings to the Kona district, where altitude, soil, and weather conditions were much more favorable. it was soon apparent that coffee trees were able to thrive on the Big Island and several large, profitable plantations took hold – kickstarting the local coffee industry. The world coffee market crash in 1899 caused plantation owners to lease smaller land packets to their employees – many of whom were Japanese former sugarcane plantation workers, who would run these land parcels as a family concern… often starting their own farms after ending their contracted employment.
These resilient farmers and their families survived the ups and downs of the market fluctuations and continuous hard physical labor to establish the Hawaiian Islands, and in particular the Kona region as a benchmark for great coffee worldwide.
What makes the Kona region unique
Not all coffee from Hawaii is the same… while there are farms producing other varieties of high-quality coffee all over the big island, the Kona coffee belt is unique. This 20 mile stretch of land on the western slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes faces the setting sun and receives shelter from the tradewinds by the mountains. Afternoon showers brought in by clouds drifting upward provide regular moisture, and summer rains mimic the seasonal behaviors of other coffee growing regions around the world. Add in the volcanic soil and elevation and you have a small yet ideal coffee growing location.
Much like the naming restrictions for Champagne, coffee beans sold as 100 percent Kona coffee can refer only to those coffees produced from the growing regions of the Kona district. Hawaii is the only place where genuine Kona coffee is grown.
The early years of a coffee tree
Orchards in the Kona region are rarely started by seeds being sown directly in the ground. Instead, the coffee plants are purchased as seedlings to ensure only the healthiest, most suitable plants are used. Great care is given to selecting varieties that are appropriate for the soil and terrain in the region. If they start life as healthy, well grown and cared for seedlings, a coffee tree can stay productive for 60 years, but the first five years of life for a coffee plant are crucial – they must be fertilized, pruned and protected from pests and weeds. At around 3 years old they should reach four to six feet tall.
Care and pruning
A coffee plant produces two types of branches – verticals ( also known as shoots or stems) and laterals. You may not realize it, but coffee trees like many other plants require yearly pruning to remove unproductive branches and ensure optimal growth for the following years harvest. Pruning is usually done between January to April when moisture levels are best for new growth. There are several methods of pruning, with studies conducted over the years to determine which method produces a higher yield and whether traditional techniques can be improved. Coffee trees left unattended can eventually reach 30-40 feet high!
Until it was first found in the Kona region in 2010, Hawaii was one of only two coffee producing regions that had not been impacted by coffee berry borer (CBB). Once it had been introduced to the island, it proved devastating to coffee crops in Hawaii, resulting in reduced crop yields and the costs of doing business increasing. The females of this destructive species bore a hole into coffee berries, where they lay eggs that hatch into larvae. CBB can cause widespread damage and cause coffee berries to fall from the trees prematurely, increase the vulnerability of the berries to fungus or infection, and reduce the amount of suitable quality coffee that can be harvested. Since the 2010 infestations that affected farmers island-wide, CBB impact has been managed by education, careful treatment and preventative measures both in the field and processing facilities.
Ready for harvest
In three to four years, the coffee tree should be producing enough cherry to be harvested for commercial production. Hawaiian coffee, especially coffee grown in the Kona region, is usually harvested by hand. Since the topography of the region provides its own set of challenges when harvest time approaches, growing Kona coffee is only part of the process. Learn more about how we harvest coffee in Kona here.
Kona coffee today
With more than 600 coffee farms clustered around the Kona region and the coffee industry gaining more attention than ever before, Kona is not only a tourist attraction for coffee enthusiasts from around the world but the focal point of a homegrown industry that is thriving. If you ever find yourself on the big island and would like to visit our working coffee mill, the Royal Kona Coffee Center is open 365 days a year and is a great location to not only learn more about Kona coffee but to enjoy a range of free samples, try a 100% Kona nitro cold brew, or walk through our lava tube.
Depending on what time of year you visit, you may even see our team in action processing locally grown coffee cherry!