Kona Coffee: The Beginning
The Coffee Arabica plant was initially introduced to Hawaii from Brazil when the Governor of Oahu, Chief Boki, brought it back from Rio de Janeiro on a return trip from Europe.
The tree was then brought over to Kona by Reverend Samuel Ruggles in 1828. He initially planted it for aesthetic purposes, but was surprised to see how well it grew. It thrived from the very beginning, making it evident just how perfect Kona was for growing coffee. The warm summer rains, calm winds, and rich volcanic soil allowed the crop to take hold quickly in Kona.
Kona farms began to expand and gain fame in the mid 1800’s, with the main market being the whalers and sailors who stopped at Hawaiian ports. On his 1866 trip through Kona, Mark Twain said, “I think kona beans coffee has a richer flavor than any other, be it grown where it may.” This glowing praise set the stage for the coffee’s meteoric rise.
The Struggle For Success
While it may have flourished at first, Kona hasn’t always had it easy over the last 150 years. Invasive pests, devastating droughts, and market drops have come close to destroying the coffee industry in Hawaii. The first trouble came in the 1860’s when the whaling trade collapsed, destroying its primary market. Simultaneously, sugar cane prices sky rocketed and most investors abandoned coffee for the much more lucrative sugar industry.
However, in the 1890’s the world coffee market exploded and Kona experienced its first coffee boom. Thousands of Japanese immigrants were brought in to work the coffee plantations and over three million trees were planted. Sadly, this success was short lived. In 1899 the world market crashed due to over supply and the coffee industry teetered on the edge of extinction.
Hope came again in 1916 with the start of World War I as the US army bought up large shares of coffee to help sustain the troops. Production slumped with the Great Depression, but WWII once again revived the market. Thankfully, the 1950’s brought a more global market for Kona coffee as tourism in Hawaii surged. The identification of Kona coffee as a high quality global commodity helped ensure the continual survival of the brand.
Kona Coffee Today
Today, about 700 Kona farms, consisting of an estimated 3,000 acres of trees, grow 18 millions pounds of raw coffee a year. Roasted Kona coffee sells for about $25 dollars a pound and brings in roughly $30 million to Kona’s farmers each year. Production has increased over the past decade with the growth of global recognition of the quality of 100% Kona Coffee. However, despite recent prosperity, Kona farmers are facing many obstacles in the future.
Many companies have tried to piggy back on this success by creating coffee “blends” or “mixes.” These often have only a small percentage of real Kona coffee, and use the popularity of the brand to increase sales, while degrading the quality of the brand.
Even worse, some sellers have been found completely counterfeiting Kona coffee. These shady marketers re-label South American coffee as 100% Kona coffee and sell it to the unsuspecting public. This is devastating to Kona’s industry, which relies on its reputation for high quality.
More worrisome, in 2010 a coffee borer beetle infestation was discovered in Kona. This beetle destroys the bean of the coffee plant, and can ruin up to 90% of a coffee crop. Hawaii has enacted a quarantine on raw coffee to prevent the spread of the beetle, and farmers are working to minimize the damage the beetle does. Some farmers have seen immense damage from this new pest, and the Kona crop could be devastated in future years. Hopefully, with the cooperation of Kona farmers, damage by the beetle can be minimized and Kona coffee will be safe for many more generations.