Kona Coffee: A Taste of Hawaii

If you’re in the market for some fabulous coffee beans, look no further than those grown in the Kona region on the big island of Hawaii. Known for notes of brown sugar, cocoa, nuts and stone fruits, Kona coffee will excite your palate.

If you’re in the market for some fabulous coffee beans, look no further than those grown in the Kona region on the big island of Hawaii. Known for notes of brown sugar, cocoa, nuts and stone fruits, Kona coffee will excite your palate.

Before you buy Kona coffee beans, be sure to do your research. Like with any quality product, there are knockoffs that aim to capitalize on the fame of this amazing bean. The information below will help you protect yourself from getting scammed.

What Is Kona Coffee?

Kona Coffee is a prestigious Arabica coffee grown in the volcanic soils of the Kona Coffee Belt in Hawaii. It’s considered by many to be the perfect coffee bean. Even Mark Twain is quoted as saying:

Kona coffee has a richer flavor than any other, be it grown where it may and call it by what name you please.

Mountain views on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The Kona Coffee Belt is nested from 500 to 3,200 feet above sea level, on the slopes of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes, both of which are active.

Hualalai hasn’t blown her top for over 2,000 years, but experts believe an eruption will take place within the next century.

Mauna Loa has erupted as recently as 1984, with previous eruptions dating back to 1950 and 1926.

A major eruption from either one of these volcanoes could completely wipe out Kona coffee, so drink it while you can.

The positioning of these two volcanoes protects the Kona belt from strong winds, creating a unique microclimate that is ideal for growing Kona coffee beans.

The area receives over 60 inches of rain per year and has daily temperatures ranging from 60 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 30 degrees Celsius).

If you haven’t tried coffee from the Kona coast yet, then you’re truly missing out.

History of Kona Coffee

A church building in Kona.

Like many coffees around the world, such as Vietnamese coffee, Kona coffee became established in Hawaii because of the work of Christian missionaries who needed a means to support themselves and wanted to provide jobs for local people.

The first recorded coffee shrubs arrived on the islands in 1917, but didn’t do well. Then, more plants came in 1925. Initially, farmers had trouble identifying the best soil and location to grow coffee in Hawaii, so it didn’t thrive.

It was the transfer of Samuel Ruggles to the Kona region that rooted coffee in the volcanic soil that it thrives in today.

Kona coffee didn’t immediately achieve the levels of international fame it enjoys today. It wasn’t until the 1873 World’s Fair in Vienna, Austria that Kona started to be recognized in its rise to stardom.

Historically, sugar cane and pineapple have always taken precedence in the agricultural sector of Hawaii. However, today more coffee is being grown in Hawaii than ever before.

There was a long road for Kona coffee as it evolved through different periods of growth. Coffee consumption during the Klondike Gold Rush, for example, provided a temporary boom that helped coffee flourish in Kona.

However, there are also events like the Great Depression where coffee prices took a punch.

Expat workers from the Philippines and Japan were often hired to work on coffee plantations in the Kona region. For them, it meant financial independence and the possibility of getting married. Unfortunately, they had to work in some pretty difficult conditions.

The ebb and flow of growth and decline continued for the next century. Finally, during the 1980s Kona coffee truly emerged as a victor in the fight for popularity amongst many specialty coffees from around the world.

How Is Kona Coffee Harvested?

Coffee Farmers Hand Picking Fresh Coffee Cherries.

The layout of numerous small Kona coffee farms and mountain terrain requires the coffee cherries to be picked by hand.

Farmers aiming to produce the highest quality of beans must avoid strip picking, which involves removing all of the coffee cherries from a branch at once.

Instead, they make multiple passes to each coffee tree during the harvest season, removing only the ripest beans.

This ensures only mature coffee cherries make their way to the sorting table. Immature cherries tend to be sour or bitter.

Harvesting happens in Hawaii between the months of August and December.

How Is Kona Coffee Processed?

Remnants from the coffee pulper machine.

The selected coffee cherries are run through a pulper, which uses pressure to separate the outer skin and pulp from the seed that’s inside.

Next, a wet process is used for fermentation, which means the coffee beans are soaked in water for 12 to 24 hours.

After that, the Kona coffee beans are rinsed and laid out in the Hawaiian sun to dry for a week or two.

Once dried, the beans are polished and sorted. A vibrating table is turned on. It uses gravity to separate inferior beans from the lot.

Sorting happens according to standards laid out by the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture. It’s during this step in the process that different grades of beans are identified. Peaberry coffee beans, for example, would be separated from the Extra Fancy, Fancy, Kona #1 and Prime grades of beans.

Is Kona Coffee Ethically Grown?

A farmer looking through a basket of ethically grown Kona coffee cherries.

Hawaiian Kona coffee farmers must comply with American wage and benefit standards, so Kona coffee is considered fair trade coffee. That said, each plantation decides what is acceptable.

Like with any for profit company, what is legally allowed doesn’t always equate to what is fair and right. After all, there’s a reason it’s called minimum wage.

Without going to see a coffee farm firsthand, it’s nearly impossible to know how workers are treated. Let’s be honest, that’s true of any company!

So, use your head and ask questions if you need to. Any plantation owner that cares about its workers should be pleased that you’re asking questions. If they get aggravated, well, that tells ya something.

Why Is Kona Coffee So Expensive?

Mature coffee cherries.

There are two reasons Kona coffee costs what it does. First and foremost is supply and demand. The Kona Coffee Belt produces around 2.7 million tons of coffee per year, which is only 0.0142% of the 19 billion pounds of coffee produced worldwide each year.

Add to that how delicious Kona coffee tastes and you have the making of a supply shortage.

The other reason is overhead costs. Hand picking coffee is people driven, which means high labor costs.

If we were to sit down and look at the numbers, we’d likely realize that Kona coffee should cost more than it does.

Kona Coffee Tasting Notes

Two cups of fresh coffee.

Kona coffee is known to have aromas of brown sugar, cocoa, nuts and fruits. However, the way it’s roasted strongly influences how these flavors are expressed.

A light roasted Kona coffee will exhibit cedar, fig, jasmine, caramel, hazelnut and blackberry, whereas a dark roast will display notes of cedar, hazelnut, honey and strawberry.

If a roaster doesn’t publish the flavor profile of their beans, you should be suspicious about the quality of their beans. Ideally, they should limit their descriptions to terminology agreed upon by the Specialty Coffee Association and World Coffee Research in their Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel.

How to Buy Kona Coffee

A small coffee roaster in use.

Hawaiian law only requires a coffee blend to have a minimum of 10% of the coffee named on the package. So, if you were to see a bag that said “Kona Coffee Blend,” chances are it is only 10% Kona. Don’t be tricked by creative marketing!

For this reason alone, it’s worth staying away from Hawaiian coffee blends. However, even if this weren’t the case, I’d still steer you toward single origin Kona coffee. Why? Well, because it’s the best way to experience the unique terroir of the Kona Coffee Belt.

Look for private roasters that have published and scheduled roasting intervals. I didn’t see that on the website of one roaster I wanted to test in Kona recently. So, I emailed them and they waited to get back to me until they had an exact roasting date to share.

The Kona Coffee Certification Seal should be on every bag you buy. The presence of the Kona Coffee Council seal means the farmer is adhering to specific grading practices and that they have grown the beans in one of the designated areas.

How to Brew Kona Coffee

Brewing Kona coffee in a Chemex coffee maker.

The brewing method you go with will define what flavors you can taste. Sometimes it’s best to use an immersion method like you’d have with a French press. Other times, a pour over approach like using a Moccamaster, Chemex or Hario V60 is the way to go.

In general, I try my first few cups with any coffee bean using a variety of methods. Then, I come back to the one that best suits my taste buds.

If the coffee maker you’re using isn’t cutting it, try something different.

Kona Coffee FAQ

Kona coffee is grown at an elevation of 500 to 3,200 feet on small farms that are uniquely positioned on the sides of volcanoes in the Kona Coffee Belt of Hawaii.

In Hawaiian, Kona means the “dry side of an island,” which makes a lot of sense considering the Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes protect the Kona Coffee Belt from strong winds. It’s also a bit ironic since it rains over 60 inches per year in the Kona coffee region. However, this is indicative of how well the volcanic soil drains.

Hawaii enjoys a large population of coffee drinkers, not just of Kona coffee, but of all coffee.

Kona coffee enjoys a lot of prestige because of its balanced flavors, low acidity and limited supply. 

Kona coffee is considered fair trade because employers have to follow the American Wage and Benefits Standards. However, in an economy where minimum wage isn’t truly a livable wage, what’s considered fair isn’t always agreed upon.

If you’re planning to buy Kona coffee, or any coffee for that matter, don’t be afraid to ask questions about labor and wage practices. Many coffee roasters are more than happy to talk about the farms they source from.

Reliable coffee plantations that have nothing to hide are also happy to engage in discussion. If they aren’t, there’s a good chance they aren’t taking care of their workers like they should.

Not all Kona coffee is organic, but some brands either have organic options or are completely organic.

Kona coffee is Arabica.

Kona coffee is famous for its low acidity.

Yes, you can buy decaf Kona coffee. Be sure to read my article on decaffeination methods so you can make an informed decision about which method you prefer.

Yes, travelers are permitted to bring unlimited quantities of green or roasted Kona coffee from Hawaii to their home in the continental United States, Alaska or Guam.

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