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The History of Kona Coffee

The History of Kona Coffee

Kona coffee comes from the Kona District of the Big Islands of Hawaii. Located on the north end of the Island, the Kona Coffee Belt is one of the largest coffee-growing regions worldwide. 

This growing region consists of a land strip extending approximately thirty miles. The area’s rich volcanic soils make for perfect growing grounds. The climate here is ideal for growing coffee trees, with warm days and cool nights that allow continuous flowering and fruiting throughout the year. 

The region’s elevation also plays a significant role in producing such exceptional beans. Kona beans grow at elevations between 1000 and 4000 feet above sea level, with plenty of rain but not too much sun or wind. This combination generates sweeter beans than those grown elsewhere in Hawaii or worldwide. 

As one of the most renowned coffee varieties worldwide, Kona coffee is known for its distinct flavor and quality. Coffee connoisseurs describe it as smooth, with low acidity and a rich body. 

That said, Kona coffee is as rich in history as it is flavor.

The First Cup of Kona Coffee 

The history of Kona coffee begins with a single plant. 

The year was 1828, and an American missionary by the name of Reverend Samuel Ruggles transferred to the Kona district from the Hilo area. 

Packed carefully in his pockets, Reverend Ruggles brought coffee plant cuttings from the Boki estate on Oahu and began cultivating them in Kona.

Though it took time for the first plant to establish, it was there, in the mineral-rich soils of the Kona Coffee Belt, that one coffee plant became many. 

Kona Coffee Tree

Historical Events and their Impact on Kona Coffee

The Kona variety rapidly rose to fame as a specialty coffee, and it remains one of the world’s most revered coffees to this day. 

But the journey was anything but smooth…

The California Gold Rush and Annexation

The California Gold Rush brought a high demand for Hawaii’s agricultural products — including molasses, oranges, potatoes and coffee, which increased in price.

During this time, Hawaii entered its sugarcane era. Much of the land suitable for growing and processing coffee was planted with sugarcane, soon becoming the dominant agricultural crop across the Islands.

In 1898, Hawaii was annexed to the United States and officially became a U.S. territory. During this time, the shift from coffee to sugarcane proved beneficial. 

As demand for sugarcane grew and prices rose, many investors saw an opportunity to expand their planting operations and switched their investment from coffee to sugar. 

Come 1899, the economy supporting the coffee industry collapsed, devastating coffee plantation owners who had no choice but to subdivide and lease out their land — primarily to first-generation Japanese immigrant families and laborers who originally came to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations.

Consequently, coffee growing all but disappeared in most regions of Hawaii — save for Kona. Kona's terrain was not well-suited for mechanized sugarcane production. As such, coffee cultivation persisted  here, though it was reserved almost entirely for local supply needs.

By 1910, approximately 80% of Kona coffee farmers were Japanese, and most of the farms were family-run.  

WWI, The Great Depression, and WWII

The beginning of World War I induced a hefty increase in the price of Kona coffee, predominantly due to purchases made by the U.S. Army. 

The Kona coffee industry thrived during this time. The war had been a boon for Kona coffee farmers, and the demand for the product was very high. 

After the war ended, many soldiers returned home with a taste for flavorful coffee — but the industry soon faced setbacks of the Great Depression throughout the 1930s. The Depression caused many people to lose their jobs and homes; prices for food and other goods fell — Kona coffee included. 

These changes hit coffee farmers especially hard because they could not sell their products at reasonable prices or afford to pay laborers fairly for their work on farms. As such, many coffee farmers defaulted on their debts and had to leave the industry.

The Second World War began in 1939, and the demand for Kona coffee rose once again. Along with this spike in demand came some pretty hefty price increases. As a result, the U.S government capped the price of coffee throughout the United States. This included the Kona coffee region, even though Hawaii did not become an official U.S. state until 1959.

The Resurgence of Kona Coffee 

The tourist industry exploded in 1959 when Hawaii officially became a state. It was during this post-war era that Kona coffee regained stability. Beginning in the 1980s, numerous other regions of Hawaii besides Kona began to produce substantial amounts of coffee. In turn, Kona coffee and other specialty varieties finally reclaimed their fame. 

Gourmet coffee consumption in the United States rose dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. This rise in popularity was primarily due to specialty coffee shops opening nationwide. It also reflected changing attitudes about food and drink — people became more interested in where products came from, what ingredients were used, and how they were made. 

This newfound interest in gourmet coffee extended to Kona, as well. In response to customer demand for high-quality beans organically grown on Hawaiian soil, farmers began replanting their fields with new varieties of arabica beans that could thrive in this climate so far from any mainland farms.

Growing Kona Coffee Today

There are nearly 700 independent coffee farms in the Kona region today — and the state continues to produce coffee beans that are as flavorful and unique as they were 150 years ago. 

It is because of this resilience that the Kona District — and other regions of Hawaii — maintain recognition for producing some of the highest quality and most valued coffee around the world. 

Hawaii’s growing conditions make for some of the finest coffee worldwide, but it takes more than just the perfect conditions to make excellent coffee.

Through a careful selection process, local farmers pick which coffee beans to plant, harvest, and roast. From there, coffee producers use their unique methods to process the beans. 

For Paradise Roasters, this process is equal parts methodology, meticulous attention to detail, and endless cupping trials to find the best characteristics of every coffee bean.

The result is a selection of coffees that represent the best that Hawaii offers in terms of innovation, uniqueness, quality and consistency.

Closing Considerations

Kona coffee is a staple of Hawaii’s culture and has been for over a century. With its rich history and unique taste, it is no wonder that so many people enjoy this delicious brew. 

If you have yet to try Kona coffee, pick some up from Paradise Roasters today!


Paradise Roasters Offers The Most Exclusive & Rare Coffees

Our specialty coffees have been rated 93 - 97 points by Coffee Review on over one hundred occasions since 2002! 

We curate with an emphasis on distinction, seasonality, and emerging origins. As often as possible our coffees are purchased direct from the farmer and sustainably grown, and all Paradise coffees are roasted to order.

For a taste of paradise delivered to your door, start a coffee subscription today!

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