Kona Coffee History
A Compelling Hawaiian Chronology

Early history: Long before Kona coffee history began, Hawaiians farmed taro, fruit, and other plants in Kona as the land was rich and bountiful.

1825: King Kamehameha II, Queen Kamalumalu, and Chief Boki, the Governor General of Oahu, formed a delegation and went to London where the King and Queen contracted measles and died. Chief Boki returned to Hawaii aboard the British battleship, H.M.S. Blonde, bearing the bodies of the King and Queen. En route to the Hawaiian Islands, he stopped at Rio de Janeiro and obtained several coffee trees that in turn were the Arabica strain originating from the plateaus of Ethiopia. Upon his return, he gave the trees to ex-West Indies settler and agriculturalist, John Wilkinson, to plant on the Chief's land in Manoa Valley on Oahu. He was never able to cultivate the trees for fruit production.

1828: Reverend Samuel Ruggles brought the first coffee plant cuttings from Chief Boki's garden to the Naole area (now Captain Cook) above Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii. He plants them in his yard simply for viewing pleasure.

The planted trees grew at an alarmingly fast rate, and within a few years, planting coffee became a fad in Kona. Initially, the trees were decorative and not planted for fruit production.

Kona Coffee Growing On Slopes of Mauna Loa (Courtesy of KHS)

1850s: Decline in the Hawaiian coffee industry starts with labor shortages, drought, and pest and disease infestations. Sugar plantations begin to replace coffee plantations on other islands. The only large coffee farms are in Kona and Hamakua regions of the Big Island.

1860s: The collapse of the whaling industry destroys the primary market for Hawaiian coffee.

July 1866: Mark Twain writes in his "Letters from Hawaii," "The ride through the district of Kona to Kealakekua Bay took us through the famous coffee section. I think Kona coffee has a richer flavor than any other be it grown where it may."

1880s: The Sugar Reciprocity Treaty between Hawaii and the U.S. encourages an even greater shift from coffee to sugar. Coffee production in Kona is limited almost entirely to local consumption.

How coffee was produced then: Initial steps in processing were done by independent farmers. They used hand-powered pulpers, a 16-hour soaking period, and "false" pitched roofs (hoshidana) that rolled back to dry beans under warm sunlight. Local Kona mills removed final parchment membranes and loaded grated beans into sacks that were carried down the mountain in mule-powered freight wagons. The mules were called "Kona Nightingales" due to their braying. The last part of the journey was at Kailua or Napoopoo where the coffee was loaded onto boats from waiting steamships bound for San Francisco.

1885: The first Japanese immigrants are brought to Big Island sugar plantations to work on 3-year labor contracts under severe conditions. Many find their way to Kona and are employed as coffee pickers.

1890s: A sharp upsurge of world coffee market prices catalyzes American and European investments in Kona and ushers in the era of the large coffee plantations. Kona experiences its first coffee boom.

Due to the climate and optimal conditions, a strain of Guatemalan Arabica develops in Kona's soil that proves highly successful for fruit production. Coffee in Kona thrives and its distinguished flavor becomes well known especially among mariners relating to the whaling and trading ships where Kona coffee had a ready market.

1898: There were 3 million coffee trees growing on over 6,000 acres, mostly in large plantations.

1899: The first Japanese mill known as the "Kona Japanese Coffee Mill" was established in Kailua-Kona. At the time, farmers were obligated to deliver their crops to Captain Cook Coffee Company or American Factors, making it difficult for the mill to obtain coffee beans. As an incentive, Japanese mills offered cash payment and slightly higher prices to coffee growers. They would set out at midnight to avoid creditors and pick up the coffee crop.

World coffee market crashes and coffee prices plummet as a consequence of an oversupply on the world market, bringing Kona coffee prices sharply and steadily down. At the same time, world sugar prices soar. This combination of events leads investors to begin to shift their money from coffee to sugar production. Large coffee plantations close, and acreage in coffee begins to decline.

Early 1900s: The Kona coffee industry nears extinction. Steep terrain and scarce water, however, make large scale sugar cultivation in Kona impossible. Due to the abysmal condition of the coffee market, W.W. Brunner, a German immigrant coffee farmer, subdivides his large coffee plantation for lease to tenant farmers. So begins a trend as other coffee plantation owners follow suit. Plantations are subdivided into 5 to 15 acre parcels and leased, primarily, to first generation (issei) Japanese immigrant family ventures. At first, just male family members worked. Later, the female members joined in to work through all phases of coffee production. Leased pieces are sized to allow for family management without hired help and average less than 5 acres. Large families of 8 to 11 children are common.

Japanese immigrant woman sorting coffee beans (Courtesy of KHS)

By 1910: Independent Japanese farmers comprise 80% of Kona's coffee farmers and family ventures carry on most coffee production. This marks the beginning of the transition from large coffee plantations to small family farms, a transformation that saved and revolutionized the Kona coffee industry.

1914: World War I begins and the armies buy up large quantities of coffee to provide sustenance for combat. High world demand for coffee swiftly pushes world market prices up, in turn sending Kona coffee prices flying. Coffee prices stay high until 1928 creating prosperous times for coffee farmers in Kona.

1929: The world coffee market bottoms out again with the onset of the Great Depression. In the 1930s, family farmers continue to produce coffee, but diversify into macadamia nut cultivation. Beginning in 1932, Kona public schools are closed for "Coffee Vacation" from August to November rather than June to September like the rest of Hawaii in order to free children to help (kokua) with the coffee harvest.

1940: The second World War causes coffee prices to rise again as armies load up on provisions. To curb the upswing, the U.S. government imposes a ceiling on coffee prices. After the war ends, world coffee prices continue, generally, to rise for the next few years -- with cyclical downswings. The donkeys, affectionately known as "Kona Nightingales" because of their bray, that were used historically to carry coffee cherry across the rocky terrain to the coffee mills are replaced by jeeps.

1950s: World and local prices that had started to droop rise again in 1950 with the onslaught of the Korean War. There is an exodus from farms into construction, civil service, military surplus, and tourist related industries.

1958: High world market prices encourage a spurt of planting to 6,000 acres. Kona coffee growers begin to establish their own mills; Pacific Coffee and Sunset Coffee Cooperatives are formed in a further effort to gain control of the production process, in the hopes of increasing prices and profits for farmers. Until the late 1950s, the Kona market is controlled by 2 firms, Captain Cook Coffee Company and American Factors. There are 12 mills in Kona by 1959. Ensuing bad years causes production to steadily decrease.

1969: The "Coffee Vacation" is finally eliminated to conform Kona school summer vacations with those of the rest of Hawaii's schools. Late 1970s and 1980s: The price of Kona coffee experiences sharp ups and downs. The dramatic growth of the specialty coffee market, however, revitalizes the coffee industry in Kona. In 1979, Douglas Bong ships the first coffee parchment outside of coop control, thus breaking the coop monopoly. Other U.S. mainland west coast transplants quickly follow suit. Kona coffee establishes a firm foothold for itself among the very finest gourmet coffees. Increasingly educated consumers demand Kona coffee and are willing to pay its premium price.

1970: The first Kona Coffee Cultural Festival was held. Today it is recognized as the oldest and most successful product festival in Hawaii and is the only coffee festival in the United States. This 10-day festival offers more than 30 community events including a cupping competition, honoring the multi-ethnic heritage of Kona coffee pioneers and their gourmet brew. http://www.konacoffeefest.com/default.htm

1981: Only 1,600 acres of coffee remain on Kona's hillsides grown by mostly small independent farms run by aging immigrant farmers and their families.

Restored D. Uchida Farm (Courtesy of KHS)

(Click here for Kona coffee history by KCCF, or the Kona Historical Society project, a restored Kona coffee farm.)

1990s: "Kona Coffee" name grows in popularity around the world, but actual acreage drops to 1,200 acres. Despite the high price of coffee with the Kona name, many coffee farmers are compelled to diversify their production to include macadamia nuts, avocados, and other crops, while others have seek part-time off-farm employment.

1994: Drought conditions following coffee flowering cause a premature drop-off of fruit and consequent significant decline in cherry production. As a result, the coffee harvest in Kona, estimated at approximately 1.5 million pounds which has always represented just a small share of the world harvest, shrinks in 1994 to an even tinier fraction of total world production.

1996: Hawaii remains the sole US producer of commercially grown coffee, and Kona coffee remains truly rare. There are over 600 coffee farms in Kona, but most are just several acres in size.

1998: With the passage of law, the State of Hawaii begins origin certification of Kona green coffee making it illegal in Hawaii to mislabel Kona coffee.

2000: Coffee acreage in Kona has increased to 3,000 acres boosted by the reputation of 100% pure Kona coffee and direct sales to customers. The gourmet specialty coffee market continues to flourish, thus assuring continued high demand for Kona coffee. Most green coffee beans from Kona are purchased by large companies to be combined to create bulk non-estate packaged Kona coffee or to add dimension to blends of cheaper, less finely flavored coffees. Nevertheless, private estate labels and small roasting companies, some owned by Americans arriving in Hawaii in the 1960s and 70s, are finding a niche in the coffee market. It is still highly unusual, however, to encounter, outside of Hawaii, a broad and fine selection of limited production Kona coffees.

All black-and-white photos are courtesy of the Kona Historical Society. All other photos are courtesy of Les Drent.
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