By Gerald Kinro

Kona coffee’s history is one of resilience and individualism. Planted in 1832 as an ornamental, coffee in Kona took hold as many wished to form commercial ventures. Economic downturns in the latter part of that century, however, caused many to give up coffee and venture into other endeavors. This provided an opportunity for others, largely Japanese plantation workers, who wished freedom from plantation lunas. These made the trek, often by foot, to Kona and the industry was revived.

It was not an easy task. Pests and economic downturns threatened the industry. The Great Depression of the 1930s took a severe toll on the community and its farms. The economic woes of the mid 1900s hit hard. Many times, Kona coffee was pronounced dead by the experts. Yet the courageous farmers along the Kona Coffee Belt Road made their stand. To deal with the day to day problems of a hostile environment, they formed “kumi,” community support organizations. When unable to obtain financing, they organized their own credit union. When marketing challenges arose, they formed cooperatives. They prevailed; their coffee and the institutions they formed are alive to this day. Coffee still thrives along the twenty mile stretch of Mamalahoa Highway that we call the Kona Coffee Belt. Challenges such as the coffee berry borer, labeling, and marketing still persist, but today’s Kona coffee farmers meet those challenges with the same independence and toughness of their predecessors.

This independence and hard work is reflected in today’s product. Kona is almost exclusively madeCoffee Farmer Gary, tired after a long day of working on the farm up of independent small farms. Kona farmers toil hard to produce the best possible coffee while still maintaining independence. Nuances between the farms carry over to the final product. Therefore, each of the many private labels of Kona coffee has its own unique quality and character that creates pleasant surprises for the coffee drinker. It is aloha in every cup.


Composed of more than 630 farms ranging in elevation from 500′ to 3,000′ (150 to 915 meters), this region defines Hawaii coffee for most people. Kona coffee is internationally known and commands some of the highest prices in the world. Most farms are less than five acres (two hectares) in size and are operated by individual families. The variety Kona Typica is grown almost exclusively here.


Ka'u Coffee Farm - Cloud Rest

Copyright Rusty’s Hawaiian

Coffee was first cultivated in Ka‘u in 1894 by J.C. Searle. However, his coffee business was not commercially successful due to the competition for land and labor posed by the sugar plantations. His descendants, including his varietals, continue today.

When the sugar industry collapsed one hundred years later, and the Ka‘u sugar plantation closed in 1996, the displaced plantation workers looked to coffee as one of the most promising avenues for post-plantation agriculture. The first years of the fledgling Ka‘u coffee industry were rife with challenges as the farmers struggled to acquire the daunting array of agricultural, processing and business skills required to succeed in the modern coffee industry. The farmers persevered and quietly began producing amazing coffees rooted in Hawaiian tradition.

In the early years, Ka’u coffee was largely sold into the Kona market with little recognition for Ka’u growers. Ka‘u coffee slowly began to develop its own brand identity among local coffee buffs but remained virtually unknown outside the region until recent years. This change began in 2007, when Ka‘u coffees were entered in the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual competition. Since then, Ka‘u coffee farmers have won numerous awards.

This worldwide recognition has led to increased production and higher prices paid to growers, with supply often outstripping demand. Ka’u coffee farms encompass approximately 500 smallholder acres (200 hectares) of multiple varieties and more are currently being planted.

Ka’u coffee growing conditions are ideal. The soil, climate, varietals and processing methods combine with the hard work and aloha of the tenacious coffee growers of Ka’u to produce the perfect cup of Hawaiian coffee. Ka’u is now a featured coffee in Starbucks Reserve program and can be found on cupping tables of the finest roasters and coffee shops the world over.

Many Ka’u growers belong to a cooperative and host an annual coffee festival. For more information, visit www.kaucoffeefestival.com

Ka'u Coffee - Cloud Rest OverlookAwards earned by Ka’u coffee growers include:

2012 SCAA Roasters Guild Coffee of the Year

2011 SCAA Roasters Guild Coffee of the Year

2011 Hawaii Coffee Association Grand Champion of Hawaiian Coffee

2010 SCAA Roasters Guild Coffee of the Year

2010 Hawaii Coffee Association Grand Champion of Hawaiian Coffee

2009 7th Place SCAA Roasters Guild Cupping Competition

2008 11th Place SCAA Roasters Guild Cupping Competition

2007 6th & 9th Place SCAA Roasters Guild Cupping Competition


Rainbow Over Puna Coffee FarmPuna is the wettest region of the Big Island with an average rainfall of 150″ to 220″ annually (380 cm – 550 cm). Characterized by this and its predominately lava rock-based land area, it comes to the surprise of many that coffee grows at all in this district.

By the end of the 19th century, coffee was the chief agricultural crop of Puna. Over 6,000 acres (2,400 hectares) of coffee were owned by approximately 200 independent coffee farmers and six incorporated companies. But, like many former coffee regions in Hawaii, Puna ceased coffee production with the rise of sugarcane. The Ola’a Sugar Company, founded in 1899, uprooted coffee fields and cleared ‘ohi’a forests to make way for the new crop. The sugar mill operated until 1984.

During the mid-1990s, farmers began planting coffee once again, mostly on three acre lots in the Hawaiian Acres agricultural subdivision. However, small, isolated farms are scattered throughout the region, extending from 300′ to 2600’ elevation (90 – 790 meters). To date, Puna now has approximately 125 acres (50 hectares) planted to coffee, mostly with Typica, Caturra and Catuai varieties, though Mokka and Bourbon can be found as well. Total coffee production in Puna is about 50,000 pounds (22,680 kg) of coffee cherry annually.

Though very small and new to Hawaii’s coffee scene, Puna coffee has demonstrated excellent cup quality by placing high in the ranks of the HCA’s Annual Statewide Cupping Competition, even garnering 1st Place in 2013. In addition, a Puna coffee also managed to earn recognition on Coffee Review’s “Top 30 Coffees of 2013” list.


In 1852, Rev. Joseph Goodrich brought coffee to this region. Before long, over eight plantations were established, the largest boasting 1,000 acres (405 hectares). Fires and sugarcane quelled coffee production here until the sugarcane ceased in the mid-1990s. This region is a cool, high-rainfall, red soil-based coffee area that has now resumed coffee production predominantly with Typica, though Caturra and Catuai are somewhat common. The average farm size is five to seven acres on elevations between 350′ to 2500′ (107 to 760 meters).