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Kona Coffee: Is Coffee from Hawaii Overrated or Some of the Best?

The success of Kona, and Hawaiian coffee in general, has gone down in recent years. But why? We dive into the mystery here.
Asser Christensen
Asser Christensen
Licensed Q Arabica Grader, M.A. Journalism

There are some coffees that get a reputation for being cream of the crop.

Often, this has less to do with the merit of the actual beans  and more to do with the marketing and urban legends.

Jamaica Blue Mountain, peaberry, and yes, even Kona Coffee fall into this category.

It’s not that coffee from Hawaii is an outright scam (unlike Kopi Luwak, which most certainly is) it’s just that you might waste your money unless you know what to look for.

In this article, I’ll take you by the hand, and explain everything worth knowing about the legendary Kona Coffee. 

What Makes Kona Coffee So Special?

Coffee from Hawaii, and Kona in particular, has always had a special allure in the minds of the American consumer. 

The main reason for this is the special place that Hawaii holds in the American psyche. While Kona beans, traditionally have been considered premium coffee beans, they are somewhat overrated, and let’s be frank; extremely overpriced. 

The success of the bean can mostly be chalked down to its brilliant marketing.

At the same time, Kona (and Hawaii in general) do have some advantages, when it comes to coffee production:

  • The weather in Kona is great for growing coffee, for instance.
  • Since a lot of the coffee is produced on the slopes of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes, it has the added benefit of rich, volcanic soil that is packed full of minerals. 
  • Also, since knowledge and skill when it comes to processing the beans post-harvest is important, the higher education level compared to third-world farmers is a big plus.

Is Kona Coffee Still Worth It? 

If you ask coffee snobs around the world about Hawaiian coffee, they’ll most likely look at you with a condescending smirk. 

Kona coffee has become a lot less popular among hardcore coffee geeks, over the last 10 years.

Simply put, it’s very rare to see Kona coffee in specialty coffee shops today. The main reason is economics. 

THE AMERICAN COFFEE DREAM

Coffee, as a crop, everywhere in the world is undervalued because of cheap labor and abundance of production in the developing world.

Kona coffee is unique since it’s grown and harvested by Americans. This makes the labor a lot more expensive compared to countries like Kenya and Ethiopia. There are minimum wage laws in the US, and since coffee is rather labor intensive, the costs go up. 

The price for green (raw) Kona coffee is around $20-25/lb, whereas other regions, such as Central America or Africa is $6-$9/lb for the same (or better) quality. 

Kona coffee is still just as good as it used to be back in the days when much of the hype was starting to spread, but the worldwide competition has just increased dramatically.

One of the ways the Hawaiian coffee industry has responded to this, is by creating cheaper “Kona-alternatives”.

Grocery store brands have begun selling “Kona Blends”, which is just 10% of any random Hawaiian coffee blended with other Arabica beans to jack up prices.

This is definitely not helping the Kona-brand.

What Makes Kona Coffee so Expensive?

  • The Kona Coffee Belt Size:The belt is only about 30 miles long and a mile wide and only coffee grown in this small region can be considered 100% Kona coffee. Since the area is so small, the volume of coffee produced is small too. Only about 1% of the world’s coffee grown is Kona Coffee.
  • The Location: Kona Coffee grows up to 2500 ft up the side of the biggest active volcano in the world, which is located on an island. This isn’t the most ideal location for shipment of the coffee; everything has to be shipped by ocean barge. The conditions of the location also mean that there are no harvesting machines. Everything has to be done by hand, including the picking of the coffee beans. 
  • Labor Costs: Coffee production is very labor intensive, and almost everything has to be done by hand. This is a lot cheaper in Africa and Latin America, than it is in an American state. 

The Kona Coffee Belt

Kona Coffee is from the Arabica species, which is a good thing. It means that the flavors will be mild and nuanced if the coffee is grown and processed correctly.

The Kona Coffee Belt is the small but prime coffee-growing area in Kona. The belt is about 30 miles long and a mile wide, with elevations ranging from 500ft to 2,500ft along the fertile western slopes of the Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes.

The name “Kona” is sometimes used interchangeably with its largest town, Kailua-Kona. But in reality the region has other towns named Kealakekua, Hōnaunau, Keauhou, Holualoa, and Honalo.

The History of Kona Coffee

The story of Kona begins in 1823 when the Hawaiian King Kamehameha II travelled to England with Oahu’s governor, Chief Boki. Unfortunately, the king contracted measles on his trip and died before his return to the Big Island. On the way back home, Chief Boki stopped in Brazil and picked up some coffee plants that he brought back to Hawaii. 

In 1828, a man named Samuel Ruggles brought the plant to Kona where it prospered. Following that, from the 1850 to 1880s, the Kona coffee industry grew dramatically, with several plantations established, many of which are still functioning today. 

In the early years of Kona coffee farming, Japanese immigrants were predominantly the Kona coffee farmers. This is true till today, where many Kona coffee farmers are fifth-generation descendants doing the same work. 

Today, there are nearly 700 Kona coffee farms and most of them are family-owned and operated. Many Kona coffee farms offer farm tours as well as coffee tastings and more.

Chief Boki brought coffee seedlings from Brazil to Hawaii back in 1825. The rest is history.

How Much Coffee Is Produced Each Year in Kona?

Up to three million pounds of unroasted coffee beans were produced each year up until 2007. 

Between 2013 and 2014, an estimated 2.4 million lbs of unroasted coffee beans were produced. This is because a large amount of the Kona coffee crop is blended with other coffee beans, resulting in the decline. There is an average of about 20 million pounds of coffee sold each year with the label of Kona Coffee, though much of it is more aptly described as Hawaiian Kona Blend Coffee.

Harvesting and Processing 

Coffee berries are referred to as “cherries” because of the bright red color they turn once they are ripe. Each of these cherries contains a couple of seeds, which are considered the coffee beans. The producers hand-pick the cherries from the plant; another reason why machines aren’t used is that all cherries don’t ripen at the same time even on a single plant and picking only the ready fruit requires a sharp human eye.

Harvesters choose coffee cherries based on their firmness, color, and size. A machine strips away the flesh and pulp, leaving behind the coffee beans. The beans are fermented between 12 and 24 hours and then washed in fresh water. Once washed, the beans are spread out in the sun to dry so their moisture levels can get anywhere between 9 and 12.2%.

Hawaii coffee Flavor

Kona coffee has a simple but still rich flavor; it is light and delicate with a complex aroma. A high quality Kona coffee has a clean and well-balanced flavor along with medium body and brightness through acidity.

Often, it exhibits spicy and buttery qualities with subtle winey tones, and is intensely aromatic with an incredible finish.

Grades of Kona Coffee

The primary grades of “Type I” Kona coffee beans are categorized as:

  1. Extra Fancy (Highest Grade)
  2. Fancy (High Grade)
  3. Kona #1 (Mid-Grade coffee bean sold in bulk and used in most restaurants)
  4. Prime (Lowest Grade)

All Hawaii Kona Peaberry Coffees are classed as “Type II,” and they are then divided into sections and graded as Peaberry Prime and Peaberry #1.

Coffee Plant Varietals

Most of the coffee grown in the Kona Coffee Belt is of the Typica varietal (Coffea Arabica var. typica). Similarly, a relatively small amount of Blue Mountain coffee is grown in Kona (Coffea Arabica var. blue mountain), which is conventionally grown in Jamaica and promoted as Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee.

FAQ

Does the Kona Make the Grade?

Even though Kona is a small coffee-growing region, different regions across the district produce various qualities. Grading depends on several different characteristics of the coffee, such as its shape, size, moisture content, rarity and any flaws in the beans. Generally, the larger the coffee beans, the more flavor they will give. Thus, the grade varies from producer to producer. 

What Makes Kona Coffee Different?

The weather in Kona is extremely encouraging for growing coffee beans. It has the added benefit of rich, dark volcanic soil that is packed full of minerals.

However, the most special thing is that it’s grown in an American State.

Why is Kona Coffee so Expensive?

Since all labor has to be done by hand, the labor costs go up. There are minimum wage laws that prevent low-cost labor since the coffee is 100% American grown.

For perspective, 8lbs of the coffee fruit produce 1lb of Kona coffee. Each tree produces about 16lbs of fruit; only 2lbs of roasted coffee are produced per tree – of which, all the labor is done by hand!

Is Kona Coffee Still Worth It?

Not really. The third-wave coffee movement disrupted the popularity that Kona coffee had enjoyed previously by offering better and cheaper alternatives from other parts of the world.

The unique selling point of single-origin, organic, family farm grown coffee was suddenly not so unique any more.

Featured Image: Wfabry — Flickr CC 2.0

about the author

about the author

Hey, I’m Asser Christensen from Denmark – the founder & editor of this site.

I have been crazy about caffeine for almost as long as I can remember. Today, I’m a licensed Q Arabica Grader and full time coffee writer.

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