Central to our social life here in Kailua Kona, is the coffee house. Not the ubiquitously generic Starbucks (although we do have two of those) but unique, lively, and decades-old, boutique coffee houses dotted across the countryside. Most coffee farms and roasting houses have their own, individual coffee shops, and there are dozens of other coffee shop/bakeries across the island which all have their specialties and quirks, each more individual and fascinating than the last.
Morning is started by coffee and a chat after a workout in downtown Kailua. Pau hana (after work) is celebrated by watching the sunset over Kailua Bay at the coffee shop and evenings, many times, are spent with friends at yet another coffeehouse recounting the day, “talking story,” and unwinding. Although surrounded by the farms and roasteries that produce the world’s finest coffee, few of us “Konans” take time to reflect on the rich, multicultural history of our favorite brew.
Coffee, a relative of the gardenia family, is one of the most important crops grown on the Big Island. Although other Hawaiian Islands also produce coffee, only Kona coffee is of sufficient quality to be sold on the world market during gluts in coffee production. In Kona Mauka (upland Kona) you will find many coffee farms and roasting plants that give tours, such as the Captain Cook Coffee Company, in Kainaliu.
Hawaii is the sole U.S. producer of commercially grown coffee and Kona coffee remains truly rare. Today’s Kona coffee industry is composed of an interlaced group of independent small farmers, coffee roasters, and merchants. Of the perhaps 600 coffee farms in Kona, most are between two and three acres in size. Kona coffee is raised on over 2,000 total acres in an area twenty miles long and two miles wide along the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes, between 500 to 3,000 feet elevation; annual coffee production is generally over two million pounds.
World famous Kona coffee owes its richness and flavor to the fertile, volcanic soil, mild climate, and abundant rainwater in the mountains of the west side of the Big Island. The area’s coffee industry began in earnest during the 1830s and soon the lives and culture of Kona residents began to revolve around it.
The history of Kona coffee is one of boom and bust, good times and bad, but always characterized by a strong work ethic, independence, self-sufficiency, family unity, and cooperation. A multicultural industry from the beginning, it has involved contributions from the island’s Native Hawaiians, Haoles, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Puerto Ricans.
In 1813, Don Francisco de Paula Y Marin, a Spaniard and one of Kamehameha’s trusted advisors, planted coffee on the island of Oahu. The British warship HMS Blonde brought more coffee trees to the Hawaiian Islands in 1825. Reverend Samuel Ruggles brought the first coffee to the Big Island when he brought cuttings of coffee trees to the town of Captain Cook in Kona in 1828.
The industry grew and large plantations were established during the first half of the nineteenth century. Both companies provided however even though world coffee prices started to climb in the 1850s, labor shortages, pest and disease infestations, and drought thwarted efforts to expand the Hawaiian coffee industry. Coffee plantations were replaced by sugar cane plantations as coffee pries fell and sugar prices rose and by 1860, coffee plantations almost disappeared from Hawaii.
Boom times arrived again in Kona in the 1890s as American and European started another era of the large coffee plantation enterprises; this lasted until 1899, when the world coffee market crashed and brought the Kona coffee industry to near extinction.
Economic realities forced large scale coffee plantations to be sold off, cut up, and replaced by small family ventures run by new immigrants. By 1910, Japanese farmers comprised 80 percent of Kona’s coffee farmers. This marked the beginning of the transition from large coffee plantations to small family farms, a transformation revolutionized the Kona coffee industry and saved it.
Through the Great Depression, two world wars, and into modern times, coffee prices rose and fell causing the Kona coffee industry to grow and shrink accordingly. However, the farming style from the turn of the twentieth century onward was always characterized by smaller, rather than larger, coffee farms. Captain Cook Coffee Company and American Factors (AMFAC) were the only legal buyers of the coffee crop in those days; they provided goods to the farmers through company stores, which were paid for with the coffee harvest. Many times, small farmers had no other way of raising scare cash than to sell their coffee on the black market. Until the mid 1950s when they withdrew from the coffee industry, Captain Cook and AMFAC hired armed men to patrol the roads of Kona in an effort to suppress this vicarious coffee commerce.
Today, Kona coffee is grown on around 600 independent coffee farms, mostly are between two and three acres. Total coffee acreage exceeds 2,000 along the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes; annual coffee production is generally over two million pounds.
Apropos of the caffeine content of our Kona coffee, I once attended a lecture on Hawaii reef fish by a visiting marine biologist who had studied tropical reef fish all over the world. He compared our fish populations and behaviors with those he had studied elsewhere and he commented on a singular curiosity about Big Island reef fish. “Your Big Island fish are the most active I’ve ever seen,” he said. “On average, they are twice or three times more active than even the fish on your neighboring islands … I don’t know what accounts for it.” The audience pondered this quandary in silence and, contemplating my empty “to go” cup of coffee, I realized I had to use the restroom.
In a flash I realized I knew exactly why our Big Island reef fish are so active … but I thought I’d just keep that explanation to myself.
For more information about visiting and touring Hawaii in general, and exploring the historic and cultural sites on the Big Island, including the Kona Coffee country, in particular, visit tourguidehawaii.com.