Loading... Please wait...

Our Newsletter

The History of Kona Coffee in Hawai`i

The History of Kona Coffee in Hawai`i

Early History

Coffee growing in Hawai`i has a long but uneven history. The earliest record of cultivation in the islands is an entry of January 21, 1813, in the diary of the Spanish entrepreneur, Don Francisco de Paula y Marin. Marin, who was the personal physician to King Kamehameha I, mentions that he had introduced several plants in his garden retreat in Pauoa Valley, outside of Honolulu. This initial foray into coffee culture ended, however, with Marin’s death.

Credit for the first successful introduction of coffee can be ascribed to Governor Boki of O`ahu, who began cultivation on his property in Manoa Valley in 1825. Boki had accompanied King Kamehameha II and his wife Queen Kamamalu on their tragic trip to England: soon after being received by Queen Victoria and feted by British society, both king and queen contracted measles and died. The warship H.M.S. Blonde was provided to return the remains of the Hawaiian sovereign and his wife. Boki arranged for the ship to take on about 30 coffee plants when it called at Rio de Janeiro on the return trip.

Boki’s advisor was John Wilkinson, an English horticulturalist, who had experience in coffee growing, apparently having worked for a number of years in the West Indies. Boki was interested in diversifying Hawai`i’s economy at a time when the sandalwood trade was ending due to the depletion of the forests. Prepared by native laborers paid a daily rate of 25 cents and using traditional o`o sticks, most of Boki’s acreage was devoted to sugar and a small section, or about seven acres, to coffee. Plants were obtained by others interested in diversifying agriculture in Hawai`i through Boki. As a result, coffee began to be grown elsewhere on the islands, primarily as a garden plant.

The Beginnings of Commercial Production

In the late 1820’s, a number of farmers experimented with coffee as a commercial crop. In 1827, the Rev. Joseph Goodrich, an American missionary in Hilo, brought some of the Wilkinson plants to the Big Island of Hawai`i to see how well they would grow there. Sometime, in either 1827 or 1829, the Rev. Samuel Ruggles did the same in the Kona area, bringing several of the Wilkinson plants or seeds from them to his property in Kealakekua.

Early Production on the Big Island of Hawai`i

While Kaua`i was a major producer of coffee during this early period, other farms continued on O`ahu, Maui and the Big Island of Hawai`i, particularly in Hilo and Kona. Cummings and Hall in Kailua and Goodrich in Hilo both expanded their operations. Henry N. Greenwell, an English colonist on the Kona Coast, converted some of his land to coffee by the early 1850’s. Other settlers’ names joined his, including the Hinds, the Ackermans, and the Castles. Many saw coffee as becoming one of the principal agricultural enterprises of Hawai`i. As early as the 1830’s, coffee-milling equipment was exempted from import tariffs. In 1842, a law was enacted allowing for the payment of local taxes in coffee (and pigs!). By 1854, it was the second largest agricultural industry, after sugar.

The 1842 Act, as well as underwriting the efforts of larger planters, helped encourage many small-time growers to go into the coffee business, including an increasing number of native Hawaiians. The same act of 1842 imposed a three percent duty on foreign coffee, thus adding an element of protectionism. As the Hawaiian sovereign, King Kamehameha III, stressed:

“Those persons who are in pursuit of wealth would do well to plant coffee, for it is the same as money.”

Continuing decreases in the native population, however, as a result of disease and high mortality rates, continued to hamper the development of large-scale agriculture. The 1849 Gold Rush in California also induced a number of laborers away, putting a further strain on the labor supply.

Coffee Production in the 1850’s and 1860’s

Beginning in 1851, a “blight” affected coffee farms in Hawai`i. Generally, it was the orchards at lower altitudes that were affected. A reporter for the Advertiser noted as early as 1858 that the trees on many Big Island plantations had produced so few berries that it scarcely paid to pick them. Generally, the orchards at the higher elevations continued to survive and produce throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s. Indeed, Kona coffee was beginning to gain a reputation for flavor and robustness. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who made a special point of visiting the area in 1866, wrote that:

“The ride through the district of Kona to Kealakekua Bay took us through the famous coffee and orange section. I think the Kona coffee has a richer flavor than any other, be it grown where it may and call it what you please.”

Native Hawaiians during the 1850’s and 1860’s gradually became the principal laborers on the larger farms. After 1852, native Hawaiian laborers began to be augmented by newly recruited Chinese workers. This was a boon particularly for the fast-growing sugar industry, but it also made more labor available for coffee growing.

According to one account, native laborers received 20 cents a day and an additional 12 ½ cents as a food allowance. Chinese laborers, who had to be fed on premises, received only 17 cents; but it was estimated that it cost an additional 16 cents to feed each worker daily.

Kona’s Unique Attributes

Kona would turn out to be almost the ideal coffee producing area. This was due to a variety of factors, nearly all of them environmental. Coffee is a relatively delicate plant. It does not thrive in hot or dry climates, nor can it survive cold weather. Generally, coffee plants do best at higher altitudes, usually at 500 feet above sea level and higher, depending on the climate. Coffee plants also need a great deal of moisture, especially when they are flowering. Adequate water allows the plants to produce a large number of flower clusters, which in turn translates into more berries. However, from the point of view of coffee producers, it is also important that the period of higher precipitation necessary to induce flowering be followed by a period of relative aridity, in order to allow for picking and efficient drying of the berries. There are few areas of the world that possess all of these attributes. Kona, almost uniquely, has almost all of them.

The area that became known as the Kona coffee producing area is a stretch of land about 20 miles long, extending along the southwest coast of the Big Island and located approximately two miles in from the coast. No more than a mile wide, and in many areas far narrower, the “Coffee Belt,” as it came to be called, is situated between 800 to around 1700 feet above sea level. The well-drained volcanic soils, combined with mild weather, turned out to be ideal for coffee growing as many early planters realized.

The land within this area was little suited for other types of agriculture; indeed sugar, which came in the late 19th century to subsume most other agricultural lands, really could not be grown there because of the higher altitude and rugged topography. This isolated area and the special demands of coffee growing attracted a unique category of farmers, generally independent men and women who preferred to live in relative remoteness, working on a labor intensive crop rather than serving on larger plantations. As a result, coffee in the Kona area and its eventual success in Hawai`i was as much a human factor as an agricultural one. Without the special circumstances of the Kona Coast from a social point of view, it is unlikely that coffee would have continued as a crop of significance in the islands.

The Decline of Coffee in the 1870’s and 1880’s

It was not labor, however, that would cause a decline in coffee production in the islands but declines in the world coffee prices. Coffee in Hawai`i was always subject to the international market. When prices were high, Hawaiian coffee, like coffee everywhere, did well and more trees were set out. When prices were low, it became more difficult to justify working for the crop. Successful years in 1869 and 1870 (when exports reached a new high of 415,111 pounds) were followed by the disastrous years 1871 and 1872, when exports fell to 46,926 and 39,276 respectively. Coffee was proving to be a marginal crop, alternating with rice as a distant second or third to sugar’s impressive growth as the kingdom’s principal agricultural export. Where coffee growers could convert to sugar, they did; where lands were not favorable for sugar production, as in Kona, coffee stayed on as a secondary crop.

The late 1870’s and 1880’s nearly ended Hawai`i’s coffee industry. Sugar prices, which increased enormously during the U.S. Civil War, continued to be high throughout the next two decades. The signing of the Reciprocity Treaty with the United States, which ended the duty on Hawaiian imported sugar, proved an additional boost to Hawai`i sugar growers; however, coffee was now unprotected by its earlier special tariff and local growers had to compete on the world market. Increased production in South and Central America made local profits increasingly difficult. By the 1880’s coffee was grown almost entirely for local consumption and as a minor cash crop. It was nearly 1890 before coffee production would turn around and show increases again.

Stores and Coffee Factors

One significant institution that did emerge during this period of declining coffee profits was the country store. An important aspect of Kona life for the next nearly 75 years, these modest establishments catered in part to the remaining coffee industry, acting essentially as “factors” or middlemen for the smaller growers. Long established residents, such as H.N. Greenwell, started general stores later supplementing their income with other businesses. A number of Chinese, who originally had moved to the area as laborers either on coffee farms or on nearby sugar plantations, also entered into the mercantile business, again often buying coffee as a sideline.

Nevertheless, even as coffee fortunes were declining, storekeepers and factors such as Greenwell and Chung Kun Ai helped to keep Kona coffee afloat. Greenwell worked as well to restore something of Kona’s reputation as a producer of premium grade coffee. He did this both through promotion and by establishing grades for the valuation of coffee beans. With others, especially Hendrick Hackfeld, who owned the principal mill and coffee exporting business in Honolulu, Greenwell also helped to press for better standards for processing.

The Coffee Boom of the 1890’s

The driving force behind the coffee boom of the 1890’s was the sudden increase of prices on the world market. Another source of invigoration for the industry was the dramatic change in government for the islands. In 1893, Queen Liliuokalani was removed from her throne, and the short-lived Republic of Hawai`i which ensued, opened the door to new investment in the former kingdom and encouraged additional settlement by Americans and Europeans. The total acreage planted in coffee increased tremendously. By 1898, fully 13,947 acres of trees were planted in the Hawaiian Islands, and many more were scheduled for production. The total number of plantations, ranging from small, several-acre farms to several thousand-acre holdings, reached nearly 200. Aided by ready capital resulting from the immense profits from the sugar industry, coffee was well on the way to becoming a major agricultural industry. Export figures give an indication of coffee’s growth: from a low of 3,051 pounds in 1891 to 2,630,149 pounds in 1901.

Imported Labor

The apparent success of coffee was underwritten by another significant factor, which was the increasing availability of labor. The period from 1885 to around 1925 was the peak period of labor recruitment for the Hawaiian Islands. Favorable immigration policies were pushed through by investors and farmers, especially for the territory’s blossoming sugar industry. The Chinese were among the earliest immigrants to work on the coffee farms. The first recorded use of Chinese workers on a coffee plantation was in the mid-1850’s, when P. Cummings employed several on his Kona farm. Many of the early Chinese laborers married native Hawaiian women, and some began their own small farms. By the beginning of the coffee boom of the 1890’s, Chinese contract laborers comprised 50 percent of the workforce in the islands.

The Chinese population was joined in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s by a large group of Portuguese settlers. Many of these early immigrants worked as laborers, although a substantial number came with sufficient resources to set up as small leaseholders and farmers. A few also served as overseers, or “lunas,” as they came to be known, on the larger coffee plantations.

A third important immigrant group, and the one that ultimately would have the greatest significance for coffee growing in Hawai`i, was the Japanese. As with the Chinese, most of the earlier Japanese immigrants were contract laborers, brought in principally to work on the expanding sugar plantations. Nearly all were single men on three-year contracts with the sugar plantations, although some were brought in specifically for coffee as well. Working as pickers, some of the Japanese workers stayed on after their contracts were up. Others arrived in the Kona area after breaking their contracts. Following in a tradition already established by the Chinese, unhappy Japanese workers in many instances ran away from sugar plantations, seeking refuge in the relative remoteness of the Kona Coffee Belt.

Interestingly, the largest number of newer immigrants associated with the development of the coffee industry in the 1890’s were Europeans and North Americans. In the Kona district, a number of these farmers began to establish themselves during this period.

Advances in Coffee Production

The developments of the 1890’s had an important impact on the quality of Kona coffee and on methods of growing and milling. One significant change was in the plant stock itself. Around 1892 Hermann Widemann imported a number of Guatemalan plants into Hawai`i. These proved to be stronger and more productive than the earlier varieties from Brazil and Java. In 1897, Zentaro Inaba planted a large farm in North Kona with Guatemalan seedlings; in 1898, the successful farmer Kunigoru Yokoyama planted an additional 100 acres in Kaumalamalu, also in North Kona, in Guatemalan trees. Experienced horticulturists also helped introduce new methods of care, pruning, and fertilizing. The threat in 1892 of a second “blight” caused by white scale attack was successfully averted through the importation of ladybird beetles from Australia – the beetles serving as a natural predator.

At the production end, local growers and merchants worked to improve quality. As a result of these efforts, Hawaiian coffee began to regain its reputation for excellence, particularly in the United States. Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole pointed out in 1905 that Kona coffee in particular was used in the finer hotels and clubs in New York and San Francisco:

“It is not too much to say that no coffee in the world surpasses Kona coffee, which is unrivaled in that it has both great strength and fine flavor.”

The Collapse of Coffee in the 1900’s

As seemed often the case for coffee, lavish expectations were brought to a halt in the early 1900’s. While annexation in 1898 meant closer ties to the United States and helped to assure investors of the safety of their investments, it immediately put Hawaiian coffee into competition with other coffee producing areas. Poor farming practices also contributed to the downfall of the industry. Although more was known and disseminated about proper cultivation, many farmers were simply too eager for quick profits to take heed of them. High prices for and shortages of potash fertilizers also made it difficult even for conscientious growers to take corrective measures.

Small Farmers of the Early 20th Century

During the early part of the 20th century, the sugar industry became by the most important agricultural enterprise in Hawai`i. Although rice production fell off dramatically in the latter part of the nineteenth century, a new crop, pineapple, introduced to Hawai’i only in 1902, began to take over as the second commercial agricultural industry after 1905. Coffee would be by then a distant third as an agricultural product in the territory. Coffee export figures during this time remained high despite falling prices. The price on the world market hovered between 10 to 13 cents per pound, making profits difficult.

The Portuguese, active in coffee since the late 1880’s, tended to drift into ranching, although a few would remain prominent coffee growers. The Japanese filled a gap in the labor market just as changes were happening in coffee production. The newer Japanese workers adopted an attitude of independence that was in some ways culturally alien to their Japanese past. However, the character of social relations began to change after around 1908-1910 as more Japanese women began to move to the area. Accounting only for about one fourth of the Japanese population in the Kona area as of 1900, the ratio of women to men increased nearly one to one by 1910. By this time, at least 400 Japanese families were living in the Kona district, all making their living from coffee.

In 1918, just after World War I, a severe frost damaged much of the Brazilian crop, suddenly sending prices on the world market to new heights. From an average of under 13 cents a pound in the 1902-1911 period, the price jumped to 26 cents in 1918. As always, the number of acres in coffee plants increased to meet demand. The 1920’s, in fact, would prove the heyday for coffee production in the islands, particularly Kona. Small-time farmers during this time found for the first time they could afford to improve their houses, pay off debts, and invest in agricultural improvements and new equipment. Included were new coffee-drying platforms, pulping machines and water tanks. Some coffee growers even could buy cars or trucks for the first time. There was also increased investment in mills and advances in processing. H.Hackfeld had been reorganized as American Factors in 1918 – as a company owned by a German it was subject to the Alien Property Act and was placed under American management – but remained active as an essential middleman. Kona mills such as Captain Cook Coffee Company, the Hawai’i Coffee Mill, and the Kona Coffee Mill were all shipping their green coffee to Honolulu where it was packaged for shipment or roasted and then shipped to the Mainland.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression hit Hawai`i as it did other parts of the United States. Once again, coffee prices plummeted to a level that created real hardships for growers. At an international level, the market was affected primarily by a political and economic design made in Brazil to no longer limit production as a means of keeping up prices. Production increased enormously just as prices on the world market fell. By the early 1930’s, coffee was back to its pre-World War I level, or about 10 cents a pound. The impact on Hawai’i was dramatic. Acreage in production immediately shrank, as John Beaumont later phrased it, to “all but the most favorable location [Kona].” Those who remained in the coffee business were forced further and further into debt. With the price at a wholesale level falling to as low as 6 cents a pound, farmers could rarely break even.

The Role of the Agricultural Extension Service

Advances in coffee production were actively supported in the 1930’s through government efforts, particularly those of the Department of Agriculture’s Experiment Station and later the Extension Service. In addition to research and publications, these organizations also provided on-site advice to coffee farmers. A permanent field office was established in Kona in 1928 and managed by Baron Goto out of a rented space in the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook. Efforts by individual Kona farmers, such as Minohei Takauye, who is credited with inventing the first movable roof-type coffee platform, and Ichitaro Nakamaru, who helped introduce better pulping equipment, also made Kona farmers among the most efficient and productive ever known. Indeed, by 1940 it was generally estimated that Kona coffee farms produced anywhere from three to five-times as much coffee per acre than farms elsewhere in the world.

World War II and Coffee Production in the 1940’s

The beginning of the war in Europe began to reverse the decline of coffee prices. An Inter-American Coffee agreement was signed in Washington in November 1940 and set quotas for nations throughout the Americas, helping to stabilize prices. However, the coffee industry had to compete with the war itself for labor and materials. Wartime industries and the military build-up after the Pearl Harbor attack had an enormous impact on the status of labor in Hawai`i. Relatively cheap, seasonal laborers were no longer available. There was also more work available locally as young men and women joined in the war effort. By 1943, it was estimated that it cost fully 5 percent more to produce the annual crop, a circumstance attributed to the loss of labor to the war effort and the more stringent application of child labor laws.

Resurgence of Coffee Growing in the 1950’s

As always with coffee, circumstances were to change again in the next decade. An increase in coffee prices in 1950-51 encouraged a number of farmers to continue and others to enter into the business. The real boom in coffee farming came, however, in 1953-4 when a freeze in Brazil virtually destroyed the Brazilian crop, sending coffee prices to an all-time high. As a result, Hawaiian coffee growers became more affluent than they had ever been before. With more ready cash, farmers could afford to invest properly in fertilizers and apply other, more scientific means to production. Delegates from Central and South America, induced by programs sponsored by the Extension Service, travelled increasingly to Hawai’i to see just why Hawaiian coffee was so good.

The Coop Movement

Fueled by an increasing sense of independence and power after World War II, coffee growers began to consider the idea of cooperative milling in order to gain a larger share of the profits. It was immediately clear that the larger mill owners would be opposed to the idea. They also had the power to make life difficult for anyone trying to break the system; they could withhold fertilizers, see that credit was denied, end leases, and generally make it difficult for troublemakers to stay in business. The first cooperative mill was organized by Kona grower George Harada, with the help of Noboru Yamamoto and others. Harada’s “Donkey Mill” began production in 1953. Ostensibly a private operation, but in fact a consortium of approximately 80 Kona growers, it was known officially as the Kona Coffee Cooperative Association (KCCA). This was imitated by the Sunset Cooperative, started by Takeshi Kudo in 1956.

Hard Times in the 1960’s and Early 1970’s

The 1960’s and early 1970’s witnessed the radical decline of coffee growing. Indeed, the industry nearly failed during these otherwise economically expansive times for Hawai`i. Prices remained frustratingly low: 29 cents a pound in 1960 to only 41 cents a pound in 1971. Robert Robinson pointed out that it cost nearly 21 cents to produce a pound of coffee, which only wholesaled at 22 cents. Considering the value of family labor, even at minimum wage, the depreciation on buildings and equipment and so on, the real cost for production was estimated at 36 cents a pound. This meant that farmers were actually losing 14-15 cents on every pound they produced! By the mid-1960’s the wholesalers and mills began to abandon the business altogether. Captain Cook Coffee, the area’s second biggest producer, sold its mill at Napo`opo`o and American Factors mill in Kailua-Kona was purchased by the Sunset Coffee Cooperative. In 1969, the cooperatives collectively signed a contract with the Superior Coffee and Tea Company, which agreed to purchase the total crop each year as a way of ensuring price stability.

Recovery of the Industry

By the 1980’s coffee was on the upswing again. Kona coffee had found a special niche, one based on taste and quality. As the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal explained in 1983:

“Where a few short years ago no specific market existed for this fine coffee, today almost all major gourmet specialty roasters list Kona coffee in their selection of available coffees.”

Kona had become not merely another coffee but a unique commodity on the international market. Kona coffee continues today to be a significant agricultural industry on the Big Island and its propagation practiced by only the most devoted Kona farmers.


-written by William Chapman, Ph.D. (abridged version)