Coffee was first brought to Hawaii in 1817, although these initial plantings were unsuccessful. In 1825 the governor of Oahu, Chief Boki, was on a voyage from Europe and stopped off in Brazil where he picked up some coffee plants. These plants did thrive and coffee production was soon widespread across the Hawaiian islands.
The Bourbon variety was probably brought to the Big Island in 1828, and the first commercial plantation in Kauai began operation in 1836. However, plantations in the Hanalei Valley area of Kauai were destroyed by the coffee blight insect in 1858. The only region that continued to produce coffee from these initial plantings in the Kona region on the Big Island.
In the late 1800s, the industry attracted immigrants from China and then Japan, who came to work on the plantations. In the 1920s, many Filipinos arrived to work on the coffee farms during harvest time and the sugar cane plantations in the spring
Coffee, on the other hand, did not become a significant part of the island economy until the 1980s, when sugar cultivation became unprofitable. The event sparked a resurgence of interest in coffee across the state.
The best-known growing region in Hawaii, and one of the best-known in the world, is the Kona region on the Big Island. A long history of coffee production has helped cement the reputation of the region, although its success has led to its exploitation through the mislabelling of coffee. Legislation on the island now means that any Kona blend must state the quantity of coffee from Kona on it, and the use of the ‘100% Kona’ trademark is carefully controlled. A farm called Kona Kai in California had previously fought the awarding of any trademark or protection for the name, but in 1996 its executive was found guilty of filling his ‘Kona Coffee’ bags with beans from Costa Rica.
More recently, the region has been challenged by the problem of coffee berry borer. The island has introduced a number of measures to combat the blight, with some success, although there were fears that a reduction in yield would drive the already high price of Kona coffee even higher.
It will come as no surprise that in a developed country the expectations of traceability should be high. Coffees are usually traceable down to a specific farm. In many cases, the farms roast their own coffees to sell directly to consumers and tourists. Many also export some of their crops, predominantly to the mainland United States.
Kona has its own grading system, mostly based on the size of the beans, but also divided into Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 is the standard coffee beans, with two beans per cherry, while Type 2 coffees are exclusively peaberries.
Within Type 1, Kona Extra Fancy is the largest beans, then they decrease in size through the following grades: Kona Fancy, Kona Number 1, Kona Select, and Kona Prime.
Within Type 2 there are only two grades: Kona Number 1 Peaberry and the smaller Kona Peaberry Prime.
There are requirements for a maximum level of defects in most of the grades, but these are quite generous and not themselves a reliable indicator of quality.
Typically lower in acidity, with a little more body. Approachable but rarely complex and
Number of 60kg (132lb) bags in 2016: 40,909
Hawaii’s reputation is dominated by a single region: Kona. The other islands are also worth exploring, however, if you like a typical island coffee with relatively low acidity, a little more body, and less fruitiness in the cup.
This growing region is dominated by a single company running 1,250 hectares (3,100 acres) of coffee production. The Kauai Coffee Company started growing coffee to diversify away from sugarcane in the late 1980s. Due to its size, it is a heavily mechanized farm.
Altitude: 30–180m (100–600ft)
Varieties: Yellow Catuai, Red Catuai, Typica, Blue Mountain, Mundo Novo
This is another island that is dominated by the Waialua Estate, which is around 60 hectares
(155 acres) in size. This farm, which started production in the early 1990s, is fully mechanized in its production and also grows cacao
Altitude: 180–210m (600–700ft)
Maui has one large commercial coffee farm, Ka’anapali, which has the unusual addition of a selection of small plots of land with houses and coffee plantations for sale. Although the plots are owned by different people, the coffee production is done centrally. This large estate was a sugar plantation from 1860 to 1988, when production was turned over to the coffee
Altitude: 100–550m (350–1,800ft)
Varieties: Red Catuai, Yellow Caturra, Typica, Mokka
KULA, MAUI ISLAND
This small region takes advantage of the slopes of the Haleakala volcano to achieve some decent elevation for coffee growing. Coffee is relatively new to the area.
Altitude: 450–1,050m (1,500–3,500ft)
Varieties: Typica, Red Catuai
WAIKAPU, MAUI ISLAND
This is the newest region of coffee production in Hawaii. A single farm operates here, held by a company based on the neighboring island of Molokai, called Coffees of Hawaii.
Altitude: 500–750m (1,600–2,450ft)
Varieties: Typica, Catuai
KIPAHULU, MAUI ISLAND
This is a very low region on the southeast coast of Maui. Coffee is often grown in organic
farms as part of a diverse set of crops.
Altitude: 90–180m (300–600ft)
Varieties: Typica, Catuai
KAULAPUU, MOLOKAI ISLAND
This region is also dominated by a single coffee company, Coffees of Hawaii. The large farm is mechanized, often a requirement to reduce operational costs in an environment where labor is extremely expensive.
Altitude: 250m (800ft)
Varieties: Red Catuai
KONA, BIG ISLAND
Unlike many other growing regions in Hawaii, there is a more diverse industry here with over 630 farms producing coffee. Typically run by individual families, these farms are usually less than 2 hectares (5 acres). Yields here may well be the highest per area of anywhere in the world and as the farms are so much smaller than elsewhere in Hawaii, it is common to see manual harvesting of the trees.
Altitude: 150–900m (500–3,000ft)
KAU, BIG ISLAND
Coffee production started in this region relatively recently, after the closure of the sugar mill
in 1996. Until 2010, the farmers and cooperatives in the area had to travel to the neighboring regions of Puna or Kona to have the coffee processed after harvest. However,
a mill has now been constructed to alleviate the problem.
Altitude: 500–650m (1,600–2,150ft)
PUNA, BIG ISLAND
This region had around 2,400 hectares (6,000 acres) of land under coffee production at the
end of the 19th century, but production ceased as sugar rose to prominence. However, the
sugar mill closed in 1984 and some farmers are starting to grow coffee here again. Most
farms in this area are relatively small – around 1.2 hectares (3 acres).
Altitude: 300–750m (1,000–2,450ft)
Varieties: Red Catuai, Typica
Coffee arrived in 1852, and eight plantations were built at the time. Sugar became the preferred crop in Hawaii, and coffee output began to drop. However, during the mid-1990s, some farms have begun to return to coffee production.
Altitude: 100–600m (350–2,000ft)
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