Updated: September 1, 2023
Kona, Hawaii, is one of the most famous regions in the world for growing coffee. In fact, people all over social media have been raving about how special Kona coffee is. But is the hype true? What does Kona coffee taste like?
In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into Kona coffee, including its rich history and the unique flavor characteristics that make this coffee so utterly extraordinary.
Keep reading as we discuss different roasts, brewing tips, flavor notes, and everything else you’ve ever wanted to know about this rich, flavorful Hawaiian coffee.
What Does Kona Coffee Taste Like?
Hawaiian Kona coffee is light and delicate yet rich and complex, giving your taste buds a world of delicious flavor. It has a slightly syrupy, medium body and a taste profile reminiscent of brown sugar, milk chocolate, caramel, and honey.
Kona coffee also has a hint of bright, fruity flavor that can range from slightly floral to berry and citrus, depending on the roast and blend. It has a rich, delicious aroma that’s complex but not overpowering, with slightly nutty undertones.
What Is Kona Coffee?
Kona coffee comes from coffee beans that farmers and coffee producers cultivate on the slopes of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes on the “Big Island” of Hawaii. This region is a 30-mile-long strip of coastline located on the western side of the Big Island, known as the coffee belt.
Kona coffee isn’t just a generic term or brand name. Beans must come from coffee grown in that specific region of Hawaii to carry the original Kona name.
Kona coffee beans aren’t like other coffee beans. This premium coffee is unique, gourmet, and one of the priciest coffees in the world. But why is it so special? Keep reading!
Why Is Kona Coffee So Special?
So, what’s all the fuss about? Do Kona coffees really taste better than other premium or gourmet coffees? Of course, the answer depends on your personal preferences.
However, we can tell you a few reasons why Kona coffee beans are superior to other coffee beans, and we’ll break that down for you right now.
Hawaii’s Kona region has lots of sunshine and warm temperatures year-round, usually between 55 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
However, the bright, sunny mornings turn into cloudy, rainy afternoons, creating the ideal growing climate for Kona coffee beans and allowing them to mature gradually.
Lots of shade, rain, and cooler afternoon temperatures prevent the bitterness of overripe beans and result in a delicious, full-bodied taste.
Kona coffee plants thrive in the special microclimate and high altitudes (4,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level) of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa mountains and volcanoes, giving them a rich, earthy taste. The high elevation also makes the coffee beans hard and dense, contributing to their unique flavor.
3. Soil Conditions
The most significant factor that influences the taste of Kona coffee is the volcanic soil in the coffee belt. The volcanoes make the earth dark and mineral-rich, and the Kona coffee bean plant thrives in these conditions.
Flowing lava imparts minerals in its wake, including calcium, phosphates, nitrates, and potassium, providing a well-balanced and robust flavor with a slightly earthy aftertaste.
Exploring the Taste and Flavor Profile of Kona Coffee
So, what does Kona coffee taste like? As specialty coffees go, Kona beans are among the very best. However, no two varieties or roasts of Kona coffees are the same.
The best Kona coffee has a smooth, light flavor and rich aroma. Its profile contains subtle flavors of milk chocolate, caramel, and brown sugar infused with sweet, fruity notes.
You may also experience a nutty flavor that leaves a satisfying and unique taste down to the last sip. In addition, the Kona coffee bean often produces an earthier taste than other coffees due to the high elevation on the Big Island where farmers grow the Kona coffee plant.
Another factor that affects how you taste Kona coffee is the state of the beans, or how ripe they are.
Green coffee beans that are underripe produce a darker flavor with a touch of bitterness for all those coffee lovers who enjoy specialty brews. Alternatively, overripe Kona beans have a slightly fermented taste.
While underripe and overripe beans produce their own unique notes on the flavor spectrum, the only way to get a genuine and authentic Kona taste is by using perfectly ripe and red coffee beans.
Distinct Flavor Notes in Kona Coffee
You won’t find any fake hazelnut syrup or toasted coconut flavoring here – only the best, most delicious flavors from Kona coffee beans that will produce a taste and aroma unlike any other. Here are a few of the distinct flavor notes that you’ll find in Kona Coffee:
- Chocolate: Kona coffee can range from dark, semi-sweet chocolate with a hint of bitterness (usually resulting from green, under-ripe beans) to sweeter, lighter milk chocolate.
- Caramel: The Kona flavor is reminiscent of sweet, caramelized sugar, genuine maple syrup, and molasses.
- Bright: A cup of Kona coffee will always feature a bright, tangy flavor that wakes up your taste buds and ensnares your other senses.
- Floral: Certain roasts of Kona have a fresh floral scent that’s light and fragrant.
- Citrus: When you drink a cup of Kona from the coffee cherry, you can expect a citrusy flavor reminiscent of grapefruit or orange.
- Fruit: A fruity Kona flavor can range from light, sweet notes to a slightly deeper, more subtle aroma.
- Wine: Certain roasts may also have a tangy, acidic flavor that tastes like wine.
- Nuts: Fresh hazelnuts and raw almonds are two flavor notes that you’ll find left on your tongue after you sip this delicious brew.
How Roast Levels Affect the Way Kona Coffee Beans Taste
Like other coffees, the roast level directly influences taste. Therefore, the method you use to brew Kona coffee will adjust how it tastes.
Using a light roast for your Kona coffee will produce a tart, fruity flavor with hazelnut undertones. You can also expect your light roast to have an earthy aftertaste that is surprisingly mild and delicious.
When pairing light roast Kona coffee with foods, pastries and fruits are excellent choices. If you live for a good cold brew, go for the light roast. It provides the best Kona coffee taste.
Kona coffee brewed to a medium roast produces a well-balanced flavor and delicious notes of chocolate and fruit. In addition, using a medium roast of good Kona coffee will exude a fragrant aroma of peach, raw almond, and sweet marzipan.
Medium roast Kona coffee also has a fuller body with low acidity, making it suitable to pair with dinner foods like beef or pork. However, if you’re all about a cup of coffee with breakfast, pair your medium roast Kona coffee with pancakes and maple syrup.
Of course, dark roasts produce a rich, prominent aroma and a bold, unforgettable taste – and dark roast Kona coffee is no exception. Many agree that Kona dark roasts contain tasting notes of bittersweet or dark chocolate, berries, honey, and a hint of popcorn.
Dark roasts often have such a robust scent because the roasting process brings out more of the natural oils in the coffee beans. For those coffee enthusiasts that love to decipher the subtle nuances and deep flavors of gourmet coffee, then a dark roast Kona is the way to go.
Tips for Brewing Kona Coffee
The difference between average coffee and great coffee lies within the brewing process. Even if you’re using a Kona blend (which doesn’t contain 100% authentic Kona coffee beans), you can still make your Kona coffee taste like heaven in a cup.
Consider the Grind
If you’ve never had the pleasure of grinding your own beans, we highly recommend it. Be sure to purchase whole-bean coffee and check the roast date on the bag to ensure you get the freshest beans that will provide the best possible Kona coffee taste.
The level of grind you prefer will also affect which brewing method is most suitable:
- Coarse Grind: Ideal for a French press, cold brew maker, percolator, and vacuum coffee maker.
- Medium-to-Fine Grind: Use with a drip maker (cone filter) or auto-drip maker (flat filter).
- Fine Grind: Use with a stovetop espresso maker.
- Ultra-Fine Grind: Ideal for use with an espresso machine.
Compare Brewing Methods
If you don’t grind your beans, that’s okay. But you should still carefully choose which brewing method you want for your Kona coffee. Each process will produce its own distinctive flavors and characteristics.
For example, a French press will keep all the coffee bean oils in the cup, creating a fuller, richer flavor. Or, try the pour-over method for a lighter body, subtler flavor, and brighter-tasting notes.
Never Use Tap Water
Next time you’re at the local coffee shop, ask your favorite barista what type of water they use to brew coffee. You may not realize it, but the quality of water you use to brew coffee significantly impacts taste and quality.
For example, you could have the best Kona coffee beans in the world. But, if you use tap water to brew them, you can expect your coffee to have a dull, bland flavor.
If you want to improve the taste of Kona coffee to a superior level, always use high-quality bottled water. Tap water has contaminants like fluoride, minerals, chlorine, and heavy metals that will assault your taste buds and ruin the delicate and delicious flavor of the Kona coffee beans.
Avoid Kona “Blends”
Authentic and original Kona coffee beans are in short supply, contributing to their expensive price tag. To save money, some companies sell what they call a “Kona Blend.”
However, a Kona blend is not pure or genuine. In fact, experts even developed a special type of machinery known as Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) that can rapidly authenticate Kona coffee and identify whether it’s genuine or simply a knockoff Kona blend.
Of course, you can try a Kona blend if you so desire, but it may not be 100% genuine. Thus, we recommend avoiding purchasing anything but 100% Kona coffee to ensure you experience the premium, extraordinary taste that makes this coffee so special.
Which Brand Has the Best Kona Coffee?
While there are many brands of Kona coffee, only one earns the top spot as the best: Honolulu Coffee.
Since 1992, Honolulu Coffee has strived to be a premier farm-to-cup coffee company, focusing on providing customers with the freshest, best quality Kona coffee beans for a truly extraordinary flavor and rich taste unlike any other.
We highly recommend Honolulu Coffee if you haven’t yet experienced the true Kona coffee taste. You can check out their collection here, which features some delicious varieties (like the Peaberry!) and always 100% fresh-grown and authentic Kona coffee beans.
The Rich History of Kona Coffee Farms in Hawaii
The Kona district on the Big Island of Hawaii has a rich and fascinating history of coffee growing. Stick with us as we dig into the facts regarding Kona coffee farms and where the beans grow on the beautiful island of Hawaii.
The Very First Kona Coffee Tree
A missionary named Samuel Ruggles had the honor of being the first person to plant a coffee tree in the Kona region of Hawaii in 1828. Farmers struggled to grow sugar cane on Kona’s harsh, volcanic slopes and were pleasantly surprised to learn that the coffee tree thrived in those conditions.
The Era of Henry Nicholas Greenwell
In the 1850s, Kona and the coffee industry began to stabilize. A man named Henry Nicholas Greenwell moved to the Kona region in Hawaii around the same time and purchased land so he could open a retail store.
Greenwell grew Kona coffee and brought his crop to the 1873 Vienna World Fair. It won an award, and he received honors for the excellence of his coffee, contributing to the prestige and awareness of the Kona brand.
The Economic Crash and Great Depression
While the sugar cane plantations benefited greatly from the 1898 annexation of Hawaii by the United States, the coffee farmers struggled. By the time 1910 rolled around, the only coffee farmers left were from Japan, and their legacy is still going strong to this day.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was another big hit to the farmers, but as the years passed, coffee prices began to rise again. After the Second World War, Hawaii’s rapidly growing tourist industry also helped cement the stability and success of Kona coffee.
Hawaii became the 50th state in the United States of America in 1959.
Modern-Day Kona Coffee Growers
Many factors contributed to the state of modern-day Kona coffee farms and industry in Hawaii, but here are the three biggest:
- 100% Kona vs. Kona Blend: Many Kona blends only contain about 10% actual Kona coffee beans. Farmers of 100% genuine Kona coffee want to ban blends or have them remove the name “Kona” from the packaging. Diluting the purity drives down prices, too.
- The Coffee Borer Beetle: The coffee borer beetle is the bane of Arabica coffee growers everywhere. These beetles bore into the coffee cherries, ruining the beans. In 2010, Kona growers discovered an infestation of these pests, which summarily destroyed all the coffee cherry crops for the next year or two.
- Rapid Expansion: Coffee growing in Hawaii is rapidly expanding. Farmers are converting old sugar plantations into coffee farms and expanding into regions south of the Kona district, including Kauai, Molokai, and Maui.
Kona Coffee Cultural Festival
Kona coffee is so widely loved and appreciated on the Island of Hawaii that it even has its own festival. Are you planning a vacation to Hawaii in the near future? If so, we highly recommend visiting the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival.
If you attend the festival, you can expect lots of sunny weather, fun activities, and the biggest names in the coffee industry. With ten days of events that honor coffee artisans, pioneers, farmers, and the best Kona coffees, it’s an event you don’t want to miss.
It’s also Hawaii’s longest-running food festival! Attendees get to enjoy all sorts of fun, including:
- The Lantern Parade in Kailua Village
- The Kona Coffee Art Stroll in Holualoa
- The UCC Hawaii Miss Kona Coffee Scholarship Competition
- A Taste of Kona at the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel
- Much, much more!
The Taste of Kona Coffee: Rich, Delicious, Unlike Any Other
Hawaii is a fantastic tropical paradise and the only place on Earth where Kona coffee beans grow. So, to sum up the question, “What does Kona coffee taste like?” in a few words, here’s our answer: light, bright, delicious, and richly complex.
With notes of chocolate, fruit, hazelnut, and caramel, Kona is one of the world’s most delicious gourmet coffees. It also features a rich, nutty, and slightly earthy aftertaste, giving it a unique flavor that’s quite unlike any other coffee in the world.
So, the next time you’re ready to indulge your senses, pick up a bag of 100% genuine Kona coffee beans from Honolulu Coffee and get ready to experience all the rich, delicious flavors this brew offers.