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What is Kona Coffee and Why is it Special?

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Updated: June 1, 2024

If you are searching for the best high-quality coffee in the world, you will come across the name Kona, but what is this drink that many people revere? Even renowned author Mark Twain claimed Kona coffee to have “a richer flavor than any other, be it grown where it may and call it by what name you please.”

Coffee enthusiasts can search between New York and San Francisco for coffee with a pleasant flavor profile, but none will compare to Kona coffee grown on the Big Island of Hawaii.

This coffee is grown exclusively in a place called Kona, Hawaii, making the bean one of the world’s rarest. The bean variety is typically Guatemalan Typica, a type of Arabica, but newer coffee farmers are currently introducing new strains.

To understand what makes Kona coffee so special, learning about its history, production, taste, and other nuances that set this type of coffee apart from others on the market is the best step to take. This guide details everything you need to know about this delectable, high-grade Hawaiian coffee.

The History of Kona Coffee

The first person to attempt to grow coffee beans in Hawaii was horticulturist Don Francisco de Paula Marin in 1817. Still, it wasn’t until 1828 when Samuel Ruggles successfully introduced coffee to the Big Island. Hawaii was a major exporter of sugar at the time, so coffee was not a priority until more recent decades.

After Ruggles successfully planted the first coffee trees in Kona, Hawaii, from seedlings in Manoa Valley, Oahu, sugar plantation owners switched to running coffee plantations. Unfortunately, bad weather and pests in the 1850s destroyed most of the coffee on the Big Island.

In 1892, coffee production resumed in Hawaii, thanks to Hermann Widemann, who introduced a type of Guatemalan coffee bean to the island. This variety today is called Kona Typica, and it is the island’s preferred coffee bean.

Kona Typica didn’t have time to flourish immediately after its inclusion in Hawaiian coffee production. The world coffee market crash occurred in 1899, causing coffee prices to plummet from oversupply. At this time, sugar regained popularity, so plantation owners switched back from coffee to sugar production.

By World War II, the demand for coffee rose, allowing coffee farming in Hawaii to resume. In the 1960s, the Big Island saw record coffee numbers and a boom in tourism, which became a labor competitor for Kona coffee farmers.

The popularity of coffee dropped and rose several times during the 1970s and 1980s, with Kona coffee coming out on top. Yet, Kona coffee is not without scandal.

Between 1993 and 1996, coffee supplier Michael Norton resold cheap coffee as 100% Kona coffee. This misleading product labeling is why all coffee exported from Hawaii must have a certification from the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture to prove its legitimacy.

What Is So Special About Kona Coffee?

Kona coffee is a specialty coffee that differs from other varieties primarily because of its prime farming location and production processes. Kona coffee farms are only in one place in Hawaii called the Kona Coffee Belt, on Hualalai and Mauna Loa in the North and South districts.

These mountainous areas have rich volcanic soil full of nitrates, phosphates, iron, and manganese to promote healthy plant growth.

Volcanic soil is beneficial for Kona coffee beans because it is new earth that recently erupted from deep inside the ground. It has a healthy concentration of much-needed nutrients and minerals that coffee seedlings need to grow into thriving coffee plants on family farms.

Sun is also necessary to grow Kona coffee beans, making the western part of Kona ideal for growing coffee. Sunny mornings and mild nights are typical, as is afternoon rainfall. In Kona, the western slopes and daily cloud cover provide ample shade to protect coffee plants from excessive sun heat.

The western slopes of Kona also provide superior draining solutions for coffee farmers. Coffee crops won’t flood out because the rainwater flows down the slopes. With farms sitting at an altitude of up to 3,000 feet and with plenty of inclines in the land, these plants will thrive and produce sweet-tasting beans.

When it comes time to pick the seeds from the bushes for milling, farmers proceed with care. Coffee harvest season in Hawaii occurs from August to December. The coffee beans are hand-picked and put into a basket before going through a machine to remove the berry pulp and expose the bean.

Workers carefully wash the Kona coffee beans with fresh water before putting them into fermentation tanks. The beans ferment for 12 hours at lower elevations on Kona’s mountains and about 24 hours at higher elevations. Then, they air dry.

When the coffee beans are dry, they have a stiff covering called parchment on their surface. They undergo milling and polishing to remove the parchment and prepare the beans for roasting.

Farmers perform each step in the Kona coffee harvesting process with care to ensure that the final result is a high-quality batch of coffee beans that meet the standards of the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

What Is Kona Coffee Made Of?

When Mark Twain made his remarks about Kona coffee, he wasn’t speaking about the Kona of today. When he visited the region, he sampled a cup from the Brazilian Typica coffee plant, which Chief Boki brought to Oahu in 1825. These Typica beans produce sweet cups of coffee.

The Guatemalan Typica trees are the dominant coffee varieties in Hawaii, but the former is still around. In the 1960s, Red Caturra trees became part of Kona orchards, and Bourbon trees have also found their way onto farms.

Some farmers plant Guatemalan Typica exclusively, but some crops consist of a blend of various Arabica coffees. In blended orchards, all the beans mix during milling and undergo the same roasting process, but this is not a negative.

Because the Typica trees are different varieties of Arabica coffees, they still produce sweet yet mild coffee with little acidity.

The blending of various Typica beans also means it can be challenging to find pure Guatemalan Typica coffee in stores. Still, the subtle nuances of Arabica blends and Kona Typica from the same estates are highly favored.

Is Kona Coffee Better?

One reason people regard Kona coffee as better than the rest is its delicious, unique taste. When pure Kona coffee undergoes a successful roasting process, you will experience a bright, clean taste with hints of different flavors like honey, brown sugar, fruit, and milk chocolate.

The coffee can also exhibit almost spicy wine notes. The flavors are harmonious, and nothing comes off more potent than anything else. It leaves a pleasant lingering aftertaste reminiscent of nuts and citrus, accounting for its slight acidity.

The coffee’s aroma is desirable too. It resembles a delicious mix of butter, cocoa, and caramel.

The balance of taste, aftertaste, and scent creates a coffee-drinking experience that is hard to forget. It is worth noting that this experience applies to drinking a cup of pure Kona coffee, not inexpensive blends you find in grocery stores.

Coffee products with a 10% Kona classification are not pure. They consist of 0% to 10% Kona coffee and another coffee from another part of the world. The reason sellers do this is to cash in on the Kona name, which is highly respected.

Unfortunately, the inclusion of lesser-grade coffee reduces the flavors you would expect from a cup of Kona coffee. It won’t have the same richness or smooth feel in your mouth.

When you drink pure Kona coffee, you can be sure the selected beans were the best of the crop, and no bitter, unripe, or diseased coffee beans made it into your cup. You can also rest assured that the process’s cleanliness allowed the beans’ authentic flavors to shine through.

Why Is Kona Coffee So Expensive?

Because of Norton’s scandal in the mid-1990s, a collection of Hawaii farmers, retailers, and processors who grow, produce, and sell Kona coffee came together to form the Kona Coffee Council (KKC).

Its main objective is to ensure that Kona coffee buyers receive pure 100% Kona coffee, not cheap blends with Kona product labels. The KKC represents Kona coffee growers’ best interests and promotes pure Kona coffee sales while seeking legislature protections for the brand name.

With so many protections and quality assurance standards in place, it’s no wonder that Kona coffee is one of the most expensive coffees in the world. Its production also plays a significant role in its costs.

Because the coffee cherries are hand-picked, harvesting Kona coffee is a laborious process. Throughout the coffee industry, farmers use machines to shake coffee trees to release both ripe, over-ripe, and under-ripe cherries, which can cause a cup of coffee to taste bitter instead of mild or sweet.

In Kona, farmers pick only the best red coffee cherries from the same trees for multiple months. They also separate them by grade or size and dry processed beans. Farmers and retailers may roast and hand-pack the beans for sale.

For their work, the farmers and laborers receive higher pay than coffee workers in Ethiopia or Guatemala, two of the world’s leading countries to produce the most coffee.

It can cost as low as three cents per pound to mechanically pick coffee cherries, but in Kona, the cost can be anywhere between 75 to 85 cents per pound.

In the Kona region, buyers can get beans directly from the trees, costing about $8 per pound. This price does not include labor. Once you factor in farmland, labor, gas, electricity for roasting, marketing, and taxes, the price for 100% Kona coffee can rise anywhere between $45 to $60 per pound.

Kona coffee is also one of the rarest coffees in the world. It only makes up about 1% of the industry’s coffees, increasing its demand and price.

In Closing

If you want to experience delicious, incomparable coffee, Kona coffee is the way to go. Though it took several decades for coffee farming and selling to catch on in Hawaii, the bushes that grow in the Kona coffee belt are top-tier, and they produce a unique blend of flavors that is tough to duplicate.

The coffee has such high reverence and a steep price tag because of its prime location with nutrient-rich volcanic soil, the labor-intensive harvesting process, and the superior quality of the beans picked by hand.

Though there are brands that claim to be Kona, cheap blends that include beans from other regions will not yield the same delicious results. Also, few coffees have a history as rich and interesting as Kona.

Now that you have a better understanding of Kona coffee, what makes it special, its history, and the reason for its high costs, it’s time to sample a cup.

Honolulu Coffee is one of the top Kona coffee purveyors in Hawaii. Its coffee farm grows its own beans and sells genuine Kona coffee in their local shop. When they roast their beans, they add a special touch to enhance the fruity notes while putting the coffee’s natural sweetness front and center.