History of Hawaii Coffee - From Kauai Coffee To 100% Kona Coffee

by dan on May 12, 2010

Hanalei Region on Kauai Was Site of First Large-Scale Coffee Production In Hawaiian Islands

In the early 1800s Hanalei, Kauai was a prized agricultural area due to its warm climate, the plentiful water supply from the Hanalei River, and the fertile soil found all along the idyllic coastal plain of Hanalei Bay.

In ancient times this coastal area was a prime area for growing expansive fields of taro, the Hawaiian “Staff of Life,” along with other traditional Hawaiian crops.

The post-contact era that began with the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778 brought a variety of new agricultural endeavors to the Islands. One of these early crops was coffee.

Agricultural Entrepreneur Charles Titcomb

Charles Titcomb was the most prominent early agriculturalists in the Hawaiian Islands. Titcomb first began raising many thousands of mulberry trees in 1836 to feed a silkworm cocoonery along the banks of the Hanalei River. Though the silk farming attempt prospered for a while, it soon failed, as did other crops.

Also see: The Top Ten Coffees in the World

Titcomb then began extensive coffee farming operations in Hanalei in 1844 after getting some coffee berries from Kona on Hawaii Island (the Big Island). Another Hanalei coffee farm was established two years earlier in Hanalei when Frenchman John Bernard and Englishman Godfrey Rhodes had begun cultivating plants for a large scale plantation.

Bordering Hanalei Bay at the time was the Waioli Mission where the Select School of the American Protestant missionaries had been established beginning in the 1820s. To raise extra money, the missionaries allowed their students to be hired by the coffee plantations to tend the thousands of coffee plants growing along the Hanalei River.

Charles Titcomb allowed these missionary Select School students to grow their own rows of beans between the coffee plants, and he also provided hoes for the students to use in cultivating the fields.

Select School students earned about $500.00 in 1844 for their work in Charles Titcomb’s coffee fields. They were paid in part with Hawaii’s first paper currency, which was produced by Titcomb along with other early agricultural entrepreneurs who were frustrated that the government was not providing an official coinage for them to use.

More than 100,000 coffee trees were growing in Hanalei by 1846 on the two large plantations of Titcomb and Bernard/Rhodes. The coffee mill on Titcomb’s coffee farm used a mule to turn a perpendicular post that had a horizontal cog wheel at the top. This cog wheel turned a flay wheel that was in turn connected to the coffee milling equipment with bands.

Unfortunately the cultivation of coffee in Hanalei Valley soon came to an end. Several factors contributed to the rapid demise of the coffee crop, including the loss of local laborers who abandoned the fields to head to California to participate in the 1840s Gold Rush.

Adding to the troubles on the coffee plantations was bad weather conditions, including extensive flooding in 1847, and then a drought in 1851. The final straw was when a blight hit the crop - this was caused by an aphid species called the white hairy louse.

By 1855 the coffee plantations of Hanalei were finished, and the coffee trees were uprooted and used to fuel sugar boilers for the region’s next agricultural endeavor - sugarcane plantations.

Reverend Samuel C. Damon, a prominent early American missionary to Hawaii, wrote the following quote for the newspaper called The Friend.

“The coffee blight has already covered the two Hanalei plantations which in the spring of 1857 we saw in full and successful culture, yielding 200,000 pounds of excellent coffee.”

“The scores of women and children were busy picking the ripe berries,” Damon continued, “and depositing their gathering at night at the overseer’s office, but now all is silent. Not a gatherer was abroad and we saw laborers bringing in coffee trees upon their shoulders, to heat the sugar boilers of Mr. Titcomb.”

And so ended the first large scale attempt at commercial coffee production in the Hawaiian Islands. The problems with coffee in Hanalei led to its demise in that region, but 400 miles away - on the southernmost Hawaiian Island of Hawaii - The Big Island - coffee cultivation was just getting started.

Unlike the short-lived success of coffee in Hanalei, the plantations on the mountain slopes of the Kona area of the Big Island thrived, and they have continued to prosper up until the present day.

Kona coffee is now one of the world’s most renown premium gourmet coffeesKona Coffee Country - with its ideal climate, porous volcanic soils, and hard-working farmers dedicated to tending the coffee trees - remains an ideal region to grow the prized coffee plants.

To read about Kona Coffee Farms see Kona Coffee Farms, Tours, and Coffeehouses.

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