The History of Kona Coffee, A Timeline
The history of Kona coffee is filled with many highs and lows, including thriving markets and times of great distress. The history of Hawai‘i coffee farming in Kona also involves many different ethnic groups including native Hawaiians, Caucasians, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Samoans, and Puerto Ricans.
Kona coffee farmers have seen times when the price of the Hawai‘i coffee was very high and the industry thrived, and also periods of great distress. The industry was only able to survive the hard times due to the very strong work ethic among the families involved and their great sense of independence and self-sufficiency and the enduring spirit of aloha among the many different farming families of Kona, and their willingness to cooperate among members of the farming community for the good of all.
No one can understand the truth until he drinks of coffee’s frothy goodness.
- Sheik Abd-al-Kadir
1813—Spaniard Francisco de Paula y Marín (1774–1837) plants coffee on O‘ahu. In this same year Marín also plants the first pineapples in the Hawaiian Islands. Marín served King Kamehameha I in various capacities, including as an interpreter, physician, adviser, accountant and supplier of rum.
1825—English agriculturalist John Wilkinson acquires coffee plants in Brazil and brings them to O‘ahu where they are planted in Mānoa Valley at the estate of Boki, who was Governor of O‘ahu under King Kamehameha II (Kalaninui ‘Iolani Liholiho). Boki’s original name was Kamā‘ule‘ule (“The one who faints”).
1828—American missionary Reverend Samuel Ruggles takes cuttings from Boki’s O‘ahu estate and plants them in Kona—this is the first “Kona coffee.” Ruggles had initially come to the Hawaiian Islands with the First Company of American Missionaries in 1820, and the coffee plants he brought to Kona were a strain of the coffee variety called Coffea Arabica that had its origins in the high plains of Ethiopia. The variety becomes known as Kanaka Koppe (Hawaiian Coffee)—this strain is still found in Kona today.
1830s—Small amounts of Hawai‘i coffee are grown commercially. At this time there are still no commercial coffee operations in the United States.
1842—The first large Hawai‘i coffee plantation is established on Kaua‘i in Hanalei by British subject Godfrey Rhodes and Frenchman John Bernard. In 1845 the first Hawai‘i coffee export consists of a shipment of 248 pounds (112 kg) of coffee.
1849-1851—The California Gold Rush creates a demand for Hawaiian agricultural products, such as potatoes, oranges, molasses, and Hawai‘i coffee. Soon coffee prices begin to rise but coffee plantations in the Hawaiian Islands start to suffer from various problems including pests, disease infestations, drought, and labor shortages. Sugarcane plantations begin to replace some Hawai‘i coffee plantations.
1860—Hawai‘i’s sugarcane era begins to dominate agriculture in the Islands and Hawai‘i coffee plantations disappear everywhere except in Kona and Hāmākua on the Big Island of Hawai‘i.
It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.
- Malcolm X
1875—King Kalākaua negotiates the Reciprocity Treaty with the United States, allowing Hawaiian products to be sold in the U.S. without customs or duties. In return the U.S. is allowed to use Pearl Harbor as a naval base. The Reciprocity Treaty goes into effect in 1876, resulting in a rapid expansion of Hawai‘i’s sugar business which increases ten-fold over the next 15 years and then continues to double each decade.
1880s—The Reciprocity Treaty leads to the demise of the Hawai‘i coffee industry. Kona coffee production is limited almost entirely to local consumption.
1890s—A sharp rise in the price of Hawai‘i coffee on the world markets brings American and European investments to the Kona coffee industry. Kona coffee plantations again begin to thrive, and many Japanese immigrants who were brought to the Big Island beginning in 1885 to work on sugar plantations on three-year labor contracts begin to take work as Kona coffee farmers or coffee pickers.
Late 1800s—A new variety of coffee—a strain of Guatemalan Arabica—is introduced to the Kona region. This strain—which is known as Meliken Koppe (American Coffee)—soon becomes the preferred variety of Kona coffee, and it is still the predominant strain in the Kona region today.
1899—About 6,000 acres of land in the Hawaiian Islands is being cultivated in coffee when an oversupply in the world coffee market causes Hawai‘i coffee prices to plummet. A simultaneous rapid rise in sugar prices causes many investors to redirect their monies into sugarcane production and away from coffee production, devastating the coffee industry in the Hawaiian Islands.
1900—No large Hawai‘i coffee plantations remain, and the Kona coffee industry is nearly extinguished. Many former Kona coffee plantations are divided into small parcels, usually about five to fifteen acres in size. These small Kona coffee farms are leased to families, usually first generation Japanese immigrants, and these tenant farmers begin the era of small family farms in the Kona region. The cost of the leases are usually one half of the coffee crop, or sometimes $30 per year plus a portion of the coffee crop. Initially only the males work on the Kona coffee farms but eventually the women also participate in coffee production. Many of the families involved in Kona coffee farming at this time are very large (e.g., eight or more children).
1910—Four out of five Kona coffee farmers at this time are Japanese, with family ventures predominating in the industry. It is said later that the transformation to family-run Kona coffee farms is what saved the Kona coffee industry.
1914—World War I begins and the market price for Kona coffee rises rapidly due to army purchases. The Kona coffee industry prospers.
1929—The Great Depression causes a huge decline in Kona coffee prices. During the 1930s many Kona coffee farms diversify their family-run operations by planting macadamia nut trees.
1932—Kona public schools change their schedule so their break is from the months of August to November instead of the usual June to September break used by the rest of the schools in the state of Hawai‘i. This becomes known as the “Kona Coffee Vacation” and is designed to allow children to help with the Kona coffee harvest.
1940—Coffee prices rise again due to World War II. The United States government soon puts a cap on coffee prices including Kona coffee. When the war ends Hawai‘i coffee prices continue to rise with occasional dips.
1940—Jeeps replace the donkeys that were being used to carry coffee cherry across Kona’s rocky lava landscape to the coffee mills. These donkeys were affectionately known as “Kona Nightingales.” Many of the donkeys were later released on Hualālai Volcano, and remnants of this herd remain today in the region north of the Kona airport near the Kona Village Resort and Four Seasons Hotel.
1950—The Korean War begins and Kona coffee prices rise. In the next decades, however, many Kona coffee farmers move into other industries including construction, military surplus, civil service, and tourist-related industries.
1958—Kona coffee growers start to establish their own mills and also seek to gain control of the production process by forming Pacific Coffee and Sunset Coffee Cooperatives. Their goal is to increase Hawai‘i coffee prices and also their own profits. Up until this time the Kona coffee market is wholly controlled by American Factors and Captain Cook Coffee.
1959—There are twelve coffee mills operating in Kona.
1969—Kona schools eliminate the “Kona Coffee Vacation,” and change their schedule back to the normal summer break used by the rest of the schools in the State of Hawai‘i.
1980—Around this time the price of Kona coffee experiences sharp rises and dips. Soon the market for premium Kona coffee grows rapidly due to an overall growth in the specialty coffee market for gourmet coffee, and the rising demand for the truly prized Kona coffee—which is considered by many to be the world’s best gourmet coffee and very deserving of a premium price.
1979—The coop monopoly of the Kona coffee industry is broken when Douglas Bong ships the first gourmet Kona parchment out of coop control. Other Kona coffee farmers who had recently come from the United States’ west coast soon follow Bong’s lead.
1990s—Prices of gourmet Kona coffee remain high, but many Kona coffee farmers continue to diversify their crops by planting other crops such as macadamia nut trees and avocado trees.
1994—A drought causes a severe decline in Hawai‘i’s coffee output which is markedly down from the annual average of 1.5 million pounds. Most of the gourmet Kona coffee beans are purchased by large companies to blend in with non-Kona coffee. The niche market of private estate labels of gourmet Kona coffee and small roasting companies in the region continues to grow. Many of these companies are owned by Americans who first came to Kona from the U.S. mainland in the 1960s and 1970s.
2009—The Kona coffee industry continues to thrive, and the world’s gourmet coffee market flourishes. More than 700 estate and commercial Kona coffee farms continue to produce the annual crop. Many of the farms are still just two to three acres in size, and many of these Kona coffee farmers are fifth generation descendants of Kona coffee farmers.
Today the Hawaiian Islands remain the sole U.S. producer of commercially-grown coffee, and the market for gourmet Kona coffee continues to grow.
With great pride in their product and their heritage, Kona coffee farmers continue to take special care at every step of the coffee production process, from the meticulous hand-picking to the sun drying to the careful milling and roasting of the gourmet Hawai‘i coffee beans, a product unique in all the world—pure Kona coffee!
The powers of a man’s mind are directly proportioned to the quantity of coffee he drinks.
- Sir James Mackintosh
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