The History of Coffee in the Hawaiian Islands including Kona Coffee Country
The first coffee was brought to the Hawaiian Islands in 1813 when a visiting Spaniard named Francisco de Paula y Marin planted coffee on the island of Oahu.
On January 13th of 1813 Marin wrote in his journal that he planted seedlings of coffee on Oahu though not much else is known about what became of these particular coffee plants.
Marin worked for Hawaii's renowned King Kamehameha I who had united all of the Hawaiian Islands under his rule and was the reigning monarch of Hawaii. Marin was Kamehameha's personal physician and also served the king as an interpreter and accountant, and supplied the ruler with rum.
[Note: When you are done reading about the history of Hawaii coffee, see a comprehensive history of coffee from ancient times until the present day in the World's Best History of Coffee.]
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 Manoa Valley Coffee on Oahu
The next time coffee would appear in the Islands was in 1825 when John Wilkinson, an English agriculturalist who arrived on the HMS Blonde which was under the control of Captain Lord Byron, got some coffee plants from Brazil and planted them in Manoa Valley on Oahu.
The coffee plants were cultivated at the Manoa Valley estate of the island's governor whose Hawaiian name was Kamauleule which translates to “The one who faints.” Kamauleule was commonly known as Boki, and he served under King Kamehameha II, the son of the now deceased King Kamehameha I.
Unfortunately Wilkinson passed away in March of 1827 and the coffee plants did not do very well. Some of cutting of these plants were cultivated in other regions of Honolulu. Around this time there were also some coffee plants from Manila being cultivated by the British Consul Richard Carlton.
 The First Kona Coffee
The first coffee to be planted in the Kona region on the Big Island of Hawaii was brought there in 1828 by Reverend Samuel Ruggles, an American missionary who had originally come to Hawaii in 1820 with the First Company of American missionaries.
Reverend Ruggles had been transferred to the Kona district from the Hilo area, and he brought coffee plant cuttings from the estate of Boki on Oahu and began cultivating them in Kona near the Kealakekua Church in July of 1828.
The coffee trees took some time to become established but eventually they began to thrive and were the most successful of any of the early attempts at growing coffee in Hawaii
 Early Attempts to Grow Coffee in Hawaii
Around 1828-1829 there were also some other attempts at coffee cultivation near Honolulu in Niu Valley as well as Kalihi Valley.
Reverend Joseph Goodrich of the Hilo mission on the Big Island also attempted to cultivate coffee as part of an effort to make the mission, and its native Hawaiian students, a self-sustaining enterprise. During his twelve years at the Hilo mission Reverend Goodrich
 Kanaka Koppe
These coffee as of the coffee plant varietal known as Arabica which had come from Ethiopia's high plains region. Eventually this strain of coffee being cultivated in the Kona region would come to be commonly known as Kanaka Koppe in the Hawaiian language, which translates to “Hawaiian coffee.” This is a varietal still found in the Kona coffee growing region today.
By the 1830s there were small quantities of coffee being cultivated commercially in Hawaii. At this time there was no coffee being cultivated commercially in the United States, which Hawaii had not yet joined the Union as a State.
 Kauai Coffee
In 1842 a Frenchman named John Bernard and a British subject by the name of Godfrey Rhodes started Hawaii's first substantial coffee plantation and it was located in the Hanalei region of Kauai, the northern shore of the northernmost of the eight main Hawaiian Islands. Their first major export occurred in 1845 and included two hundred and forty-eight pounds of coffee.
Present day Kauai is known for its Macadamia Nuts.
 The California Gold Rush
During the years from 1849 to 1851 there was an increased demand for all of Hawaii's agricultural products due to the California Gold Rush. Such products as molasses, potatoes, and oranges were in high demand, as was Hawaii coffee which increased in price.
Unfortunately around this same time the coffee farms of Hawaii began to fall prey to numerous difficulties such as coffee diseases and pests as well as a general shortage of labor (in part due to the Gold Rush) and also a drought.
At the same time Hawaii was entering its sugarcane era and some of the coffee growing lands were planted with sugarcane which soon became a major and dominant agricultural crop throughout all of the Hawaiian Islands.
In most areas coffee growing disappeared, though in the Kona region on the southwest side of the Big Island the terrain did not favor large, mechanized sugarcane production and thus coffee growing persisted in some areas and also continued in Hamakua region on the northeast side of the Big Island.
Hawaii's coffee industry would remain volatile. Total coffee exports in 1861 were less than 50,000 pounds and by 1870 this increased to more than 450,000 pounds, decreasing to less than 150,000 pounds by 1877.
 Kona Coffee at the World's Fair
At the 1873 World's Fair in Vienna an award for excellence was given to a Kona trader named Henry Nicholas Greenwell who was a pioneering Hawaii coffee merchant. This recognition of Kona Coffee continued to increase its reputation as a high quality Hawaii coffee.
 The Reciprocity Treaty
A major political event took place in Hawaii in 1875 when Hawaii's King Kalakaua negotiated a treaty with the U.S. which permitted products from Hawaii to be sold in the United States without any duties or customs.
In return for this concession, Hawaii would allow the United States to create a major naval base at Pearl Harbor. In 1876 this treaty took effect and it had a profound impact on Hawaii's sugar industry which proceeded to increase by one thousand percent over the next fifteen years at which point it doubled every decade.
The Reciprocity Treaty also had the effect of squashing out any last vestiges of a Hawaii coffee industry. Some coffee farming did continue in the Kona region though it was almost entirely just to supply local needs.
 Hawaii's First Coffee Mill
Hawaii's first formidable coffee mill was constructed by John Gaspar Machado in 1880 near Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island near the Kona coffee growing region.
 Hawaii Coffee Prices Increase
Significant amounts of money began to flow into Hawaii's coffee industry in the 1890s when coffee prices rose spurring the arrival of European and American investments in coffee-growing in Kona.
Many of the laborers on the coffee farms were Japanese immigrants who had originally arrived in Hawaii to work on sugarcane plantations. Most of these workers had signed on to three year contracts with the sugar companies and thus were free to seek other types of employment once their contracts had expired.
These Japanese immigrants were the predominant group that worked not only to plant and maintain the coffee farms but also worked as coffee pickers during the harvest season.
Over the years many other ethnicities would also work in Hawaii's coffee industry including native Hawaiians, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Samoans and Caucasians.
 A New Strain of Kona Coffee
Also in the late 1800s the Kona Coffee-growing region saw the introduction of a new and popular coffee plant varietal which was a strain of Guatemalan Arabica.
This took place in 1892 when the coffee plant varietal was brought to the Islands by German agriculturalist Hermann A. Widemann. Around this time the coffee industry in Hawaii was able to gain control of a scale infestation using lady bugs (ladybird beetles).
Eventually the new Guatemalan coffee varietal came to be known as Meliken Koppe in Hawaiian, which translates to American Coffee.
The new coffee plant varietal soon came to be the most commonly cultivated type of coffee in Kona. It is still the main variety grown in the Kona coffee country today.
 Kona Coffee Suffers a Blow
Hawaii was annexed to the U.S. in 1898 and officially became a Territory of the United States. The elimination of tariffs resulted in higher profits for Hawaii's sugarcane industry to the demise of coffee. The following years saw a precipitous drop in coffee prices due to an oversupply on the world market.
In 1899 there were about six thousand acres in Hawaii planted with coffee, but the increased value of sugarcane and the oversupply of coffee resulted in investors switching their money from coffee to sugar, and as a result Hawaii saw the loss of many coffee farms.
Many coffee trees were uprooted around the turn of the century to the great detriment of Hawaii's coffee industry.
By 1900 all of the large coffee plantations in the Islands were gone and coffee growing in Kona again persisted just barely. The large plantations of the region were sub-divided into lots that were typically from 5 to 15 acres in size and leased mostly to first generation Japanese immigrant families who became tenant farmers.
A typical fee charged to the tenant farmers for the use of the Kona Coffee farming land was half of the coffee harvest. Some leases required a payment of $30 each year along with part of the coffee harvest. In the beginning of this era of small family coffee farms in Kona it was only the men who worked on the coffee farms.
 Women and Families in Kona Coffee
Eventually women began to work on the coffee farms as well younger family members. Many of the families were quite large, and families with four to eight children were common.
In 1910 about eighty percent of coffee farmers in Kona were Japanese and most of the farms were family-run operations. The structure of the industry being comprised of family farms is said to be the reason that Kona Coffee production has been so resilient over the years, surviving hard times as well as good.
 Kona Coffee Prices Rise in World War I
When World War I began in 1914 it led to a steep increase in the price of Kona coffee due predominantly to purchases begin made by the U.S. Army. The Kona coffee industry thrived during this time.
Coffee production in the Hawaiian Islands in 1916 was an estimated 2.7 million pounds. The year 1918 saw the price of coffee increase due to an extreme frost event in Brazil. Nevertheless, virtually the only remaining coffee farms in Hawaii by 1922 were in the Kona region.
 The Great Depression Sets Back the Kona Coffee Industry
In 1929 the price of Kona Coffee again saw a huge decrease, and this time it was due to the Great Depression which caused many coffee farmers to go into default on their debts.
Throughout the decade of the 1930s many of the farmers of the Kona region began to plant other agricultural products, such as macadamia nut trees, along with their coffee plants.
 The “Kona Coffee Vacation”
In the year 1932 a major change was made to the schedule of the public school system. Instead of taking a summer break from June until September as is usually the case, Kona students instead were let out for break during the months from August until November.
The new school schedule allowed the children to help with the Kona Coffee harvest. The break schedule came to be known as the Kona Coffee Vacation.
 Kona Coffee Prices Increase Due to World War II
World War II led to another rise in prices for Kona coffee beginning in 1940. The high demand for coffee at this time caused the U.S. government to place a cap on the price of coffee in the United States including the Kona coffee region (though Hawaii would not officially become a state until 1959).
After World War II ended the price of Kona coffee remained relatively high and even continued to rise steadily along with occasional decreases in price. A frost event in South America in the 1950s caused another price spike, and in 1957 Hawaii coffee production reached a new high of eighteen million pounds.
 “Kona Nightingales” Donkeys Replaced by Jeeps
Also in 1940 the Kona region saw a shift in production methods when jeeps began to be used for transporting coffee across the rocky terrain of the Kona region from the farms to the coffee mills. Previous to this time donkeys were used including the renowned “Kona Nightingales.”
A large number of the donkeys were released into the wild and continued to live along the slopes of Hualalai volcano. A remnant herd of these donkeys persisted in the area to the north of the Kona Airport near the Four Seasons Hotel and the Kona Village Resort.
 Many Kona Coffee Farmers Take Other Work
The next significant jump in Kona Coffee prices occurred in 1950 due to the Korean War. This time period also saw many Kona coffee farmers shifting to other lines of work including tourism-related jobs as well as military, civil service and the building trades.
 A Change in the Kona Coffee Industry
In 1958 some Kona coffee farmers banded together in an attempt to have more control over their product including the milling of the coffee. They formed the Sunset Cooperative and the Pacific Coffee Cooperative in an attempt to achieve higher profits and a higher overall price for Kona coffee.
Before this time the companies Captain Cook Coffee and American Factors (a “Big Five” sugar company) maintained virtually all control of the Kona coffee market. By 1959 twelve coffee mills had been established in the Kona region.
The Kona Coffee Vacation, an altered school schedule for children so they could help with the coffee harvest, ended in 1969 and returned to the State of Hawaii's normal school schedule. Production of Kona Coffee decreased around this time due to competition for workers due to Hawaii's burgeoning tourist industry.
 Farmers Begin to Operate Independently
There was a major break with the cooperatives that controlled the Kona coffee industry in 1979 when coffee farmers begin to ship Kona coffee parchment out of the coop control.
A number of new Kona coffee farmers had moved to the region from the western coast of the United States and they begin to conduct their Kona coffee farming operations independent of the coops. Up until this time the cooperatives had maintained somewhat of a monopoly on the Kona Coffee industry.
 General Rise in Market for Gourmet Coffee
The years around 1980 were a time of repeated increases in decreases in the price of Kona coffee. Eventually there was a significant increase in the market for “gourmet coffee” such as Kona coffee, and this contributed to a marked increase in the value of Kona coffee.
 Hawaii Coffee in the 1990s
During the last decade of the 1900s the market for the premium Kona coffee product continued to thrive. During this time there was also a general movement toward growing a range of farm products in the region and many Kona coffee farmers also planted avocado trees, macadamia nut trees and other diversified agriculture.
A severe drought struck the Kona region in 1994 causing a steep decline in coffee production from the yearly average of around one and one-half million pounds. At this time the vast majority of the Kona coffee crop was bought by large companies who blended the beans with lesser priced coffees (e.g., from Central America) to produce Hawaii Kona Blend Coffee.
Meanwhile a niche market for single-estate, fresh-roasted Kona coffee was growing. Instead of selling their beans to the large concerns who would often market Hawaii Kona Blend Coffee with just ten percent Kona coffee (as is still common today), the private estate labels marketed 100% Kona Coffee. This is a market that continues to grow today, not just in Kona but statewide.
 Coffee Beyond the Kona Region
A resurgence of Hawaii's coffee industry beyond Kona began in the 1990s due to the closing of sugar plantations as well as pineapple plantations and the need to switch to other agricultural products.
Beginning in the late 1980s and continuing into the 1990s and during the last decade, numerous other regions of Hawaii besides Kona are beginning to produce substantial amounts of coffee.
On the Big Island the regions include Kau Coffee and Puna Coffee (to the southeast of Kona) and Hamakua Coffee and Hilo Coffee (on the island's northeast side) where many small coffee farms have emerged, some producing very fine coffee that is gaining recognition among coffee connoisseurs.
There are also now coffee farms on Maui, Molokai, Oahu and Kauai, including huge, mechanized plantations on Molokai and Kauai.
In the Kona region there are now an estimated 690 independent coffee farms, most just three to seven acres in size. These Kona coffee farms are all located in the area known as the Kona Coffee Belt.
Also known as Kona Coffee Country, this growing region is comprised of a strip of land that extends for about thirty miles in length but only about two miles wide at elevations ranging from 500 feet above sea level to 3,000 feet above sea level.
In all, an estimated 7,800 acres of coffee are planted throughout the state of Hawaii, half of it being on islands other than the Big Island. Hawaii remains the only commercial producer of coffee in the United States (though the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico does grow coffee).
For more information see: Hawaii Coffee; Big Island Coffee; Kona Coffee; Oahu Coffee; Maui Coffee; Molokai Coffee; Kauai Coffee; Hawaii Coffee Grading; Hawaii Coffee Facts; Kona Coffee Farm Tours.
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