Big IslandKona Coffee: A Bold Taste of Big Island History

On the west coast of the Hawaii islands, what many refer to as “The Big Island,” lies Kona, home to one of the world’s finest brews of coffee – Kona Coffee. Since the 1800s Kona has been making a name for itself as the premiere location for coffee in Hawaii, and its reputation has spread across the globe.

Kona Coffee is one of the most expensive blends in the world, and the name is strictly used for coffee that is cultivated on the slopes of Mauna Loa and Hualalai in the North and South Kona Districts of the Big Island.

In 1828 Samuel Reverend Ruggles brought the coffee plant to Kona. Reverend Ruggles was an American missionary who had originally visited Hawaii in 1820 with the First Company of American Missionaries. He had been transferred from Hilo, another part of the Hawaiian islands, over to Kona. Reverend Ruggles brought with him coffee plant cuttings from the Boki estate on the Oahu island. Kona was officially established as a recognized brand in the 19th century by Henry Nicholas Greenwell when he moved to the area.

Only coffee that is from one of the Kona districts can be described as “Kona Coffee.” Blends that have attempted to use the name without the Kona location of origin have ran into lawsuits, and it’s led to new labeling laws that requires Kona Coffee to be listed as “100% Kona Coffee.” It’s common to see retailers use the terms “Kona Roast” or “Kona Style,” but unless the coffee has the “100% labeling,” it is not pure Kona Coffee.

Coffees selling "Kona Blends" are often selling a combination of Kona, Colombian, Brazilian, and other foreign blends of coffee. These impure blends of Kona usually only have around 10% of the required amount of Kona Coffee which allows them to use half of the term. The other 90% of these "Kona Blends" are often cheap blends of foreign coffee.

The Perfect Growing Conditions

The vast majority of Kona Coffee has a prime or better rating because of the climate in Kona, the delicate hand-cultivation of the coffee, and the wet-method processing used throughout the region.

Kona Coffee can be distinguished from commercial blends because of the tremendous care that’s taken in every step of the growing process. This turns into a coffee that is delicate and flavorful, with a rich aroma. Like a fine vintage wine, Kona Coffee is known by coffee aficionados throughout the entire world.

It all begins with the methods of cultivation. Kona Coffee is handpicked across nearly 600 farms. The Kona districts have favorable conditions to grow coffee due to the combination of sunny mornings, cloud or rain in the afternoons, with little wind and mild nights.

Together, these climate variables combine with a mineral-rich volcanic soil, create the rich, medium-bold, and slightly acidic blend we know as Kona Coffee. Drinkers will even experience a heady aroma, and a complex, winey and spicy taste.

The Blooming Seasons


February and March are when Kona Coffee blooms. The bloom begins with "Kona Snow," which are small white that flowers cover trees.

In April, green berries appear, and by late August a red fruit called "Cherry" named after its resemblance to a cherry begin to ripen and are ready for picking. These trees are hand-picked a number of times between August and January, which provides about 15 pounds of cherry, resulting in two pounds of roasted coffee.

Grading of beans depends on size, moisture content, and purity of bean type. The grades for type I of Kona Coffee are ‘Kona Extra Fancy,’ ‘Kona Fancy,’ Kona Number 1,’ ‘Kona Select,’ and ‘Kona Prime.” The second grade of coffee, type II, features 'Peaberry Number 1,' and 'Peaberry Prime.'

The blooming seasons for Kona Coffee not only create a delicious blend, but beautiful trees and natural scenes to witness. Visitors who have the opportunity to visit Kona during the blooming seasons will be blown away by the beauty that produces this rich blend of coffee.

The Long Hawaiian Tradition of Coffee

Most parts of the Hawaiian islands have grown coffee on large plantations for centuries, but the world coffee market crash of 1899 forced plantation owners to lease their land to workers, many who came to work on sugarcane plantations from Japan.

Despite the market crash, the tradition of family farming continued throughout the Kona region. These families of Japanese origin were joined by Filipinos, mainland Americans, and Europeans. An estimated 800 Kona coffee farms are on the island, and their sizes average five acres a piece. In 1997, a total of 2,290 aces was used to grow Kona Coffee, and over two million pounds of coffee production.

Visitors of Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island can not only taste the coffee first hand in coffee shops or by purchasing the blend, but they can visit the islands two museums that have been created solely to recognize the blend’s history.

The former Greenwell Store, named after Henry Nicholas Greenwell who recognized the blend in the 19th century, and the Kona Coffee Living History Farm give visitors an even further insight into Hawaii’s most famous blend of coffee.

A Lawsuit for Fraudulent Kona Coffee

Since Hawaiian’s and natives of Kona are proud of their coffee, they are vigilant to make sure that their blend is never infringed upon or falsified by anyone.

In the early 1990’s a company called Kona Kai Farms from Berkeley, California, was sued by Kona growers for putting Central American coffee into bags and claiming that it was Kona Coffee. A group of Kona Coffee growers won the case, and proved that the Berkeley farm was improperly using their trademark. This wis a win for Kona Coffee, and in some ways furthers the narrative and mystique surrounding this Hawaiian coffee blend.

This is one example of the strict regulations and oversight to ensure that anything labeled as Kona Coffee is pure and is never falsified. Some roadside stands in Hawaii are allowed special permits to sell Kona Coffee, but many gift shops at some areas that are zoned as agricultural have been met with local resistance.

drinking kona coffee

A Must Have Experience

There are number of sights, sounds, and tastes on the Hawaii islands that guests will be thrilled to take part it, see, and eat while they’re visiting the islands. Whether you are indulging in the delicious foods native to Hawaii, or enjoying some of the oceanic activity that are unique to the islands, there’s sure to be activities for anyone of any age group.

The best compliment to any of these activities is a cup of Hawaii’s Kona Coffee before embarking on daily adventures. Whether you are a coffee aficionado or an occasional drinker, you’ll be impressed by the rich flavors, heady aroma, and complex, winey and spicy tastes that are unique to Kona Coffee.

When you’re drinking Kona Coffee, you’ll feel as though you’re experiencing one of the unique traditions of the Hawaii Islands, and you can tell your friends and acquaintances back home that you drank one of the finest blends of coffee in the world during your vacation. This will be an especially useful talking point next time you find yourself in a coffee shop on the mainland United States.