Friday, November 7, 2014


Ke kope hoʻohia ʻā maka o Kona.
(The coffee of Kona that keeps the eyes from sleeping.)

The only place in the United States where coffee is grown commercially is in Hawaiʻi.

Don Francisco de Paula y Marin recorded in his journal, dated January 21, 1813, that he had planted coffee seedlings on the island of Oʻahu.  The first commercial coffee plantation was started in Kōloa, Kauaʻi, in 1836.

Coffee was planted in Mānoa Valley in the vicinity of the present UH-Mānoa campus; from a small field, trees were introduced to other areas of O‘ahu and neighbor islands.

John Wilkinson, a British agriculturist, obtained coffee seedlings from Brazil. These plants were brought to Oʻahu in 1825 board the HMS Blonde (the ship also brought back the bodies of Liholiho and Kamāmalu who had died in England) and planted in Mānoa Valley at the estate of Chief Boki, the island’s governor.

In 1828, American missionary Samuel Ruggles took cuttings from Mānoa and brought them to Kona.   Henry Nicholas Greenwell grew and marketed coffee and is recognized for putting “Kona Coffee” on the world markets.

At Weltausstellung 1873 Wien (World Exhibition in Vienna, Austria (1873,)) Greenwell was awarded a “Recognition Diploma” for his Kona Coffee.  Greenwell descendants continue the family’s coffee-growing tradition in Kona. (Greenwell Farms)

Writer Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) seemed to concur with this when he noted in his Letters from Hawaiʻi, “The ride through the district of Kona to Kealakekua Bay took us through the famous coffee and orange section. I think the Kona coffee has a richer flavor than any other, be it grown where it may and call it what you please.”

Hermann Widemann introduced the ‘Guatemalan’ variety (known as ‘Kona typica’) to Hawaiʻi in 1892. He gave seeds to John Horner, who planted an orchard of 800 trees in Hāmākua, comparing 400 trees of this new variety with 400 of the then-current variety known as ‘kanaka koppe,’ the so-called ‘Hawaiian coffee’, probably from 30 plants brought from Brazil by Wilkinson.  (CTAHR)

“’Coffee-trees are often planted with a crowbar,’ it is said. Strange as this may seem, it is nevertheless true. A hole is drilled through the rock, or lavacrust, and the soil thus reached; the tree, a small twig dug up from the forest, is planted in this hole, and it grows, thrives, and yields fruit abundantly.”  (Musick, 1898)

In 1892 it was estimated there were probably 1,000-acres in old coffee throughout North and South Kona; 150-acres new set out by the two companies then under way there, with expectation of setting out fifty more; 170-acres in the Hāmākua and Hilo districts and about 100 in Puna.  (Thrum)

“Hardly a mail arrives from abroad but brings further enquiry for coffee lands and information as to area; how obtainable; situation; prices, etc., and the usual multitudinous questions pertaining thereto, all of which gives evidence of the readiness of foreign capital to come in and push forward the reviving industry with vigor.  (Thrum, 1892)

More than 140,000 Japanese came to Hawai‘i between 1885 and 1924, with 3-year labor contracts to work for the sugar plantations; when their contract expired, many decided that a different lifestyle suited them better.  Many moved to Kona to grow coffee.

By 1905, only a few large plantations were left. At first, they attempted to operate on a share-crop basis, but eventually the land was divided and leased to tenant farmers.  (Goto)

This trend was adopted by others, and 5+/- acre parcels were leased primarily to first-generation Japanese families. The downsizing revolutionized and rescued the Kona coffee industry. (Choy)

By the 1890s, the large Kona coffee plantations were broken into smaller (5+/- acres) family farms.  By 1915, tenant farmers, largely of Japanese descent, were cultivating most of the coffee.

The 1890s boom in coffee-growing in North Kona was encouraged by rising prices.  Although sugarcane plantations expanded with US annexation in 1898, coffee-growing grew in Kona because of its adaptability to land that was too rocky for sugarcane.

During the early coffee boom, Portuguese and then Japanese laborers had filtered into Kona.  As one coffee plantation after another gave up when coffee prices fell and sugar plantations became more attractive, these plantations were broken up into small parcels (3 to 5-acres) and leased to these laborers.

Many worked on the newly formed sugar plantations and worked their coffee orchards as side lines.  As the coffee prices remained low, the Portuguese abandoned the coffee orchards, and by 1910, the Japanese were about the only growers left to tend the coffee trees.    (NPS)

Coffee production was so important to the Kona community; in 1932, the local high school’s ‘summer’ vacation was shifted from the traditional Memorial Day to Labor Day (June-July-August) to August-September-October, “to meet the needs of the community, whose chief crop is coffee and most of which ripens during the fall months.” (It lasted until 1969.) (Ka Wena o Kona 1936; HABS)

At the turn of the last century there was coffee on all the major Hawaii islands.  By the 1930s there were more than 1,000 farms and, as late as the 1950s, there were 6,000-acres of coffee in Kona.  Today, there are about 700 coffee growers statewide, 600 of them on the Big Island.  (Hughes)

The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival (in its 44th year) starts today and runs through November 16, with activities held throughout West Hawaiʻi.

This Festival has created a cultural experience in Hawaiʻi that showcases Kona’s nearly 200-year coffee heritage, culinary delights and the working Kona coffee farmers who work to preserve, perpetuate and promote Kona’s famous harvest.

The image shows Hawaiʻi coffee.  In addition, I have added other images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.

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