The history and cultural significance of coffee in Hawai‘i is as rich as the coffee itself. Most of us think that the Big Island of Hawai‘i is where Hawaiian coffee got its start, but not so. Coffee was first introduced to the Islands around 1813 by King Kamehameha the Great’s Spanish interpreter and personal physician Don Francisco de Paula y Marin. The place: Manoa Valley on O‘ahu; in fact, thanks to busy birds, hikers into the mountains surrounding Manoa can still find coffee trees thriving among the thick foliage.
Coffee goes island hopping
Coffee farms can now be found on O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, Maui, Moloka‘i, and Hawai‘i Island. Back in 1828, coffee cuttings from Manoa were introduced to the fertile volcanic mountainsides of Kona by Samuel Reverend Ruggles. Today, Kona coffee is prized as one of the best—and most expensive—in the world. But there is more to Kona coffee than great tasting brew. Kona’s legacy to the world is steeped in generations of enduring coffee-growing families that daily toil on their cherished farms.
Not without my donkey
In the old days, donkeys, or nightingales, as they were called, hauled bags of coffee to nearby mills. But many growers continued to process their coffee at home, from laboriously handpicking and sorting the beans, to roasting them. Children were expected to pick between 50 and 75 pounds of cherries each day. Eventually, it became more productive to let bigger farms process their beans. And, now, though corporate farming, modern techniques, and improved equipment have arrived, coffee growing is still largely a family affair.
Welcome to Kona!
A leisurely winding drive through the 20-mile long by two-mile wide Kona coffee belt is an enlightening trek into a bygone era, where family values and hard work are as important as the product they grow. On the gently sloping mountainsides of Mauna Loa, 1,500 feet above sparkling Kealakekua Bay, arabica coffee trees thrive on five- to twelve-acre parcels. Daily, from August through January, families carefully harvest the ripened red cherries. The mature 15- to 30-foot high trees each produce 20 to 30 pounds of sugar-sweet cherries
Kona has the perfect climate for growing excellent coffee. Morning mist waters the sun-warmed trees and the mineral rich volcanic soil nourishes them. And when the sun becomes too hot, a lei of clouds gathers to protect them from scorching. What tree wouldn’t want to live in Kona?
A tribute to history
As the seasonal coffee cycle blends with family life, the texture and fabric of this significant and unique place in the Hawaiian Islands is preserved for future generations. To honor the painstaking legacy of Kona’s coffee families, The Kona Historical Society sponsors a Living History Farm (D. Uchida Farm), with costumed interpreters. You can learn more by visiting Greenwell Farms in Kealakekua in the heart of the Kona coffee belt. And while you’re at it, sample a taste of history. You won’t be disappointed.