Why The Kona Bean is Called a Specialty Coffee Bean?

Kona Bean Transportation in the early to Mid 1900’s

Kona Nightingales - Between 1900 and 1945 donkeys were used as basic transportation for the Kona bean, especially for transporting 100 pound bags of beans out of the rugged coffee lands up and down to the main road for transport to mills. Dubbed "Kona Nightingales" because of their, not so musical, braying. The noble donkey played a vital role in the Kona coffee bean industry start.

Medium Roast Kona Beans

Medium Roast Kona Beans

The history of Kona Coffee is fascinating and Royal.

We will highlight the history and hopefully stir desire to seek more information at your local public library.

Coffee is found on a small tree with large, shiny leaves. The genus coffea is of the family Rubiaceae, the same ornamental family as the Gardenia and the Ixoras. Coffee is divided into 2 major categories: Arabica’s and Robusta’s. Mild coffees are labeled as superior and are from the Arabica variety. Kona coffee is listed as a mild Arabica bean. They flourish in a subtropical environment. Brazils are also Arabica’s, but climate, cultivation and procedures while processing into a green bean adds variations in the final product. Robustas are generally heartier, larger and grows well in tropical climates. They tend to be more coarse and bitter. This is the most abundant bean on the market. Grown primarily in Africa and Indonesia it usually finds itself in instant coffees or blended with other beans to mask the bitter flavor.

Arabica’s are, dare I say, weaker plants. They shock easily and need protection from the sun and wind. Who doesn’t? The Kona Coffee Belt fits well into the weaker plant’s idea of Utopia. Nestled between Mauna Kea to the north and Mauna Loa to the south, the mountains provide perfect protection from the winds. As an added bonus, the mountains manipulate the clouds to create there own weather. Kona is known for its bright and sunny mornings and its afternoon clouds and light rains daily which act like a giant umbrella (or security blanket for the bean). The circling cloud cover provides fantastic afternoon shade that the plants thrive on. In addition to the natural protection, the volcanic soil, ample rainfall and elevation of the fields makes Kona an ideal location for nature's weaker bean to grow larger than in other parts of the world.

The first recorded written reference to coffee was in the 10th Century, during the height of the Dark Ages. The Persians are credited for bringing the bean to Arabia Felix, now Yemen, from Ethiopia.

A humorous part of the word coffee is how nobody could decide on what to call it. “Coffee” as we know it comes from the Arabian word gahwah and the Turkish derivative kahveh. The English called it chaoua, up to 1598. That didn’t seem right, so in 1610 they used cahoa. Obviously that stunk so they utilized cahue in 1615. Everyone seemed happy until 1638, then they changed the word to coho. Sounding too much like a terrible disease, in 1650 they suggested the words coffey and coffee. It took the English 50 years to decide, so in 1700 the single word coffee was passed into the language. For such a nice treat it has had its ups and downs. Even today people want to change the word: Want a cup of JOE? How about a Mocha Latte with an Espresso shooter?

Let's call it what it is if it’s good - a cup of Kona Coffee.

Kona seeds arrived on Oahu around 1817 by Don Paulo Marin. He loved horticulture and just happened to be King Kamehameha I’s royal physician. I guess that's better than being a non-royal physician, huh? Nothing spectacular happened with the new seeds, so in 1825 King Kamehameha II and his lovely wife, Kamamalu, set off for England with their entourage which included Boki, the Governor of Oahu. With a huge twist of fate, the king and queen died of measles. I bet England still feels pretty bad about that. Anyway, Boki (remember him?) the Governor of Oahu, took control and headed back to Hawaii to properly bury the royal stiffs. In his sorrow, he decided to hire an agriculturist named John Wilkinson. In this sorrowful voyage, they stopped at Rio de Janeiro to pick up some fresh, young coffee plants to bring back to Hawaii. A novel idea but he wanted to plant them on his land in Manoa Valley. He also picked up sugar plants for the same selfish reason. Sugar, as it turned out, was a major handicap for the coffee industry in later years. As history explains it, this became the seed bed of the Island Coffee Industry.

Do you think he started the coffee beans production for the betterment of the Hawaiian people?

In 1828, Reverend Samuel Ruggles planted the first Coffea Arabica seedlings in Kona, actually in Naole near Kealekekua. They were planted as ornamentals. In 1842 the first serious effort to produce the bean commercially was on Kauai. A whopping 245 pounds were exported in 1845. It is officially the first export of the bean from Hawaii. Kauai Planters sold out in 1858. Kona district, Hilo district started the first major commercial venture on the Big Island. On the Hilo side, it did moderately well, but sugar became the major crop of Hawaii. On the Kona side it did excellent, but it was a small area and it only seemed to grow well above 2,000 feet. The farmers could not figure out how to control the white scale blight. The great commercial venture quickly shifted to sugar cane, hindering the ideal conditions of the Kona District.

In 1893, two major events occurred that changed the fate of the Kona bean. The first was the Ladybird beetle. Introduced from Australia, the little beetle was highly successful in controlling the white scale disease. Second, The Hawaiian Monarchy was brutally overthrown. The Provisional Government began leasing the crown lands for coffee plantings. In the mid 1890’s, W.W. Brunner converted his pineapple cannery below Captain Cook to a coffee mill, thus giving the Kona bean the boost it needed.

I could continue on with the invention of the vacuum packing in 1898 that revolutionized the global coffee bean market or the vicious monopoly of regional or national brands of blending coffees in the 1930’s. It created the cheaper mass flavor instead of the richer class bean flavor. Kona beans have gone through good times and bad times.