This is the final day of a week of celebrating Kona coffee and the culture associated with our unique crop.
It has been a week of tropical agriculture, art, history, music, politics and much more. Kona coffee experienced a quiet birth more than a century ago, growth, expansion, almost death and a rebirth that put Kona on the map as a No. 1 producer of top-quality coffee.
Kona coffee finally made its mark as ichi ban, or No. 1. According to some top coffee marketers, Kona coffee is now considered to be one of the world’s most sought after gourmet coffees. This year looks like another bumper quality crop and to celebrate, the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival attracted coffee afficionados and tourists from around the world.
It has been an opportunity for kama‘aina and visitors to get acquainted with farmers, processors and restaurants serving our coffee. A drive through mauka Kona is a beautiful sight, especially when the coffee is in bloom or bearing fruit. We now have more coffee grown in Kona and the state of Hawaii than at any time in years.
This expansion of Kona’s coffee is not the first time we have had a boom, but now that our coffee is considered gourmet, we are working together to avoid the boom and bust syndrome of the world’s coffee industry.
The Kona coffee industry was born with a few coffee trees brought from Oahu. They were first planted in 1828 by missionary-teacher Samuel Ruggles. These were descendants of plants that came to Oahu from Brazil a few years earlier.
During the next 150 years, Hawaiian coffee has had many ups and downs, but creative marketing and cooperative efforts insured a bright future.
Coffea arabica is the species grown here exclusively. Other species of any commercial importance, but not grown here, include Coffea robusta and Coffea liberica. Examples of these and several related species can be seen at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Experiment Station in Kainaliu. Call 322-4892 to arrange a visit. The extension and research staff there has been instrumental in the success of the coffee industry.
Kona coffee is comparable to the finest of Central American mild coffees. The beans are heavy and flinty, with relatively high acidity, strong flavor, full body and fine aroma. It has been in demand as a blend, and in recent years as 100 percent Kona pure.
Although coffee can be grown in many areas of Hawaii, Kona is ideal. Being situated on the western leeward slopes of the central highland mass of the Big Island, it is protected from the prevailing north-east trade winds by Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes.
The rainfall pattern is characterized by a dry period from November through January and rather frequent, almost daily afternoon showers during the remainder of the year. The average annual rainfall within the relatively narrow “coffee belt” of Kona, which follows the contour of the Mamalahoa Highway between 600 to 2,000 foot elevation, is 60 to 70 inches.
Afternoon cloud cover and rainfall combine to create the perfect environment for top quality. Good coffee is being produced elsewhere in the state, but it does not yet have the international recognition of Kona coffee.
Coffee has persisted in Kona despite many adversities, overcome economic depressions and for many decades was considered to be Kona’s economic backbone.
Growing coffee has not been a limiting factor, since it grows wild in the understory of upland forests. The problems are the intense labor involved in pruning, fertilizing and harvesting.
For many years, schools in Kona allowed students vacation time to help farm families harvest the crop. When this ended, farm help from Central and South America came to the rescue.
The late Edward Fukunaga, a well-known and respected coffee expert in Kona, pointed out to me that when he first became county agricultural agent for Kona in September 1941, the coffee industry was in a terrible state. The farmers were deeply in debt, yet world coffee prices continued falling. Debt adjustments and government relief were the order of the day.
More than 1,000 acres of coffee were abandoned in 10 years following the price crash. Another 1,500 acres were to be abandoned before 1950.
Perhaps the most tragic thing that took place during the coffee depression was the exodus of the younger people from Kona. Only the aged were left to tend the farms in many families. However, things perked up after the war as world coffee prices rose and farmers thrived through the 1950s.
During the 1960s and 1970s, fields were again neglected and coffee beans wasted for lack of harvesters. Tourism was the new kid on the block and everyone wanted to work at the fancy hotels and restaurants.
The awakening of today’s vibrant and romantic coffee industry is complicated, but the key was teamwork. The concept of gourmet coffee, according to Curtis Tyler Jr., who was manager of the American Factors Coffee Mill in Kailua, came up as early as the ’50s but it took years to bring the concept to fruition. Wing and Mayflower Coffee companies were the first to roast and package the highest quality Kona blends, but it was tourism that ultimately exposed Kona coffee to the world.
Pacific Coffee Cooperative, led by Yoshitaka Takashiba and Kona Farmers Cooperative managed by Les Glaspey and Bill Koepke, were active in revitalizing the Kona Coffee Council. Tom Kerr, as chairman of the council, was instrumental in bringing all the diverse interests of the industry together.
Today, we have a new breed of coffee farmers producing world class estate coffees. Some original farms survived and are thriving. Others are owned or operated by entrepreneurs from the mainland, Japan, Southeast Asia and Latin America.
We cannot be sure of what the future will bring, but judging by the commitment and stamina of coffee farmers and processors coupled with production of one of the finest coffees in the world, the outlook is very promising.
Mahalo to the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival for expanding our appreciation for our special coffee to become a celebration that will attract visitors to our little bit of paradise and remind us how blessed we are to be kama‘aina.
This information is supplied by the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. For more information about gardening and landscaping, contact one of our Master Gardeners at 981-5199 in Hilo or 322-4892 in Kona.
by Hawaii tribune herald