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"Kona in a Cup": Everything you need to know about Kona coffee before you buy

With rich volcanic soil and a year-round mild climate, the Hawaiian Islands provide an ideal location for growing coffee. But the Kona Coffee Belt takes even these idyllic conditions a step further, says Virginia Easton Smith, an agricultural extension agent with the University of Hawai‘i.

“In Kona, we have weather that’s both cool enough and warm enough,” says Easton Smith. “We have a lot of rain in the summer when the coffee is developing. For most of the harvest season—when a lot of the coffee is sun-dried—we have sunny, dry weather.

“We also have a long history of growing coffee here, compared to the rest of the state.”
Coffee production in Hawaii thrived on large plantations through the mid-19th century until a worldwide drop in coffee prices nearly killed the industry in 1860. Another coffee-price boom and bust in the 1890s almost did the same, but this time changed the industry for good.

The smaller 2- to 5-acre independent farms that grow Kona coffee today are remnants of that change. Many were founded more than a century ago by Hawaii’s multicultural immigrants who bought up small parcels of the big plantation lands.


Rising and falling coffee prices affected Kona farmers through the 20th century. But, in modern times, the industry has thrived, by wisely using Kona coffee’s relative scarcity—it is grown on only 2,300 total acres, producing 2 million pounds annually—and its high price-per-pound to its marketing advantage.

The “100% Kona Coffee” label is now highly valued—certified and protected by Hawaii law. The coffee itself—with its exotic name and cost per pound double or triple that of other beans—is largely accepted by specialty coffee consumers as worthy of its price. Whether it deserves the price on taste alone, however, remains a debate in coffee circles.

One doubter is Hawaii coffee expert and consultant Shawn Steiman. “In general, Kona has produced better coffee than most coffee in the world over its long history,” he says. “There are still pockets of really great coffee coming out. But, honestly, for Kona, I think most of [its success] is reputation right now.”

Steiman points out that much of Kona’s price comes from where it’s grown—in the U.S., on an island in the middle of the Pacific. “Farmers have to contend with labor laws that other countries don’t,” he notes. “All coffee is flown out of Hawai‘i to get it to market faster.” Kona coffee farmers have high land, labor and transportation costs. That results in coffee whose price premium is sometimes not justified by its quality, in Steiman’s view.

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