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Drinks Atlas: Kona Coffee

“Why is Kona coffee so expensive?” That’s the question coffee grown on the western shore of Hawai‘i’s Big Island commonly faces. Truth is, Kona coffee—valued between $20 and $50 per pound unroasted—demonstrates the reality of what coffee should cost modern consumers.

In Hawai‘i, the only U.S. state growing coffee on a commercial scale, the cost of land is high; an established minimum wage exists; and every farm has roads, running water, and electricity, says Brittany Horn, co-owner of North Kona’s Pacific Coffee Research. “Those are not things that are just so readily available and exist in other growing regions.” Coffee, likely a Bourbon variety, was brought to Kona in 1828 by a missionary and was quickly initiated as a commercial crop. In 1892, Typica was introduced to the island and adopted by farmers. Today, certified Kona Coffee (labeling requirements are rigorous) averages more than 2 million pounds of green coffee yearly, all grown within the Kona Coffee Belt, which measures less than 25 miles long and a mile or so wide.

The slopes of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes provide excellent growing conditions for the belt’s approximately 1,000 small, family-owned farms: Cloud cover and rain arrive each afternoon, and due to the high drainage of volcanic soil, the damp coffee plants dry out completely the following morning. Kona coffee thrives at elevations of 800 to 2,500 feet, because it’s farther from the equator than other growing regions, and experiences cooler temperatures at lower elevation, says PCR co-owner Madeleine Longoria Garcia.

Despite Kona coffee’s fame, the mainland specialty coffee scene hasn’t historically viewed it favorably. Beyond the island, Kona is typically associated with blends or dark roasts, says Horn. But some local businesses, including PCR, aim to put Kona coffee on the map of mainland drinkers. Because advancements from other growing regions can be slow to transfer to Hawai‘i, PCR says, local producers continue to follow the island’s 200-year-old coffee norms. However, often inspired by high-scoring coffees displayed at competitions, some farmers are planting new varieties, trying novel processing techniques, and experimenting with lighter roasts and alternative storage methods to improve the quality of their crop. “Producers hold on really tightly to tradition because it means a lot to them,” says Longoria Garcia. “I think a lot of [recent growth] is access to more information, and not being afraid of going against the grain.”

Fast FactsThe Hawai‘i Coffee Association recently launched the Green Coffee Exchange—an online service for members to list available green coffees to buyers, as producers who rely on tourist coffee consumption have seen a huge drop in sales since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kona coffee represents about 95 percent of coffee production on the Big Island. The rest is grown in the Kaʻu, Puna, and Hamakua districts.

Following a global downturn in the market around 1900, large coffee farms broke into smaller operations run by tenant farmers. Today, many farms are owned and operated by Japanese-Americans, Hawaiians, mainland transplants, and the descendants of Portuguese, Filipino, and Chinese immigrants. The Kona Coffee Living History Farm preserves the history of many families who came to Kona and farmed coffee.

Farms to Try

Domain Kona Located centrally along the Kona Coffee Belt, the 100-year-old Domain Kona is planted entirely with Kona Typica at 1,400 feet and was purchased by its most recent owners—former wine professionals—in 2018. Selling only Fancy and Extra Fancy grade coffee, the farm examines the region’s different terroirs. domainkona.com

Hala Tree Hala Tree offers 100 percent organic coffee, harvested, processed, and roasted on- site. Managing approximately 50 acres of coffee trees, the Captain Cook–based farm uses innovative pruning techniques to keep their farm healthy and offers medium to dark roast Kona coffees. halatreecoffee.com

Heavenly Hawaiian Founded in 2005 in Holualoa, Heavenly Hawaiian produces estate-grown Kona Typica at 1,600 feet, along with Kona arabica grafted onto Liberican root stock, and a single acre of Brazilian arabica producing Maragogype coffee beans. The family farm also runs the farm-side Konalani Coffee Bar, serving third-wave coffees to visitors. heavenlyhawaiian.com

Keopu Coffee Reaching heights of 2,200 feet along the slopes of Huala-lai, the small, organic Keopu Coffee farm in Keopu-Mauka sells medium- roast 100 percent Kona coffee that’s grown, processed, and dried on- site, as well as estate-grown coffees from other nearby farms. keopucoffee.com

Monarch Coffee Named for the monarch butterflies that live nearby and help pollinate coffee plants, Monarch Coffee grows its crop on the slopes of Huala-lai. The Stille-Muñoz family run the farm and emphasize sustainable methods, like fostering biodiversity, employing coffee pulp as compost, and farming chemical- free. The forward-thinking farm was the first to grow Gesha coffee in Hawai‘i. monarchcoffee.com

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