What Is Kona Coffee?

If you're wondering what is kona coffee, it's the market name for Guatemalan arabica, grown in Hawai’i.

The warm taste of Kona coffee shows why this brew is one of the more expensive coffees. Kona coffee with its exceptional quality is a rare and satisfying experience for a coffee connoisseur. Understanding why Kona coffee is special can make an appreciation of its status in the world of coffee.

Kona Coffee is a Guatemalan Typica, known in Hawai’i as Kona Typcia. Typica is Coffea arabica, a variety of coffee in the Coffea genus and Rubiaceae family. Coffee arabica was first discovered in the 1500s in Ethiopia and have since become a worldwide beverage. 

Coffee growers grow Kona Typica on Hualalai's slopes, in the Kona district of the Island of Hawai'i. This area called the Kona Coffee Belt stretches 30 miles of coastline.

The History of Kona Coffee

Coffee growing had its start in Hawai’i in the mid-19th century when horticultural experimenter don Francisco de Paula Marin unsuccessfully introduced the plant species to the Islands in 1817. The second attempt was from Samuel Ruggles in 1828. Lack of labor, coffee pests, and bad weather shut down production within the coffee industry by 1860.

Another attempt at growing coffee in Hawai’i occurred when Hermann Widemann introduced a ‘Guatemalan’ coffee variety in 1892. This popular is known as “Kona Typica”. However, coffee production was short-lived, almost ending in 1899 because of a deep drop in coffee prices. 

A reversal of bad fortunes happened when World War I from 1917 to 1918 created a domestic coffee market. A frost in Brazil also caused a worldwide coffee shortage. The market was short-lived. After the start of the Great Depression 1929, coffee prices dropped. 

This plummet didn’t reverse until World War II. Army purchases of domestic coffee and another frost in Brazil caused Hawaiian production of coffee to regain a foothold in the domestic and world market until the 1970s. Then, low coffee prices, high costs, and labor shortages stalled Hawaiian coffee markets until the 1980s. 

Since the 1990s, Kona coffee growers have developed a world market for their product that relies upon the strength of the global coffee trade and climate factors for its economic power and popularity.

What are the Growing Conditions for Kona Coffee?

Kona coffee requires specific growing conditions for its perfect flavor. The growing area is a unique microclimate located at 1,000 to 3,500 feet above sea level. Specifically, the coffee grows on the leeward side of a volcano. 

Morning sun with temperatures around 70°F but not reaching below 55°F are ideal weather conditions for Kona coffee. 

Clouds or other shadows from nearby trees that slightly shade the growing coffee plants help keep the coffee plants from being burnt. The good soil drainage of volcanic soil and its rich nutrients give seedlings a safe bed to grow.

What is Authentic Kona Coffee?

The Hawaiian legislature passed a law protecting the unique taste of Kona coffee in 1991 when they passed the 10% Kona coffee blend statute (HRS 486-120.6) to state legally what is Kona coffee.

The law says blended coffee containing only 10% Kona coffee should be labeled as “10% Kona coffee,” not full Kona coffee. However, labeling may confuse consumers about what is Kona coffee. Producers commonly use these terms to define Kona coffee:

1. Kona Roast

Kona Roast is not Kona coffee. This roast can be made from any coffee bean and will most likely not contain any Kona coffee. The roast will contain other coffee species.

2. Kona Style

Kona Style, like Kona Roast, may contain little or no Kona coffee beans. Avoid coffee with misleading labels such as Kona Roast and Kona Style. These coffees often do not have the same robust and warm flavor as authentic Kona coffee.

3. Kona Blend

Kona Blend legally requires at least 10% Kona coffee in the blend to be authentic.

4. 100% Kona Coffee

100% Kona Coffee should contain 100% Kona Coffee. Coffee that is 100% Kona gives you better taste than styles, roasts, or blends.

5. 100% Estate-Grown or Single-Sourced Kona Coffee

100% estate-Grown or single-sourced Kona Coffee is premium Kona Coffee because the beans come from one coffee estate. The taste of Estate-Grown coffee is usually a consistent and uniform smooth taste. Estate-Grown coffee from a single source is grown, sorted, and roasted on the same coffee farm.

6. Peaberry Kona Coffee?

The best Kona coffee is Peaberry Kona coffee. Peabody is a rare form of 100% Kona coffee. It is more expensive and fancier than other Kona coffee types, and according to coffee roasters and other experts, it tastes better. 

A peaberry is a “double” coffee bean. Usually, coffee beans grow two to a fruit, competing for space and flattening out in the middle. 

In some coffee beans, only one half is fertilized, and one seed grows with the whole fruit becoming a larger and rounder peaberry bean with more taste. The density of the peaberry beans improves heat transfer in the roasting process. 

Peaberries also roast better because their rounder shape allows the berries to roll about the roasting chamber easier, giving a more comprehensive roast to each bean. If you want the best coffee, look for 100% estate-grown or single source Kona Peaberry coffee. It tastes fuller and warmer.

Coffee Tours

Coffee tours are an educational way to learn about Kona coffee and see the process of growing quality coffee. You even meet some local coffee roasters. 

The Kona coffee tours have over 650 farms to choose from when you consider a coffee vacation. Many of these farms organize tours of the coffee orchards, view the processing area, and taste coffee produced on the farm. 

Some tours are free but remember to buy the high-quality coffees in the orchard shops. Call or email ahead to see if orchards are open and see about schedules. 

The Kona Coffee Festival

The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival started in 1970 to preserve and promote Kona’s coffee heritage. It is one of the oldest and most successful food festivals on the big island of Hawai'i, honoring the cultural heritage and Kona coffee farmers, artisans, and pioneers.

Over nearly 50 events over 10 days occur including a Coffee & Art Stroll, Cupping Competition, Farm & Mill Tours, International Lantern Parade, and self-guided tours. In 20202, however, the Festival that was due to celebrate its 50th year has postponed the celebration until next year. According to the website

“Our Board of Directors determined that a scaled back version of the Festival that complied with social distancing guidelines, would not be able to celebrate the 50 years of culture behind Kona’s famous coffee festival,” said Valerie Corcoran, Kona Coffee Cultural Festival President. “We look forward to welcoming festival goers to the 50th Kona Coffee Cultural Festival in 2021.”

What Is Kona Coffee? The Final Word

Kona coffee is an interesting type of coffee that tastes light, sweet and occasionally fruity. It's easy to buy if in Hawai'i. If you're not, look out for popular brands like Royal Kona, Volcanica Coffee or Peaberry Coffee. It could even make a nice gift for the coffee lover in your life.

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