Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Coffee is grown in over 80 countries around the world, so what’s so exciting about growing it in Hawaii?
For one, Hawaii is the only state in the United States that grows coffee. This makes it possible to explore Hawaii’s coffee along every part of its journey — from bean to cup. In today’s import/export market, this is a rare treat. In many countries, people don’t drink the coffee they grow. In contrast, many of Hawaii’s farms play a big role in sharing their crops with local cafes, retail outlets and restaurants.
When most people think of coffee production in the United States, Hawaii is the state that springs to mind. Still, Hawaii’s production numbers are small potatoes compared to most other origins. According to statistics from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, in the 2015-2016 harvest season Hawaii produced about 6.1 million pounds of green coffee.
Hawaii’s isolation and high cost of living have discouraged farmers from competing in volume or price in the world market. Rather, Hawaii coffee competes by only producing high quality, specialty coffee. Every farm in Hawaii has the potential to produce one-of-a-kind coffee.
Hawaii’s coffee industry has moved beyond just growing and selling coffee to becoming an experience worth traveling for. Many farms have opened their doors to visitors as farmers themselves are often eager to meet people who want to learn about coffee. The whole state, not just the coffee industry, benefits when curious people explore the nature and culture of this fantastic crop.
People in the Hawaii coffee industry are passionate, even fanatical. When talking to farmers, roasters or baristas, it’s hard not to find their enthusiasm energizing. It’s not just the caffeine that affects them. Coffee inspires minds, infuses dreams and fulfills destinies. For this industry, coffee isn’t a way of life — it is life!
Hawaii Coffee History
As of 2007, more than 8,200 acres (3320 hectares) of Hawaii land were planted with coffee. Statewide, coffee ranks fourth in the amount of land devoted to a single crop and fifth in value of production. More farms grow coffee than any other crop in the state.
In 1817, Don Francisco de Paula Marin brought coffee in Hawaii. Unfortunately, his plantings didn’t succeed. However, in 1825, Chief Boki, the governor of Oahu, brought plants from Brazil and successfully planted them in Manoa Valley. From the governor’s plantings, attempts were made to grow coffee in several regions on different islands. The missionary Samuel Ruggles introduced what was likely a Bourbon variety, called Kanaka Kopi, to the Big Island in 1828. Eight years later, the first commercial operation was planted in Koloa, Kauai. Shortly thereafter, more than 1,000 acres (405 hectares) of coffee were planted in Hanalei. Of all these early commercial attempts, the only region that has remained in continual production to the present day is Kona on the Big Island.
In 1892, Herman Weidemann, a sugar grower, introduced the Typica variety from Guatemala. It performed so much better than the variety Ruggles introduced that a few growers in Kona planted it and called it “Guatemalan”. The name was locally changed to Kona Typica in the 1990s to avoid confusing consumers.
In the 1980s, when sugarcane ceased being profitable, many of the cane fields were planted with coffee. Thus began the renewal of coffee farming across the entire state. Since then, coffee has moved into 11 major regions on five different islands. In addition to these 11 regions, small farms can also be found statewide. Don’t discount these farms; their isolation and lack of specific mention here doesn’t make them any less worthwhile or important to the industry.
Gourmet Kona coffee is what first comes to mind when thinking about Hawaii and coffee, but there are many other varieties that have made names of their own in recent years.
Hawaiian Kona coffee is known for its simple yet rich flavor, typically light, delicate and mild with a complex aroma and taste.
Agriculture used to be the main industry in Hawaii, and many foreign workers from countries including China, the Philippines, Japan, Korea and Portugal were brought here to work on the sugarcane and pineapple fields, which were the predominant crops that were grown in Hawaii in the past. At one point in time Hawaii produced 75 percent of the world's pineapple. But in the long run as land prices and the standard of living increased rapidly in the Islands after Hawaii became the 50th state, many crops produced in Hawaii could no longer compete on the world market.
Since coffee can be grown cheaper in many other places in the world, coffee farmers in Hawaii focus on producing high quality, gourmet coffee with distinctive flavors. Today, coffee farms in Hawaii encompass more than 8,200 acres, and more farms grow coffee than any other crop in the state.