Kona is the formal name given to the unique-tasting coffee produced in Kailua-Kona, the Big Island of Hawaii. The crops are mainly grown on the volcanic mountains of Mauna Loa and Hualalai which is found in the Northern and Southern districts of Kailua-Kona. This name is as good as patented because only coffee produced in this region of the Big Island is licensed to be called Kona coffee. Since the coffee is grown on volcanic soil filled with nourishing minerals at high elevation in areas blessed with the perfect tropical climate (sunny mornings, wet afternoons, and mild nights), Kona coffee has become one of the best and most expensive coffees in the world.
History of Kona Coffee
It was in 1817 when Francisco de Paula Marin, a horticulturist, tried to grow coffee for the first time in Hawaii. This plan failed mainly because he did not introduce diverse coffee plant species as he did for other plants. However, in 1828 Samuel Ruggles successfully grew coffee on the Big Island in Hawaii. Following his successful attempts, other farmers began to own acres of coffee farms all over the Big Island because of its favorable conditions. However, in Hawaii, there are other coffee plantations outside the two volcanic mountains on Big Island, but they are not Kona coffee.
Other Hawaiian Coffee
Apart from Kona coffee, there are other great-tasting and less expensive Hawaiian coffees that are not as popular as Kona coffee. Granted, Kona coffee makes up about 95% of the coffee plantations on the Big Island, but there is a 5% that grows along Ka’u, Puna, and Hamakua coasts. All the coffees from these districts have their distinctive flavors and whichever one you choose depends on your preferences.
Ka’u Coffee: This up-and-coming Hawaiian coffee is known for its floral bouquet and distinctive aroma. Over these past few years, Ka’u coffee has become more popular when it gained a top ten position in the tasting competition of the Specialty Coffee Association of America Convention- the world’s largest coffee gathering. However, because it does not have all the marketing benefits that Kona Coffee has, it is not as famous and therefore not as expensive.
Puna Coffee: The Puna district is a known coffee area. In the mid-1800s, over 6000 acres of coffee were grown there. When sugar cane was on the rise, farmers focused on sugar cane plantations, but now that coffee has become more popular, the Puna district is going back to their coffee plantations. There are currently over 125 coffee plantations in Puna.
Puna coffee is distinctive because of its full-body, heavy and nutty aromas. When given a medium roast, it smells and tastes like some finer moccas.
Hamakua Coffee: Though smaller than its counterparts(with an average of 5-7 acres), the Hamakua coffee is holding its own in the coffee market. It is known for its rich chocolate flavor and smooth finish.
The Planting Conditions of Kona Coffee
The Kona Coffee is so special because it sets itself apart from other coffee beans. The bean structure and near-perfect growing conditions contribute to its unique nature and taste.
Hawaii is perfect for growing coffee because it has these important factors:
- Enough amount of sunshine. With temperatures around 70°F, but not below 55°F, the coffee beans enjoy just the right amount of sun exposure. And if the sun is getting too much, the beans would be protected by a cloud or shade.
- The right altitude. Elevation affects the taste of coffee beans, and Kona coffee is grown at 3000 feet or more which gives the coffee a mild flavor.
- Just enough rain. Inasmuch as coffee plants love the sun, they also need water to be nourished. And Hawaii is blessed with lots of rain. What’s more, the soil is porous and has ways to drain away excess water since coffee plants hate their roots hanging in the water.
All these perfect environmental conditions can be found on the slopes of two volcanic mountains Mauna Loa and Hualalai. With the mineral-rich soil and perfect climate, Hawaii has produced one of the best and most expensive coffee beans in the world, Kona coffee.
Kona Coffee Stages.
The Kona planting process has to be carefully done as a lot of things can go wrong. From planting to harvesting to processing, every single level comes with its own set of challenges but its reward is well worth the responsibilities.
Unlike other coffee species that make their way from seed to cup, Kona coffee isn’t sown directly into the ground, at least not initially. The coffee is purchased as seedlings so that only the healthiest, most suitable plants are used.
Since the coffee seeds germinate slowly and risk being choked by weeds before they grow, farmers depend on transplanting them instead, so there is no room for mistakes.
It is believed that if they start their lives as healthy, well-cared for, and well-grown seedlings, the coffee tree can live a long productive life of up to 60 years or more.
Farmers show great care when selecting the right varieties appropriate for the soil and its terrain. The first 5 years in a coffee tree’s life is usually crucial, so farmers have to do their best to nourish the plants by fertilizing, pruning, weeding, and protecting the plants from pests. A typical Kona coffee plant gets up to 6ft tall by year 3.
Usually, coffee trees require pruning every year to rid them of unproductive branches that may stunt their growth.
Pruning of the Kona coffee tree is a very important aspect of coffee production which usually takes place between January and April when the increased moisture level encourages new growth.
There are several methods of pruning coffee trees, primarily amongst them are the Hawaiian Kona style, the Beaumont-Fukunaga practiced by the Latin-Americans and the
mechanically hedged and topped system which is used on other large coffee farms in Hawaii such as Maui, Molokai, Kauai.
Whatever the method the farmer may use is fine as long as they are careful, because improper pruning may cause biennial bearing, fruit overproduction, and shortened productive life span of the coffee trees. Coffee trees left unattended can grow up to 40ft high.
Unlike many other coffee farms that use machines to pick off millions of ripe coffee cherries, Kona coffee picking is solely done by hand. The uneven and elevated terrain of the volcanic mountains upon which more than 650 coffee farms are planted does not encourage the use of machines for harvesting.
Besides most farmers prefer handpicking to any mechanical harvesting style because the berries don’t often ripen together. The pickers may have to visit the same tree over and over again during the harvest to ensure that previously unripened berries are now properly red enough to pluck.
Machines, however, would simply harvest all the coffee, whether they are optimally ripe or not. Immature beans whose cherries are yellow, green, orange, or slightly red have an inferior taste and may tamper with the overall quality of the coffee during processing.
Hand-picking for the Kona farmers is the best solution because it allows them to harvest only the ripest fruits that are fully red. Kona coffee picking is labor-intensive and time-consuming as the pickers must carefully select the mature fruits without disturbing the unripe ones so they can have time to mature. This is one of the contributing factors in the cost of Kona coffee, but it is also one of the ways that make it superior to other coffee quality.
Now that the coffee cherries have been harvested, the next stage that brings the coffee seed closer to a steaming cup is coffee processing.
Once picked, the Kona coffee is immediately processed because leaving it to sit for too long would encourage rapid decay.
Coffee processing is majorly the separation of the coffee beans from the cherries, and there are two main methods of processing Kona coffee- the dry and wet methods. Many Kona coffee farms use the dry method because it is the oldest known means of processing coffee. However, for many other farms, it is the least practical especially in wet areas where the humidity is dense.
Fo most Kona coffee farmers who use the wet method, the coffee must pass through several stages to be fully processed before it can be ready for roasting.
After the cherries have been harvested, they are fed through a system for washing and sorting. Whole bean cherries are separated from unsuitable ones and are passed through a machine for pulping. The pulpers are machines that squeeze and strip off the flesh from the fruit, leaving the beans cocooned in a sticky, sweet layer called the mucilage. After pulping, the seeds are further fermented to remove the mucilage. The fermentation process takes 12-48 hours where the natural enzymes break down the remaining mucilage completely, leaving behind the coffee beans with their parchment skin intact. Then the beans are rinsed and sent on to the drying stage.
To maintain a controlled and consistent rate of drying, most farmers use mechanical dryers. The beans must be dried gradually and evenly to obtain the right moisture content. The dryers typically look like huge perforated drums that slowly rotate for up to 36 hours or more, depending on the weather. Once the beans are suitably dried and a thin paper-like membrane known as parchment can be seen covering each seed, they are sent to the dry mill for the next stage of processing.
The next stage of the coffee processing is to rid the coffee beans of their dry parchment or skin. This can be done through a process called hulling. A hulling machine uses friction to rub the beans against each other to remove the parchment. The parchment is then extracted through the air, leaving the coffee beans clean and ready for grading.
Sorting and grading.
Here the beans are sorted by size and weight through an oscillating screen that shakes them into bins according to their sizes. Then they are passed through a gravity table to be separated according to their weight. This is crucial to maintain the quality and integrity of Kona coffee grading systems. Every feature such as the number of defects, moisture content, size, weight, and shape is considered to determine the final grading of coffee.
After the Kona coffee beans have been fully processed, they can now be packaged and sent for roasting.
Roasting Kona Coffee
After processing the coffee beans, the next stage the beans pass through is roasting.
Roasting coffee requires a high level of expertise, and when it comes to Kona coffee, the best is expected. The perfect roasting process draws out all the unique flavors that come with the beans.
Ideally, coffee beans get their aromas from the farm and the plantation, during the harvesting and processing, the roasting merely enhances and sometimes complements the various flavors. There are many types of roasts, but they all require time, heat, and experience to bring the Kona coffee from a humble cherry to a delightful steamy cup of coffee.
Types of Coffee Roasts
There are mainly three types of coffee roasts, each has various gradients, variations, and names that may not be familiar. Depending on what the roaster hopes to achieve, they work with the beans unique flavor, moisture content, and density to create a distinctive roasting recipe
1. Dark Roast
A bittersweet flavor often trails the dark roast, the flavor of the roast is even more prominent than the bean’s original aromas. This roast emanates rich smoky flavors and mild acidity, it also gives the beans a much darker color and will have a shiny, oily surface. French and Italian roasts are good examples of dark roasts.
2. Light Roast
This has barely any roasted flavor and maintains the unique flavor of the beans. It’s got higher acidity but a lighter body. It is typically light brown with no shiny or oily surface.
Light roasts are ideal for determining the differences between origin characteristics as the beans are not overpowered by the roast. Examples of light roast include New England Roast, Cinnamon Roast, Half City, etc.
3. Medium Roast
Here the natural sugars in the beans have been caramelized and the acidity reduced. The roast flavor is distinct but does not overpower the natural aromas of the coffee beans. Medium roasts have a medium brown to medium-dark color. Some even spot a degree of surface oil.
City Roast and American Roast are good examples of medium roast.
Stages of the Coffee Roasting Process
Even though roasting Kona coffee is usually a quick process of about 10-20 minutes tops, a lot of chemical reactions take place within this period. Experience and skill are mandatory to perfect the science of Kona coffee roasting.
Typically, coffee beans are roasted in large heated drums that rotate constantly during the roasting period. Some contemporary roasters are connected to laptops or some other electronic devices to monitor the temperature, time, pressure, and also collect data.
Yellowing: The first stage of the roasting process is when the beans begin to absorb the heat and turn slightly yellow, at this point the beans start to exude a strong grassy aroma that signals the first chemical reaction.
Steaming: Here, the bean’s internal moisture releases as steam when they continue to heat up. At this point, the beans can lose up to 15% of their weight as water evaporates.
First crack: This is the first audible indicator of the roasting process. As soon as the remaining moisture evaporates, sugars start caramelizing and oils are being released as the bean breaks, a popping sound can be heard. The crack sounds almost like making popcorn. At this stage, the beans start to emit that familiar coffee aroma and acquire a chocolate brown color. For light roasts, this signals the end of the roasting.
Caramelization: This stage is known as the development stage where stopping the roasting process at different points can yield numerous variations(subtle and not so subtle) of roasting at the end. At this point, the roasts start to darken and the natural oils migrate while the inherent sugars of the beans caramelize. Most roasts cease at this level.
Second crack: This is the second and final audible indicator of the roasting process. The cellular matrix of the beans is broken under intense heat, the sugars are weakened even more, and the oils migrate to the surface. The roast flavors become more prominent in this stage than the original aromas.
Darkening: After the second crack, if the roasting process continues, the beans would become darker brown or even black with a visible oil surface. The sugars start to burn and the roast flavors become more dominant. This stage is very delicate and must be handled with strict expertise because the beans can burn if the process is not stopped at the right time.
The Cost of Kona Coffee
Kona coffee is considered one of the most expensive in the world and the main reason is the cost of labor. In Hawaii, farm workers or laborers are paid even better than farmers in other coffee-producing states like Guatemala or Ethiopia. Coffee picking is very arduous, hence the charges for laborers are more expensive than those who work in other cities.
Apart from labor which can cost a farmer at least $8/lb to pick the beans off the trees, other factors affect the cost of Kona coffee, such as fertilizers, farm use, and maintenance. This can easily round up to $14/lb without including the cost of labor, electricity/gas for roasting the beans, marketing, packaging, transportation, taxes, farm mortgage, and so many other costs.
All these costs affect the prices of the beans such that an average 100% Kona coffee can cost anything from $40/lb-$60/lb.
Perhaps if any other country with lower wages could grow this particular quality of coffee, it might not be as expensive as it is now. Nevertheless, where Kona coffee is concerned, the quality is worth the price.
Tips for Buying Kona Coffee
Food fraud is becoming more rampant as many people are taking advantage of the integrity of Kona Coffee to sell something else to people. The Hawaiin courts are fighting hard to bring down such fraudsters.
It is important to know what is Kona coffee and what is not, so you can purchase the real deal. Only coffee grown on the slopes on the two volcanic mountains, Mauna Loa and Hualalai, in the northern and southern districts of Kailua-Kona can be called “Kona Coffee”. If you notice anywhere other than these districts as the origin of the Kona Coffee, that might definitely be a scam.
The Kona coffee can be sold in blends where at least 10% of Kona coffee is present or in 100% Kona coffee packs, which is more expensive. Some people go for the budget-friendly Kona coffee blends, but the real deal is the 100% Kona coffee.
Some dishonest retailers sell blends as premium Kona coffee, and with confusing and sometimes misleading marketing techniques, they manage to convince people that what they are selling is 100% Kona coffee.
Most popular among these misleading terms are Kona Roasts and Kona Style. Both names are not protected terms therefore they may have 0% of Kona coffee in them.
Kona blend must have at least 10% Kona coffee mixed with some other less expensive coffee. 100% Kona is what its name connotes, 100% pure Kona coffee.
So when you see different Kona coffee names for sale without the real information needed to decipher what you are getting, you might want to check your impulse to buy.
Currently, Hawaiian law requires all blends to state the percentage of Kona coffee on the label. Once 100% Kona coffee is stated on the label, you can rest assured it’s the real deal. Ensure you carefully check the packaging of the coffee to know what exactly you are buying.
As you can see, Kona Coffee is special and has garnered the respect and admiration of coffee lovers all over the world. You can visit Kona coffee plantations to see for yourself the journey a Kona Coffee seed takes from a plant to a delicious steamy cup of coffee.
Why is Kona Coffee So Expensive? (Video)