red and green coffee cherries on a kauai coffee tree

How Do Coffee Beans Grow?

The 2023 harvest has begun! With the coffee trees full of ripe cherries, now is a great time to go behind-the-scenes and get a look at how coffee beans grow in Hawaii. Find out how our island-grown beans go from seed to cup, and shop our entire collection of 100% Hawaiian Coffee online to taste paradise now. 

Kauai's Coffee Growing Conditions

Hawaii is one of the only states in the USA with climate conditions suitable for coffee beans. Ten of the world's 14 climate zones exist across the eight main islands of the Hawaiian chain, which makes each growing region in Hawaii unique. 

Much like the famed Kona region on the Big Island, coffee grown on Kauai is distinct and delicious for many reasons. With volcanic soils enriched by centuries of rainfall, our coffee trees flourish in the island's consistent temperature, abundant rain, and sunshine.

red soil on the kauai coffee farm

Kauai is also the oldest and fourth largest of the main Hawaiian Islands. Formed by the passing of the Pacific Plate over the Hawaiian hotspot more than five million years ago, Kauai Coffee is grown in fertile volcanic soil. Little is known about why volcanic soil affects the flavor and characteristics of agricultural products. However, as grapes grown in volcanic soil produce distinct wine, so does coffee. 

One reason may be the porous nature of volcanic soil, which allows water to wash over coffee roots relatively easily and quickly. Another could be the iron oxide in the soil, which gives Kauai dirt its brilliant red hue and is an essential soil nutrient known to increase plant growth and yield.

The Coffee Lifecycle

Coffee grows on a leafy, woody shrub that produces brightly colored coffee cherries. The coffee beans we grind and brew for a morning cup are the roasted seeds of those cherries. When well-cared for, coffee trees can produce fruit for 30-40 years and, in some cases, even longer.

kauai coffee tree seedlings

Kauai Coffee trees are germinated and raised in our nursery for a year before we carefully plant them in the orchard. The seedlings are planted in nutrient-rich soil with weed cloth and shade trees to protect them. Over the next few years, the young plants evolve into coffee trees that explode with fragrant white blossoms annually and hold the promise of coffee cherries to come. As cherries ripen, they transform from green to vibrant red or yellow, signaling harvest time.

Growing Sustainable Coffee Beans

Sustainable farming is at the heart of everything we do. We understand our role as stewards of our land and farm in a way that minimizes our impact on the environment. Our 100% Kauai Coffee is triple certified by leading sustainability advocates including Fair Trade USA and the Rainforest Alliance. “Our sustainability programs are reaching maturity now which is very exciting,” says Kauai Coffee General Manager Fred Cowell. “Both Fair Trade USA and the Rainforest Alliance organizations require annual audits of our entire process which we are looking forward to hosting during the harvest season,” he continued.

In addition to participating in sustainability programs, Kauai Coffee maintains soil health by adding nutrients from composted cherry pulp and mulch back into the soil every year. We also maintain cover crops as much as possible to retain moisture and reduce watering, weeds, and herbicide use on the farm. To conserve water during the harvest, we divert water from the drip irrigation system to the processing plant, where it is used to clean and remove the coffee bean from the cherry. Because we only use our water in processing, it can be filtered and reapplied to the coffee fields. 

Harvesting Coffee

The Kauai Coffee harvest season is relatively short and lasts just a few months between September and December. Because of the short harvest window, our operations run 24 hours per day with several shifts to cover the around-the-clock work. One interesting thing about coffee cherries is that they can ripen at different times, even on a single branch. During the early days of the harvest, the team may make a preliminary pass and collect coffee cherries from the top of the trees and then a second pass later in the season to give the remaining cherries lower on the tree a little more time to ripen perfectly.

kauai coffee harvesters in the field

When people picture coffee harvesting, the image of handpicking ripe red cherries often comes to mind. While that is one method, the tools and technology we have at Kauai Coffee allow us to harvest more quickly and accurately than ever. We use mechanical harvesters to collect the mature coffee cherries from the branches of our trees. These machines may look like beasts but are more like gentle giants. Rotating arms on the harvesters gently knock ripe cherries from the trees and into the collection bins.

Coffee Yield

Our orchard has approximately four million coffee trees, and each one can produce one pound of coffee beans every year. That may sound like a lot of coffee, but did you know that the average American coffee drinker consumes just over three cups of coffee every day?

Kauai coffee self guided walking tour signage about coffee yield

Using the Specialty Coffee Association of America's Golden Ratio of coffee preparation, you need about 10 grams of ground coffee for each cup of water. So, if there are 450 grams to a pound, a single coffee tree can produce about 45 cups yearly. Therefore, the average American coffee drinker will consume the annual harvest of nearly 25 trees in a single year! 

The Cost of Growing Coffee Beans

Growing coffee in Hawaii is not without its challenges. In fact, the cost of growing coffee in the state has increased dramatically over the last 10 years. However, the scale of Kauai Coffee operations, staff training, mechanized harvesting and use of technology allows us to handle challenges effectively.

“The increased costs of doing business and labor shortages mean we have to be creative, says Fred. “We’re putting extra effort into our staff training so we can be more efficient in everything we do. We’re also excited about our mill preparations and a new mill manager who has come to us with fresh eyes and a deep knowledge of systems and processing who is helping us streamline and improve,” he continued. 

drone flying over the kauai coffee orchard

Innovating and Adapting for Better Beans

From invasive pests and disease to unprecedented weather events Hawaiian coffee cultivation can be unpredictable. Our team tenaciously tackles obstacles as they arise, and also sees them as partners in innovation. From adjusting irrigation strategies to introducing disease-resistant varietals to our crop and planting shade trees to protect our coffee from wind and heat, our farm and processes evolve as challenges arise.

Recently, a new acreage was planted on the farm with the future in mind. The new field contains the Kauai Blue Mountain varietal and is designed to be a test bed for best practices and planning. Fred says, “Innovation centers around allowing the people who are closest to the problem to come up with solutions with the freedom to fail. In this new acreage we’ll be able to do just that and enact the scientific method – observe, experiment, and analyze what we learn to prepare for the future.”  

farm tour guides

To See How Coffee Beans Grow, Visit Kauai Coffee

We welcome the coffee curious to explore our estate and learn more about the coffee lifecycle firsthand. Join us for free samples and walking tours at the Visitor Center on weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and on weekends from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. In addition to samples and shopping, visitors are encouraged to get an up close and personal experience with our guided Farm Tour and roasting demonstrations. 


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