What is Kona Coffee?

What is Kona Coffee?

"Aloha! Where can I find your Kona Coffee?" This is one of the most frequently asked questions at the Kauai Coffee Visitor Center, and we love to answer it! When most coffee drinkers think of 100% Hawaiian coffee, they think of Kona coffee first. However, Kona is not a variety of coffee but rather a growing region on the western coast of the Big Island. Much like tequila and champagne come from specific geographical areas, Kona coffee only comes from the Kona coast of Hawaii. This means you won't find Kona coffee from Kauai or any other Hawaiian Island because only coffee grown within the geographic bounds of the Kona district can be called by that name.

When it comes to Hawaiian coffee, Kona is only part of the story. If you enjoy drinking Kona coffee, you will love tasting and exploring the delicious, single-origin coffee we grow at the Kauai Coffee Estate. You'll also love the story of how coffee came to Hawaii, where it grows today, and how it became one of the most valuable commodities grown in the state. Read on to learn more about coffee’s fascinating journey to Kauai, Kona, and beyond. 

treasure chest with coffee beans spilling out

Kings, Pirates, and Plants –
How Coffee Came to Hawaii

Coffee’s journey to Hawaii is full of twists, turns, and a cast of characters worthy of a Hollywood screenplay. Don Francisco de Paula Marin, a Spanish sailor and Renaissance man, arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1790s and became an interpreter and confidant to King Kamehameha I. Marin is said to have been a natural charmer and talented horticulturalist who maintained relationships with prominent pirates of the day which allowed him to procure seeds and cuttings of various agricultural crops. Coffee, pineapple, mango, cotton, and oranges are just a few of the crops associated with Marin, and he is rumored to have planted the first coffee seeds in Honolulu in 1817. Unfortunately, the coffee plantings didn’t take and King Kamehameha I died in 1819.

King KamehamehaAfter King Kamehameha’s death in 1819, his son Liholiho ascended to the Hawaiian throne becoming King Kamehameha II. In November 1823 King Kamehameha II set sail from the shores of Oahu on a diplomatic mission to England with the intent of asking King George IV to form an alliance with the Hawaiian Kingdom for protection against Russian influence in Hawaii. Sadly, the mission took a tragic turn when King Kamehameha II and his wife, Kamamalu, contracted measles and died in London. With the death of the Royal Hawaiian couple, Chief Boki, Royal Governor of Oahu and part of the delegation that sailed to England, assumed the lead to finish the mission and paved the way for coffee’s introduction and eventual commercialization in Hawaii.

Boki was introduced to coffee and coffeehouses while in London and saw the potential for coffee to be cultivated as a Hawaiian crop. Boki teamed up with British horticulturalist John Wilkinson and together they sailed on the HMS Blonde back to Hawaii making a stop in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to buy coffee seedlings. Boki and Wilkinson returned to Hawaii in 1825 and planted the first coffee orchard in the Manoa Valley on Oahu that same year.

Enterprising Agriculture – Coffee Spreads Across the Islands

It wasn’t long after Boki and Wilkinson established the first orchard in Manoa that coffee began to spread across the Hawaiian Islands. In 1828 Reverend Samuel Ruggles, a Christian missionary took cuttings and planted them in South Kona introducing coffee to the famous Hawaii growing region we know today. However, commercial coffee production was slow to start in Kona. Can you guess which Hawaiian island established the first commercial coffee growing operations?

aerial view of kauai coffee farm

Kauai – The Original Hawaiian Coffee Island

Surprise! Kona may be the most famous growing region in Hawaii, but enterprising individuals on the island of Kauai established the first commercial coffee growing operation in 1836. Sherman Peck and Charles Titcomb leased 400 acres in Koloa and planted coffee along with cotton and mulberry for silk production. Unfortunately, the silk production failed and Peck and Titcomb closed their operation within a few years. However, in 1842 the Hawaiian government allowed residents to pay land taxes with coffee (or pigs!) so small coffee farms started to gain traction and pop up on Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii Island. Once again Kauai was the island of choice for daring coffee entrepreneurs Godfrey Rhodes and John Bernard who created Hawaii’s first large-scale operation planting 1,000 acres of coffee in Hanalei on Kauai’s north shore and exported 245 pounds of Hawaii’s first commercially grown coffee in 1845!

a scenic shot of the Hanalei valley on the island of kauai. The sun is setting and illuminating the taro fields.

Kauai Coffee Company began in the 1800s as the McBryde Sugar Company and fully transitioned into coffee production in 1987. Today, Kauai Coffee Company is the largest single estate farm in Hawaii and has more than four million coffee trees planted on 3,100 acres. Kauai Coffee is the only large-scale, vertically integrated coffee company on Kauai. We grow, harvest, process, roast and package coffee at our Kalaheo Estate which means your coffee is fresh, Hawaiian-grown coffee and receives great care every step of the way from seed to your cup.

Kona Coffee Takes Root

Kona may be the most famous and longest continuously producing coffee-growing region in Hawaii, but it wasn’t until 1892 that coffee really began to take root there. Hermann Weidemann, a sugar farmer on the Big Island of Hawaii, introduced a Typica variety from Guatemala to the now famous Kona region and found it produced better than the Brazilian variety brought to the island by Reverend Ruggles. This variety is still grown in Kona today and was renamed Kona Typica in 1990. Only coffee that is grown in the Kona region can be called “Kona Coffee”, but the Typica variety is grown throughout the Hawaiian Islands and at Kauai Coffee Company. Try the Kauai Coffee Estate Reserve Typica for a brew that is complex in flavor with hints of chocolate, spice, and a ripe berry finish. Other popular coffee varieties grown throughout the Hawaiian Islands and on the Kauai Coffee Estate include Catuai, Mundo Novo, and Blue Mountain.

hawaiian coffee cherry on a tree on the Kauai Coffee estate

Hawaii is for Coffee Lovers

Today coffee grown at the approximately 900 coffee farms in Hawaii accounts for just .05% of the global coffee market with an annual production value of nearly $50 million. Hawaiian Coffee is relatively scarce outside of the islands which is one of the reasons it is adored by specialty coffee lovers around the world. That plus the abundant sun, volcanic soil and unique growing regions around the only US State that produces coffee make Hawaii a true paradise for coffee lovers.

Visitors to the kauai coffee estate raise their seedling containers in a cheers after planting coffee trees on the farm tour

Taste Paradise at Kauai Coffee

If you are planning a visit to Kauai, stop by the Kauai Coffee Visitor Center for a self-guided tour and sample our Blue Mountain, Typica, or any of our 100% Kauai Coffee – You just might find a new, outstanding island favorite. You can also find all of your favorite Kauai Coffee on our website.


For more information about Kauai Coffee, the history of coffee in Hawaii, and growing regions located here, check out these publications and organizations:

Kauai Coffee History
The Hawaii Coffee Book: A Gourmet Guide from Kona to Kauai (Steiman, 2008)
A Cup of Aloha: The Kona Coffee Epic (Kinro, 2003)
Hawaii Coffee Association
Hawaii Coffee Industry

TAGGED WITH: coffee, hawaii, hawaiian coffee, kauai, kauai coffee, kona, kona coffee