The History of Coffee in Hawaii


coffee in hawaii

In 1813, a Spanish advisor to King Kamehameha I named Don Francisco de Paula Marín, planted some coffee seedlings in his private garden on Oahu.

Although his small plants didn’t cultivate well, the dream of a Hawaiian coffee was fulfilled when another foreigner, Rev. Samuel Ruggles, successfully planted and grew coffee in the now famous Kona Coffee Belt on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The first recognition of Kona Coffee came when a trader named Henry Nicholas Greenwell entered his product, coffee grown in Hawaii, to the 1873 world’s fair in Vienna. The beverage received an award for excellence, giving recognition to the unique quality of the coffee grown on the slopes of a Pacific volcano and coining the name, “Kona Coffee” for the first time.

From then until 1898, coffee became one of the biggest exports of the tiny island nation. When the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898, the dropping of tariffs resulted in higher profits for other, less labor intensive crops – namely sugar cane. Thousands of coffee trees were ripped up to make room for sugar and pineapple fields on the islands.

Commercial sugar cane and pineapple quickly pushed coffee aside as the crop Hawaii was known for and prices dropped drastically causing many farmers to give up. The Great Depression in the 1920s added to the already stressed coffee market of Hawaii, almost leading to the demise of the entire business. Coffee became more of a local product grown and shared amongst people of the islands and rarely seen beyond.

It took a major war (WW II) and an act of nature (repeated frosts in South America destroying coffee crops) to bring coffee prices up – making it feasible for coffee growers in Hawaii to market their beans at a profit. Although marginal, it was enough for small farms to become established in what soon became known as the “Kona Coffee Belt” on the western slopes of Mauna Loa (which happens to be the world’s largest volcano).

The mild temperatures, rich, volcanic soil and almost daily cloud cover provided the perfect conditions for growing the bright-red coffee cherries to perfection, raising crop yield which peaked in 1957 at 18 million pounds.

LION brand Kona CoffeeWith the decline of sugar and pineapple as agricultural products, the rise and focus of tourism as an industry, and a steady crop yield of coffee beans coming from the state, the 1990′s saw a slow resurgence of coffee as a viable export once again.

Coffee is not exclusive to Kona – Ka’u, Puna and Hamakua on the Big Island boast flavorful crops. Coffee is also present on all of the other major islands – Maui, Molokai, Oahu and Kauai – with developing farms taking over the land that once produced sugar and pineapple.

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, of which Kona Coffee is the rarest – consisting of about 1% of all coffees.

Hawaiian coffees as a whole consists of about 3% of the world market.

We at Hawaii Coffee Company are proud of our heritage. LION Coffee is the longest surviving brand of coffee in the United States.

Our commitment to the perfect cup of coffee is evident.