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The History of Coffee in Hawaii

Hi-coffee-history-1Jan. 13, 1813 Don Francisco de Paula Marin planted the first coffee seedlings in Oahu and noted the date in his journal.

Marin was a distinguished horticulturist and served King Kamehameha I as a personal physician, interpreter and accountant. He also supplied the King with rum.

Sadly, those first seedlings did not survive.


Hi-coffee-history-2In 1825, King Kamehameha II and the beloved Queen Kamalumalu traveled to London with Chief Boki, the Governor General of Oahu.

The Queen contracted measles. Tragically, within mere days, both the King & the Queen had died.

Chief Boki returned to Hawaii alone, bringing the bodies of the King & Queen home aboard the British battleship, H.M.S. Blonde.

En route to the Hawaiian Islands, the ship stopped at Rio de Janeiro and Chief Boki obtained several coffee cuttings to bring back as a tribute to the King.

Upon his return, he gave the cuttings to his agriculturalist, John Wilkinson, to plant on the Chief’s land.

Once again, there were coffee trees growing on Oahu.

That very same year, Sir Richard Charlton (the first British Counsel to the Kingdom of Kamehameha) brought 4 donkeys to Hawaii, arriving aboard another ship. The donkeys were auctioned off, and no one would realize their significance for some time.


Hi-coffee-history-3In 1828, Reverend Samuel Ruggles took a few cuttings from Chief Boki’s garden and brought them to the area now known as Captain Cook, on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Chief Boki’s trees had not yet borne fruit, but the Reverend planted the cuttings in his yard simply for his viewing pleasure.

Many years later, this area – hundreds of feet up the side of the world’s most active volcano – would be part of the Kona Coffee Belt. But then, it was the home of a plant loving priest.

The coffee plants immediately thrived in the optimum weather pattern with sunny mornings and afternoon cloud cover. The Reverend’s trees grew at an incredibly fast rate.


BurrosBeansIn 1845, the first shipments of coffee were sent to California. The Hawaiian Coffee industry was born!

When coffee became a commercial crop, donkeys were the backbone of the industry.

A mature donkey could carry 125 pounds at the speed of a human’s walk.

Loaded with 2 (50lb) bags of coffee, the donkeys would pick their way down the lava rocks. On the trip back, they would carry household goods and provisions for the farmers living halfway up the world’s biggest active volcano.

The burros were easy to care for. Food was available wherever there was greenery and their manure fertilized the fields. An added bonus was that burros don’t eat Kona Coffee plants.

Burros became part of the farm family, raised and trained with love and care by coffee farmers and their families. Most farmers didn’t ride their burros. Instead, man and burro walked side by side, up and down the rocky slopes of the volcano.

Without burros, coffee would have been limited to the lower altitudes. It is only because Hawaii had donkeys that the Kona Coffee industry was able to grow and flourish.


In addition to coffee, Hawaii had also been producing and exporting sugar since 1835. But, the U.S. Tariff on sugar was a major obstacle to expanding sugar production. The high tariff, ranging from 20% up to 42%, hampered the profitability of producing sugar on the Islands.

In 1900 the tariff for sugar cane shipped from Hawaii to the United States was removed. Sugar cane was not nearly as labor intensive as growing and hand-picking coffee. Suddenly, coffee trees were being chopped down. Many coffee farms were completely plowed under to plant and harvest sugar cane.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression reduced coffee market prices even more. The few remaining coffee farmers were struggling. No one was sure the Hawaiian Coffee industry would even survive.


AlohaGirl-300x370Over the next 20 years, WWII and frost in South America caused Hawaiian coffee prices to slowly rise again.

The growth in prices was just enough for small farms to become established in what became known as the “Kona Coffee Belt” on the western slopes of Mauna Loa — the world’s largest volcano.

In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state. The explosion of tourism meant some ideal coffee land would be used to build resorts for the travelers who came to see the Aloha Islands.

But tourism also brought exposure to Hawaiian Coffee by way of many tourists that loved the taste of Aloha in their cup, and wanted to bring Kona Coffee home with them.

Since the 1980s sugar plantations have been closing all over Hawaii. There is less and less consumer demand for sugar. Most of those regions are being converted, once again, to coffee plantations.

Buy2-Get3 Kona CoffeeCoffee is not exclusive to Kona – it grows on all the other major islands – Maui, Molokai, Oahu and Kauai.

  • Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, second only to oil.
  • Hawaiian coffees, as a whole, makes up about 3% of the world market.
  • Kona Coffee is one of the rarest. Only 1% of the coffee in the world is Kona Coffee.

At Hawaii Coffee Company, we are proud of our heritage. LION Coffee is the longest surviving coffee brands in the United States, dating back to 1864.

Our commitment to the perfect cup of coffee is evident.

Mahalo and Enjoy!

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