In the late 1800s, many Japanese immigrants helped pioneer a flailing Kona coffee industry. Unable to overcome Kona’s rocky slopes with mechanical harvesters, sugar plantation owners abandon their efforts and out-of-work plantation workers leased their land.
Since motorized farm equipment was out of the question, the entrepreneurial farmers hand-picked coffee cherries. With an independent spirit, the newcomers enlisted the help of their wives and children and overcame the back breaking work with determination and courage. Soon, hundreds of small family farms dotted the hillsides and made the Kona coffee industry what it is today.
The region of Kona stretches along the West coast of Hawaii’s Big Island for about 60 miles. Coffee is grown exclusively on the North and South ends and reaches about two miles mauka, or towards the mountains. This very small region contains about 700 small family farms that average three acres in size and is one reason why Kona coffee is considered rare.
Today, many coffee farmers have said goodbye to their grown children who seek fulfillment in other careers and bigger cities. With a smaller family unit, most Kona coffee farmers hire skilled pickers to harvest their coffee.
Picking a coffee cherry before it becomes fully ripe results in less than optimal sugar levels while the sugar levels of over ripe cherries have started to decline. “Coffee is going to taste best if it’s picked when it’s ripe,” says Ric Rhinehart of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. “Good pickers have to be selective and pick coffee that’s just at the right stage of ripeness.”
Growing in the wild, coffee thrives under the shady canopy of large trees. Shade creates many ecological benefits including moisture retention and stunts weed growth. Soil erosion is minimized as is the loss of vital nutrients and the number of pollinators are increased. Birds make their home in the trees as well as bats, bees and other beneficial organisms. Shade-grown coffee is so vital to bird habitat that the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center created a “Bird Friendly Coffee” seal of approval.
Conventional farming destroys natural habitats by eliminating landscapes and symbiotic wildlife relationships. Because sun-grown coffee is striving against its natural intelligence, it depends on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides to insure survival.
Because shade-grown coffee takes longer to mature, the flavors have time to intensify. Developing slowly, these concentrated cherries compose a complex and aromatic cup compared to its large-scale sun-grown contemporaries.
Kona happens to have some of the best growing conditions in the world. Situated on the sunny West side, high elevation, a shady tropical rainforest and Kona’s rich volcanic soil combine to create ideal growing conditions.
Heavy rainfall and two active volcanoes make Kona’s growing conditions exceptional. Regular volcanic activity creates a naturally occurring phenomenon known as vog. This cool blanket of volcanic smog creates a natural greenhouse and shelters the coffee further.
The time consuming nature of hand picking coffee cherries, Kona’s craggy mountainsides and a long harvest season make Kona coffee one of the most labor intensive agricultural industries in the world.
Kona coffee farmers continue to invest in these time consuming and labor intensive techniques insuring the smooth, clean and sweet flavor profile Kona coffee is famous for, thus ranking it top among the world’s specialty coffee market.