Related to gardenia, coffee (coffee arabica) shows it intrinsic beauty especially when in bloom with sweet and fragrant white flowers, or when its branches bow under the weight of vermilion cherry clusters. Coffee plants first came to the islands in 1813, when the Spaniard Don Francisco de Paula Marin introduced them as ornamentals to the Island of Oahu.
In the 1830s, soon after coffee came to Hawaii Island by way of a curious missionary, people began planting coffee trees with the thought of commercial enterprise. In the Kona district especially, other crops, from sugar to oranges and sisal, delivered poorly, but coffee did well. Investors launched an adventure that would propel Kona into an all-prevailing coffee industry. Two mills dominated the Kona market. The well-being of the coffee farmers, most of them Japanese immigrants, mirrored the mill’s prices at the whim of a ruthless and volatile global trade. Coffee in Kona almost didn’t survive world competition, but eventually found its niche and fame in estate-grown boutique quality.
In sugar plantation areas such as North Kohala, plantation workers planted coffee trees in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but probably only for home use. They tended these trees in small gardens around the camps. The beans could be processed in clean meat grinders, then roasted in skillets over open fires. Over time, the camps and their trees were abandoned. But to this day, alongside long-neglected citrus, macadamia nut or avocado trees, surrounded by pastures once in sugar cane, you may stumble upon Kohala’s coffee, flourishing in the wild. For sure, you’ll find coffee trees on the hill sides of the Kohala Zipline Halawa stream bed.
Now that sugar is no longer a dominant industry in Hawaii, farmers are experimenting with boutique coffee estates around the islands, and with equal success. Today, coffee is a celebrated statewide crop, grown on about 830 independent farms on all major islands. In the 2009/2010 season, Hawaii produced about 7 million pounds of green coffee beans* from 6,300 acres.
A few farmers in Kohala are growing, harvesting, and roasting small batches of artisan coffee commercially as well. Look for Kohala coffee at the Farmers Market or at the local grocery store.
* Green coffee: This is the term used for dried coffee beans, after the parchment and pulpy cherry flesh have been removed, and before the coffee is roasted. Green beans store well, while roasted coffee beans lose their quality quickly.