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Kona Coffee: The Complete Guide to Hawaiian Arabica

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Determining the ideal cup of coffee means that you need to consider not just the brand that you normally drink, but other brands as well. And while you were searching for the best coffee around, you likely stumbled across Kona Coffee.

Kona Coffee from Hawaii – What Makes it So Special?

The first thing to understand about Kona coffee is just what makes it so special. Chances are if you’re a coffee drinker (and even if you aren’t) you’ve at least heard of this type. That’s because it’s known pretty much around the world.

Overall, Kona is a very full-bodied coffee with a beautiful aroma to go along with it. It’s also been around since 1828 and started with Samuel Ruggles bringing arabica coffee to the region. The volcanic soil in Kona, coupled with the arabica plant produced something never seen before.

With the unique environment of rich, volcanic soil coupled with afternoon cloud cover and cool temperatures on the sides of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa Mountains in Hawaii, the coffee trees create this unique blend.

It’s then handpicked, pulped, dried and hulled then graded by size and shape. The best of this best type of coffee is Extra Fancy, but each of the variations are sundried and roasted according to the specific results that are required. Kona can come in any of the most popular roast varietals including dark and medium.

All of this means that Kona coffee is a beautiful option for anyone. If you’re looking to try something new and you want to see what all the fuss is about you’ll want to try it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed and you’ll get to try out a new flavor profile that you won’t find anywhere else.

History of Kona Coffee

The true history of Kona coffee starts with Samuel Ruggles, as we mentioned above. In 1828 he brought coffee plants to the region for the first time successfully. Many years before that, in 1817, Don Francisco de Paula Marin had brought the very first seedlings, however they did not succeed.

Coffee plantations started to become popular from 1828 all the way through the 1850’s, when labor, weather and pests started to become a problem and within 10 years, the crop was all but vanquished. And it stayed that way until 1873 when Henry N. Greenwell brought Kona coffee to the World’s Fair in Vienna.

Still, it took several years for the popularity to grow and it wasn’t until 1892 that Hermann Widemann brought Guatemalan Coffee to the region. It’s now one of the most popular in Hawaii and is known as Kona Typica. It also helped increase demand and production, until 1899.

In 1899 prices dropped and the loss of revenue caused the crop to slowly die out, until the demand for coffee skyrocketed again with World War I in 1917 and 1918. That’s partially because frost hit Brazil, where much of the coffee was typically grown, and Hawaii became the place to get it.

It seemed like things might be going well for coffee but prices bottomed out once again with the start of the Great Depression in 1929. It was only the start of Word War II that brought things back around, coupled with increasing prices once the war ended (and yet another frost in Brazil). All of this started in 1941.

The increase continued through the 1960’s with plenty of labor and even a tourism industry for the coffee in Hawaii. But it was not to last and there was another drop in coffee prices along with increased costs and slow labor markets in the 1970’s.

Finally, the 1980’s came around, almost 100 years after Kona coffee first started, and the crop rebounded with prices rising and even more coffee farmers. This was when Kona truly took off and started generating its own crop of fans.

Now, the coffee may be starting to wane out again, but not like it has throughout history. Rather, the growers are still growing it and there is still a good following for the brand, but it’s not quite as popular as it used to be. This is especially true because of the high cost for Kona compared to other brands of coffee.

Is Kona Coffee Still Worth It?

The short answer is that it depends on who you ask. While Kona coffee still has a pretty good following, it’s no longer considered the best of the best by the top coffee snobs in the world. In fact, it’s considered moderate at best.

Over the last 10 years the varietal has started to become a little less common and the top coffee shops in the world are not likely to have this blend in stock. This is partially because of the high cost associated with pure versions and the increase of mixed blends.

Those who really love the variety are likely to say it is worth it. If you’ve never tried it for yourself it’s hard to say whether you will find it worth the high cost associated with pure varieties. It’s also possible to buy a blend of Kona and other types of coffee, which could give you an idea of the flavor before you invest in a bag of 100% Kona.

Three Other Great (And Cheaper) Big Island Coffees: Ka’u, Puna, and Hamakua Coffee

Most of the coffee grown on the Big Island of Hawaii is Kona, however you will find three other varieties, Ka’u, Puna and Hamkua, which are grown in each of these respective areas. What’s good about these coffees is that they have their own unique flavors and they’re less expensive than Kona.

Of course, only about 5% of the coffee that you’ll find on the entire island of Hawaii is anything other than Kona, which means these are actually even more rare than the Kona variety, but they don’t have quite the same flavor, and that’s what keeps the price down.

Ka’u Coffee

This coffee is relatively new but it has a floral aroma and a very smooth flavor. It’s also managed to get into the top ten at several tasting competitions. Not as many people know about this version, but they definitely should and it’s one that you can try out right on the Big Island.

Puna Coffee

Puna used to be even more prevalent than it is now, because in the 1800’s there were over 6000 acres of it being grown in the region. But then it started to vanish as sugar cane became the crop of choice. Now there is approximately 125 acres of the coffee being grown. It offers a nutty and relatively full and heavy taste that’s similar to a mocca.

Hamakua Coffee

Finally, Hamakua coffee is another region that was populated with sugar cane but has slowly started to gain on coffee again, with small coffee farms with hand picked berries. It also has a very rich flavor to it and a very smooth finish as well.

What Does Kona Coffee Taste Like?

The truth is that Kona coffee is not all the same. You’ll find differences in each batch because they’re made with different grades of beans, they’re roasted in different ways and they’re processed or handled differently.

Specific aspects of soil, watering, fertilizer, elevation and drainage are all going to have an influence on the way the coffee itself will taste. Also, if you’re not getting 100% Kona coffee you’re going to get a different flavor profile than you would with a pure version.

You’ll want to look at what you’re actually getting for the money before you even consider what the flavor profile is going to be. All of this means you’ll get something a little different each time you buy it, but you can count on a few things.

First, Kona coffee is very light and delicate with a lighter finish. It has a good amount of balance and a medium body but still a level of richness. You’ll also find accents that are spicy, winey and even buttery, but beware of poor quality beans that could be bitter or sour.

What Makes Kona Coffee So Expensive?

So, have you actually looked up buying a bag of Kona coffee? If you have then you know the price can be quite high. But just why is it so high? Why do you have to spend so much for a simple bag of coffee? There are actually three distinct reasons for this and we’re going to look at each.

The Kona Coffee Belt Size

First of all, Kona coffee is grown in a region known as the Kona Coffee Belt. And that region is only 30 miles long and a single mile wide. That’s not very large and when you consider that coffee must be grown in this belt to be considered Kona coffee, you can see why there’s not much available.

Because of the size of the region not a lot of coffee can be grown (about 1% of all the coffee in the world is considered 100% Kona coffee). And if there’s not a lot of something the price goes up.

The Location

Next, the location of the Kona Coffee Belt is on the largest active volcano in the world. Not only that but it’s 2500 ft up that volcano and that means everything has to be taken care of by hand rather than with machines. Plus, it all has to be shipped by ocean barges. All of that is expensive as well.

Paying workers to climb up the side of the volcano and pick the beans is expensive. Getting it loaded up and shipped out on those barges is definitely not ideal either, especially with cheaper shipping options available for other coffee plantations.

Labor Costs

Finally, the cost of labor is expensive in this part of the world, especially since there’s a whole lot of work that needs to be done and all of it has to be done by hand.

After all, it’s difficult to get up the side of an active volcano to pick coffee beans. Especially since picking the beans is such a delicate and specific process that needs to be done extremely carefully. Each bean needs to be picked exactly when it’s ready and not too soon or too late.

All of this additional work is most definitely going to take additional time for the workers, and that translates to even more money being spent in the process.

The Kona Coffee Belt

This region is a very small and narrow strip on the side of the Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanos. It’s located at elevations that can be as low as 500 ft and as high as 2500 ft, but this is a very fertile region on the western side of the volcanoes.

It’s only 30 miles in total length and only a single mile in total width but it has some of the best offerings for growing coffee, and especially the Arabica species that Kona starts with.

Growing, Harvesting, and Processing Kona Coffee

The process of growing, harvesting and processing Kona coffee is part of what makes it so special, and it’s also part of what makes it so expensive. So, let’s take a look at what it all means and how it affects the end product.

The growing process starts with the bloom and Kona coffee trees actually bloom twice per year, in January and in May. You’ll get something that’s known to the locals as Kona Snow because the blossoms are small and white, plus them smell sweet.

Once the blooms fade away (which takes several months) you’ll find a green cherry left behind. That cherry will hold the coffee bean and it takes several months (through the summer) to fully ripen. Once it’s ripe it turns a brilliant red, but it has to be picked at just the right time to make sure the bean inside is just right.

Everything is picked by hand and it’s judged by hand as well. Which means that the pickers have to be extremely well trained to make sure they don’t pick the cherries too early. If they do then the beans won’t be the right quality and the coffee won’t turn out with the iconic flavor profile.

Once the cherries are picked, they have to be processed properly. This is done by sun-drying them and then raking them across large decks to dry out even more. Only after this is done can the beans be milled and sorted and then graded. Then finally they’ll be sent for hand roasting.

All of the pieces that go into preparing Kona coffee are done by hand and done right on the plantation. So you know that the coffee beans that you end up with are going to be the best possible flavor and the freshest they could be.

Hawaii Coffee Flavor

This coffee has a very rich flavor that’s quite light and delicate but still has a good body to it and a level of brightness. It’s also clean and balanced with a somewhat complex aroma. You may even find spicy and winey or even buttery notes to the coffee.

Grades of Kona Coffee

There are four different grades that are associated with Kona coffee, which range from Extra Fancy at the highest level down to Prime at the lowest. You’ll get the best possible flavor with Extra Fancy or even Fancy types, while Kona #1 is the level that you’ll generally find in bulk or in restaurants and Prime is the lowest option.

Coffee Plant Varietals

You’ll find that most Kona coffee is considered Typica, which is more properly known as Coffea Arabica var. typica. On the other hand, you may find Blue Mountain Coffee here as well, known as Coffea Arabica var. blue mountain.

Kona Coffee Classification and Grade

The method for classifying Kona coffee has actually been around for quite a while, since the end of the 1980’s. Back then it was created by the Hawaii Agriculture Society. The idea was that they wanted to make sure only true Kona coffee was being marketed and sold as Kona.

Even today the Kona Coffee Farmers Association is responsible for upholding these standards. And what they have is a level of five different grades of coffee and two different types. You’ll get either Type I or Type II and you’ll have grades of Extra Fancy, Fancy, Number 1, Select or Prime.

Type I coffee means that the cherry that the coffee came from had two beans on it. This is the normal way that the coffee will grow, but it produces coffee that’s not quite as good. That’s not to say that it can’t be excellent in flavor, but it’s not as good as Type II coffee.

Type II is also known as ‘peaberry’ and it means that there is only a single bean on the cherry. When this happens you actually end up with a much richer flavor to the bean. That means you’re going to get the absolute best flavor and the best result from Type II coffee beans.

From there, each type of coffee is graded according to the same scale. This scale rates the beans on things like size, moisture content, weight and the number of defects associated with the beans. After all, the fewer defects the better the coffee is going to taste.

If you want to get the best Kona coffee you want to take a look at Extra Fancy grades. If you’re looking for the least expensive version of Kona you’ll want to look at Kona Prime. Keep in mind that this won’t give you the same flavor profile as these beans could be up to 20% defective and they’re smaller.

For those who really want to save money you can opt for a Kona blend rather than a 100% Kona coffee bean. These blends must include at least 10% genuine Kona coffee in order to use the label, but then they can use 90% of any other variety of coffee. If you want to save money this is a way to do it.

Keep in mind that these blends are not going to taste near as good as true Kona coffee (even Prime). They will give you a taste of the really good stuff at a fraction of the cost however. That’s why it’s important to look closely at the label before you buy so you know if you’re getting a blend or a good deal on authentic Kona coffee.

Where to Find Kona Coffee

Are you ready to get some Kona coffee for yourself? If you are then you’ll want to take a closer look at just where it’s sold. And it’s sold in a variety of different places. Of course, one of the best places to get it is directly at a coffee plantation in Hawaii.

These plantations often have tours and offer samples throughout so you can try different roasts. You’re going to get the freshest coffee right there on the plantation and you’ll be able to learn more about the coffee and the plantation itself at the same time. It can turn into a pretty exciting experience.

You’ll also get some great flavors at the Kona Coffee Festival, which happens in November of each year and allows you to really immerse yourself in the flavors of Kona coffee and all of the heritage and culture of the brand. You’ll be able to check out all of the different plantations during this special event as well.

Of course, there are plenty of coffee shops right on the Big Island that also offer 100% Hawaii Kona coffee, so make sure you check out one of those if you’re pressed for time but still want to make sure you get a chance to sample the local delicacy. It’s still quite fresh when you get it here as it’s prepared right on the island.

For those who don’t live in Hawaii or who aren’t going to be visiting it’s still possible to get Kona coffee. Some coffee shops do sell this variety, but you’ll have to ask around to be sure. Also, make sure you ask whether it’s 100% Kona or a blended variety so you can be sure you’re going to have the best.

Finally, there are plenty of online services that you can use to order Kona coffee directly from a Hawaii coffee plantation. That’s where you’re going to get the best flavor (or at least the best you can get by mail). And you can be confident that you’re getting pure and authentic Kona rather than a blend or fake product.

Tips for Buying Kona Coffee

For those who have already decided on buying Kona coffee it’s all about making sure that you do it the right way. After all, you want your coffee to be authentic and you want it to have the iconic flavor that you would expect.

The first thing is to make sure that you buy directly from a reputable coffee plantation on the Big Island. These are the only places that authentic Kona coffee is grown and prepared. If you buy direct from one of the popular plantations you’re going to have exactly what you’re looking for and you can get pure coffee.

Make sure you look at the packaging to know what you’re getting as well. If it’s pure Kona it will say so (you’ll see the label and a notation that it is 100% Kona coffee). If it’s not pure then the package is guaranteed to say that as well, and will tell you the exact amount of Kona coffee that is included in the blend.

Keep in mind that Kona coffee blends are allowed to use the label for Kona coffee as long as they have at least 10% Kona coffee in them. They are required to specify the Kona content however, so you will be able to find the information you need directly on the package.

If you’re interested in saving a little money you can do it by buying a Kona blend rather than a pure Kona. Blends can contain as little as 10% Kona coffee, and the less pure Kona coffee you have in the blend the less you’ll spend more it, which makes it a great option for those who want to save money.

Kona Coffee FAQs

Finally, let’s take a closer look at some of the popular questions that people have about Kona coffee. You want to make sure that you know everything you need to know before you buy your next batch of coffee, and definitely before you spend the amount that Kona is going to cost.

Is Kona Coffee Overrated?

The short answer is that it might be. A lot of the top coffee people aren’t really drinking this variety anymore and you’re not going to find it in the top notch coffee houses. That doesn’t mean you can’t find it or that it doesn’t taste great. It just might not be quite worth the high cost.

If you’re interested in trying out something unique and you like the idea of the flavor profile you’re not going to go wrong with this blend, you just might not get quite everything that you’re looking for or expecting. Talk with some local coffee aficionados to find out whether it’s something you want to try.

What Kind of Roast is Kona Coffee?

There is no one specific roast that you get with Kona coffee. As with other types of beans you can roast it to different levels to get the flavor profile that you want and the coffee plantations do exactly that. You can find light roast, dark roast, full roast and more if you’re looking for it and that’s going to impact the overall flavor.

Light roast Kona coffee will give you a little more natural flavor. You’re going to get more of the land and the atmosphere of the coffee rather than just the darkness and richness that comes from longer roasting. For some, the light roast is the way to go because they want that unique profile.

Dark roast Kona coffee is going to have less of the natural flavors and less moisture and oils from the beans. That means you’ll get more of the roasted flavor rather than those natural ones. It doesn’t mean the coffee isn’t going to taste great, just that it’s going to be different.

The longer you roast Kona blend beans (or any other beans) the less of that natural flavor you will get and the more of the deep, roasting flavors you’re going to get. So, if you like those roasted flavors look for darker roasts or full roast rather than a light roast.

Also, you may want to try out different levels of roasting, especially if you’ve never had Kona coffee before. That’s because you’ll want to see what the different flavor profiles taste like so you can choose the right one for your preference.

Does Kona Coffee Taste Different?

Overall, you’re going to find that Kona coffee tastes different from other types of coffee in the same way any variety of coffee beans will taste different from the others. The flavor profile is influenced by the soil and the atmosphere and so many other features that you won’t get the same flavor from coffee grown in two different regions, no matter where they are.

Kona coffee has a bright and fruity flavor, as well as some syrupy notes to the overall body. It’s medium richness and floral aromas also make it quite popular. Not to mention it has a good balance of richness without becoming too overpowering.

Of course, different Kona coffees are going to taste slightly different as well. Buying from a different coffee plantation on the Big Island will influence the flavor of the coffee that you get. Also, each coffee plantation may have different ways that they roast the beans even within their own plantation.

If you choose a lighter roast or a darker roast your coffee will taste different as well. All of this means you’re going to have a variety of different flavors to try out and they are each going to give you a slightly more unique flavor profile. So why not give them a try and see what you get?

Does Kona Coffee Have More Caffeine?

The short answer is that Kona coffee has the same amount of caffeine as just about any other type of coffee that you might get. Keep in mind that the caffeine count can vary slightly from one coffee bean to the next but overall it’s about 250 milligrams of caffeine for a 12 ounce cup of drip coffee or 125 milligrams for a double shot of espresso.

This is when the coffee is roasted to a light roast and still maintains as much of its caffeine content as possible. If you drink Kona coffee that is light roast then you’ll get about this amount of caffeine, though the exact amount would depend on the specific number of beans that you use.

If you drink a darker roast coffee, however, you’ll actually get a little less caffeine. The darker the roast the lower the caffeine level because the caffeine can actually be burned out of the coffee through the normal roasting process. So, if you’re looking for a good caffeine boost you’ll want to keep your coffee roast as light as possible.

Is Kona Coffee Low Acid?

Now, there are a number of different types of coffee out there (far more than we could ever evaluate in this article) but when it comes to cutting acid you want to make sure you’re getting something that still tastes great.

Your typical coffee usually has an acidity measure of 5, with water coming in at 7 and orange juice coming in around 3. That means it’s not very acidic and especially not compared to some of your favorite juices. You’ll also find that darker roasts of coffee have less acid than light roasts.

In general, Kona coffee can be a low acid variety, but keep in mind that it depends on how they’re roasted. Darker blends are going to give you the lowest acidity, but if you like a light roast you’ll want to look for ways to cut down the acidity otherwise, such as cold brewing your

Does Starbucks Have Kona Coffee?

Those who love Kona coffee will definitely want to know where to get it locally. After all, you can’t just head to Hawaii every time you want authentic Kona coffee. And you may not want to order it all the time or may not know where to order it from.

The good news is that you can absolutely get Kona coffee from Starbucks. You’re generally not going to find it right in the store. That means you can’t have the barista brew up a cup for you to enjoy there. But you can check out the Starbucks website and find the pure Kona coffee that you want.

How Do You Drink Kona Coffee?

Before you’re going to be able to drink your Kona coffee you have to brew it and that starts with the beans. You want to get whole beans that are roasted as close to the time you’re going to be drinking the coffee as possible. Not only that but you want Extra Fancy or Peaberry to get the best flavor.

Grind only the amount of beans that you need for the coffee you’re brewing right then and seal the remaining beans so that they retain their freshness. The specific grind that you want will depend on what you’re doing with the beans once they’re ready.

Overall, you can start with 2 tablespoons of coffee beans for a 6 to 8 ounce cup (brewed with 6 to 8 ounces of water). Once you’ve tried it out the first time you’ll be able to get a better idea of the balance that you prefer and can add a little more or less coffee.

If you’re using a French press, vacuum coffee maker, percolator or a toddy maker you’ll want a coarse grind. Auto drip makers or traditional drip makers require a medium to a fine grind and stove top espresso pots require a fine grind. For an espresso machine get as fine of a grind as you can.

Now that you’ve figured out how much coffee you need and you know the grind you need it’s time to grind your beans. You can use a blade grinder in short bursts to keep your coffee from overheating or you can use a burr grinder to get a more precise grind.

Use filtered water that is brought to just below boiling, around 195◦F to 205◦F. You’ll then add your coffee grounds and your water to your chosen type of coffee maker (or espresso maker) and allow it to brew. Once it’s done, you’re ready to pour yourself a cup.

Summary and Conclusion

Kona coffee is one that’s actually known around the world, but there’s a good reason for that. This high quality coffee will give you a great amount of flavor, from a region that’s actually quite small. And even though you’re going to pay a bit more for it than other brands of coffee, you’re going to see why once you do try it.

Overall, this coffee is made to be high quality, fresh, flavorful and a whole lot more. You just have to decide which specific variety you like best and how you’re going to brew it at home to get the maximum benefits.

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