$60 for a pound of ground coffee may seem like a bit much to the average consumer.
But it is with good reason that many coffee lovers regard Kona coffee as some of the best in the world.
What is it about this tiny region on a remote island that makes for such remarkable coffee production?
The History of Kona Coffee
Kona coffee refers to coffee that derives from the Kona district on the big island of Hawaii. Like champagne, one can only apply the handle “Kona” to beans cultivated in this region. Given this unique environment, Kona coffee is a truly exceptional product.
The coffee tree is not indigenous to Hawaii. It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that coffee arrived on the islands. Much of the current coffee production comes from plants imported from Latin America nearly a century ago.
Initially, coffee didn’t prove to be a worthwhile crop in an area where agricultural efforts focused on sugar and pineapples. It was only recently that Hawaiian coffee stepped into the spotlight and earned its status as a specialty product.
Who Grows Kona Coffee?
Aside from a smattering of cultivators across the country, Hawaii is the only U.S. state that produces notable coffee.
Kona coffee, as mentioned, is grown only in the Kona region on Hawaii’s big island. Known as the Kona coffee belt, the area rests on the west side of the island along the Hualalai and Mauna Loa Volcanoes slopes.
Real Kona coffee is small-batch, almost by definition.
With only a few hundred farmers in the region, most farms fall between one and five acres in size.
Often these farms are family-owned and utilize traditional cultivation techniques not seen in large-scale production. Kona coffee farmers are famously proud, passionate, and invested in the quality of their products.
Why is Kona Coffee So Special?
Coffea Arabica is the species from which most Kona coffee hails.
Many of the run-of-the-mill, unremarkable cups of coffee consumed every day are of the same species grown in the Kona region. Yet there is nothing run of the mill about Kona coffee.
So what makes Kona coffee so remarkable?
Well, the type of bean does influence the quality of the coffee that comes out of Kona.
Coffea Arabica makes up more than half of the coffee on the market. The species is, however, divided into several subspecies. One of the oldest, most celebrated, and widely used in Kona is Typica.
Coffea Arabica v. Typica is notoriously high-maintenance and especially vulnerable to disease and pests.
Moreover, the yield is generally low. Considering these disadvantages, one could imagine that the trade-off here is a resulting cup of coffee that is truly exceptional. The consensus is that the trade-off is worth it.
Kona offers the ideal conditions for coffee to thrive. Coffee is finicky and grows best in tropical climates.
With year-round warmth and consistent cycles of sunny mornings followed by rainy afternoons, Kona is highly accommodating for the exotic coffee tree.
Elevation also plays a vital role in the ultimate quality of Kona coffee.
Perched between 1000 and 3000 feet above sea level, Kona offers a sweet spot for coffee growth in the area.
Kona sits on the part of the island that provides certain protections from elements that may compromise crops.
On the western slopes of two volcanoes, Kona is neither too sunny nor too cloudy and rainy. The heat is rarely excessive, and frost is highly unlikely.
One unique quality of the Kona region is its soil.
Full of minerals, nutrients, and good drainage, the volcanic soil fosters a crop unlike any other in the business.
A Labor of love
The farmers of Kona are intimately involved with the entire process, from cultivation to finished product. These family-owned farms rely on traditional methods of production and have done so for generations.
The imposition of the landscape, with the steep slopes and modestly sized plots, makes it almost impractical to introduce some of the mechanical methods used by large commercial operations.
It’s hard to imagine someone entrenched in such labor-intensive work being motivated by anything other than profound passion.
Coffee Farming in Kona
One advantage of the hands-on growing methods utilized by Kona coffee farmers is the opportunity for the individual inspection of each cherry before harvest. The term “Cherry” refers to the fruit of the tree that contains the coffee beans.
Even on the same tree, cherries may mature at different rates. Mechanical harvesting doesn’t allow for any discrimination between immature and ripe cherries.
The farmer picking each cherry by hand can choose which cherries are ready for harvest and which are not. Good Kona coffee will consist only of beans plucked at the moment of optimal ripeness.
Another unique quality of Kona Coffee is that, in many cases, the beans are cured, dried, and roasted before ever leaving the farm. Typically growers will sell coffee cherries, freshly plucked, to a processor elsewhere.
In recent years some farmers have taken it upon themselves to advance the process in-house.
A farmer may decide to pulp the cherries – separate the bean from the flesh – before selling them off. The beans may be fermented, washed, sun-dried, and sometimes custom roasted by the farmers themselves.
How Does Kona Coffee Taste?
Kona coffee wouldn’t command such esteem if not for its deliciously distinct flavor.
The flavor of Kona Coffee, indeed all coffee, is influenced by several natural conditions and artificial processes. Experts agree that Kona provides an ideal combination of coffee-friendly conditions.
Descriptions and reviews of Kona coffees often include words like delicate, sweet, fruity, floral, nutty, spicy, aromatic, and medium-bodied.
Depending on the roast, coffee from Kona can express a broad range of flavors and aromas.
Light roasts have a clean, sweet, and gentle taste. Usually, they’re fruit-forward with subtle acidity. Further the roasting, from medium to dark, one will notice more decadent, bolder brown sugar and chocolate flavors.
Pairing suggestions often include breakfast foods and desserts.
Of course, it would be a disservice to generalize Kona’s coffees to such a narrow set of profiles. Hundreds of unique and novel brews flow through this thin slice of the Hawaiian coast.
Buying Kona Coffee
When buying Kona coffee, the first question likely to arise is, “Why the heck is it so expensive?”
The $60 bag of coffee mentioned earlier is on the higher end of the cost spectrum. The average cost is closer to $40 per pound. Still, that $40 could buy way more than a pound of Folgers.
Above all, there are the costs of labor. A few farmers ushering each bean to perfection is labor-intensive and therefore expensive. Considering Real estate, cost of farming, cost of business, taxes, and wages, to name a few of the expenses, it’s not surprising that this coffee comes at a premium cost.
Scarcity also helps explain the cost of Kona coffee. It is a specialty product. It comes from a small region on a remote island using processes that in no way resemble mass production.
Kona coffee trade makes up a tiny fraction of the industry and is not quite widely available. As with many products across all sectors, rare equals pricy.
Not to mention, it’s pretty tasty. After all, something is only as expensive as what somebody is willing to pay for it. If not for a fantastic cup of coffee, no one would want to fork over what it takes to justify the cost of production. And then there would be no Kona coffee.
While costliness is a justifiable reason to reserve Kona coffee as an occasional indulgence, it is worth doing the math. Consider a 1lb bag priced at $40.
One bag can generate about 32 six-ounce cups of coffee. That comes out at about $1.25 per cup. Still a bit pricier than Starbucks but more reasonable than it seems on the first impression.
To understand what all the fuss is about, one must look for coffee labeled 100% Kona.
Often enough, farmers will sell their coffee in blends. A blend bearing the label “Kona” can contain as little as 10% Kona coffee.
While these blends are far more budget-friendly, it’s worth the splurge to get the real deal.
90% non-Kona coffee will render the specialness of the genuine Kona unnoticeable. Putting “Kona” on the label allows for a price hike. But anything shy of 100% and the purpose is defeated.
To answer the question, “What is Kona coffee mania all about?” simply try some. One doesn’t need to be an expert to recognize the specialness of an artfully crafted brew from Kona, Hawaii.
For most people, drinking coffee is simply a method of caffeine delivery.
But taking the time to savor and reflect upon a quality cup of Kona coffee is a worthwhile indulgence and an absolute pleasure.
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