The first record of coffee in the Sandwich Isles appears in 1813, when a Spaniard named Don Francisco de Paula y Marin noted in his journal that he planted seedlings of coffee on the island of O`ahu. Though not much else is known about the trees that Marin planted, Hawaiian coffee — and Kona coffee in particular — has over the ensuing two centuries become almost as synonymous with the state as dreamy beaches and coconut trees.
The first coffee was planted on Hawai`i Island by Reverend Joseph Goodrich of the Hilo mission in an attempt to make the mission, and its native Hawaiian students, a self-sustaining enterprise.
When Reverend Samuel Ruggles, an American missionary who came to the islands in 1820 with the First Company of American missionaries, was transferred to Kona from Hilo in 1828, he brought coffee plant cuttings with him and began cultivating them near the Kealakekua Church to which he was assigned.
Ruggles’ coffee trees took some time to become established, but eventually they began to thrive and were the most successful of any of the early attempts at growing coffee in Hawai`i.
The industry grew to the point that, at the 1873 World’s Fair in Vienna, an award for excellence was given to a pioneering Kona coffee trader named Henry Nicholas Greenwell. This recognition further escalated the reputation of Hawaiian-grown coffee, and caused a boost in production for many farms.
In 1880, Hawai`i’s first large-scale coffee mill was constructed by John Gaspar Machado near Kealakekua Bay, in the heart of the island’s coffeegrowing region.
But perhaps the most significant advancement in the Kona coffee industry occurred in 1892, when a variety of Arabica coffee was introduced by a sugar grower named Herman Weidemann. Due to its resistance to diseases and ability to flourish in the mountainous terrain, this Arabica strain quickly became the dominant variety grown in Kona. It still is today.
The coffee industry was such an important part of life on the island that in 1932, the Kona public school system began letting students out for “summer” break from August until November, instead of the traditional June to September. The new schedule allowed the children to help with the coffee harvest, and the break came to be known as the Kona Coffee Vacation.
In the 1980s, as sugarcane was being phased out, many of the cane fields were planted with coffee, and by 2000 coffee had become one of the most important crops throughout the state, with Kona Coffee leading the way. Today in the Kona region alone, there are an estimated 700 independent coffee farms, most just three to seven acres in size.