UPDATE 6/5/14 - We have received a digital copy of the booklet! If you'd like your own copy of this fascinating publication, complete with plenty of full color pictures, click here! The History of Coffee Cultivation in Hawaii 1813-2013 (0.98MB PDF)
The following are excerpts from a very small yet important pamphlet titled The History of Coffee Cultivation in Hawaii 1813-2013, written by Nicholas N. I. Goodness and Todd Scantlebury, and published by the Maui Coffee Association. The pamphlet in its entirety is not online as far as we know, but we’ve received permission to post our favorite parts. There have been some minor changes to the body of the text for punctuation, grammar and readability reasons.
Hawaii is the only state in the union that grows commercial coffee, and it took enterprising immigrants to recognize that the lush vertical landscape of the tropical isles was perfect for growing Coffea’s (the genus classifying coffee trees) red cherry. From Africa to Arabia; through Indonesia, India and Italy, and finally on to the Americas and Hawaii, the coffee bean traveled for hundreds of years to find its home in Hawaii.
It’s not surprising that coffee was able to become established here with relative ease, and in a variety of ecological niches. There exist a handful of relatives which are native and/or endemic to Hawaii. These, like coffee, are plants in the family Rubiaceace, primarily of the genus Coprosma sp. The Hawaiians had names for some of these, such as “Pilo” or “Kukaenene.” When the small yellow to reddish fruit of the Pilo is cut open, one finds a small hard center drupe which looks exactly like a coffee bean. The coffees of Hawaii; Maui, the Big Island, Molokai, Oahu, and Kauai, reflect the differences and diverse environments that give each of them unique flavors. It has been a long process getting the industry to the point it is today. Undoubtedly, as new localities and cultivars merge into the stream of coffee production, they will reflect the richness of nuance which is the essence of the Hawaiian coffee experience.
What follows is a short history of what has gone into establishing the present day industry.
Though there is ongoing discussion as to the precise date when coffee was first planted in Hawaii, the first mention of the introduction of coffee plants to Hawaii is that of the Spanish physician and advisor to King Kamehameha – Don Francisco de Paula y Marin – with the first plantings in 1813. An avid gardener, Don Marin is also credited with planting Hawaii’s first pineapples.
Tradition speaks of him setting out plants in Manoa, one of the huge amphitheater valleys back of Honolulu. Apparently, by the 1820s, none of these plants had survived, prompting Boki, then Governor of Oahu, to encourage a coffee planter from Jamaica, whom the Governor had met during a trip to England, to import more plants into Hawaii, and to start a platation on Oahu to produce sugar, coffee, and a distillery for the manufacture of rum.
In May 1825, the HMS Blonde arrived in Honolulu with the bodies of the late king and queen of Hawaii. Aboard were [sic] the botanist James Macrae and the naturalist Andrew Bloxam, and perhaps the largest collection of plants to be introduced into Hawaii up to that time. The coffee plants were delivered to gardener John Wilkinson, who planted them in the Manoa Valley on Oahu. A short time later, Wilkinson died and the coffee plantings, which were nearing harvest, suffered neglect. However, production of sugar and rum in Manoa Valley continued.
At about the same time, Richard Charlton, the British Consul at Honolulu, imported coffee plants from Manila. They, too, were planted in upper Manoa Valley, [but the] exact date is uncertain. Later, slips from these original plantings were set out in Kalihi as well as in Niu Valleys, on the leeward coast of the island of Oahu. Subsequently, in the years 1828 through 1829, coffee was started at Kona, Kamakua, and Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii by missionaries traveling to those areas from Honolulu. Thus, the “seeds” of the internationally renowned Kona coffee industry were sown from the island of Oahu.
William Hooper reported “planting and fencing” 5000 coffee trees at Koloa, on the island of Kauai, in 1835. By 1845, coffee and sugar were export staples of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Soon, coffee was needed to fuel the California and Oregon Gold Rush, and Hawaii’s coffee future was indeed looking bright. However, arriving at that future was to prove a difficult journey.
At Hanalei, there were two large plantations with “extensive” plantings which were begun in 1854, license by Kamehameha IV. All of these fields produced good yields for a short time, but they were all planted at elevations which may have stressed the cultivar, and in the mid-1850s, all of the lower elevation Hawaiian plantings were devastated by a scale insect [referred to as] “Blight,” and by 1857, all of the former coffee plantings on Kauai had been converted to sugar production. Despite the setbacks, early growers learned that coffee planted at the 1000-foot elevation and higher tended to grow and resist disease better. In Kona, the elevation, soil and climate was found to produce some of the [best] beans in the world. The coffee was said to have “an invigorating chocolate flavor” equal to celebrated “mocha” coffee, named after its delivery port of Mocha (Mokha) in Yemen. A boom in coffee prices in the 1890s brought many growers, speculation, more acreage and farming refinements. Herman Widemann, a German immigrant who first settled in Kauai, brought Guatemalan beans to the islands that increased production, along with nurseries for the new stock.
In 1902, Charles and Luika Gay purchased most of the fee-simple land on Lanai and put their energies in cattle ranching and limited agriculture; with a focus on watermelon and pineapple crops and beehives for honey, they also experimented with coffee cultivation. By World War I, coffee plantings were either converted to sugar, pineapple or abandoned, with […] the Big Island [as the exception]. On the island of Hawaii, the largest plantations eventually succumbed to the realities of economics, and were parceled off as smaller plots.
Hawaii Coffee Today
Kona and the other regions of the Big Island have produced coffee continuously since the early 1800s and support nearly 600 independent farms. Farms average 3 acres and only a few have 50 or more acres, including some producing coffee organically. Total Big Island coffee acreage is more than 2,000 acres, producing more than 2 million pounds in most years.
Maui has more than 50 coffee farms and 500 acres in production, with more being added every year. There are large-scale commercial farms and many smaller coffee estates spanning from Kaanapali to the slopes of Haleakala and Hana. Several are producing coffee organically.
Molokai has one 500-acre coffee farm in the village of Kalapu’u.
Oahu has more than 100 acres of coffee in Wahiawa and Waialua.
Kaua’i has the largest coffee orchard in Hawaii and in the United States, with 3,100 acres in production. There are also several small estate farms on the Garden Isle.
In 1995, growers from throughout Hawaii’s coffee islands banded together to form the Hawaii Coffee Association, dedicated to education, research, and high production standards. Today, Hawaiian coffees are known for their delicate and well-balanced taste, rich aroma, and clean finish. With just under 800 farms and approximately 6,300 acres in production today, Hawaii ranks among the smallest coffee production areas in the world. Yet Hawaiian coffee consistently ranks in the top ten coffees of the world, year after year. This is no small feat; after pretroleum, coffee is the second most heavily-traded commodity in the world. In the 2010 crop year, state-wide “green” bean production stood at 7.9 Million pounds, representing approximately $26 Million in sales in parchment, or $260 Million retail, making Hawaii coffee one of the state’s most valuable crops.
So, before you take your next sip of Hawaii coffee, stop and thank the first botanists, early entrepreneurial farmers, and today’s hard-working growers. They brought you that delicate and delicious Hawaiian coffee bean.