Exploring the Kona Coffee Culture on Hawaii’s Big Island

Tasting Kona Coffee on Hawaii's Big islandThe folks that keep track of these things tell us that the typical American over 18 years old drinks about 27 ounces of coffee a day. I’m not one of them, coffee drinker that is. I am well over 18 years old.

Nonetheless, when visiting Hawaii’s Big Island, we made a stop at the Kona Living History Farm. Here we learned about the history of coffee and its growers in this region. In my multiple visits to the Aloha State, I enjoyed this stop as much as anything I’ve done in the South Pacific.

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Growing Kona Coffee on Hawaii’s Big Island

Coffee bushes on a plantation near Kona HawaiiHawaii’s Big Island is the only place in the United States with the perfect combination of heat and moisture to grow Arabica coffee beans. Specifically, the climate is found within a band just a few hundred yards wide about 1500 feet above sea level on the Hualalai and Muanu Loa mountain slopes. This limited location makes Kona coffee rare, desirable and yes, rather expensive.

Most Kona coffee comes from small family farms of just a few acres each. There are about 800 such farms in the Kona district that produce about two million pounds of coffee a year.

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A Visit to the Kona Living History Farm

Japanese flags at the Kona Living History Farm in Hawaii

The Kona Living History Farm was once the working farm of the Uchida family, one of many families of Japanese immigrants that made Kona coffee a profitable crop. The Uchida family home and their out buildings are maintained to the 1920s era.

Bright red ripe Kona coffee berries

When ripe, coffee beans are called cherries because of their bright red color.

Coffee is always harvested by hand and in Hawaii, its from August to January. If you visit the farm during that period, you have the opportunity to strap on a basket, just like in the good old days, and put in a hard few minutes of labor.

Or you can go just down the road to the Greenwell Farms and watch real harvesters show you how its done.

Ripe kona coffee beans in Hawaii.

Piles of ripe kona coffee beans in hawaii.

Literally anytime is a great time to visit Hawaii. But if you’re totally into coffee, plan a visit to the Big Island during the first 10 days or so of November. That’s the annual Kona Coffee Festival when everything from parades to art shows to special dinners and more celebrate the coffee culture that is the Big Island’s gustatory gift to the world.

Kona Nightingale Donkeys on the Big Island

Charlie, the Nightingale DonkeyI fell in love with a donkey named Charlie. The beautiful cross on his back identifies him as a Kona Nightingale, the breed of donkey that was once used to carry bags of coffee from the fields and baskets of macadamia nuts from the mountains. With the surplus of Army jeeps in Hawaii at the end of WWII, Charlie and his kind were put out to pasture, literally.

A fundraiser for the History Farm a few years back found him a girlfriend to share his pasture.

Tip: For an interesting experience in the coffee growing region of Mexico, check out this little town north of Hualtuco in the state of Oaxaca.


  Visitors picking coffee beans at the Kona Living History Farm in Hawaii

Get Some Kona Coffee of your Own