US Grown Coffee: Kona

Justin Goldstein • August 11, 2021 • 3 min read

Cup of iced coffee with leaves in the background

Have You Heard of Kona Coffee?

Hawaii is the only US state that grows coffee commercially. While you can find coffee grown on the Big Island, Kauai and Maui, Kona (on the Big Island) is the most universally recognized and prized coffee the state has to offer. Kona is quite unlike any other growing region in the world and has captured the hearts and cups of tourists and coffee lovers alike. 

What Makes Kona Coffee So Expensive?

Kona coffee is among the most expensive in the world, commonly 3-4x more than other outstanding specialty coffees. Here’s a few reasons why:

  1. Supply and Demand – The coffee growing region of Kona, HI is only a few dozen square miles. Coffee must be grown in this small region to bear the prized “Kona” name, and frankly, the amount of specialty coffee this tiny area can grow simply does not meet the market demand.
  1. Everything is Done by Hand – Unlike other growing regions that can utilize harvesting machines, Kona has a difficult topography shaped by its location on the side of two volcanoes. The terrain makes it virtually impossible to do anything automated. Everything is done by hand and that isn’t cheap!
  1. US Labor Costs – Most coffee growing regions are located in poorer developing countries; however, specialty coffee harvested in Kona must adhere to the US minimum wage. Coffee pickers in Kona are paid more than $10 an hour, where coffee pickers in South American or Africa make less than that for an entire day. This exponentially higher cost of labor is arguably the biggest factor in the resulting price of Kona coffee.

Why Is Kona Coffee Special?

Kona Coffee Beans

Rich volcanic soil and a unique microclimate make it just right for growing coffee. Unlike most other prized coffees from across the world, Kona coffee is grown at a relatively low elevation. Normally, low elevation coffees are tied to lower perceived quality and price, but because Hawaii is far north of the equator, even at lower altitudes, the coffee beans mature slowly. The slower maturation is what generally leads to a more desirable and tastier bean. Kona has the right soil, temperature, rainfall and location that make for a very special coffee.

What Does Kona Coffee Taste Like?

Kona coffee is rather mild in taste and acidity.  Expect a nice blend of sweetness with a touch of fruitiness. When brewed properly, Kona coffee is a delight to drink and is a real crowd pleaser that appeals to the masses. I have found that most Kona coffee is not polarizing in flavor profile like some regional coffees.

Pro Tip: Avoid Kona coffee blends. While the price point might be appealing, these are inexpensive for a reason and only contain 10% Kona coffee. Please do not judge Kona coffee off of one of these subpar tourist traps.

Best Way to Prepare Kona Coffee

Since Kona coffee is a real treat, I recommend brewing it with care. This is not the coffee that you buy pre-ground and toss into your traditional pot coffee maker. This is a coffee that uses a proper brewing ratio (1:18 ratio recommended), including grinding your coffee fresh, weighing out your coffee and timing your brew to ensure you are extracting your coffee perfectly. I personally recommend trying a Pour-Over or French Press for this one.

The Hawaiian Coffee Experience

Coffee cherry picking

If you ever find yourself on the big island of Hawaii, please make sure to visit one of the hundreds of small, mostly family-owned specialty farms in the Kona “coffee belt.” Many of these coffee farms provide tours throughout the day that will allow you to see exactly how the coffee is grown, processed  and even roasted. The cherry on top is that most tours are completely free, and you are almost always guaranteed several samples of Kona coffee. Drink up and consider taking a bag home with you!

As someone who has been fortunate enough to go to Kona several times, my recommendation is to go off the beaten path. If you’re with a large family and maybe little ones, the bigger name producers will provide nice, well-structured tours and facilities; however, the coolest experiences I have had were with smaller family farms. Ask the locals when you’re in Kona, and you might stumble across a small grower who will spend their entire afternoon showing you their farm and teaching you about what makes it so special. Just speaking from experience here!

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