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July, 2010:

It’s About More than Coffee

Coffee Trees arrived in Hawaii in the early 1800’s. The British warship H.M.S. Blonde brought coffee trees, to Hawaii, from Brazil in 1825. Chief Boki, Governor of Oahu, had acquired coffee trees in Rio de Janeiro, on his way back from London.

The coffee was planted in Manoa Valley on Oahu, and from a small field, trees were introduced to other areas of Oahu and neighbor islands. Reverend Samuel Ruggles moved trees to Captain Cook, Kona in 1828. Hanalei Valley on the North Shore of Kauai was home to the first coffee plantation. Coffee was established in the valley in 1842, but was wiped out in 1858 by coffee blight, a scale insect.

In the late 1800s efforts to establish coffee plantations were defeated by economics. Small farms averaging less than 5-acres in size replaced the Kona coffee plantations.

By the 1930s there were more than 1,000 farms and as late as the 1950’s there where 6,000 acres of coffee in Kona. At the turn of the last century there was coffee on all the major Hawaii islands, and now 100 years later, there is once again coffee on all the major islands.– Hawaii Coffee Association

On the Kona side of the island of Hawaii, the Coffee Festival is a highly visible event — it’s in the tourist heartland, after all, in Kona Village. There’s live music, a pageant, a parade, dancing, food, contests, crafts, and, of course, plenty of coffee tasting. There’s lots of interesting history related to coffee in Hawaii and odds are high that you can find someone to tell you about their family’s history with the crop. Some years back, I met a woman who told me that her grandfather jumped ship because he was fed up with being mistreated as a sailor and decided the life of a coffee plantation worker was a better way to go.

The spring cousin of the Kona Festival, on the other side of the island, has all this too, but it’s easy to miss unless you know where you’re going — it’s in the little town of Pahala, mauka (inland – learn it, use it!) from the main highway. The Kona Festival is a weekend street fair, the Ka’u festival feels more like a small town agricultural event. And yes, it’s got its pageants and contests, but it’s also got the mellow vibe of a windward town. You might find yourself sharing a bench with the plantation boss who went from coffee to sugar to coffee again, or the guy who runs the local radio station, or one of the biggest names in Hawaiian music. You can spend as much time as you like talking coffee, but you can also eat a giant serving of fish BBQ and then shop for cute totes made from repurposed coffee bags while listening to local boys tear it up on the ukulele.

There are lots of plantations to visit so you can see the crop grow — there’s the well known Ueshima Coffee Estate in Holualoa, but it’s also fun to drop in at the grower stands around Ka’u — call ahead if you want to take a tour. I visited Aikane and got to see the pulper in action — I understand a lot more about the crop now. On Moloka’i and Kaua’i there are visitors centers right on the edge of the plantations — you can get your latte, pick up some beans, and learn about the crop all at once.

On a final, personal note, as a Seattle-ite, I’m kind of snobby about coffee, I like it a certain way. My favorite coffee on the Hilo side of the big island came from Sharky’s at a tiny espresso counter just off Kamehameha. Blink, you’ll miss it. Stop for coffee, you’ll be eyes wide open all day. Yum.