A Brief History of Kona Coffee

by Mike Craig, Rooster Farms Founder


Kona Coffee is a cultural tradition that's been carried on since Samuel Ruggles first brought arabica coffee to Kona in 1828. This plant was amazingly adaptable to all situations in the Kona area. Even in the beginning Americans and Europeans realized what a wonderful marriage took place between Arabica coffee and Kona's calm, unique climate and rich volcanic soil.

Mark Twain was so impressed with this marriage, that in his book Letters From Hawaii he stated " I think Kona coffee has a richer flavor than any other." As early as 1842 there was a duty tax imposed on all foreign coffee brought into the Kingdom of Hawaii. This protective measure wasn't enough because the crop was still devastated by the white scale blight in the 1850's. This pest would eventually be brought under control with the introduction of the Australian beetle. Still, Hawaiians forged ahead with the first coffee mill in Napo'opo'o in 1850.


The growing of Kona coffee has been the love of many different cultures. This melting of many cultures into a small geographic area and a limited product makes Kona coffee one of the more romantic coffees in the world. Starting in the 1880's, waves of different cultures came to escape sugar contracts or other adverse situations. The Chinese came first. Then the Japanese. At this time bigger plantations were broken into smaller plots of land where Hawaiians and others could make a living off a piece of land no bigger than five acres. A new community agricultural based economy was developing with a mixture of Hawaiian, Asian, European and other cultures. Their Techniques had given Kona coffee a very good world reputation by the turn of the century. At this time over 6000 acres of coffee was planted in North Kona alone. A real commercial industry was beginning to take shape.

W W Brunner built the first mill in South Kona and he is credited with planting large sections of coffee trees in that district. Many of these very trees are still being cultivated today. In 1906 many farmers and mills consolidated to form Captain Cook Coffee Company. Once again the industry was set back by a blight of black fungus.

This brings us to the 1920's when things started looking better again. American Factors under the brand name "Mayflower" developed a large market for Kona coffee. In the 1920's Busaco Sato started an independent co-operative.

By the 1930's Kona coffee was one of the most prosperous products on the island chain. The government even changed the school schedules so that the children would be available to help during the harvest season. Like many products coffee took a setback during WW II. However production levels began to rise fast after the war. In 1956 American Factors sold their interest in their mill to Kona Coffee Cooperative. There were many small farms growing coffee on tall trees, where they used ladders (on the hilly rocky Kona grounds) and a strong local labor force that had individual trees yielding as much as 40 pounds. Many small Hoshidonnas (small self-contained pulping mills with drying decks under rolling roofs) were producing loads of parchment to be sold to large processing plants. Over 5000 acres of coffee were planted in Kona at this time.

In the mid 1960's the cooperative mill of American Factors was sold to Sunset Mills. A gobbling up of small mills began to take place so that by 1970 there were only three mills left on the whole Kona Coast, and only two by 1978. This domination combined with a small market base had an adverse effect on farming and farmers. An influx of entrepreneurial farmers and millers initiated a new industry based on new markets and old style farming practices brought higher quality back into Kona coffee. Quality and consistency seems to be the edge that has kept Kona coffee alive during many frustrating times. The 1968 State of Hawaii grading standards also helped improve quality. Quality is always better with hands on personal touch and caring for the crop.

Even a horrendous drought in the 1980's couldn't slow down the interest in Kona coffee farming. The one thing that set back the coffee industry was the dropping of cherry prices to farmers. This was dramatically illustrated at the end of the 1980's when the price to the farmer went from $1.00 per pound of cherry to $.40 per pound in one month. These price fluctuations, drought, blights and many other obstacles, have not stopped this wonderful multi-cultural agrarian way of life. There are still over 600 farms producing quality Kona coffee on over 2000 acres of land. In fact in 1989 Consumer Magazine reported that Kona Coffee was the best out of 41 coffees tasted.

In 1991 to establish some truth in labeling and to help protect the name Kona, House Bill #289 was passed with a Hawaii State minimum blend law of 10%. In 1993 The Kona Coffee council, A non-profit organization, by direction of its farmers and processors voted to register the name Kona Coffee to protect the name as a distinct growing area. This area certainly has a very rich, courageous and diversified agriculture product. It makes perfect sense that the farmers and processors of this area would want to make sure that their farming practices and that their coffee would be protected.

Through this brief history you can see Kona Coffee has gone through tremendous ups and downs. It has been transitions in traditions and traditions in transitions. These same trees have been courageously cultivated by many generations of different cultures clinging to a way of life. Love of the bean and of farming and its lifestyle explains how they made it through these peaks and valleys. It is a credit to these many generations of farmers. This beautiful but difficult way of life has created farming techniques going back one hundred and sixty years. These techniques and lifestyles are pretty much the same today. However even as you read this traditions are still in transition in Kona Coffee.


1- There has been more emphasis on marketing Kona Coffee as a 100% product this has raised the consumer awareness and increased demand for 100% Kona Beans.

2- Estate programs are busting out everywhere on the Kona Coast. There are independent labels representing a new cottage industry in Kona Coffee. Even two-acre farms are able to sell their crop under their own independent labels. The help of modern communications has increased farmer's ability to deal directly with wholesale and retail customers.

3- Organic farming is not really new; but is farming the way they use to before synthetically man made products were used. Certified organic farmers are receiving more money for their cherries. The markets for certified organic coffees are also expanding. It does cost more to farm organically because it is more labor intensive than conventional farming and inputs are more costly. Certified organic is more than "claimed" organic, certified organic means that an independent inspection and a paper trail of farming practices has been kept. 100% Kona Coffee is a small but romantic and wonderful product. It has been transitions in traditions and traditions in transitions.

Rooster Farms Coffee Co.

Rooster Farms is one of the oldest 100% Organically Certified 100% Kona Coffee Farms, and every step of processing is done by the farmers themselves

Captain Cook, [ South Kona ], HI 96704


+1 808 315 5224