Coffee came to Hawaii in the late 1700’s with Don Francisco de Paula Marin, a Spanish advisor to King Kamehameha I and the first recorded reference to its cultivation in Hawaii is in an 1813 entry in his journal. A well-known horticulturist, he also introduced the pineapple to Hawaii. There is not much more recorded about coffee in the islands until the reign of Kamehameha II – also known as Liholiho. In 1823, Liholiho, his queen Kamamalu, and a retinue of ali’i including Chief Boki, set out on an illfated journey to England, for an audience with King George IV. Chief Boki was one of only four survivors of the party of twelve when the other members of the party, including the King and his wife, died after contracting measles. He returned to the islands, with the bodies of his king and queen, and some Arabica coffee trees, acquired in Brazil on the way home. These were planted on Oahu in the Manoa Valley. The British Consul, Richard Charlton also planted some coffee obtained from Manila. In 1828 or 1829, other trees were planted in the Kalihi and Niu valleys near Honolulu.
In the first attempts to bring coffee to the Big Island, the Rev. Joseph Goodrich planted some coffee hoping to make the Hilo mission self-sustaining. Goodrich planted gardens over his 12 years at Hilo, and taught classes for native Hawaiians on cultivation of both for cash to support the mission, as well as vegetables and tropical fruits for their own meals. However, it wasn’t until Rev. Samuel Ruggles (1795–1871) carried some cuttings of coffee to the Kona District when he was transferred from Hilo on the eastern side of the island of Hawaii to the Kealakekua Church on the western side in July 1828 that the Kona Coffee industry was born. The first production records from 1848 list 248 pounds of coffee being produced on Kauai and the Big Island, but the transplanted trees found near ideal conditions in Kona and thrived and by 1878 the district was producing 150,194 pounds of coffee annually and was listed as the 13th largest coffee production area in the world.
Henry Nicholas Greenwell, a coffee trader from Kona, was given an award for excellence at the 1873 World’s Fair in Vienna, which gave some recognition to the Kona Coffee name. The first coffee mill in Hawaii near Kealakekua Bay was built around 1880 by John Gaspar, Sr. and in 1892 the Guatemalan variety of coffee was introduced to Hawaii by German planter Hermann A. Widemann. Between 1850 and 1900 coffee was Hawaii’s single largest agricultural crop, only overcome by sugar cane and pineapple in the early decades of the twentieth century. As cane and pineapple were both easier to cultivate, far less labor intensive, and more profitable, much coffee acreage was converted to these crops, and coffee continued principally on small independent farms in the Kona District of the Big Island, and with marginal returns. By 1916, coffee production was down to about 2.7 million pounds.
However, in the later decades of the twentieth century, increasing international completion, combined with locally high labor costs, drove the sugar plantations and most of the pineapple growers out of business and in some areas coffee is making a resurgence as viable replacement crop. Coffee is now being produced commercially on the Big Island, Maui, Molokai and Kauai. Average yields are around 1400 pounds of ‘parchment’ or raw coffee berries per acre and production in 2007 was about 8.6 million pounds.
Coffee also plays a part in the ‘agri-tourism’ business with many farms offering tasting rooms and tours – the Greenwell Farm http://www.greenwellfarms.com/coffee-history being one of the better ones. The Kona Historical Society offers a view into the ‘old Hawaii’ coffee farm way of life at the Living History Coffee Farm http://www.konahistorical.org/index.php/tours/kona-coffee-living-history-farm/