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Kona coffee is the market name for coffee (Coffea arabica) cultivated on the slopes of Mount Hualalai and Mauna Loa in the North and South Kona Districts of the Big Island of Hawaii. This coffee has developed a reputation that has made it one of the most expensive and sought-after coffees in the world. Only coffee from the Kona Districts can be legally described as "Kona". The Kona weather pattern of bright sunny mornings, humid rainy afternoons and mild nights creates favorable coffee growing conditions.
The coffee plant was first brought to Kona in 1829 by Samuel Reverend Ruggles, from Brazilian cuttings, although it was not until much later in that century that it became a consistent and worthwhile crop. It was grown on large plantations, but the 1899 world coffee market crash caused plantation owners to have to lease out their land to their workers. Most of these workers were originally from Japan, brought in to tend and harvest sugar cane. They worked their leased land parcels of between 5-to-12 acres as family concerns, producing large, quality coffee crops.
The tradition of running family farms has continued throughout Kona. The Japanese-origin families have been joined by Filipinos, mainland Americans, and Europeans. There are approximately 800 Kona coffee farms, with an average farm size of less than 5 acres (20,000 m2). In 1997 the total Kona coffee area was 2,290 acres (9 km2) and green coffee production just over two million pounds.
Growing and processing
Kona coffee blooms in February and March. Small white flowers cover the tree and are known as Kona Snow. In April, green berries begin to appear on the trees. By late August, red fruit, called "cherry" because of the resemblance of the ripe berry to a cherry fruit, start to ripen for picking. Each tree will be hand-picked several times between August and January, and provides around 20-30 pounds of cherry.
It takes seven to nine pounds of cherry to make one pound of roasted coffee. Thus 100 pounds of cherry will yield about 12 pounds of roasted coffee. Kona coffee beans are classified according to the seed type. Type I beans consist of two beans per cherry, flat on one side, oval on the other. Type II beans consist of one round bean per cherry, otherwise known as a peaberry. Further grading of these two types of beans depends on size, moisture content, purity of bean type and size. The grades of Type I Kona coffee are Kona Extra fancy, Kona fancy, Kona Number 1, and Kona Prime. The grades of Type II Kona coffee are Peaberry Number 1 and Peaberry Prime.
Within 24 hours of picking, the cherry is run through a pulper, the beans are separated from the pulp, and then placed in a fermentation tank overnight. The fermentation time is dependent on the temperature and therefore on the elevation; about 12 hours at a low elevation or 24 hours at a higher elevation. The beans are rinsed and spread to dry on a drying rack. A traditional drying rack has a rolling roof to cover the beans in the event of rain. It takes 7-14 days to dry the beans to an optimal moisture level of between 10-13% (by Hawaii Dept. of Agriculture regulations: 9.5-12.5%). From here, the beans are stored as "pergamino" or parchment. The parchment is milled off the green bean prior to roasting or wholesale.
Because of the rarity and price of Kona coffee in the marketplace, some retailers sell so called "Kona Blends". These are not a combination of different Kona coffees but rather a blend of Kona and Colombian, Brazilian or other foreign coffees. These blends usually contain only 10% Kona coffee and 90% cheaper imported beans.
Current Hawaiian law requires blends to state the percentage of Kona coffee on the label. To be considered authentic Kona coffee, the State of Hawaii's labeling laws require the prominent display of the words "100% Kona Coffee".