Text by Travis Hancock | Image by Megan Spelman and courtesy of Hawaiʻi State Archives
The road that led coffee to becoming a $50 million-dollar industry in Hawai‘i has been bumpy—and for many years, one best navigated by donkeys. In 1895, 67 years after coffee took root in Kona, missionary descendant William Armstrong wrote of the animals in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, “When the sun gets up over Hualālai in the morning, you can hear a morning hymn of praise from thousands of them.” The imported beasts of burden were nicknamed “Kona nightingales” for this crepuscular braying.
While papers had fun branding the donkeys with this regional epithet, the Kona name quickly became serious for coffee, so much so that imitators started capitalizing on it. In 1999, the owner of California-based Kona Kai Farms Inc. was ordered to pay $1 million for damages to 650 Kona coffee farmers for selling Central American beans in bags labeled as pure Kona to the likes of Starbucks.
In addition to such manmade hurdles, the local coffee industry has faced natural challenges. When Mark Twain toured Hawai‘i Island in 1866 and famously declared Kona coffee to have “a richer flavor than any other,” the crops had just endured one of many devastating blights. In the last decade, coffee berry borer beetles have arrived in the islands and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses amid a persistent drought. Greenwell Farms, which was founded in 1850 and debuted Kona coffee at the 1873 World’s Fair in Vienna, is one of the few early farms left standing.
But the fine quality of coffee grown here makes it worth the challenge. From a Hawaiian point of view, this goes back to Pele, the goddess of fire, whose volcanoes infused the soil with flavor-producing minerals. Coffee, or kope, arrived in Kona thanks to a chief born in the time when the native gods reigned: Boki. In 1825, Boki, who was the royal governor of O‘ahu, procured Arabica coffee trees from Brazil during the sorrowful sail home from a diplomatic trip to England aboard the ship carrying the bodies of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamāmalu, who had died of measles in London.
Boki had English agriculturalist John Wilkinson plant the coffee in Mānoa Valley, where Don Francisco de Paula Marín—a Spanish agriculturalist and confidante to Kamehameha I—had tried to plant coffee in 1817. Boki’s crop survived long enough to produce the seedlings that missionary Samuel Ruggles transplanted in the rich soil of Kona in 1828.
By 1841, tax collectors on Maui accepted coffee as suitable currency for payment, while a small coffee plantation thrived on an east O‘ahu plot—“the first lease of land granted by [the Hawaiian] government to their subjects,” according to The Polynesian. American whaling ships frequenting Honolulu and Lāhainā replenished their onboard stock with local coffee. Exports started in 1845, and by the 1850s, coffee production had swelled on Kaua‘i—only to suffer a blight in 1857.
Amid these struggles, newspapers published examples of successful coffee production in relative climates, like Britain’s lucrative colony in Sri Lanka. The white businessmen who toppled the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 took note, and heeded the warning of Armstrong, previously the attorney general and commissioner of immigration under King Kalakaua, who wrote that soon “there will be some fine coffee plantations, but no chance for white men unless some adequate provision is made.” In Sovereign Sugar, Carol MacLennan explains that the new government developed strategies that rezoned land for coffee, and assured white settlers that with “tax-exempt coffee machinery for ten years, and a perfect climate, they could realize a 20 percent net profit.” A handful took the bait, but few succeeded, and most of their land was swallowed up by sugar barons.
However, for the foreign laborers who arrived to work in the harsh sugar fields, leasing a small coffee farm was a path to financial independence. “In 1942, there were 1,077 coffee farms in Kona, with 959 of them managed by Japanese and 58 by Filipinos, and the rest by Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, and Portuguese,” MacLennan writes. Many of these got off the ground during the world wars, when the U.S. Army tapped Hawai‘i to supply its troops with coffee.
“It took a special breed of person with a special kind of commitment to endure and keep the industry going,” writes Kona-born Gerald Kinro in A Cup of Aloha. Take the Kunitake family in Keōpū, which managed to raise around 10,000 trees during the 1950s to 1970s, when unfixed global prices were wreaking havoc.
Walter Kunitake grew up in this period, and remembers picking coffee cherries on the family farm after school and during the harvest-season break that replaced summer recess in Kona. He went on to earn a doctorate in business administration, and returned to coffee in 1988. “It’s nostalgia that brings you home,” Walter says. At age 72, the self-styled “Country Samurai” and his wife, Sharlene, manage about 600 trees and run the Country Samurai Coffee Company shop at Kailua Bay.
In 2016, the last feral descendants of the Kona nightingales were rounded up and sent to sing in sanctuaries. Walter hasn’t forgotten his mother’s stories about the donkey that helped the family on the rocky parcel they acquired in 1910. “My mom, she too had to be a donkey,” he says. “She made the trip up the hill to the processing mill carrying 30 pounds of coffee, maybe more—she was a strong woman.”