Coffee on the Big Island of Hawaii
The Hawaiian archipelago is the only State in the Union that grows coffee commercially. Its location in the tropics, with copious rains and volcanic soils, renders it the ideal scenario to produce some of the most exotic and flavorful coffees in the world.
The first visitors to the islands made attempts to establish small orchards around the area of Honolulu, on the Island of Oahu. Priests, missionaries and settlers brought and planted a handful of beans from as far as Brazil. However, no one succeeded in establishing a plantation, far less a trade. Although the Islands of Kauai and Maui did manage to produce some coffee commercially that carried on till today, it was on the Big Island of Hawaii that a sizeable industry took root.
The Big Island, or the Island of Hawaii proper, offered a vast and varied terrain with high elevations and abundant rains. By the mid 1850’s, small farms dotted the island in almost every district: Hamakua, Ka`u, Puna and Kona. Each area displayed a distinct profile of flavors and body. The trade was robust enough to export to the continent and other parts of the world. The future looked promising until a different crop arrive: Sugarcane, or as it eventually came to be known “King sugar”.
With global commodity prices rising exponentially, the prospect of this newcomer was so enticing that big firms soon took hold of every green patch on the island. Interestingly enough, Kona was the only area along with the Kohala District north of it that did not lend itself to the cultivation of sugarcane. In Kona, steep and rocky terrain coupled with a lack of sustainable water sources proved ruinous for the sugar industry. Coffee remained one of the few viable crops to grow, and after a hundred-and-fifty year stretch of continuous production, Kona coffee has become an established name in the coffee world.
Unbeknownst to many, the Puna District was arguably one of the most prosperous and prominent producers of coffee on the island with an established acclaim and reputation for its flavor. It did little, however, to detain the voracious advance of “king Sugar.”
Before 1900, coffee was the chief agricultural crop in the area. Over 6,000 acres of coffee trees were owned by approximately 200 independent coffee planters and 6 incorporated companies. Large amounts of coffee were grown in the Upper Puna region between Glenwood and Keaau. At an elevation range between 300′ to 3000′, Puna is the wettest region of the Big Island with an average rainfall of 150″ to 220″ annually (380 cm – 550 cm). Jungle and a volcanic substrate render this place ideal for coffee growing. Unfortunately for the early Puna coffee industry, they did too for sugarcane.
Inevitably, the coffee trees were uprooted, entire Ohia forests cleared, field rock piled, land plowed by mules or dug up by hand with a pick, quarters for laborers and staff built, and mills constructed. The Ola’a Sugar Company was founded in 1899 and it prospered for almost a century. Eventually, Southeast Asian and West African countries began producing sugar more competitively, bringing the entire State’s love affair with sugarcane to an end. The then-called Puna Sugar company ceased to operate by 1984.
Although the state of Hawai’i does not recognize Puna as an independent coffee growing region, the trend is forcing the local industry to reconsider. The District is returning to its old glory thanks to a handful of adventurous farmers who began planting coffee once again during the mid-1990’s. These early attempts were established mostly on three acre lots in the Hawaiian Acres agricultural subdivision in the upper confines of the locality. However, other small and isolated farms have begun to dot the region ever since.
Nowadays, Puna encompasses approximately 125 acres (50 hectares) planted to coffee, primarily with Typica, Caturra and Catuai varieties, though Mokka and Bourbon can be found in smaller quantities. The current total coffee production in Puna is about 50,000 pounds (22,680 kg) of coffee cherry annually. Nevertheless, due to the dispersed nature of these small farms, no concerted effort is made to pool the production together and market it as a regional product. Most farms are little advertised and remain undetected by the coffee industry’s radar.
Most Puna coffee grows on thin layers of soil atop lava fields. Such unusual volcanic substrate contains high levels of sulfur, which helps create body, aroma and acidity. These characteristics are found in few coffees not only within the islands, but also around the world.
Upper Puna sits in the midrange when it comes to elevation. However, the constant transit of clouds being pushed from the ocean diffuses the intense tropical sun and keeps the air moist. This mimics the slow ripening effects of high-elevation coffee plantations. The confluence of such varied and unusual natural events directly reflects on the coffee bean. Mineral-rich flavors with a balanced acidity infused in a syrupy body and carrying such distinct fragrances of nutty overtones, almonds, floral sandalwood, cacao nib, citruses and melon culminate in an enigmatic and unexpected gentle aftertaste.
Although the Puna coffee renaissance is small in scale and seemingly new to Hawaii’s coffee scene, it is making a big splash. This was demonstrated in recent HCA’s Annual Statewide Cupping Competitions by placing high in the ranks, with one local farm even garnering 1st Place in 2013. In addition, a Puna coffee also managed to earn recognition on Coffee Review’s “Top 30 Coffees of 2013″ list.