American coffee has an unusual story and a history with royal ties.
Coffee plants require specific environmental conditions in which to thrive. Coffee plants need to be in a tropical or sub-tropical climate to successfully produce coffee. And when most people think of North America they don’t consider it a prominent coffee growing region. As a result the North American nations are among the biggest importers of coffee with the U.S. importing the most. Ironically the U.S. is the only North American nation to export coffee with its one and only noteworthy coffee growing region – Hawaii.
Hawaii enjoys an excellent climate that is well suited for coffee production. Coffee trees grow on the slopes of the active Mauna Loa volcano and the Hualalai Mountains. The rich volcanic soil influences the characteristics of Hawaiian grown coffee and the afternoon shade from tropical clouds forms a natural canopy that protects the plants from intense sun. Hawaiian coffee plants also benefit from frequent island showers that provide nourishment. Hawaii’s unique climate makes the coffee growing season predictable. Hawaiian coffee plants tend to bloom after the dry winters and are harvested in the fall. The coffee plants that are used in Hawaii tend to be exclusively of the coffea arabica variety and the coffee is renowned for its unique taste.
Coffee plants are not indigenous to Hawaii. The first coffee plants were imported into Hawaii in 1813 by Kamehameha the Great’s Spanish interpreter and physician Don Francisco de Paula y Marin. In 1828 missionary Samuel Ruggles took cuttings from these first arabica trees and planted them on Oahu along with hard-working native farmers.
The first written mention of coffee in Hawaii was noted in 1840. Coffee was planted in several locations around the Big Island but was best suited to the Kona district. Working the tropical coffee fields has always been laborious because everything -from planting to picking- is done by hand. Native Hawaiians and Chinese laborers first worked the large coffee plantations owned by Caucasians in the mid-to-late 1800s. During the 1880s and early 1890s, Japanese immigrants began their coffee legacy in these same fields.
When the world coffee market crashed in 1899, the large plantations shifted to small Japanese-owned family farms. As the large plantations gave up, land was divided into small 3 to 5-acre parcels and leased to the laborers. The cost of these early leases was one-half the crop, and by 1910, only Japanese coffee farms survived. The first Filipinos arrived to work the coffee farms about 1920, picking coffee during the season and returning to the sugar fields in the spring.
Most of the coffee grown in Hawaii today is cultivated on land owned by Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate (KSBE) in the Kona district. Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last direct descendant of King Kamehameha the Great, and her husband, banker Charles Reed Bishop, created KSBE as a charitable land trust in 1884. KSBE leases tracts to more than 600 farmers. The average size of the farms is seven acres. In her will Princess Pauahi directed that her inherited lands be used to generate income for the creation and operation of the Kamehameha Schools, and that the lands not be sold, so that the schools would be supported forever. KSBE serves 3,000 students at the main campus on Oahu, and is in the process of building four new schools. KSBE also operates a network of pre-schools throughout the islands, and supports a college scholarship program for Hawaiian students.