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In 1813, during the last years of the reign of Kamehameha I, Spaniard Don Francisco de Paula Marin introduced coffee plants into his abundant gardens on O‘ahu. Fifteen years later, missionary Samuel Ruggles brought cuttings from O‘ahu to the Kona District south of Kailua, where he was stationed. Within a few years coffee began its ascent as a commercial crop; from the regions of Kona to Kā‘u , and extending to the Hāmākua. In 1892, coffee pioneers introduced Typica: a new variety of coffee bean from Guatemala. Belonging to the coffee arabica species, this cultivar is still used today.
In Kona, coffee followed a unique path compared to other regions. Few other crops besides coffee fared well in the area’s rocky soils; aiding in Kona’s unyielding determination to grow coffee into a thriving, healthy industry. Unfortunately, Hawaiian coffee was quite often subject to global market fluctuations, causing a rather tumultuous legacy.
World coffee prices frequently tumbled, and Kona’s small coffee farmers often paid the unruly debt. Efforts to stabilize sales by exporting “Kona Coffee” blends to the mainland did not initially amount to much success. However a welcomed change came in the 1980s, as consumers were ready to appreciate locally grown, specialty coffees; independence from the world market finally became a possibility. Around the same time sugar cane plantations, which covered farmlands in Hāmākua and Kā‘u, began to plummet. The timing couldn’t have been more ideal for coffee growers island-wide; and Kā‘u was more than ready. Knowing that their trees delivered superior quality, many farmers had maintained their Coffee Arabica trees from earlier days. In the early 2000s, Kā‘u coffee began proudly showing its strength in cupping events worldwide; a number of small farms in Kā‘u began garnering awards. In 2009, the first Kā‘u Coffee Festival was successfully launched, demonstrating coffee to be a tradition of agriculture that will undoubtedly extend Kā‘u into both a promising economic and ecologic future.