Kona Coffee: Why People Pay So Much for a Bag of Beans

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There are so many types of coffee on the market, but a select handful has reached near-mythical status, including Jamaican Blue Mountain, St Helena coffee, Colombian coffee, and Kona coffee from Hawaii.

But what makes this coffee so special? In this post, we’ll take a closer look at Kona coffee to see what sets it apart from the others and how the cultivation process occurs.

>> Buy 100% Kona Coffee

Coffee beans
Coffee beans

What is Kona Coffee?

Kona coffee is one of the world’s most sought-after coffees – and one of the most expensive. It comes from Hawaii, but more specifically, it comes from North and South Kona Districts on the western part of Hawaii’s Big Island.

These two districts incorporate the slopes of two of the island’s volcanoes, Hualalai and Mauna Loa, and it is on these fertile slopes where Kona coffee beans are cultivated.

Only coffee grown here is true “Kona” coffee, and coffee grown elsewhere, even on the same island is not allowed to be called Kona coffee.

Coffee was first introduced to Kona from Brazil in the 19th century but the coffee growing industry took some time to establish itself there. By the turn of the century, there were many small, family-owned coffee farms in the area, many of Japanese origin but also including Filipinos, Europeans and mainland Americans.

This tradition has continued to today. The majority of the Kona farms are independent holdings of around three to seven acres and there are currently around 600-800 family-run farms.

In 1997, they covered an area of about 2290 acres and produced a total of around two million pounds of coffee.

Cultivation and Processing of Kona Coffee

Cultivating top-grade Kona coffee is a painstaking and meticulous process for Kona coffee plantations. The trees blossom in February or March and berries begin growing in April.

These then ripen at varying rates and are picked by hand between the months of August and January. Each tree produces around 15lbs of cherries, giving a yield of about 2lbs of coffee.

Once picked, the cherries are processed using the wet method. They are pulped to remove the flesh, they are fermented for 12-24 hours, they are rinsed and then sun-dried on special sundecks known as hoshidanas where they are regularly raked to ensure consistent drying.

After drying, beans were traditionally sold to processors but now many farms do some or all the work themselves. They are now sold either directly after drying as parchment beans, as fully-processed green beans or even as roasted beans ready for brewing.

Kona coffee berries
Kona coffee berries (photo via Flickr by Malcolm Manners)

Kona coffee is grown from arabica beans and the flavor profile is generally described as delicate but flavorful with a rich aroma and displaying complex wine and spicy notes.

Coffee Grades

There are several different grades of Kona coffee. First, the beans are divided into Type I or Type II.

  • Type I – are regular beans that grow two per cherry
  • Type II – are peaberry beans, a relatively rare mutation resulting in only one bean per cherry.

The grades of Type I berries, from highest to lowest, are Kona Extra Fancy, Kona Fancy, Kona Number 1, Kona Select and Kona Prime.

One the best kona coffee beans are selected. Beans not deemed worthy of the Prime appellation are not considered Kona beans. Type II are either Peaberry Number 1 or Peaberry Prime.

These are used to make peaberry kona coffee, which can cost significantly more than other types.

Why is Kona Coffee So Expensive?

There are a few reasons why Kona coffee has become one of the most expensive and sought-after coffees in the world.

Most importantly, to put it simply, Kona coffee tastes good. Without this, nothing else would matter. However, there are many other factors that bump up the price.

100% Kona coffee
100% Kona coffee (photo via Flickr by Matthew Bodaly)

One major consideration is that the area where Kona coffee is cultivated is very small. Only coffee grown on those slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes that fall within the limits of North Kona and South Kona are allowed to be called Kona coffee.

This makes the beans necessarily rare. However, this is not simply an arbitrary drawing of lines on a map. The growing conditions in these hills combine a number of factors to provide excellent growing conditions for top-quality coffee.

The microclimate found in this area is ideally suited for the cultivation of arabica beans. The mornings are sunny while the afternoons are cloudy and sometimes rainy, proving the perfect balance of light and water.

Picking coffee beans

There is little wind – arabica plants are notoriously intolerant of unfavorable weather conditions – and the nights are mild. The volcanic soils they grow in is porous and mineral-rich, providing ideal growing conditions as well as contributing to the highly desirable flavor profile of Kona beans.

Taken together, this combination of factors allows for beans of the highest quality to be grown in this very restricted area. Finally, the beans are harvested by hand. Since they do not all ripen at the same time, it takes a trained human picker to identify the beans that are ready to be taken.

The alternative is to use machines, but this would result in unripe beans, ripe beans and over-ripe beans all being thrown in together. This would be much cheaper and more efficient, but the quality of the coffee would be far inferior.

Picking by hand is expensive and labor-intensive – but it ensures the coffee produced is of world-class quality.

What is Not Kona?

Being such a popular and expensive commodity, it is no surprise that outsiders have sought to cash in on the Kona name, sometimes in unscrupulous ways.

One common way to use the Kona name is to sell “Kona blends”. These are not, as you may imagine, blends of different Kona beans, but are, in fact, blends of an amount of Kona with coffees from other parts of the world, typically Brazil or Colombia.

The amount of true Kona is usually only around 10%. You may pay much lower prices for these coffees, but you certainly won’t be able to distinguish the Kona content.

You might just as well be buying a Brazilian or Colombian coffee with no Kona mixed in at all. Much worse than this, there was even one case where a company, Kona Kai Farms, was caught selling cheap coffee merely repackaged as expensive Kona.

Kona coffee burlap bag

Genuine Kona coffee prominently displays the “100% Kona coffee” logo, so to be sure you are buying the real thing, you should always look for this on the packaging before you hand over your cash. Even Kona K-Cups for coffee machines display this logo.

Buy 100% Kona Coffee from Bean Box – they deliver freshly roasted coffee from Seattle’s top roasters to your doorstep.

America’s Finest – and Only – Homegrown Coffee

Hawaii is the only state in the US that commercially grows coffee, and Kona is the undisputed king. If you want to try a cup of America’s best, you have only one real option – but you’ll have to put your hand in your pocket first!

Learn more about coffee on our dedicated coffee page.



What makes Kona coffee so special? Here's why you may pay top dollar for a bag of beans.
What makes Kona coffee so special? Here’s why you may pay top dollar for a bag of beans.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Kathy Gallo is the founder of Daily Cupo. She is a health buff, she always believes that perfect health comes from drinking right, and aspires to provide an invaluable guide to the health drinks.

4 thoughts on “Kona Coffee: Why People Pay So Much for a Bag of Beans

  1. Daniel Rodriguez says:

    Kona coffee is the best only because they say it is, one must taste the coffee from all the regions on the big island to actually make a honestly accurate statement. There are many coffee plantations on the big island and one who has tried Kona coffee I can honestly say it is not always the best. Farms in the kau district and north Hilo district even Puna districts can and do make a very delicious cup of coffee. So before you make a statement be sure you do your homework.

    • Laura says:

      I agree with you that not all kona coffees are the best and often these beans are being sold for a high price even if they don’t meet the standards. I’ve not made any kind of statement that kona coffee is the best or always the best. If you read this post, you’ll see that we’ve done the homework and make a very honest and factual assessment.

  2. Frank says:

    I live in south Kona area and still haven’t found an excellent cup of coffee. If fact, my favorite coffee house sells a brand of Kona coffee but serves Colombian coffee in its menu drinks. There is a lot of bad Kona coffee out there. Small family farms may take shortcuts which produce a very bitter flavor. But with hundreds of Kona coffee farms, I’ll continue to find that perfect coffee.

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