Hawaii has a long history and a strong reputation where coffee is concerned. Since the growth in popularity of third-wave, single-origin coffees from other parts of the world, some of what once made Kona coffee such a unique experience is no longer the case. Nonetheless, some truly excellent quality coffees are still coming out of Hawaii if you know where and what to look for.
The relatively high prices have led to a race to the bottom. Some companies have tried to exploit loopholes in legislation to deliver a less-than-premium product at premium prices. However, you can avoid these easily enough with a bit of guidance.
Once you know what to watch for, you will be picking out and enjoying the best Kona coffee in no time. To get a headstart, grab a bag of this medium roast by Royal Kona now. Alternatively, keep reading to learn more about our top picks, why we like them, and what we like to do with them.
What Is Kona Coffee?
Kona coffee refers to any coffee grown in what is known as the “Kona belt,” a region on the South West coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. There are around 700 coffee farms in the area, all situated on the slopes of the volcanoes Mauna Loa and Hualalai.
Any coffee grown in this region, including coffee blends containing at least some Kona, can be sold as Kona coffee. True Kona coffee, however, is 100% Kona and will be labeled as such.
What Makes Kona Coffee So Special?
Kona coffee benefits from great conditions for growers. Mauna Loa is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Volcanic soil commonly referred to as Andisol, is incredibly fertile.  This is thanks to the exceptionally high levels of nutrients like magnesium and potassium left behind as the cooled volcanic ash weathers into its surrounding environment. Andisols are also great at retaining extra moisture due to their more porous nature, which further benefits crops.
The twin volcanoes in the coffee region also provide the trees with shelter from strong winds and excessive sun. This, coupled with their relatively high altitudes, allows the coffee cherries to ripen slowly and develop a good level of sweetness.
Coffee grown in Hawaii also benefits from an excellent processing infrastructure in an area that is more economically developed than most coffee-growing nations. As the 50th state of the United States and as part of an industry with a strong tradition in Hawaii, coffee producers on the island can benefit from a lot more financial investment than most in other areas.
Another benefit of the long tradition of coffee farming in the region lies in the industry’s depth of experience, knowledge, and education. Many of the original Hawaiian coffee farmers were Japanese immigrants. Years later, their fifth-generation ancestors run a significant share of the companies operating on the island. Having grown up surrounded by a passion for their business, the resulting dedication is evident in the end product.
The Best Kona Coffee — A Closer Look at Our Choices
There’s a lot to keep in mind when selecting your best Kona coffee. Everything featured here is 100% Kona coffee; no blends allowed. We have aimed to include a good range of roast profiles across the spectrum and different processing methods. There will be something for everybody here, no matter your personal preference.
Read on to learn more about our favorite coffees from the Big Island.
Royal Kona – Natural Medium Roast – Best Overall
At A Glance
Roast Profile: Medium Roast
Origin: Hawaii, Kona
Flavor Profile: Delicate / Fruity
Best Brewing Method: AeroPress
Processing Method: Natural
Largely thanks to its natural process post-harvest, this coffee brand has a very well-developed fruit-forward profile. It is pretty rare to find natural processed coffees from Hawaii, and we would recommend snapping them up wherever you can get your hands on them. Due in part to the availability of washing facilities in a relatively wealthy area, there is a tendency to snub natural processing in favor of the cleaner profile offered by washed coffees.
However, when allowed to dry in their mucilage, the fruity note of these shade-grown coffee cherries is really brought to the foreground. They have a complex tropical fruit overtone reminiscent of their exotic region of origin.
We found the best way to capitalize on this was with a reasonably long immersion in the AeroPress. Allow a brew time of up to 2 minutes to let the flavors reach their full potential. If your extraction is getting a little too bitter at these times, you could try adjusting your grind setting a little coarser to avoid over-extraction.
Volcanica Coffee – Hawaiian Kona Extra Fancy – Best Premium
At A Glance
Roast Profile: Medium Roast
Origin: Hawaii, Kona, Aloha Farms
Flavor Profile: Floral Fruits / Bright Citrus / Jasmin / Tart Cherry / Sweet Caramel
Best Brewing Method: Clever Dripper
Processing Method: Washed
This Hawaiian Kona is produced from the finest grade of beans, designated as Extra Fancy by the Hawaiian Department of Agriculture. As the best of a good bunch, you’d be right to expect good things from this coffee, and we believe you won’t be disappointed in that.
An experience that starts with a stone fruit malic acidity that brings sour cherries to mind is tempered by a caramel sweetness. This is rounded out with light and almost herbal bitters and a vibrant, clean citric finish.
To get the best brew with this Kona, you may want to try some sort of immersion brewer that lets the body reach its full potential. We found that this coffee became a little too light-bodied in a pour-over brewer to the point that the clarity was almost tea-like. On the other hand, you have to be very careful with a French press not to let the nuances muddy with longer brew times.
A good compromise with this one is the Clever dripper, as it allows for enough depth of flavor to develop while filtering out some of the oils to prevent too heavy of a brew. If you want to keep a little more body in than you are getting with your Clever, you could try using a stainless steel mesh filter that will result somewhere between a paper-filtered Clever brew and a French press.
Koa Coffee – Grande Domaine Vienna Roast – Best Full-Bodied
At A Glance
Roast Profile: Medium / Dark Roast
Origin: Hawaii, Kona, Mauna Loa
Flavor Profile: Fruity / Dark Chocolate / Hints of Spice
Best Brewing Method: Espresso
Processing Method: Washed
This coffee grown on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano is wonderfully full-bodied for a Hawaiian coffee bean. It is roasted towards the darker end of medium, to what is sometimes known as a Vienna Roast. This more developed roast profile allows the chocolatey tones inherent in the beans to shine in ways that they might otherwise not have. It also brings woodier spices than you might expect from a traditionally light-bodied Kona.
The fruits here are more at the jammy, tropical end of the scale. Think more mangoes and marmalade than fresh red berries with this one. This intense and exotic experience is balanced nicely against cacao-like bitters and a deep flavor note somewhere between cinnamon and allspice. The finish lingers.
Given its full body, this coffee bean performs best as an espresso. Being roasted a little darker than is typical for Konas means that you can happily pair with milk drinks too. We found this to make a particularly good flat white.
It is rare to find a light roast amongst 100% Kona coffee brands, which are usually roasted at least a little more developed to highlight the chocolate and toasted nut roasting tones. This one, however, is a beautiful example of the qualities of the region at their best. The classically light body of Kona actually lends itself beautifully to a light roast where none of the delicate fruits are lost.
This clarity is further emphasized in something like a conical pour-over – a Hario V60 would fit the bill perfectly here. To capture this light and fruity Hawaiian at its best and maximize the strawberry juicy, citric acidity, keep your water temperature nice at around 205 °F (96 °C).
When you get the brew right, you will be rewarded with an exquisitely bright, almost tangy strawberry note over the deep, hazelnutty sugars. This coffee has quite a complex flavor profile and may take some time to dial in just right. If your more delicate flavors are getting masked behind too much bitterness, try grinding a little coarser to speed up the extraction.
What To Look Out for When Shopping for the Best Kona Coffee
Due to its popularity and prominent place in the American premium coffee market in previous decades, Kona coffee is tough to shop for. This is thanks in no small part to the unregulated existence of many inferior products available masquerading as Kona coffee. They may contain just a tiny smattering of poor-quality beans from the area.
But with a little care and knowledge, you should soon have no trouble picking out the best Kona coffee for yourself.
Beware of Kona Blends
The main thing to keep your eyes peeled for when shopping for Kona coffee is the certified 100% Kona label. Coffees sold as Kona blends typically only contain about 10% Kona coffee. The rest comprises beans from other origins, often cheaper beans from Latin America and elsewhere.
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with Kona blends from a quality point of view. However, if you are shopping for Kona, it can be misleading as most of what you get in the bag won’t be.
Is All Kona Coffee Born Equal?
The Hawaiian Department of Agriculture grades Kona coffee on a number of traits. First of all, peaberries (coffee beans that grew individually rather than in the usual pairs in their coffee cherries) are separated out. Then the beans are further separated based on size, shape, moisture content, and any defects. The best of these grades is the Extra Fancy portion of the harvest, followed by Fancy, Number 1, Select, and Prime.
Hawaii as a Coffee-Producing Nation
Coffee was most likely introduced to Hawaii in the 1820s. While there are various origin stories for its first planting, most reference the governor of Oahu, Chief Boki. He purportedly bought back the first coffee plants from Brazil on the way back from a royal visit to Britain with the Hawaiian King Kamehameha II. Although early attempts at cultivation were unsuccessful, the coffee industry was beginning to flourish in the Kona region by the mid-nineteenth century.
Most of the Kona coffee farms were, and in many cases still are, owned and operated by families of Japanese immigrants. Today, coffee is the second-largest crop grown in Hawaii. The annual value of the whole harvest is well over 100 million dollars. It comprises a big part of the tourist culture on the islands, with plantation tours and coffee tastings remaining very popular.
Beyond Kona Coffee
While when most people think of Hawaii and coffee, their minds go straight to Kona, there is more to the island than just one region. Many equally high-quality coffees are produced right across the island. Thanks to a diverse range of micro-climates, coffees grown in these distinct terroirs are all a little different.
Others well worth your time are Ka’u and Puna, both from the Big Island, and also coffees from the islands of Molokai, Kauai, Maui, and Oahu.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Is It So Expensive and Is It Worth the Extra?
There are many reasons for the extra expense attached to Kona coffee. The relatively small scale of the output from just a few thousand acres of farming land in the region and decades of good marketing are certainly factors. Foremost amongst these, though, is the former nation’s position as an American state. This means that the Kona coffee farms are subject to American labor laws and minimum wages. This brings the cost of production up to a lot higher than for, say, an African or South American crop.
This doesn’t mean that Kona coffee isn’t worth the money you pay for it. In fact, it is good to pay more for your coffee in many ways as you can be sure that the producer has been paid a fair price for their efforts.
To put this into perspective, try to consider the amount of labor that goes into your cup of coffee in terms of man-hours; the farmers who grew the coffee cherries and harvested them, the workers at the processing plant, the people and cost involved in its transport to reach your local roaster, and not to mention the roaster and staff at the roastery. If you’ve only paid a few dollars for your bag of coffee beans, would you imagine that everybody has been paid fairly at every stage of the process?
What Is the Best Roast for Kona Coffee?
Kona coffee is usually roasted to a medium roast to bring out the best of the chocolatey and nutty notes. Doing so, it doesn’t lose the more delicate floral and fruity notes inherent to green coffees produced in the region. Depending on your personal preference, though, they can also shine at all ends of the roast development spectrum, being equally good as light or dark roasts. Stick with what you like best.
As always, light roasts will give you a little more of the origin and a little less of the roast in your finished cup. So if you really want to taste the beautiful exotic climate of Hawaii in your coffee, stick to a lighter roast.
What Is Kona Peaberry Coffee?
Peaberry coffee is a coffee bean grown individually inside a coffee cherry rather than alongside its more usual twin. These are highly sought after as they only make up a small part of the harvest. Also, they are believed to offer several benefits, including more density of flavor and a higher chance of a more even roast.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with a Kona blend, if you are looking for the best Kona coffee for your money, you can’t go wrong with those featured on our list. All 100% Kona, these are bags of coffee that are sure to please.
Hopefully, you now feel better equipped to shop independently for this gourmet coffee coming out of Hawaii. Check out this medium roast by Royal Kona to save yourself the hassle, though. It is a superb example of the best Kona has to offer and gives a very accurate impression of its growing conditions.