Hawaii has a long history and a strong reputation for producing coffee. With Kona coffee, some truly excellent quality beans are coming out of the Pacific islands.
However, you should know what to look for. Companies have tried to exploit loopholes in legislation to deliver a less-than-premium products at premium prices. But don’t worry; you can avoid these easily enough with a bit of guidance.
Once you know what to watch for, you will pick and enjoy the best Kona coffee in no time. Grab a bag of the medium roast by Royal Kona now to get a headstart. Alternatively, keep reading to learn more about our top picks, why we like them, and what we like to do with them.
- Medium roast
- Delicate and fruity
- Best brewed with AeroPress
- Whole or ground beans
- Medium roast
- Delicate and fruity
- Best brewed with Clever Dripper
- Whole or ground beans
- Medium / dark roast
- Fruity, chocolate and spice notes
- Best brewed as espresso
- Whole beans
- Light Roast
- Strawberry, hazelnuts and sugar notes
- Best brewed as pour-over
- Whole beans
What Is Kona Coffee?
Kona coffee refers to any coffee grown in 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. However, true Kona coffee is 100% Kona and will be labeled as such.
Kona’s unique growing conditions
Kona coffee benefits from great conditions for growers. Mauna Loa is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and its volcanic soil is incredibly fertile. 
The twin volcanoes in the coffee region also shelter the trees 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 more economically developed than most coffee-growing nations. Coffee producers on the island can benefit from a lot more financial investment than most in other areas.
Another benefit of the region’s long tradition of coffee farming 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
Everything featured here is 100% Kona coffee; no blends allowed. These are our absolute favorites and represent a good spectrum of roast profiles 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
Thanks to its natural post-harvest process, this coffee brand has a well-developed fruit-forward profile. It is pretty rare to find naturally processed coffees from Hawaii, making these beans rather unique.
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 brewing time of up to 2 minutes to let the flavors reach their full potential. If your extraction is getting 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
This Hawaiian Kona is produced from the finest grade of beans, designated as Extra Fancy by the Hawaiian Department of Agriculture, the best of a good bunch.
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. 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. However, If you’re aiming for a slightly heavier body, you could try using a stainless steel mesh filter.
Koa Coffee - Grande Domaine Vienna Roast
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 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 it with milk drinks too. We found this to make a particularly good flat white.
Kona Coffee & Tea - Private Estate
It is rare to find a light roast amongst 100% Kona coffee brands, which are usually roasted at least a little more developed. This one, however, is a beautiful example of the qualities of the region at its 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. Keep your water temperature nice at around 205 °F (96 °C) to capture the beans at their best and maximize the fruity acidity.
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, Kona coffee is tough to shop for. This is partly due to the unregulated existence of many inferior products masquerading as Kona coffee. They may contain just a tiny smattering of poor-quality beans from the area.
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.
Look for Kona Coffee Grades
The Hawaiian Department of Agriculture grades Kona coffee on a number of traits.
First of all, peaberries are separated out. These naturally mutated beans are round in shape and grow individually in the coffee cherry rather than in the usual pairs. Only comprising around 5% of the total harvest, they are the more exquisite and expensive.
Further, the beans are separated based on size, shape, moisture content, and defects. The larger and more moisture, the better. The best of these grades is the Extra Fancy portion of the harvest, followed by Fancy, Number 1, Select, and Prime. Although the differences in shape and form might seem minor, the differences in flavor are significant.
Roast Level Matters
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.
However, depending on your preference, they can shine at all ends of the roast development spectrum. Stick with what you like best.
Light roasts will give you more of the origin and a little less of the roast in your finished cup. So if you want to taste Hawaii’s beautiful exotic climate in your coffee, stick to a lighter roast.
Kona Coffee and its Price Tag
Yes, Kona coffee is relatively expensive. However, there are reasons for it. The small scale of the output and decades of good marketing are certainly factors. Mostly, though, it’s because 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. In fact, we think it’s good to pay more for your coffee as long as you can be sure that the producer has been paid a fair price for their efforts.
After all, an enormous amount of labor goes into your 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 finally, the roaster and staff at the roastery.
Beyond Kona Coffee
While Hawaiian coffee and Kona are synonymous for most people, 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 worth your time are Ka’u and Puna, both from the Big Island, and coffees from Molokai, Kauai, Maui, and Oahu.
Frequently Asked Questions
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.
Why Is Kona Coffee So Special?
Kona coffee is considered specialty coffee primarily due to its unique growing conditions and processing methods. Grown exclusively in the Kona region of Hawaii, many coffee enthusiasts love it for its exquisite taste and flavor profile.
What Kona Coffee Grades?
Kona beans are graded on their quality based on traits such as size, moisture content, and defects. Extra Fancy is the highest grade, comprising the largest and moisture-richest beans with the fewest defect. They are followed by Fancy, Number 1, Select, and Prime.
If you are looking for the best Kona coffee, always go for 100% Kona. Our top picks are all excellent choices to get your hands on gourmet beans from Hawaii.
For a quick route to excellence, check out the medium roast by Royal Kona. It is a superb example of the best Kona offers and gives a very accurate impression of its growing conditions.
The Royal Kona Medium Roast has an exquisite taste with a well-developed fruit-forward profile. We prefer to brew it in the AeroPress with a long immersion, but feel free to use your favorite brewing method.