[Updated 4/16/20210] Believe it or not, there are many coffee lovers out there who've never heard of Kona Coffee. What was once a little-known type of specialty coffee has catapulted itself into global coffee stardom. This article will discuss what Kona coffee is along with tips on shopping the best Kona coffee on the market.
Making up just 1% of the world's coffee beans, Kona Coffee is both rare and a favorite amongst coffee connoisseurs.
Kona coffee has appellation status, much like all good Italian cheeses and French wines. It can only be grown on the slopes of two volcanoes known as Hualalai and Muana Loa in Hawaii. This area which is known as the Kona Belt is only a 30 mile stretch of land that's 1 mile wide. With such little land within these areas, it's no wonder Kona is one of the rarer and more expensive coffees.
Kona uses Arabica beans and owes it's reputation to the unique growing environment on the Hawaiian mountainside. The last volcanic eruption in 1801 covered the slopes in lava, and has created a volcanic soil bed which is surprisingly high in nutrients. The volcanic mountains in this range can be anywhere between 500 – 3000 feet in elevation. This coupled with the sunny mornings, cloudy afternoons and mild nights of Hawaii, makes its ideal climate incredibly hard to replicate elsewhere.
Best Kona Coffee at a Glance
Blue Horse Kona
Kona also benefits from being hand picked by generations of coffee farmers which produces better quality coffee than the traditional machine picked and processed beans. One of the things you'll discover as you shop the best Kona coffee is that not all Kona coffee is authentic. You can't always trust the marketing on a package unfortunately. As a case in point, there was a recent Kona coffee labeling settlement that took place which required large retailers allegedly making false claims about the authenticity of the Kona beans they were selling. The moral of the story is that you should do your due diligence in making sure you're buying the real thing.
What does Kona Coffee Taste Like?
A good cup of Kona will typically be light, sweet and fruity with nutty undertones. A good Kona brew will be incredibly smooth as well. It should have an aromatic and smooth finish.
However, all Kona is not created equal and as a result, shopping for the best Kona coffee isn't always as a straightforward as you might think.
Firstly, much like a good Scotch, it's better to buy from a single source rather than blended. A lot of the ‘Kona' coffee beans/ground sold in shops will be a blend, and only have to contain 10% Kona beans. Obviously, having the full 100% will make for a much richer and more authentic Kona coffee experience. I'm of the mindset where if you're going to spend the extra money on exotic coffee, you might as well go all out if you can. At the same time, it should be noted that just because there's more Kona doesn't mean it tastes better. Every coffee lover has their own specific taste profiles so the best Kona coffee for you may look very different than your coffee-loving friend.
The next thing to be aware of when shopping the best Kona coffee is the grading of the beans. All Kona beans are graded by the Hawaiian agricultural society and are rated based on; size, shape, moisture content and the number of defects.
Kona Coffee Bean Grading:
- Extra Fancy – this is the best of the best, with the largest and most moisture rich beans
- Fancy – one step down, this coffee still contains highly graded beans.
- Kona number 1 – this one has smaller beans but contains the same moisture content as the top two tiers.
- Kona Select – this grading has no specifications on bean size
- Kona Prime – if there's no grading label, then it's probably prime. This is the more affordable version of the bean.
Don't get too caught up on the grading though, and just buy the best beans you can afford. Some of the most authentic and best Kona coffee brands are not surprisingly based in Hawaii. We've done the legwork and put together the following list of top rated Kona coffee brands that are certain to deliver a truly genuine Kona coffee experience.
Best Kona Coffees of 2020
Formed in 1968, Royal Kona produces exceptionally high quality Kona coffee that's earned a position in virtually every fine-dining and upscale hotel establishment in Hawaii. They offer coffee that's 100% Kona along with the option for a 10% Kona blend. We tried Royal Kona's Medium Roast Private Reserve and loved how smooth and earthen the coffee was. It lives up to its namesake of being called “Royal”. If you're palette likes smooth and silky, it's sure to welcome Royal Kona with open arms.
Lion Coffee / Hawaii Coffee Company
As a well-established name in the Kona coffee game, Lion Coffee offers 100% Kona blends designed to harness the full flavor and depth of Kona coffee. Their Kona coffee comes in two different roasts including a light / medium Gold Roast and a dark French Roast.
Carta Coffee Merchants is another company on this list that produces a phenomenal cup of Kona brew. We've had the privilege of trying a variety of their brews from their popular Captain's Roast to their lighter but more complex Meridian Roast. Even though all of the brews used the same Fancy or Extra Fancy grade Kona, I was amazed by the nuances of flavor between each flavor. All of their coffee is made from 100% pure Kona and grown in small-batch farms. Definitely worth checking out if you're looking to get the real deal Kona coffee experience.
Volcanica Coffee's Kona Blend is rated as “Extra Fancy” and offers 100% pure Kona so you can rest assured that you're getting the full authenticity of a true Kona experience. Volcanica Coffee's Kona brew is also considered low acid so it'll be gentle on your stomach. In 2006, Volcanica's Kona brew was recognized by Food and Wine magazine as one of the top 10 in the world.