How to roast Kona coffee beans

Peter Lancashire
May 9, 2022
How to roast Kona coffee beans

Highly prized for its full-bodied flavour and complex aroma, Hawaii’s Kona coffee is one of the most expensive on the market.

It is grown on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa in the Kona districts of the Big Island of Hawaii. Also known as the Kona coffee belt, the growing region is one of the smallest in the world, and only coffee grown in this area can be considered 100% Kona coffee.

The region’s mountainous landscape can make it challenging to use harvesting machines. As a result, ripe Kona cherries are meticulously hand picked all year round, driving up labour costs and, in turn, giving rise to the coffee’s high prices.

Although Kona coffee only makes up around 1% of the world’s total production, many coffee roasters will come into contact with it at some point in their careers. Therefore, knowing how to unlock its full flavour potential is key to ensuring customers enjoy the coffee to its fullest – and roasters don’t waste a single bean.

Read on to learn more about Kona coffee and how it should be roasted to unlock its full potential.

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Caucasian hand picks ripe, red coffee cherries from tree brand, with unripe cherries displayed on branch.

What is Kona coffee?

Coffee plants were first introduced to the Kona district in 1829, when Samuel Reverend Ruggles brought over a plant cutting from Brazil. 

During the 19th century, English merchant Henry Nicholas Greenwell moved to the Kona region, establishing it as a brand name for the coffee produced in the area. 

The growing region ranges between 500 and 3,200 feet above sea level, with around 800 farms spanning 2,290 acres. 

During early years of cultivation, coffee farmers were primarily made up of Japanese immigrants. This practice has been passed down to a point where many of the farms today are run by fifth-generation descendants of the original farmers.

Controversy hit between 1993 and 1996, when coffee supplier Michael Norton allegedly bought around 3.6 million lbs of coffee from Central America. He then re-bagged the beans and labelled them as “pure Kona coffee” – a more expensive bean. 

This is why all coffee exported from Hawaii must be certified by the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture

With such a high price attached to sought-after beans, counterfeit Kona has become prevalent in the market. Genuine Kona farmers had long suspected competitors were using the Kona brand to mislead customers into paying higher prices. 

This led to a lawsuit being filed in February 2019, after lab testing proved coffee from outside the region was labelled as 100% Kona coffee. Several well-known supermarkets were caught selling beans with “Kona” on the bags, which farmers believed devalued the name of authentic Kona coffee. 

An article in the Seattle Times revealed the original complaint included allegations against Costco, Amazon, Walmart, and other retailers, as well as one individual.  

The lawsuit claimed this depressed the market price for coffee originating from Kona, cutting into profits for Hawaiian growers. 

In March 2021, several of the companies agreed to a settlement of over $13.1million in order to benefit Kona coffee farmers. 

Caucasian hand pours dark roasted Kona coffee beans onto scale seated on wooden counter, with sealed white sustainable coffee bags.

Kona coffee flavour profile

The reputation of Kona coffee developed thanks to its delicate and approachable flavour profile. 

The mineral-rich volcanic soil imparts an attractive range of flavours that can be highlighted during the roasting process to match certain tastes. 

Kona coffee is typically bright, crisp, and clean with a smooth syrupy body. The flavour profile features brown sugar, milk chocolate, and honey with a hint of a bright fruit flavour.

Macadamia and hazelnut can also replace the fruit taste to provide a nutty alternative, and consumers should not be surprised if they taste a hint of cinnamon, spice, or liquorice. 

Kona coffee beans are graded by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA) based on a number of factors. These include the beans shape and size, cleanliness, moisture content, the number of defects the beans contain, as well as their aroma and flavour once brewed. 

In a similar way to how Kenya values its larger-sized AA beans, Kona coffee is divided by screen size. It is believed that the largest beans hold the most desirable traits. 

However, instead of using letters to signify size – as in Kenya where AA is the largest bean – the top of the Kona crop measures at 19/64” and is known as Extra Fancy. These beans are about 20% of what a crop will produce, and fall under the Type 1 grade. 

The four additional Type 1 grades for Kona coffee are: Fancy, Number 1, Select, and Prime. The Type 2 grade consists of Kona Peaberry, which is a rare pea shaped bean that is very small in size. Only around 3% to 4% of the whole crop are Peaberry. 

Notably, Kona Peaberry are some of the most sought-after lots. This natural mutation helps amplify the beans’ flavour, helping to create more intensity in the final cup. 

Kona coffee beans in roaster machine.

How to roast Kona coffee

Kona descends from the Typica variety and is traditionally processed using the washed method. This helps the beans’ natural acidity to shine through in the cup.

Roasters should expect to find a bean density that is similar to Central American coffees. Therefore, they should approach each of Kona’s individual lots differently as the varying microclimates of the island will alter how the beans react during roasting.

While the Hawaiian coffee beans’ natural, delicate flavours may do better with a lighter roast, any under-development may negatively affect the cup and create a grainy mouthfeel. Roasting closer to a second crack, on the other hand, may diminish the characteristics for which the beans are known. 

Coffees with a higher density require a higher drop temperature. However, scorching and tipping may be problematic with Kona coffee, so it is advised that roasters start with a lower charge temperature

Essentially, balance is key when roasting Kona coffee. Those wanting to dark roast Kona coffee should consider lots grown at higher altitudes, as the added density may help preserve the natural flavours. 

Furthermore, roasting smaller batches of Kona will minimise waste and ensure fewer mistakes are made. This also helps keep costs as manageable as possible.

The microclimates and nutrient-rich solids of Hawaii’s Kona coffee region offers roasters a variety of unique micro-lots to source from. Additionally, these lots have helped the region become one of the most recognised brand names in coffee. 

Hawaiian coffee farmers have fought hard to keep Kona’s reputation in the coffee market intact so consumers can value the unique flavours of these iconic beans. 

At MTPak Coffee, we understand how important it is for roasters to provide consistently fresh, high-quality coffee. Our range of sustainable coffee packaging materials, such as kraft paper, rice paper, PLA, and LDPE coffee bags will ensure the freshness of your coffee is preserved.

Additionally, our sustainable water-based inks can be used to print information on your coffee bags, helping to educate consumers about the unique flavours behind Kona coffees.

We also offer roasters a range of low minimum order quantity (MOQ) options, which means you can order as little as 500 fully customised units in just five working days.

For more information on sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team

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How to roast Kona coffee beans

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