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Manoa Valley – The First Home of Hawai‘i-Grown Coffee

June 05, 2017

After fresh harvests were dried thoroughly under the Hawaiian sun, the parchment and silver skin on the outside are removed, then packed in a burlap sack and delivered to coffee roasters around the world. Image: A fresh batch of green coffee beans from Kona at the warehouse of Hawaii Coffee Company.

About two hundred years ago, the exotic drink of Ethiopia, finally reached to the Island of O‘ahu after travelling half way around the globe. It was Don Francisco de Paula Marin, the Chilean adventurist who served for King Kamehameha I as an interpreter, physician and confidant…a jack-of-all-trades, who planted the first coffee seeds in Hawai‘i back in 1813.

Being an enthusiastic horticulturalist, he also introduced other plants to the Islands such as sandalwood (of course he profited from this thriving trade), and was also known for the creation of ‘Vineyard Boulevard’ in downtown Honolulu as he planted the first grape vine in Hawai'i and produced its first wine.

His was the first introduction of coffee to Hawai‘i. But unfortunately, it is said that Marin’s coffee seeds didn’t succeed to grow.

It was the next attempt that bore a seed of success. The first coffee trees which took firm roots in the Hawaiian soil were those planted in the fertile soil of the lush Manoa Valley of Honolulu. They were planted along with the first ever sugar plantation in Hawai‘i sometime after 1825.

The seedlings of Hawai‘i’s first successful coffee plants reached the Island in a rather somber atmosphere. They came to Hawai‘i with a group of heavy-hearted passengers in the British government charted frigate H.M.S. Blonde. They were the surviving entourage that accompanied the King Kamehameha II and his wife Queen Kamamalu for their 1823 state trip to London. During this trip (now remembered as a tragic trip), the entourage was stricken with measles and half of them passed away including both the King and the Queen.

On the return voyage to Hawai‘i, one of the royal entourage, High Chief Boki and the young Scottish horticulturalist James Macrae obtained some coffee plants when the ship harbored for provisions at St. Catherines, Brazil. Macrae was appointed by the Horticultural Society of London to take care of the fine collection of plants and seeds on board; it was a gift for the Hawaiian chiefs. Although he returned to England in the frigate soon after the arrival in 1825, these coffee plants were not neglected. They were left to another expert from England named John Wilkinson who had farming experience in the West Indies.

Governor Boki persuaded the English agriculturalist to come aboard to help grow coffee and other exotic plants new to the tropic isles during his stay in England. Visiting several coffee houses there, not only did he enjoy the beverage but also saw the potential to grow them back home.

At the head of Manoa Valley, Wilkinson planted and nurtured the coffee seedlings into healthy saplings along with his sugar plantation. Though non-native plants managed to survive in the foreign soil and grew vigorously, its grower Wilkinson fell ill and passed away after struggling to adjust to the new environment leaving the young trees behind in 1827.

It didn’t take long for the cuttings of this Manoa-grown coffee to reach the neighbor islands. The very next year they were already enjoying the beaming morning sun and abundant rain in the mineral rich soil of the Napo'opo'o region of South Kona on the Island of Hawai‘i, which happened to be the ideal location to grow coffee. Then in around 1836, the commercial coffee growing budded out on the Island of Kaua'i.

Some records indicate that Manoa had stayed as the source of the Hawai‘i-grown coffees and sent out its siblings to the neighbor islands for many years since the first coffee leaves sprouted out of the ground with Hawaiian water, light and air after the almost ten-thousand-mile journey on the sea. Though there is no photo or detailed description found about the state of the Wilkinson’s coffee orchard in the valley back then, you will soon realize it is not difficult to picture an image of fragrant white coffee flowers capping the trees like fresh snow and countless strands of red cherries gleaming like rubies, against the emerald-colored backdrop once you enter into this verdant valley on O'ahu.

To-day Manoa Valley the first home of coffee in Hawai‘i still carries the same soft morning dews, the cheerful chirping of birds, refreshing passing afternoon rains and a huddling mystic fog high above in the air even after two centuries have passed.

From left: a six-month-old Kona coffee sapling; fully-ripened coffee cherries; green coffee beans before the roasting process.

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