Surrounded by the azure waves of the Pacific and boasting towering waterfalls that cut steep emerald cliffs and then drop into the sea, few places on the planet can compare with the beauty of the Garden Island. It is no wonder that the remote Hawaiian Island of Kauai has enticed explorers for thousands of years. From the earliest Polynesian voyagers to the adventure-seekers and vacationers of today, the history of Kauai is as magnificent and diverse as its landscape.
Just as the story of Kauai depends upon the volcanic forces that birthed the Hawaiian Islands, and the Polynesian explorers who arrived here first, the history of Kauai Coffee is rooted in the people and plants who have called this island home for thousands of years. Long before coffee was cultivated on the island, something sweet paved the way – sugar cane.
The 2019 coffee harvest has just begun, so let’s start at the beginning to find out how the confectionary crop arrived in Hawaii and led to the development of Kauai Coffee as we know it today.
Sugar Cane and the Polynesian Voyagers
It is impossible to know the exact date the earliest Polynesians arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, but archeological studies have dated fish hooks and other materials to approximately 400 A.D. By studying the stars, sea swells, and sun, ancient Polynesians were able to navigate and sail double-hulled canoes great distances away from land. Outfitted with a platform between the hulls voyaging canoes could carry people and the cargo necessary for long journeys at sea.
To sustain their long voyages and survive once they arrived on distant shores, Polynesians traveled with plants they considered sacred and useful for food, clothing, and shelter. Sugar cane, also known as ko in the Hawaiian Language, was one such canoe plant and was used for food and medicines as well as a ceremonial offering.
The Sugar Plantation Era
It would be almost a millennia from the time the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii until Captain Cook’s voyage through the islands in 1778. The first encounter between Hawaiians and Captain Cook took place on the southwest shore of Kauai [Waimea] near where the Kauai Coffee Estate is located today. From there, it didn’t take long before other trading vessels, western missionaries and enterprising individuals made their way to Kauai.
From 1820 to 1832, Chinese carpenters and cooks from trading vessels that stopped over in Hawaii were the first to process sugar from cane growing on Kauai. They used granite grinders and boilers to extract sugar cane juice, reduce it to molasses and make raw sugar that was consumed locally. Land and labor disputes between the Chinese entrepreneurs and local chiefs who ruled the ahupuaa [land divisions] of Kauai halted their endeavors before any level of commercial production could be reached, but laid the foundation for the Sugar Plantation Era to take hold on Kauai.
In 1835, Ladd & Company, a whaling ship provisions merchant, acquired a 50-year lease signed by Kamehameha III on approximately 980 acres of land in the Koloa area of Kauai. The first-of-its-kind contract not only allowed Ladd & Company to control the land but also allowed native Hawaiians to work for the operation as long as Kamehameha III was compensated, and workers were given wages and benefits. The first sugar mill was built on the property in 1836 and produced 30 tons of sugar in its first year of operation.
Upon the success of the Koloa Sugar Plantation, two others opened on the island in the late 1800s – Grove Farm Plantation in Lihue and McBryde Sugar. Alexander and Walter McBryde formed the Company in 1899 and built a new sugar mill east of Eleele on the southwest shore of Kauai. Hawaiians and plantation workers called the new mill “Numila.” The name has stuck to this day and is the present-day location of Kauai Coffee. Look for Numila on roadway signage as you approach the Kauai Coffee Visitors Center from Kaumualii Highway.
Within a few years, McBryde Sugar Company was cultivating sugar cane on nearly all of the land between the Hanapepe River and Koloa. Watering the cane was a challenge because local streams couldn’t provide enough water to irrigate the large scale operation properly. In 1906, McBryde Sugar built a hydroelectric power plant on the north shore of Kauai. The plant generated the first electricity on Kauai and brought power to the mill, well water pumps and eventually Numila Camp houses. McBryde also built one of the first railroad tracks on the island which ran from the Eleele Landing [Port Allen] to Numila to transport supplies from incoming ships.
From 1885 to 1910, 450,000 immigrants arrived in Hawai’i. Many sought to work on sugar and other agricultural plantations across the islands. While Hawaiian culture remained the foundation for the way of life on Kauai, immigrants from China, Japan, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Korea brought their traditions, food, and music to the island and made for a unique multicultural population unlike any other.
The first plantation camp housing on Kauai was created for the Hawaiian workers of the Koloa Plantation and consisted of simple structures with grass-thatched roofing. As plantations expanded and immigrants arrived, new camp housing was built so workers who spoke the same language could live near each other. Camp houses in Numila and other locations across the island in the 1930s were uncomplicated consisting of a simple wooden frame, single panel walls, and sheet metal roofing. Most camp homes had one or two bedrooms and a simple kitchen with a wood-burning stove. Multiple couples or families shared an outdoor shower, laundry shed, and outhouse facilities.
Living, working, and growing up in the plantation camp houses was a culinary adventure and multicultural experience. Some descendants of plantation families still live in Numila Camp housing that stands to this day. Others whose family members made a life at McBryde Sugar but do not live on Kauai now visit as often as possible to connect with family history. Sue Nishikawa grew up in Numila Camp One and recently returned to Kauai for a visit. She described her experience and family life in a letter to Kauai Coffee, “Our roots are in the red dirt a very short distance from the mill. The memories of growing up in New Mill are both poignant and pleasant – a past that shaped who we are today.”
War, Weather and the Bittersweet Decline of Sugar
The rise of global conflicts in the early 20th century spelled disaster for the sugar plantation era in Hawaii. World wars, the attack on Pearl Harbor and enactment of martial law led to worker shortages and the inability for Hawaii sugar growers to compete in the global market.
By 1974 many of the Kauai plantations discontinued sugar operations. McBryde closed New Mill and moved processing to the Koloa Mill. Unfortunately, disaster struck again in the form of Hurricane Iwa in 1982 but led McBryde to plant other crops including coffee and macadamia nuts. Hurricane Iniki ravaged Kauai again in 1992, and the remaining sugar cane was all but destroyed. Fortunately, coffee weathered the storm better than other crops, and so McBryde planted even more. In 1996 the coffee harvest exceeded the volume of coffee produced in the entire Kona region. McBryde Sugar officially went out of existence, and the sugar era ended on Kauai paving the way for Kauai Coffee as we know it.
Today Kauai Coffee is an authentic Hawaiian Coffee Estate made possible by the rich history and traditions of all who came before. From growing the coffee to roasting and packaging, we employ sustainable, environmentally sound practices throughout every step of the process. You can visit our estate on Kauai or purchase 100% Kauai Coffee online and taste more than 100 years of history now.
Additional Resources for Kauai History:
- The Story of Koloa, by Donald Donohugh
- Kauai: The Separate Kingdom, by Edward Joesting
- West Kauai’s Plantation Heritage: Recipes and Stories for Life from the Legacy of Hawaii’s Sugar Plantation Community, Compiled by Evelyn Cook and Edited by Elizabeth Hahn for West Kauai Community Development Corp.