Travelers in the know have long gravitated to the Big Island¹s Kona Coast for its superb weather and unique diversions distinguishing it from other Hawaii destinations. Adventure lovers find a bevy of sun splashed pursuits, from championship sport fishing and world class golf to unparalled diving and trippy trekking through ancient petroglyph fields.
Recreation aside, there’s another dimension to the Big Island that tends to appeal to visitors with all tastes. It¹s such an integral part of the island¹s cultural complexion, in fact, that it¹s been honored for nearly four decades in Hawaii¹s longest running agricultural festival that continues to stir up quite a buzz on the laid-back island. Through the years, the award-winning Kona Coffee Cultural Festival has attained recognition as the oldest and most successful food festival in Hawaii, and the only coffee festival in the United States.
Heading to Kona a few days prior to the launch of the festival, I opted to perk up a low-key day by touring Kona Coffee Country. West Hawaii was brimming with robust reviews of this gourmet beverage characterized for having a full, rich flavor with balanced acidity, great aroma and long finish lacking bitterness.
American missionary Samuel Ruggles introduced coffee to the island in 1828, transporting cuttings of Arabica trees from Oahu to Kona. The area was a natural choice, thanks to its rich volcanic soil, ample rainfall, natural cloud cover and hard-working family farmers who toiled away to establish the renowned region acknowledged today.
Creating steam among connoisseurs, Kona Coffee consists exclusively of beans grown on the western slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa in a strip extending south from the village of Holualoa to the town of Honaunau. More than 670 farms create a tapestry amid the 22-mile-long, two-mile-wide coffee-rich corridor.
Picking up a Kona Coffee Country driving map from my concierge at the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, I learned that maps can also be found at most local businesses or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. The comprehensive piece includes information on coffee history, Kona¹s cultural legacy, current industry standards and an overview of cultivation practices. For direction ease, it opens to a map pinpointing locations of the Kona Coffee farms and retail sites that welcome guests. So with this Java 101 scoop under my belt and map in hand, I hit the road.
First stop was at Greenwell Farms in Kealakekua, one of the industry¹s oldest and most storied producers. The Greenwell legacy began in 1850 when Henry Nicholas Greenwell left England for the fertile soil of rural Kona. For the next forty years, he and his wife farmed, ranched and perfected their product.
Today, the spread lies adjacent to the Greenwell¹s ancestral home, now occupied by the Kona Historical Society¹s Kona Coffee Living History Farm. Managed by family descendants, Greenwell Farms works 150 acres of the most productive land in the Kona District. As with many larger producers, it purchases additional coffee cherry from other selected farms within the region.
Along the way, our guide, Kapua, described how the transformation from cherries into a full-bodied, aromatic brew begins with hand-planted seedlings. They blossom into Kona Snow flowers, which produce bright red cherries that generally contain two coffee beans, Kapua said. Those producing a single bean are referred to as a peaberries considered top crop with a more concentrated flavor leaving a tingle on the tongue.
We then headed to the drying area where beans are pulped, dried and hulled to remove their parchment. Mill machinery sorts the beans into distinctive grades based on size and shape.
With a selection of savory souvenirs I purchased at Greenwell’s retail shop, I set off for Mountain Thunder’s new five-acre organic farm that recently opened in Kainaliu. Here, visitors can tour, taste and purchase organic Kona Coffee and green tea grown at 3,200 feet on the slopes of Hualalai. But it’s the quality that truly elevates Mountain Thunder to even greater heights.
Owner Trent Bateman’s commitment to the environment, new technology, and his family are the secret ingredients that give Mountain Thunder’s 100 % organic Kona Coffee its true flavor. Bateman believed in the health benefits of foods grown free from harmful herbicides and additives before organic farming became the mainstream staple it is today.
During a typical farm tour, visitors might be served a cup of coffee by Bateman¹s wife Lisa, or learn how to roast coffee beans from Bateman himself. Their daughter, Brooke, serves as company roastmaster and developed a line of coffee and tea-infused beauty products sold on-site. The Batemans even employ families of Chinese Geese, St. Croix Sheep and Kona Nightingale Donkeys to help weed the grounds and nuzzle up to visitors … not to mention provide plenty of free organic fertilizer.
Next, I headed further along Highway 11 to Kona Joe Coffee in Kainaliu. Established in 1997, the family-owned 20-acre estate has taken a page from wine vineyards by growing its cherries on trellises. The brainchild of owner Joe Alban, the process trains trees by years of meticulous pruning to grow sideways and upward over the patented system. “It’s well worth the effort because the tree develops with more uniform sun exposure resulting in more even ripening of the coffee cherry,” remarked the tasting room hostess. She went on to explain how hand harvesting is facilitated because the ripe cherries develop within easy reach of pickers.
Aside from a mean cup of Joe, Kona Joe’s setting was worth the jaunt. Acres of coffee trees sprawled below the tasting room, with the blue Pacific as a backdrop. This trek was turning as scenic as it was tasteful.
With a few more farms and quite a few more cups of coffee fueling the afternoon, I was compelled to make one final stop at Kona Coffee & Tea Company’s retail outlet near the Kona International Airport at Keahole on Queen Kaahumanu Highway. According to Malia Bolton, Director of Operations, comparing Kona Coffee to Napa’s wine industry is natural. “We’re both regions producing fine quality beverages,” she said. “And we share the reputation of coupling these products with memorable experiences.”
Bolton added that one of the greatest misconceptions is that there is only one Kona Coffee. “So many people don’t understand what a big business this is,” she commented. “There are hundreds of farms producing. So the variety inspires tasters to discover their palate¹s most desirabl e flavor.”
Once the actual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival began, everything I had learned while touring the individual farms began to tie in. Of the events I attended, I was most impressed with the signature Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition at the Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort
Similar to wine tasting, the blind tasting allowed us to observe judges as they sampled and selected the finest Kona Coffee all while sampling the coffee ourselves and learning from experts how to critique a high-quality brew. Sixty-six farms each submitted a 50-pound sample from which five pounds were actually entered into the cupping competition. The judges look for high marks in six categories – fragrance, aroma, taste, nose, aftertaste and body. Deemed the cream of the crop for 2007 was Arianna Farms, a 40-acre farm situated on land that was once a hunting ground for Hawaiian royalty.
“The Festival speaks to the 180 years of the Kona Coffee industry and the numerous cultures involved in its production along the Kona Coast,” noted Norman Sakata, President of the Kona Coffee Festival. “Signature events include Kona Coffee Cupping Competition, Miss Kona Coffee Pageant, a
Picking Kona Coffee Competition and a Kona Coffee Recipe Contest.”Sakata added that since the festival has increased its promotional efforts over the past year, it expects even greater attendance in the future.
Beverage aside, the festival focuses on creativity at different levels. An art exhibit featured a collection of paintings and other mediums depicting the Kona coffee lifestyle, while a recipe contest offers amateurs, culinary students and professional chefs an opportunity to enter their most stellar creations using gourmet Kona Coffee. Two parades were planned in conjunction with the festivities.
Whether touring coffee territory or attending the festival, the story that kept emerging is how many of these farms are operated today by fifth generation families who are relentless in improving on what¹s already considered by many as percolated perfection. Still far from being a java genius, I knew one thing was certain Kona is not your average cup of Joe. Kona Coffee Cultural Festival for 2009 will be Nov. 6 – 15. If the 2009 version proves to be as compelling as previous years, coffee lovers will be satisfied far beyond the brew.