How do residents of the Big Island of Hawaii take their coffee? Seriously, very seriously. In fact, according to island residents, a morning without Kona coffee is like a day of slumber. Mark Twain proclaimed Kona coffee to have a richer flavor than any other coffee in the world. One visit to Kona’s Coffee Country and coffee aficionados can get their java jitters on while learning what the buzz is all about.
The Big Island, also known as Hawaii Island, is an ecologically diverse, geographically isolated paradise, with vistas ranging from white sand beaches, molten lava and tropical rainforests to desert lands and snow-capped mountain peaks. It also boasts one of the best climates in the world to grow coffee, making Kona coffee one of the most famous and expensive coffees in the world.
Kona Coffee Country stretches from the South Kona District into parts of the North Kona District. Only about a mile wide and about 30 miles long, the Kona Coffee Belt is a prime coffee-growing region located along the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes. Elevations between 500 and 2,500 feet, seasonal rainfall, rich volcanic soil and just the perfect amount of afternoon cloud cover create a unique environment essential to producing the perfect coffee bean.
Hawaii is the only state in the country with a commercial coffee industry. Covering a little more than 4,000 acres, Kona Coffee Country is small in comparison to the rest of the world’s coffee farms. Known for its well-balanced flavor, each Kona coffee farm has subtle characteristics that make it unique in quality.
Coffee grown in Hawaii is relatively expensive compared to other coffees, because a farm worker in Hawaii is paid significantly more than a worker in South America or Africa, emphasizing the importance of buying fair trade coffee whenever possible.
According to the Kona Coffee Council, because of Kona’s rocky location, and because coffee cherries do not ripen simultaneously, the trees cannot be mechanically harvested. Every bean is inspected upon harvest to ensure ripeness, resulting in the coffee cherries being harvested at the perfect time. Kona coffee beans are picked at the peak of perfection, unlike mechanically harvested crops, which result in a combination of overripe and immature beans.
When purchasing Kona coffee, it’s worth it to splurge on the 100 percent Kona coffee. Many of the ‘Kona blends’ consist of only 10 percent Kona coffee beans, so you’re not getting the full experience. While easier on the pocket book, locals will enthusiastically tell you to go for the real deal and get the 100 percent Kona coffee beans. It’s worth the few extra dollars.
Christian missionaries first introduced coffee to Hawaii in 1828 as an ornamental plant. By the turn of the century, Japanese immigrants began settling in Kona to escape the sugar plantations and become coffee farm owners. This lure of independence and a better life for their families was a boom for the coffee industry — growing it from a few coffee farms in 1900 to over 700 farms today.
Visitors to the Big Island will enjoy learning about Kona coffee by visiting one of the many hundreds of Kona coffee farms. Most of the farms offer free tours, where guests stroll through the orchards, tour the processing area and taste the locally produced java. The leisurely drive through Kona Coffee Country is filled with interesting stops, from coffee museums to living history museums.
One of the most popular stops in coffee country is a guided, one-hour living history tour sponsored by the Kona Historical Society. Guests receive a tour of the historical Uchida family farm in Kealakekua and take a stroll through the orchards, farmhouse, gardens and processing mill. After witnessing and learning how coffee was grown and processed in the early 1900s, visitors sample the farm’s 100 percent Kona coffee, macadamia nuts and seasonal fruit.
Visitors traveling to Hawaii Island in November have the additional opportunity to participate in the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, an annual event celebrating the almost 200-year Kona coffee heritage. It is a must-attend event for serious coffee lovers and includes over 50 festivities such as a coffee-picking contest, an international lantern parade, a recipe contest and judging for the best Kona coffee. Food, dance and music are abundant during this 10-day long tribute to Kona’s prized commodity.
Kona’s proud coffee heritage and hard-working coffee farmers strive to preserve and perpetuate the cultural importance of coffee to the Island of Hawaii, whether it’s through annual festivals or opening up their farms for free tours and tastings.
It’s well worth one’s time to experience Kona Coffee Country and discover what it’s about. The only downfall of experiencing a ‘Cup of Aloha’ is you may never be satisfied with a regular cup o’ joe again.
Hawaii.com offers more insider travel tips as well as vacation packages at www.hawaii.com.