Big Island brews up big things for coffee fest

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It's the brew of the gods, with an unearthly price tag. Kona coffee is a rare bean that grows only in a small swath of tropical landscape on the island of Hawaii, limiting the number of both cultivators and produce.

"When people think of Hawaiian coffee, they think Kona coffee," said Robert Barnes, co-owner of Kona RainForest's coffee farm. "In all the world, there is only this narrow slice of land where Kona can be grown; the amount of available land can't be expanded."

In fact, to be labeled Kona coffee, beans must come from the geographical regions of North or South Kona. Coffee and Kona are a perfect match because the area boasts rich volcanic soil and ideal climate conditions, meaning just enough rain and sunshine and the right temperature.

HAW-KonacoffeefarmWhile coffee is grown across the Hawaiian Islands, Big Island farms accounted for $25.6 million, or 68%, of total statewide sales of $37 million in 2006 and 2007.

Limited supply means more demand than there is supply; some premium Kona beans sell for as much as $40 per pound.

The most expensive bean is the peaberry, "the champagne of Kona." A normal coffee "cherry" has two beans, but the peaberry has just one: a nearly perfectly round bean that growers claim enables more even roasting.

Being that it's such a precious commodity, it seems fitting that the Big Island hosts an annual celebration dedicated to its most famous nonalcoholic beverage.

The 38th annual Big Island's Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, set for Nov. 7 to 16, not only honors Kona coffee growers and their individual products but the century-old culture surrounding cultivation and appreciation of the bean.

The event features 50 community events, is the oldest product-oriented festival in Hawaii and claims to be the only coffee-themed festival in the U.S.

"It's our salute to Kona coffee," said Malia Bolton, owner of Kona Coffee & Tea Emporium, producer of Malia Ohana coffee.

Java on the lava

But it takes more than unlimited cups of Kona coffee to keep visitors and locals interested. Just how much buzz can someone handle? Well, there's the Kona Coffee Cupping Competition, which honors the best bean; recipe contests for amateurs and culinary professionals; coffee-picking contests; pageants and parades; self-guided coffee farm tours; and a cultural buffet of food, music, dance, arts and crafts celebrating Kona's diverse ethnic heritage.

One of the most interesting possibilities is a Kona coffee tour, which provides a deeper understanding of the coffee's history and those who make the gourmet brew.

But participants should beware: Sampling the local java at each stop from Keopu to Honaunau -- there are more than 775 coffee farms along the Kona Coffee Belt -- will likely mean downing several cups of java by day's end.

Many of the Kona farmers visited on the tour claim to be fifth-generation coffee farmers. One such old-time grower, Una Greenaway, has taken a newfangled approach to coffee cultivation: Her five-acre Kuaiwi Farm is all organic, a growing trend among Kona coffee growers. Kuaiwi Farm, certified organic in 1999, is one of about 50 organic coffee farms in the area.

Organic is big business

Some java devotees might not be able to differentiate between organic and conventionally grown coffee, but the land definitely benefits, Greenaway said.

"When we leased this property, we recognized that land needed caring and healing," she said. "It had been abused by chemicals."

Greenaway's Kuaiwi Farm is a perfect example of an intact piece of the "pre-contact" Kona field system put in place by native Hawaiians before European settlement.

The kuaiwi, or low rock mounds, which separate the kihapai, or growing fields, are still easily identifiable on the farm. The last ali'i, or Hawaiian royalty, to own this land was Keohokalole, the mother of King David Kalakaua, last native ruler of Hawaii. Most of the coffee trees here are 100 years old.

Kuaiwi Farm's brew took top prize at least year's Kona Coffee Festival and has since become Greenaway's top moneymaker. The price of their Kona Old Style coffee shot up to $36 a pound, from $25. Demand is so great that the couple limit sales to two pounds per customer.

Another must-stop on the coffee farm tour is Barnes' Kona RainForest, where some 6,000 organically grown trees rise on nine lush acres of the Mauna Loa volcano's southern flank in the South Kona Forest Reserve.

The farm's coffee has been in such demand that Kona RainForest recently had to turn down a 10,000-pound order from a South Korean business because they simply didn't have enough product.

"One thing about the Kona coffee business is that there's incredibly more demand than any of us can produce," Barnes said.

He noted that online commerce has changed the face of Kona coffee sales, as growers now can market and sell their own products nationwide, avoiding distributors. The largest mainland U.S. customer bases for Kona coffee can be found on the West Coast as well as in New York and New Jersey, where consumers demand organic Kona coffee.

"It's great to be wanted," said Barnes.

For information on the Kona Coffee Festival, visit www.konacoffeefest.com.

 

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