For the organizers of the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival who had to make the tough decision to cancel the 2020 edition of the fall event, it wasn't a matter of if they were going to return, but in what format.
"Covid is in the rear-view mirror, but we're still cognizant that it lingers on," said festival president Valerie Corcoran, who noted that some restrictions on gatherings are still in place in Hawaii and the recent spike in cases attributed to the delta variant of Covid-19.
"Kona Coffee is almost 200 years old, and the industry has sustained itself through a lot of challenges and ups and downs," she said.
The event started in 1970, making it the oldest ongoing food-related festival in the Aloha State, and 2020 was supposed to be the 50th anniversary celebration. Instead,the 50th edition of the festival will be celebrated belatedly, on Nov. 4 to 7 of this year, with a calendar of events that has been carefully pruned from previous years in order to meet current social distancing and other health protocols.
This year's festival will be four days instead of the traditional 10 days, for instance. The planners have also centralized the events somewhat, with the King Kamehameha Hotel serving as the primary venue. For the first time, some of the events will be presented online at KonaCoffeeFest.com.
"Some visitors might not might be able to come this year because of their own countries' regulations and restrictions, so we thought it was important to offer a virtual component," Corcoran said.
Coffee plants first touched Hawaii Island soil in the late 1820s, and the first plantations were established in 1841. What is today known as Kona typica comes from an arabica bean imported from Guatemala in the 1890s.
The fertile, volcanic soil and mountain slopes of the island proved an ideal climate for coffee growing. At its peak in the early 1900s the industry encompassed 6,000 acres.
Today, there are still approximately 650 farms cultivating coffee in the Kona district, covering roughly 3,500 acres with annual production valued at $14 million. The festival began when the local Chamber of Commerce joined a small group of engaged community members to develop coffee events that would attract visitors to the Kona coast to celebrate the fall harvest season.
"What the festival brings to Kona is that it lifts up the curtain and gives people a look at the cultures of the people who've come here to be coffee farmers," Corcoran said. "Hawaii Island is the most culturally diverse county in the nation. There's a lot of different people here, and they bring a lot of different cultures."
The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival's signature events include the Holualoa Village Coffee and Art Stroll, a lei contest, a coffee art exhibit, a latte foam art competition, a half marathon, a coffee-picking and farm experience hosted by UCC Hawaii, Kona coffee farm tours and tastings, and a Hoolaulea (block party) event showcasing artisans, cultural practitioners, Hawaiian musicians and crafters. Additionally, the 50th Miss Kona Coffee will be crowned.
At the heart of the festival is the Kona Coffee Cupping Competition, which includes categories for the original Kona typica as well as varietals, coffees grown in the designated region but of a different type of beans.
"To win the cupping competition is really a big deal for the farmers; a lot of farmers market off of the win. It comes with some bragging rights," Corcoran said.
With the growth in gourmet coffee roasting, Corcoran says the Kona area has seen an infusion of new growers and roasters experimenting with new techniques and different types of beans.
"They are doing more higher-end, estate coffees, and bringing in other coffee beans than we've typically seen here," she said. "They are also doing things like experimenting with growing at higher elevations up to 3,000 to 4,000 feet, when traditionally the farms have been around 2,000."
The festival will also offer a cookbook to commemorate the 50th anniversary taken from (mostly) coffee-related recipes collected and tested over the years. "Kona Coffee Cookbook: Recipes From our Coffee Country Kitchens" is a collection of more than 300 recipes, including breads, main dishes, sides, salads and desserts.
"We can only be hopeful and put the plans in place for the best festival possible under the current conditions," Corcoran said. "I'm confident the festival will get back to its 10-day, full calendar in the future."