Kona Coffee Festival celebrates Hawaii Island's iconic crop

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The Kona Coffee Festival offers more than 40 events from Nov. 1 to 10.
The Kona Coffee Festival offers more than 40 events from Nov. 1 to 10.

Thousands of coffee connoisseurs will gather on the Island of Hawaii in October for the annual Kona Coffee Festival, where the 2019 Kona Coffee Cupping Champion will be crowned.

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 a bean imported from Guatemala in the 1890s. The rich, 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 (some who've been in the business for five generations) covering roughly 3,500 acres with annual production valued at $14 million

The first Kona Coffee Festival was held in 1970, making it the longest-running food festival in the Aloha State.

"It all started with a group of businesspeople on the island, from the hotels, airlines and the industry, to put together a festival to honor Kona coffee during the slower November tourism season," festival president Valerie Corcoran said. "It also corresponds with coffee harvest time."

Organizers of the first festival, held over a single weekend, wanted to help put Kona coffee in the international spotlight and increase the island's visibility as a destination. Now, the festival spans 10 days and includes more than 40 events, including farm tours, barista training, a recipe contest, coffee-themed art exhibitions, community festival and the high-stakes cupping competition.

"It's a three-day competition and judges sample somewhere between 75 and 100 different farms' coffees, rounding down through the stages and finally crowning one that has, in their eyes, the best profile of Kona coffee," Corcoran said. "It's a very prestigious award, and the winners are able to use it to market and claim some pretty serious bragging rights."

This year's festival kicks off Nov. 1 with some tours and the opening Lantern Parade and Bon Dance through Kailua Village, a direct link to the considerable influence Japanese farmers (and immigrants from several other countries, including China and the Philippines) had on the Hawaii Island coffee industry.

"All the different ethnic communities participate, and it's a really beautiful event each year," Corcoran said. "The Japanese tenant farmers came out of the sugar industry and started to form their own independent businesses, and you can still see that influence today in Kona."

The festival attracts more than 13,000 attendees over the 10-day period, and an estimated 60% are visitors to Hawaii Island. In addition to the scheduled events, many of the working coffee farms and mills along the Kona coffee belt welcome visitors and offer special tours during the festival.

"The mission is to help tell the story behind Kona's famous coffee, the story of the amazing people that formed coffee the industry, and connect visitors who come here during the November festival to it," Corcoran said. "It's a lot of coffee, a lot of culture, a lot of festival fun for everyone."

Last year the festival added a tour of the Kona Coffee Living History Farm, an interpretive farm including an original 1920s farmhouse, that returns in 2019.

"It's been a great addition to the schedule," Corcoran said. "It's a cool way of looking into the past."

On Nov. 9 is the annual Hoolaulea (block party), a day-long celebration of Kona coffee at Makaeo Pavilion including cultural demonstrations such as poi pounding, ti leaf weaving, and pan roasting coffee, live entertainment, food booths and trucks, arts and crafts, and historical and educational displays. Events also include an art stroll in Holualoa Town and coffee recipe contest with both sweet and savory items.

Next year, when the festival will celebrate its 50th year, there will be special events and commemorations, Corcoran said, including plans for a new recipe book and special exhibition of the art the festival has collected over five decades.

Festival admission buttons, providing access to the entire 10-day event, cost $5 and can be purchased at a range of locations on the island. 

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