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From the cafés, stores, and restaurants selling Kona coffee, to the farm tours, to the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, coffee is a major part of life on this side of the Big Island. More than 600 farms, most from just three to seven acres in size, grow the delicious—and luxurious, at generally more than $25 per pound—beans. Only coffee from the North and South Kona Districts can be called Kona.
Hawaii is the only U.S. producer of commercially grown coffee, and it has been growing in Kona since 1828, when Reverend Samuel Ruggles, an American missionary, brought a cutting over from the Oahu farm of Chief Boki, Oahu's governor. That coffee plant was a strain of Ethiopian coffee called coffee Arabica, and it is the same coffee still produced today, although a Guatemalan strain of Arabica introduced in the late 1800s is produced in far higher quantities.
In the early 1900s, the large Hawaiian coffee plantations subdivided their lots and began leasing parcels to local tenant farmers, a practice that continues today. Many tenant farmers were Japanese families. In the 1930s, local schools switched summer vacation to "coffee vacation" from August to November so that the kids could help with the coffee harvest, a practice that held until 1969.
Coffee is harvested as "cherries"—the beans are encased in a hard red shell. Kona beans are hand-picked several times each season to guarantee the best product. The cherries are shelled and the beans roasted to a dark brown. Today most farms—owned and operated by Japanese-American families, west coast Mainland transplants, native Hawaiians, and descendants of Portuguese and Chinese immigrants—control production from harvest to cup.
Kona's Coffee Festival
Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. The annual community-wide Kona Coffee Cultural Festival runs for 10 days in November and includes recipe competitions, parades, concerts, special tours, an art stroll and coffee tasting in Holualoa and the Gevalia Kona Cupping Competition (a judged tasting). www.konacoffeefest.com.
Several coffee farms around the Kona coffee-belt area welcome visitors to watch all or part of the coffee process, from harvest to packaging. Some tours are self-guided, and most are free, with the exception of the Kona Coffee Living History Farm.
Greenwell Farms. This 25-minute tour of a working Hawaii farm is great for the entire family. Depending on the season, you will see various stages of coffee production, but you will always get to sample Greenwell Farms' Kona coffee at the end of your tour. 81-6581 Mamalahoa Hwy., Kealakekua, HI, 96750. PHONE: 808/323-2295. www.greenwellfarms.com. OPEN: Daily 8:30-4:30 except major holidays.
Holualoa Kona Coffee Company. There is a lot going on at this truly organic coffee farm and processing facility, from growing the beans to milling and drying. The processing plant next door to the farm demonstrates how the beans are roasted and packaged as well. A flock of 50 geese welcomes visitors and "provides fertilizer" for the plantation at no charge. Holualoa also processes beans for 100 coffee farms in the area. 77-6261 Old Mamalahoa Hwy., Hwy. 180, Holualoa, HI, 96725. PHONE: 808/322-9937 or 800/334-0348. www.konalea.com. COST: Free. OPEN: Weekdays 8-4.
Hula Daddy. Learn the history of the farm and view different aspects of the coffee-making process here. You will get to pick and pulp your own coffee bean. 74-4944 Mamalahoa Hwy., Holualoa, HI, 96740. PHONE: 808/327-9744 or 888/553-2339. www.huladaddy.com. COST: Free. OPEN: Tours daily until 4.
Royal Kona Coffee Museum & Coffee Mill. Take this easy self-guided tour by following the descriptive plaques located around the coffee mill, then stop off at the small museum to see coffee-making relics and watch an informational film. 83-5427 Mamalahoa Hwy., next to tree house, Captain Cook, HI, 96704. PHONE: 808/328-2511. www.royalkonacoffee.com.
Mountain Thunder. The largest organic coffee farm in Hawaii, this famous property in upcountry Kona teaches you about coffee from "bean to cup." The tour includes a tasting and access to the processing plant, where you can see everything from dry milling, sizing, coloring, sorting, and roasting. 79-7469 Hawaii Belt Rd., Kainaliu, HI, 96759. PHONE: 888/414-5662. www.mountainthunder.com. OPEN: Hourly tours daily 10-4.