THE BLOG
09/03/2010 02:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Perking Up on the Big Island

Travelers in the know have long gravitated to The Big Island's Kona Coast for its superb weather and unique diversions distinguishing it from other Hawaii destinations. Adventure lovers find a bevy of sun-splashed pursuits, from championship sport fishing and world-class golf to unparalleled diving and trippy trekking through ancient petroglyph fields.

Recreation aside, there's another dimension to The Big Island that tends to appeal across the board. It's such an integral component of the island's cultural complexion, in fact, that it's been honored for four decades in Hawaii's longest running agricultural festival that continues to stir up quite a buzz on the typically laid-back island.

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Through the years, the award-winning Kona Coffee Cultural Festival has garnered recognition as the pioneer food festival in Hawaii. Slated for Nov. 5 -- 14, the 40th edition will kick up its heels with a "Celebrating 40 Years of Kona Coffee Heritage" theme, paying homage to pioneers, farmers, artisans and the product itself.

Nearly 50 festival events will include coffee-based competitions, tastings, parades, farm tours, workshops, art exhibits and an outdoor concert. If the 2010 version proves as compelling as 2009, coffee aficionados will be satisfied far beyond the brew.

Heading to Kona a few days prior to last year's festival launch, I opted to perk up a low-key day by touring Kona Coffee Country. Driving maps are available from hotel concierges, local businesses or by contacting info@konacoffeefest.com.

The comprehensive piece includes information on coffee history, industry standards and cultivation practices. For direction ease, it opens to a map pinpointing locations of Kona Coffee farms and retail sites that welcome guests.

American missionary Samuel Ruggles introduced coffee to the island in 1828, transporting cuttings of Arabica trees from Oahu to Kona. The area was a natural, thanks to its rich volcanic soil, ample rainfall, natural cloud cover and hard-working family farmers who toiled away to establish the renowned region celebrated today.

Picking up steam among connoisseurs, Kona Coffee consists exclusively of beans grown on the western slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa in a strip extending south from the village of Holualoa to the town of Honaunau. More than 670 farms create a tapestry amid the 22-mile-long, two-mile-wide coffee-rich corridor. So with a little "Java 101" under my belt and map in hand, I hit the road.

First stop was Greenwell Farms in Kealakekua, one of the industry's oldest and most storied producers. The Greenwell legacy began in 1850 when Henry Nicholas Greenwell left England for the fertile soil of rural Kona. For the next 40 years, he and his wife farmed, ranched and perfected their product.

Today, the spread lies adjacent to the Greenwell's ancestral home, now occupied by the Kona Historical Society's Kona Coffee Living History Farm. Managed by family descendants, Greenwell Farms works 150 acres of the most productive land in the Kona District. As with many larger producers, it purchases additional coffee cherry from selected farms within the region.

My tour guide, Kapua, described how the transformation from cherries into a full-bodied, aromatic brew begins with hand-planted seedlings. "They blossom into Kona Snow flowers, which produce bright red cherries that generally contain two coffee beans," Kapua explained. Those producing a single bean are referred to as peaberries -- considered top crop with a more concentrated flavor leaving a tingle on the tongue.

We then headed to the drying area where beans are pulped, dried and hulled to remove their parchment. Mill machinery sorts the beans into distinctive grades based on size and shape.

With a selection of savory souvenirs I purchased at Greenwell's retail shop, I set off for Mountain Thunder, a five-acre organic farm in Kainaliu. Here, visitors can tour, taste and purchase organic Kona Coffee and green tea grown at 3,200 feet on the slopes of Hualalai. But it's the quality that elevates Mountain Thunder to even greater heights.

Owner Trent Bateman's commitment to the environment, technology and his family are key ingredients that give Mountain Thunder's 100% organic Kona Coffee its true flavor. Bateman believed in the health benefits of foods grown free from harmful herbicides and additives well before organic farming became the mainstream staple it is today.

During a typical farm tour, visitors might be served a cup of coffee by Bateman's wife Lisa, or learn how to roast coffee beans from Bateman himself. Their daughter, Brooke, serves as company roastmaster, and has developed a line of coffee and tea-infused beauty products sold on-site.

The Batemans even employ families of Chinese Geese, St. Croix Sheep and Kona Nightingale Donkeys to help weed the grounds and nuzzle up to visitors - not to mention provide plenty of free organic fertilizer.

Next, I headed further along Highway 11 to Kona Joe Coffee in Kainaliu. Established in 1997, the family-owned 20-acre estate has taken a page from wine vineyards by growing its cherries on trellises. The brainchild of owner Joe Alban, the process trains trees by years of meticulous pruning to grow sideways and upward over the patented system.

"It's well worth the effort because trees develop with more uniform sun exposure resulting in more even ripening of the coffee cherry," remarked the tasting room hostess. She went on to explain how hand harvesting is facilitated because ripe cherries develop within easy reach of pickers. Aside from a mean cup of Joe, Kona Joe's setting was worth the jaunt. Acres of coffee trees sprawled below the tasting room, with the blue Pacific as a backdrop.

With a few more farms and quite a few more cups of coffee fueling the afternoon, I was compelled to make a final stop at Kona Coffee & Tea Company's retail outlet near the Kona International Airport at Keahole on Queen Kaahumanu Highway.

According to Malia Bolton, Director of Operations, comparing Kona Coffee to Napa's wine industry is natural. "We're both regions producing fine quality beverages," she said. "And we share the reputation of coupling these products with memorable experiences."

Bolton added that one of the greatest misconceptions is that there is only one Kona Coffee. "So many people don't understand what a big business this is," she explained. "There are hundreds of farms producing. So the variety inspires tasters to discover their palate's most desirable flavor."

Once the actual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival began, everything I learned while touring the individual farms began to tie in. Of the events I attended, I was most impressed with the signature Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition at Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort.

Similar to wine tasting, the blind tasting allowed attendees to observe judges as they sampled and selected the finest Kona Coffee -- all while sampling the coffee and learning from experts how to critique a high-quality brew.

Sixty-one farms each submitted 50 to 70 pound samples from which 10 to 15 pounds were actually entered into the cupping competition. Once the entry is accepted, it's simply assigned a number to protect anonymity.

Coffee samples, both green and roasted, are placed on a long table for the judges to independently evaluate on the basis of fragrance, aroma, taste, nose, aftertaste and body. Deemed the cream of the crop for 2009 was Wolf Farms located in Honaunau at 1,400 feet elevation.

Eleven larger farms competed in the Gevalia Crown Competition, with Bolton's Kona Coffee Tea Company tapped in this heavyweight category.

Whether I was touring coffee territory or attending the festival, the story that kept emerging is how many of these farms are operated today by fifth generation families who are relentlessly improving what's already considered by many as percolated perfection.

For more information on transportation, accommodations and additional activities, visit www.bigisland.org and www.kohalacoastresorts.com. For specific details on the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, visit www.konacoffeefest.com, e-mail info@konacoffeefest.com or call (808) 326-7820.

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