• Photo gallery: Kona coffee country
By Joel Berliner
Special to The Advertiser
Kona coffee belongs to a special breed of agricultural product. Hawai'i is the only coffee-growing region in the United States, and with its storied past Kona coffee has spawned an impressive number of estate farms of exceptional quality and global stature.
Visiting these Big Island coffee farms is one of the great ways of seeing the most beautiful and unspoiled reaches of the Kona Coast, from high in the ridgetops of Holualoa, or across the rolling hills of Keauhou, on into the high-altitude plantations of Captain Cook and Kealekekua or deep inside the rainforests of Honauanu.
More than 600 coffee farms stretch along Hawai'i's coffee belt, two miles wide and 20 miles long, from Holualoa to Honaunau; 150 or more grow, harvest, package, roast and market their own 100 percent Kona coffees.
Indeed, Kona is the Napa and Sonoma of coffee, and the boutique coffee chateaux of Honaunau, Kealakekua, Captain Cook, Keauhou and Holualoa reflect an archetype in American agriculture: the individual farmer harvesting and selling a high-quality product, marketed largely over the Internet.
Each fall at the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival the coffee farms of Kona are tested by a group of world-class judges who bestow on the best the prestigious Gevalia Cup. The highlight of the 10-day celebration is the Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition at the Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort, where dozens of estate farms compete for the award. The competition is surrounded by more than 50 festival events.
At Holualoa, a tiny art colony and picturesque highland village of quaint shops and galleries, Japanese laborers first began growing coffee on a large scale in the 1890s, establishing a string of small family farms when they faced discrimination in finding a means of supporting themselves. These legendary Japanese coffee farmers, humble builders of a grand tradition, are the foundation on which Kona coffee thrives today.
In fact, the opening weekend's Holualoa Village Coffee Tasting and Art Stroll is one of the most popular events, for both the Kona coffee farmers who fill the tiny town with kiosks and fragrance, and the large and festive crowd who gather for the day.
CHECK OUT GEVALIA CUP-WINNING KONA COFFEE FARMS
Over the years the Gevalia Cup has been a measure of Kona coffee excellence. In a blind tasting, the contest judges coffee on its fragrance, aroma, taste, nose and body. The judges don't know which farm they are sampling, yet a remarkable number of farms from specific areas repeat as finalists and winners.
So, coffee lovers, here's a roundup of some of the greatest coffees you may never have heard of. Most coffee farmers are happy to host visitors, but calling ahead is always appreciated.
• Da Kine Coffee Bean, www.dakinecoffeebean.com, 808-328-8716: Terry Fitzgerald has four acres of coffee up a winding trail of a road in Honaunau, and is one of the original coffee pioneers who revitalized the Kona coffee industry as a young hippie back in the 1970s. He found this overgrown coffee farm, restored it, and with the help and advice of some of the older surviving Japanese farmers, turned it into one of the early thriving estate coffee legends.
Terry won the Gevalia Cup in 1997, produces about 5,000 pounds of roast coffee a year, and rakes and dries the beans on the roof of his house. He is the epitome of the independent coffee farmer, and consistently produces one of the great Kona coffees.
• Kona Rain Forest Farms, www.konarainforest.com, 808-328-1941: Robert and Dawn Barnes run a slice of heaven in far southern Honaunau at Kona Rain Forest Farms, the Kona coffee selected multiple times to be served in the White House on special occasions (by head usher and sommelier Daniel Shanks). This is my personal favorite.
Their nine-acre organic farm of coffee trees produces close to 8,000 pounds of roast coffee a year. The key is their roasting and its freshness. In 2008, Kona Rain Forest Farms placed third in the Gevalia Cup after being a finalist for several years.
• Kuaiwi Farm, www.kuaiwifarm.com, 808-328-8888: Una Greenberg and Leon Rosner are a true pedigree in Kona coffee, having been farming coffee in the hills of Captain Cook for 30 years or more. Greenberg has four acres of old-growth, 100-year-old organic coffee trees, and also grows cacao, taro, jaboticaba, and makes her own chocolate. She knows coffee.
In 2007 Kuaiwi Farm won the Gevalia Cup, and in 2008 it came in a narrow second. The secret is meticulous picking of the beans and a loving care about the quality of their product. It helps that Kuaiwi Farm is part of an ahupua'a that has produced a number of fabulous coffee farms. The French winemakers call it "terroir," the quality of the soil.
• Pau Hana Estate, www.pauhanaestate.com, 808-328-8099: Sandy Masterson and Carol Weaver live at the top of Koa Road on a fabulous plot of land. Their farm won the Gevalia Cup under its previous owners when it was Woods Captain Cook Estate, and Sandy and Carol have kept up the tradition, winning second place in 2006. They produce around 5,000 pounds of incredible organic roasted coffee a year.
• Left Coast Farm, www.leftcoastfarm.com, 808-328-9039: Kim Johnson inhabits three acres of paradise at the top of a hill in magical Honaunau and placed second in the Gevalia Cup in 2005. Marketing her coffee under the Long Mountain Coffee (www.longmountainkona.com) and Left Coast Farm brands, this Kona coffee farmer works the land relentlessly to glean around 3,000 pounds of fine roasted coffee.
• Malia Ohana, www.konacoffeeandtea.com, 808-329-6577: Malia Bolton is the daughter of Dan and Jan Bolton of Kona Coffee and Tea Co., who have 100 acres in coffee high above Holualoa on a farm of epic proportions. Kona Coffee and Tea Co. won the Gevalia Cup in 2003. Malia Ohana is Malia's eight-acre organic coffee farm in the hills just above Keauhou, and a second-place Gevalia Cup winner. Three nearby farms, Buddha's Cup (www.buddhascup.com), Imagine Coffee (www.imaginekona.com), and Kona Earth (www.konaearth.com) have placed among the finalists.
• Pearl Estate Organic, www.peleplantations.com, 808-328-8366: Pat Pearlman has the three-acre coffee farm right next door to Terry Fitzgerald. They share the same terroir, and 10 years apart, they both won the Gevalia Cup, Da Kine Coffee in 1997, and Pearl Estate in 2006. Several miles up the twisting trail of Telephone Exchange Road in the rainforest, the view stretches down to the ancient City of Refuge along the coast.
• Rancho Aloha, www.ranchoaloha.com, 808-322-9562: Bruce and Lisa Corker have one acre in coffee in Holualoa, but what an acre. The Corkers won the Gevalia Cup in 2005 and produce about 1,000 pounds of coffee a year. Bruce, a lawyer and a former Peace Corps worker in Columbia, is at peace with his life in the cradle of Kona coffee.
• Greenwell Farms, www.greenwellfarms.com, 888-592-5662: With 35 acres in coffee, Tommy Greenwell is a lifeline to much of the Kona coffee industry. Greenwell mills and roasts coffee for estate farmers but Greenwell Farms coffee comes from trees on his own property. Greenwell sells about 30,000 pounds of estate coffee.
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The 39th Kona Coffee Cultural Festival is Nov. 6 to 15. Hawai'i's oldest food festival has more than 50 events including a parade, recipe contest, tours, art stroll and concerts. www.konacoffeefest.com.
ACCOMMODATION: Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort on the rocky point of a volcanic flow is a perfect base to use to explore Kona coffee country. Sprawling grounds with views, a beautiful pool and a terrific location are only part of the equation. Rates start at $179 per room per night. The resort's restaurant Kai features fresh fish cooked perfectly in a lovely room overlooking the grounds right next to the Manta Ray Bar. www.sheratonkeauhou.com.
DINING: Kenichi, a favorite Asian fusion restaurant and sushi bar (with outposts in Aspen, Colo., and Austin, Texas), is tucked away in the Keauhou Shopping Center.
Huggo's, in Kona, offers beautifully cooked fresh fish specials and a superb wine list (try the Flowers pinot noir). Their nightclub/bar next door, On the Rocks, is great for live entertainment. www.huggos.com, 808-329-1493.
ACTIVITIES: There are things one must do when visiting Kona. A sailboat charter out to sea from Honokohau Harbor is one of them. Howard and Stephanie Conant have sailed between California and Australia numerous times in their 51-foot sailboat and palace of the sea, The Holy Grail. Cruises start at $400, www.konasail.com, 808-987-9698.
Snorkeling in Kealekekua Bay, famous as the site of Captain Cook's death, a nature preserve of pristine beauty, both above and below the water. Fair Wind offers a five-hour excursion on the Hula Kai catamaran, with breakfast and lunch served aboard and spectacular snorkeling, aided with a James Bond-like underwater propulsion device, taking us to depths and along underwater shores with ease. $155, www.fairwind.com, 808-345-0268.