Kona Coffee Culture in a Cup

“I think the Kona coffee has a richer flavor than any other, be it grown where it may and call it by what name you please.”

Mark Twain

When American raconteur Mark Twain wrote this in 1866, it was 48 years after Reverend Samuel Ruggles cultivated the crop that became known as Kona Coffee. Ruggles had brought cuttings from the Brazilian trees planted some years earlier on Royal Governor High Chief Boki’s O‘ahu property. With Ruggles’ nurturing, the coffee saplings thrived, and within a few years, busy coffee farms and plantations filled the landscape.

Like sugar cane on the east side of the island, coffee culture and economy soon dominated the west. School schedules were planned around harvest times so that children could work in the groves with their parents, hand-picking coffee cherries one by one. One hundred pound bags were loaded onto hardworking donkeys, the “Kona nightingales,” for transport down the mountain to the mill. Extensive multi-step processing, over several weeks, produced fragrant, roasted coffee beans ready for brewing.

Today, three million coffee trees are growing on 650 farms, from small family acreage to large commercial operations. And while other islands grow coffee of their own, 95% of coffee and coffee products come from Hawai‘i Island.

In 1970, the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival was born, brainchild of the local Chamber of Commerce and community leaders. The idea was to host events that would attract tourists to Kona, during the slower season in November. From humble beginnings, Kona Coffee Cultural Festival (KCCF) has grown into a multi-day series that includes not only farm tours, demos and coffee cupping competition, but a half-marathon, Miss Kona Coffee pageant, a lantern parade, talent show, and an elegant gala at the Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.

KCCF has become Hawaii’s longest running food festival. It’s been praised as the “Best Fall Festival in the U.S.” by National Geographic, and the “world’s best coffee experience” by Lonely Planet. Locally, it’s a celebration looked forward to all year long, with plans for the next festival kicking off as soon as the current fest winds up.

Kona Coffee Cookbook

Like so many other events, KCCF took a couple of years off during the pandemic, returning in 2021 with a hybrid festival, part live part virtual. 2021 was the fiftieth annual KCCF, and a grand celebration had been in the works for years. Among other things, the new “Kona Coffee Cookbook—Recipes From Our Coffee Country Kitchens” was launched. The book features Festival recipe contest winners, chefs’ and homegrown recipes, inspired by Kona Coffee and Kona Coffee culture.

Longtime sponsor Ueshima Coffee Company (UCC) is the main sponsor for the Miss Kona Coffee Scholarship Competition, one of KCCF’s original signature events since 1970. A qualifier for the Miss Hawai‘i and Miss America competitions, Miss Kona Coffee title holders have gone on to win two Miss Hawai‘i crowns and one Miss America. UCC is the #1 coffee company in Japan, and operates a beautiful coffee farm in Hōlualoa. It began in 1933 when founder Tadao Ueshima tasted his first cup of coffee, and knew it would be a huge success.

Miss Kona Coffee Scholarship Competition

The official coffee cupping competition, interestingly, became part of the festivities in 1987. In what’s become a coveted slot for both large and small operations, only 100 coffees are be accepted for the competition. Each must submit a two-pound sample of their 100% Kona Coffee from a single 500lb batch. These samples will be evaluated by Pacific Coffee Research, an independent agency hired by KCCF to manage the particulars of the cupping competition. Coffees are graded based on the globally accepted and recognized Specialty Coffee Association cupping format and scoring methodology using a 100 point scale.

Kona Coffee cupping competition

But don’t worry. You don’t have to know all that. All you need to know is that coffee lovers like us are coming from around the world to experience events happening, practically, in our own back yard. And there’s a lot to experience.

Check the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival website for events and activities that catch your fancy, but don’t be afraid to step out of your coffee comfort zone a bit and try something new. Some events are free, some are ticketed, but admission to all events requires the 2022 commemorative KCCF button, designed by Kona artist Lin Huff. Buttons are available for $5 at numerous retail outlets in the Kona area, and at most events. The online store is now open for sales.

Daily activities taking place November 4-13, 2022

  • Coffee Farm Tours, Greenwell Farms “Seed to Cup” walking tour and tasting, 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
  • KCCF Quilt Show, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Kona Hawaiian Quilt Museum and Gallery
  • “Compost Culture: The Art of Regenerative Transformation.” 10 a.m.-6 p.m. at Donkey Mill Art Center. Farmers create artworks; visitors explore the process of composting. The result will be a unique art exhibit at the Center. Free with button.
  • Open Tuesday and Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Kona Historical Society Living History Coffee Farm Tour. Self-guided walk back in time to meet the pioneers who helped make our favorite coffee what it is today. Discounted price with button.

For the serious coffee devotee:

  • UCC Hawai‘i Coffee Picking and Farm Experience, Sunday, November 6, 10 a.m.-12 p.m. and 1-3 p.m. Take your pick of ripe, red coffee cherries, right from the trees. Then watch step by step as the fruit is transformed into fragrant beans and your favorite steamy brew.
  • Barista Training, Monday, November 7, 5-9 p.m., Kona Coffee & Tea. Learn tricks of the coffee trade from the pros—manual brewing, espresso techniques and latte art.
  • Coffee Tasting Workshop, Wednesday, November 9, 9-11 a.m. and 1:30-3:30 p.m., Kona Cooperative Extension Office. Hands-on, insider’s guide to brewing perfection and tasting of eight different Kona coffees. Registration required.
  • Kona Coffee Signature Beverage Throwdown, Thursday, November 10, 6-9 p.m., Kona Coffee & Tea. Baristas from near and far go head to head in a high-energy competition in coffee wizardry.
  • Kona Coffee Village, Friday, November 11, 1-7 p.m., Hale Halawai Pavilion on Ali‘i Drive. The hardworking Judges will announce the winners of the three-day Kona Coffee Cupping Competition. Sample the best of the fest, and enjoy local food trucks, artists and artisan booths and more.