I just returned from a spur of the moment trip to the Big Island and was lucky to attend a few events at this year’s Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. It reminded me of when I wrote about its 40th anniversary in 2010. It’s only getting better as it ages and it’s on until November 12, if you’re so inclined. Here’s a peek of my feature on the anniversary.

Savor the flavor at Kona’s festival devoted to the aromatic bean

In her 1875 travelogue Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, Isabella Bird characterizes Hawai‘i Island’s Kona district as “famous for oranges, coffee, pineapples, and silence.”

Nearly one-and-a-half centuries later, coffee has reached a pinnacle on par with neighboring Mauna Kea. Kona is now all but synonymous with coffee, and for 40 years residents have celebrated these handpicked gourmet beans at the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival.

“When you speak of Kona, you speak of coffee, and when you think of coffee, you think of Kona,” says Norman Sakata, a third-generation coffee farmer who has helped run the festival for more than 35 years and has served as its president and chairman for the past 18. “It’s part of our identity.”

Mirroring Hawai‘i’s multicultural society, Japanese, Native Hawaiians, Europeans, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipinos, and others have played important roles in fostering Kona’s coffee culture and lifestyle since 1828. And today, most farms remain traditionally small and family-owned and operated—such as Sakata’s farm, planted by his grandfather 120 years ago.

This year’s 40th Annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, set for November 5–14, will again commemorate the traditional harvest, coffee pioneers, and today’s coffee industry. It’s a milestone for Hawai‘i’s oldest food festival, and, until the Ka‘ū Coffee Festival launched last year, the state’s only coffee celebration. Farmers, residents, and visitors mingle at nearly 50 volunteer-run events spanning 10 days, including coffee cherry picking and art competitions, farm tours, and, a farmer favorite, the Hōlualoa Coffee & Art Stroll featuring estate coffee tastings.

Coffee Is King

“To the Kona district, coffee is huge,” says Trent Bateman, owner of Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation and an official festival event director who began farming just 12 years ago. “I don’t know that there’s a family in Kona untouched by someone doing something with coffee.”

The coffee and art stroll in Holualoa

The festival’s international sponsorship and media spotlight also provide unmatched promotional opportunities for Kona’s approximately 600 coffee farmers. Ueshima Coffee of Japan sponsors the picking contest and the Miss Kona Coffee pageant, which awarded Miss America 1992 Carolyn Sapp her first crown. Sweden’s Gevalia, a 15-year sponsor, puts on the highlight event, the Gevalia Kona Cupping Competition, for which Bateman is a roaster. Growers submit at least 50 pounds of parchment (dried coffee beans) from the year’s best crop to enter the Classic Cupping Competition. The Crown Cupping Competition requires 4,000 pounds of parchment and is also open to millers and processors. After blind judging by a global cupping panel, winners of both competitions earn bragging rights, but Gevalia also promises to buy 3,000 pounds—worth around $36,000—of coffee from the Crown winner for its customers.

“It’s really a prestigious thing for your farm to be identified as having the best coffee,” says Sakata. The Kona Coffee and Tea Company gained confidence when the 13-year-old estate edged out 160-year-old Greenwell Farms to win the 2009 Crown Cupping Competition. “The recognition has been great,” said Malia Bolton, head of operations at Kona Coffee and Tea, and, at 28, the festival’s youngest board member. “It helps us better distinguish our coffee among the hundreds of farms out there.”

A Look Back

When the festival began in 1970, America’s café culture was on the rise, and Kona coffee had begun cementing its gourmet reputation. Kona launched the festival—at first an informal weekend of events—to promote its superior product and generate tourism. In 1977, Sakata changed the festival’s focus to honor the pioneers who started farming coffee in the 1800s. “There’s no industry without the pioneers, and there’s no festival without the industry,” says Sakata. “It goes back to them—their years of toiling, the hardship they went through, the lean years when they kept it going.”

Resting on that foundation, the festival has steadily expanded into an influential cultural and community fixture. Whether farming for generations or just starting out, coffee growers in this fertile district—likened to Napa’s wine region with subtle, detectable differences in terroir from farm to farm—know that the festival helps everyone and feel privileged to be part of it each November.

“In any society, the farmers are always on the bottom of the totem pole. But when it comes to the festival, they’re on top, and we build the program for them,” says Sakata.

“I know how hard my grandparents worked, and this recognizes them—it’s for them.”

By Christine Thomas, for AAA Hawai‘i Magazine