Kona coffee, from the Big Island of Hawaii, is widely acclaimed as the world’s finest. Coffee lovers prize its sweet taste and intense aroma. You can discover for yourself what the buzz is all about by taking a scenic self-drive Kona coffee tasting and shopping tour.
Akin to California’s wine tasting tours, here the drink of the day is Kona coffee.
Coffee first came to Kona in 1828 when the Reverend Samuel Ruggles brought plant cuttings to the island. The first trees were a variety of Arabica, a mild sweet coffee that originated in Ethiopia. Today, nearly 600 farms share space in a 20-mile long, two-mile wide coffee-rich corridor in a rainforest located between the elevations of 800 and 2,200 feet. Most of the farms are small, averaging about three acres each. From this tiny area comes the world’s entire supply of Kona coffee.
One of the things that make Kona such a perfect place for growing gourmet coffee is the volcanic haze known as vog which hangs over the region in the afternoon, providing shade from strong sun. Rich deep volcanic soil, and plentiful rain are the other factors that contribute to ideal conditions.
A driving tour is the only way to fully experience Kona Coffee Country. You’ll find almost all coffee farms, mills and coffeehouses are run by families or small-business owners, and they are eager to discuss their wares with you. Spring finds the trees covered with snowy sweet-smelling blossoms (coffee is a member of the same family as the gardenia). Peak harvest season is from August to February.
If you’ve come this far, stick with the real stuff-100 percent pure locally grown Kona coffee. Some markets and gift stores sell what is labeled as “Hawaiian Coffee” or “Kona Blend.” These coffees may contain as little as 10 percent Kona coffee beans and are not a good buy.
For a special treat (at greater expense, of course) look for coffee beans marked “peaberry.” Only an estimated five percent of the annual Kona harvest produces what is called peaberry coffee. Peaberry occurs when a coffee tree is stressed in its growing environment, resulting in an individual coffee cherry producing only one round and very dense bean rather than the usual two beans.
Retail price for a pound of 100% Kona coffee at the source is about $25-$30. Decaffeinated coffee is also available. Look for decaf marked “Swiss Process” to avoid chemicals generally used during decaffeination. Most farms also offer half-pound bags of beans or ground coffee ($12-$20), which make great gifts to take home to friends. They won’t break or spill, stuff well into corners of luggage and will pass the mandatory agricultural check at Hawaii airports.
To visit some of the farms that produce top-of-the-market brew, begin your tour at Kailua-Kona and travel south toward Honaunau. Big Island maps are available all over town, at hotels and in brochure stands everywhere.
Here are a few popular stops on a Kona coffee tour: (for those who can’t make it to Hawaii any time soon, on-line addresses are included to order coffee by mail). There are stunning ocean views along the way, so take your time and enjoy the scenery.
Greenwell Farms: This 35-acre estate is operated by descendants of Henry Nicholas Greenwell, an early pioneer in Kona coffee exporting. Take a tour of the coffee orchard and processing plant, as well as taste of a variety of custom roasts. Be sure to save a few minutes to walk through the Kona Historical Society Museum on the property.
Located on the ocean side of Highway 11 between mile markers 111 & 112 in Kealakekua. www.greenwellfarms.com
Ushima Coffee Company: The UCC roastery and espresso bar, clinging to the road headed for Kealakekua Bay, offers an opportunity to learn more about Kona coffee. Here visitors learn how to roast coffee beans and then take a bag home with a personalized package label. You chose which roasting technique suits you, and while the coffee is roasting, guides take you on a tour. The last step is to attach your private label to the coffee (about $30 for a half pound). For tour reservations, which are required, call 328-5662 or toll-free 888-822-5662. Take Highway south from Kona to Kapo’opo’o Road and follow the signs. www.ucc-hawaii.com
Kona Joe Coffee: A farm where coffee trees grow on trellises, like in a vineyard. The owners claim extra light the trellises provide to the cherries makes for more natural sweetness. Between mile-marker 113 & 114 on Highway 11 in the town of Kainaliu. www.konajoe.com
Mountain Thunder: This certified organic Kona coffee farm has won a number of awards. They also sell other local organic products. Tours of the plantation are available. Off Highway 180 on Hoa Drive. www.MountainThunder.com
Kona Blue Sky Coffee Company: Take the guided walking tour, watch the 7-minute educational video, and enjoy free samplings. Located in historic Holualoa, the center of activity in the days of donkeys, horses and Model Ts. The village still retains the feel of old Hawaii, but a blossoming arts community has brought new vitality. www.konabluesky.com
As you drive, stay on the lookout for signs (often home-made) advertising “free coffee tasting.” You may stumble onto an exceptional coffee find this way.
One last piece of advice: It’s important to keep coffee beans airtight. If you purchase whole beans, keep them sealed in the refrigerator and grind them as you brew. Use valve or flavor-lock bags, as they lengthen shelf life of roasted Kona.