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Kona Coffee Festival: Great Coffee, Good Fun

Blonde-haired child in Kona

For the past 40 years, residents of the Big Island of Hawaii have celebrated Kona coffee with the Kona Coffee Festival, one of the largest coffee and cultural festivals in the world.

Held in October in the Kona Coffee Belt, a long narrow area little more than 100 miles square where this distinctly Hawaiian coffee is grown, the Kona Coffee Festival is 10-days of events that celebrate not only Kona coffee, but the people and culture that make this one of the finest coffees in the world.

Of course, being a genuine coffee fan, I couldn’t resist when the Kona Coffee Festival officials invited me to experience the Festival and serve as a judge of the Kona coffee culinary festival. So it was off to the Big Island for several days of caffeine-fueled fun.

Coffee picking race

Eager pickers wait behind the yellow tape for the racing bugle to sound to start their coffee picking heat.

The Kona Coffee Festival kicks off with the Lantern Parade down the Alii Highway in downtown Kiluea-Kona. It’s a fun, funky hometown parade of kids and adults, bands, Taiko drummers, and homemade floats decorated with lanterns that has residents and visitors alike lining the streets three and four deep. Because the Kona area schools own 3,000 acres of coffee plantation and coffee profits support the schools, many of the parade’s units celebrate children. This year, the parade featured a special entry all the way from Japan. Don’t expect this to be a quick event. In true laid-back Hawaiian style, the Lantern Parade starts around 6:30 p.m. and lasts a leisurely two hours.

Kona Coffee is a mellow coffee that has particular flavor profile thanks to the Kona region’s rich, young volcanic soil and unique climate—warm mornings, cool shady afternoons, and rain every day around 4 p.m. You can learn more about what makes Kona coffee special at the Coffee Farm and Art Stroll. This year’s Art Stroll was centered in the hilly coffee belt region along the Mamalahoa Highway where there are a number of coffee farms and art galleries in the little village of Holualoa. The Stroll enables you to see different farm’s operations, sample their coffees, and check out some cool local artwork. What’s not to love?

Another event that’s especially fun is the Kona Coffee picking contest. Adults and kids gather in the early morning at the UCC coffee plantation for a day of coffee picking, Hawaiian music, and free coffee and pastries. Pickers, young and old from professionals to amateurs, can sign up to compete for cash prizes and bragging rights. The picker who can pick the most ripe coffee cherries (the term for the coffee frui8t that produces the coffee beans) in three minutes wins. The oldest picker was 90 years old; the youngest three.

Little girl with sack full of coffee cherries

At first, this little one wasn’t sure she wanted to pick coffee cherries. But with a little coaxing from mom, she got into it and then showed off her pickings.

The picking contest is serious business, closely watched and controlled by contest monitors. Pickers, divided into their respective categories and wearing picking baskets strapped to their waists, lined up behind pink tape awaiting the race’s starting bugle. Then they were off, rushing to the two or three rows of trees designated for their heat. The action was wild and furious with pickers stripping branches of their red fruit as quickly as possible (unripe green beans and leaves were deducted from the total weight). Some pickers knelt down to get cherries at the bottom; others bent the sturdy coffee trees down to get at the loads of beans at the trees’ tops. After three minutes of frenetic and sweaty activity, the announcer called time and the pickers headed to the weighing station to have their booty weighed.

The little tykes division was one of the most fun and certainly cutest. Three- and four-year-olds with miniature baskets around their middles, looked bewildered, unsure what they were supposed to do. One little girl with dark eyes who was had just turned three, clung to her mother’s leg, trying to hide from the photographer’s clicking cameras. When the starter bugle sounded, at first she seemed confused by all the activity. Soon, with encouragement from her nearby mom,  she began picking coffee cherries, dropping them gingerly one by one into her little basket, smiling each time a cherry hit the bottom. By the end of the race, she was smiling and showing off her picking basket to everyone.

RFT Editor Anne Weaver, who grew up picking crops in Washington’s fertile fields, signed up for the popular amateur division. So did 39 others. Race officials divided the group into two heats of 20. By now, the morning sun was hot and the pickers gamely teased one another, boasting about who would win the $25 purse.

Kona Festival Competition

RFT Editor Anne Weaver gamely jumped into the amateur division competition.

Anne’s group was the last to pick and, because there had been so many amateur entrants, had to re-pick trees the first group had already picked (not exactly fair, but this was all for fun and no one complained). The starter sounded and Anne and her fellow pickers raced to the trees, searching for branches that hadn’t already been picked clean. Coffee trees and their cherry fruit are tough and require some muscle to separate them from the branches. With branches whipping and leaves flying through the air, the pickers filled their baskets. When the buzzer sounded, Anne emerged from the trees, a bit sweaty and smiling. She knew her meager pile of coffee cherries wouldn’t win any prizes, but as she said, “It was a blast.”

After the picking, Hawaiian royalty, Miss Aloha and Miss Kona, present the awards to the winners and we helped ourselves to one last cup of Kona.

Then it was onto the Kona Coffee Fest’s culinary competition, a real highlight for food lovers. It’s here that professionals and amateurs go head to head to make the best dishes using 100% Kona coffee and other local ingredients like macadamia nuts and tropical fruit. In the convention center at the Sheraton Keahou Resort and Spa (see our full review under Great Places to Stay), I gathered with other judges while culinary contest organizer Robert Deal went over the rather complicated scoring. The Kona culinary contest uses the 40-point scoring system used by the American Culinary Federation.

Most of the judges for the contest are local chefs who donate their time. Three of us were food pros in the media. In addition to judging one or more categories in professional, amateur, and keikei (children’s) divisions, some of the chefs also judged entries by local culinary students and were asked to provide written commentary in addition to the numerical scoring.

My categories were professional and keikei desserts. (How did they know I have a sweet tooth?) The food was laid out on tables in long rows that filled half the convention center. The public, who were kept out of the judging area with barriers, enjoyed samples of Kona coffee and Big Island food products like chocolate, rum cake, and Kona coffee syrups.

With clipboards, score sheets, and forks in hand, we cruised our respective rows, sampling, evaluating, sampling again, and writing down scores for presentation, taste, and use of coffee and other local ingredients. Some of the desserts were excellent; others not so much. The three entries in the children’s desserts categories were surprisingly sophisticated and delicious. By the time I turned in my score sheets, I fairly buzzed from an overload of caffeine and sugar.

Women with crowns at the Kona Coffee Festival

Miss Kona Coffee and Miss Alhoa are royalty in the Kona Coffee Festival.

Robert Deal mounted the podium, announcing the winners and handing out prizes, which included cash, gift certificates, and, of course, Kona coffee. Then the gates opened and the people rushed into the food area for samples. And they weren’t disappointed. Creative chefs and cooks had made a wide range of Kona coffee-inspired dishes – duck, beef carpaccio, pork stew, sushi, and desserts ranging from cookies and cakes to Portuguese donuts and toffee (see Real Recipes for some of the best recipes).

While the Kona Coffee Festival would go on for several more days and feature even more fun events, RFT editors reluctantly said aloha to the Big Island and the Kona Coffee Festival. One thing is sure, we’ll return again and again to this celebration of Kona coffee and culture.

Consider visiting the next  Kona Coffee Festival. Check out  http://www.konacoffeefest.com/.

— by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor



Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at realfoodtraveler.com.