Tropical Gardening: Kona Coffee Cultural Festival in full swing

  • Courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE Kona coffee in full fruit along Mamalahoa Highway on the scenic drive through Holualoa.
  • Courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE Kona coffee in full fruit along Mamalahoa Highway on the scenic drive through Holualoa.

The 49th annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival is in full swing now, with a week full of tropical agriculture, art, history, music, politics and much more. For information about the many events, activities and tours, check out the festival website at http://konacoffeefest.com/.

Coffee was introduced to Hawaii almost 200 years ago, but it thrived best in Kona, where the unique climate and soils are ideal.

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Kona coffee experienced a quiet birth, growth, expansion, almost death and a rebirth during the past century that put Kona on the map as a No. 1 producer of top-quality coffee. According to some top coffee marketers, Kona coffee is now considered to be one of the world’s most sought after gourmet coffees.

This year looks like another bumper quality crop, and to celebrate the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival has attracted coffee afficionados and tourists from around the world.

The festival for the past nearly 50 years has been an opportunity for kamaaina and visitors to get acquainted with farmers, processors and restaurants serving our coffee. A drive through mauka Kona is a beautiful sight, especially when our coffee is in bloom or fruit.

We now have more coffee grown in Kona and the state of Hawaii than at any time. This expansion of Kona’s coffee is not the first time we had a boom, but now that our coffee is considered gourmet we are working together to avoid the boom-and-bust syndrome of the world’s coffee industry.

The Kona coffee industry was born with a few coffee trees brought over from Oahu. They were first planted in 1828 by a missionary-teacher, Samuel Ruggles. These were descendants of plants that came to Oahu from Brazil a few years earlier.

During the next 150 years, Hawaiian coffee had many ups and downs, but creative marketing and cooperative efforts have insured a bright future.

Coffea arabica is the species grown here exclusively. Other species of any commercial importance, but not grown here, include Coffea robusta and Coffea liberica. Examples of these and several related species can be seen at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Experiment Station in Kainaliu. Call 322-4892 to arrange a visit.

The extension and research staff there has been instrumental in the success of the coffee industry.

Kona coffee is comparable to the finest of Central American mild coffees. The beans are heavy and flinty, with relatively high acidity, strong flavor, full body and fine aroma. It has been in demand as a blend, and in recent years as 100% pure Kona.

Although coffee can be grown in many areas of Hawaii, Kona is ideal. Being situated on the western leeward slopes of the central highland mass of the Big Island, it is protected from the prevailing north-east trade winds by Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes.

The rainfall pattern is characterized by a dry period from November-January and rather frequent, almost daily afternoon showers during the remainder of the year. The average annual rainfall within the relatively narrow Kona coffee belt, which follows the contour of the Mamalahoa Highway between 600 and 2,000 feet in elevation, is 60-70 inches. Afternoon cloud cover and rainfall combine to create the perfect environment for top quality.

Good coffee is being produced elsewhere in the state, but it does not yet have the international recognition of Kona coffee.

Coffee has persisted in Kona despite many adversities and overcoming economic depressions, and for many decades it was considered to be the economic backbone of Kona.

Growing coffee has not been a limiting factor, since it grows wild in the understory of upland forests. The problems are the intense labor involved in pruning, fertilizing and harvesting.

For many years, Big Island schools allowed students vacation time to help farm families harvest the crop. When this ended, farm help from Central and South America came to our rescue.

The late Edward Fukunaga, a well-known and respected coffee expert in Kona, pointed out to me that when he first became Kona county agricultural agent in September 1941 the coffee industry was in a terrible state. The farmers were deeply in debt yet world coffee prices continued falling.

Debt adjustments and government relief were the order of the day. More than 1,000 acres of coffee were abandoned in 10 years following the price crash. Another 1,500 acres were to be abandoned before 1950.

Perhaps the most tragic thing that took place during the coffee depression was the exodus of the younger people from Kona. Only the aged were left to tend the farms in many families.

However, things perked up after World War II, as world coffee prices rose and farmers thrived through the 1950s.

During the 1960s and 1970s, fields were again neglected and coffee beans wasted for lack of harvesters. Tourism was the new kid on the block and everyone wanted to work at the fancy hotels and restaurants.

The awakening of today’s vibrant and romantic coffee industry is complicated, but the key was teamwork.

The concept of gourmet coffee, according to Curtis Tyler Jr., who was manager of the American Factors Coffee Mill in Kailua-Kona, came up as early as the 1950s, but it took years to bring the concept to fruition.

Wing and Mayflower Coffee companies were the first to roast and package the highest quality Kona coffee, but it was tourism that ultimately exposed it to the world.

Pacific Coffee Cooperative led by Mr. Yoshitaka Takashiba and Kona Farmers Cooperative managed by Les Glaspey and Bill Koepke were active in revitalizing the Kona Coffee Council. Tom Kerr, as chairman of the council, was instrumental in bringing all the diverse interests of the industry together.

Today we have a new breed of coffee farmers producing world-class estate coffees. Some original farms survived the years and are thriving. Others are owned or operated by entrepreneurs from the mainland, Japan, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

We cannot be sure what the future will bring, but judging by the commitment and stamina of coffee farmers and processors coupled with production of one of the finest coffees in the world, the outlook is very promising.

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Mahalo to the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival for expanding our special coffee to become a celebration that will attract visitors to our little bit of paradise and remind us how blessed we are to be kamaaina.

To participate in the many festival events, you can purchase a festival button at the UHCTAHR office in Kainaliu across from the Aloha Theatre.

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