Kona Coffee Cultural Festival

Kona coffee beans growing on tree, close-up
Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

The 2019 Kona Coffee Cultural Festival will take place from November 1-10, 2019 at various locations around Kailua-Kona on Hawaii's Big Island. Now is the time to plan your Big Island visit to share in this one-of-a-kind annual festival.

My wife and I attended a full week of the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival several years ago and had one of our best weeks ever in Hawaii. Even if, like us, you're not a coffee drinker, there are plenty of activities that are just plain fun. If you are a coffee drinker and especially if you're a fan of Kona Coffee, this festival is your Nirvana.

Events began with a beautiful International Lantern Parade on the opening Friday and concluded with the Kamehameha Schools Kona Coffee Grand Parade and Sunra Kona Coffee Concert in the Park the following weekend.

For my wife and I, the highlights of the festival included the Holualoa Village Kona Coffee Tasting & Art Stroll, the Ueshima Coffee (UCC Hawaii ) Corp. Miss Kona Coffee Scholarship Pageant, the Ueshima Coffee (UCC Hawaii ) Corp. Kona Coffee Picking Contest, the Kona Coffee Living History Farm Tour and the Kona Coffee Council Farm & Mill Tour. There were so many activities to choose from that we had to make some difficult choices since we also wanted some time to explore other areas of the Big Island.

In 2008, the Keauhou Beach Resort was the official host hotel for the festival. It was one of my favorite properties in all of Hawaii. Sadly, the resort has since closed, but if you want to read out more about the resort, you can read my full review and view a gallery of photos of the property.

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2015 Kona Coffee Cultural Festival Preview

Kona Coffee Cultural Festival 2015
Kona Coffee Cultural Festival

The 2015 festival will feature nearly forty events (many free) including contests, tastings, a scholarship pageant, farm tours, coffee workshops, art exhibits, an outdoor concert and more.

The award-winning Kona Coffee Cultural Festival is recognized as the oldest and most successful food festival in Hawaii. The 10-day Festival celebrates Kona's special cultural heritage and recognizes the accomplishments of Kona coffee pioneers, farmers and artisans.

2015 Festival Highlights

Let's look at some of the highlights of the 2015 Festival.

The Festival opens with the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival Art Show, presented by Holualoa Foundation for Arts and Culture at the Donkey Mill Art Center on Friday, November 6 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The art show features the works of local artists who capture the spirit of Kona's nearly 200-year coffee heritage and culture. The art show runs throughout the 10-days of Kona Coffee Cultural Festival.

Meet Kona coffee farmers and "talk story" while sampling estate brews and specialty food items or peruse boutique art galleries at the Holualoa Village Coffee & Art Stroll in historic Holualoa on November 7, 2015.

Foodies and culinary fans can catch professionals, culinary students, amateurs and kids in action creating unique recipes showcasing Kona coffee as an ingredient in entrees and desserts at the KTA Super Stores Kona Coffee Recipe Contest & Big Island Showcase at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa on November 8 from 9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.

A main attraction of the Festival is the judging of the finest Kona coffee in the state at the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival Cupping Competition on November 11-12 at the Keauhou Shopping Center. A panel of international judges conducts a blind tasting where entries are assigned a number to assure anonymity. Judges look for high marks in fragrance, aroma, taste, nose, aftertaste and body.

Kamehameha Schools Kona Coffee Cultural Festival's Ho'olaulea takes place on Saturday, November 14, starting at 9:30 a.m. This celebration blends old-time festival favorites together with new family-friendly cultural activities all under one roof. Festival villages will be constructed at the Keauhou Shopping Center including a Kona Coffee Corridor with free samples and Kona coffee for sale direct from the farmers; a Kids World offering games and activities with hours of fun and excitement for any age; the Ethnic Food Market, a very popular stop where Festival goers can eat their way through authentic local food favorites including laulau and fish plate lunches, adobo, huli huil chicken, and all time favorite musubi and shave ice; plus a Christmas craft fair with unique items will help festival-goers get a jump on holiday shopping.

Now let's take a look back at the 2008 Festival. I hope this will give you a good idea of some of the great opportunities for culture, food, fun and even a bit of, dare I say, education.

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Holualoa Village Kona Tasting and Art Stroll

Photo by Jeannette Vidgen, used with permission

The opening weekend of the festival features several great events starting Saturday morning with the Holualoa Village Kona Tasting & Art Stroll.

This annual event takes place on the opening Saturday of the festival each year in, what is normally, the sleepy little artsy town of Holualoa along the Mamalahoa Hightway (Hwy 180) in the heart of Kona Coffee Country.

The town is jammed with people, all eager to taste samples of this year's coffee crop from many of the area's small coffee farms.

As I mentioned, I'm not a coffee drinker, but I really enjoyed the coffee brewed by Lisa and Bruce Corker's Rancho Aloha. Their estate grown and (HOFA Certified) organic 100% Kona Coffee won first prize in the 2005 Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Contest and it's easy to taste why. When we got home I ordered several bags of coffee online to give a Christmas presents.

It was also a great place to do some Christmas shopping in one of the town's numerous galleries or at one of the booths set up by local artisans.

The only part of this event that is not so much fun is finding a place to park. Parking is at a premium in Holualoa even on non-festival days. When it's the day of the Tasting & Art Stroll, getting there early is a must. We thought that arriving by 10:00 a.m. would be fine, but it took us quite a while to find a place to park.

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Miss Kona Coffee and Miss Aloha Hawai'i Scholarship Pageant

Photo by John Fischer, licensed to About.com

The opening Saturday evening's big event is the Miss Kona Coffee Scholarship Pageant at which the winners of the Miss Kona Coffee & Miss Aloha Hawai'i Scholarship Pageant are determined.

The 38th edition of this annual event in 2008 took place at the beautiful Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel on the Big Island's Kohala Coast.

I found it really fun and educational to see one of the "lower level" pageant's that eventually lead to the title of Miss America. This pageant produces two winners who both move on to complete for the title of Miss Hawaii. Last year's Miss Kona Coffee winner, Malia Pucong, finished in the statewide top ten.

While the level of competition was a bit uneven, it was clear that all nine contestants gave everything that they could. The winners take home numerous prizes including educational scholarships. The winner of the Miss Kona Coffee title is a key representative for the region's coffee industry over the upcoming year both here in Hawaii and also in Japan where Kona coffee is very popular.

By sweeping all individual categories, 22-year old Hawaiian language teacher, Ku'ulika Karratti swept to an overwhelming victory to claim the title of Miss Kona Coffee 2009. Her Hula 'Auana (modern hula) performance was superb. Claiming the title of Miss Aloha Hawaii 2009 was 20-year old University of Hawaii student, Kelsey Iyo. Kelsey performed an equally excellent Hula Kahiko (ancient hula). It was clear from the start that these two young women would dominate the competition.

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Kona Coffee Picking Contest

Photo by John Fischer, licensed to About.com

Opening Sunday morning of the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival features one of the most popular festival events, the Ueshima Coffee (UCC Hawaii) Corp. Kona Coffee Picking Contest. Held in the heart of Kona Coffee Country at the Ueshima Coffee farm, it's the first real chance for festival attendees to get out into the fields where coffee is grown.

Competitors in a number of levels from keiki (children) to seniors compete each year for cash prizes by seeing who can pick the most, ripest and cleanest (no leaves) Kona coffee cherries right from the plant.

The 2008 competition included several celebrities including the host of the Food Network's Glutton for Punishment, Bob Blummer, and the Travel Channel's star Samantha Brown who was filming an episode of her current series Passport to Great Weekends. Also competing in a grudge match against Blummer was Kona's own, and Hawaii's most famous chef, Sam Choy.

I have to say that I was very impressed by Samantha's pickings. She was a meticulous picker bringing in a nice sized, dark red and clean basket of cherries.

The locals dominated the competition with each demonstrating their own unique style of picking, ranging from slow and careful to super-speed, but less careful, techniques.

Needless to say, it was a fun morning on a bright sunny day on the cool mountain slopes above Kailua-Kona.

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Kona Coffee Living History Farm

Photo by Jeannette Vidgen, used with permission

Coffee has been grown in the Kona Region of Hawaii's Big Island for well over 175 years. It was in 1828 or 1829 that missionary Samuel Ruggles planted the first coffee from cuttings from a tree on the island of O'ahu.

Coffee does not grow easily. It needs good rich soil, near perfect climate conditions with just the right amount of rain, an ample number of bees to pollinate the crop, and just as equally important, very hard working people. The Kona Region had all of these, but if it were not for Hawaii's Japanese immigrants in the late 1800's and early 1900's, Kona Coffee would not be the region's staple product that it is today.

One of the places that best relates the life of these hard working Japanese farmers is the Kona Coffee Living History Farm in Captain Cook. This 5.5 acre coffee farm was first homesteaded in 1900 by the Uchida family. Today, with the help of costumed historical interpreters, you can step back and experience a glimpse of what life was like in the early part of the 20th century.

Your visit will take you through coffee and macadamia nut orchards and tour the historic farmhouse. Take time to talk to the historical interpreters. They are excellent.

A visit to the Kona Coffee Living History Farm is a must while attending the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, but it is also open throughout the year for those who can't make it during the festival.

Today coffee is grown by many 5th generation descendants of these hard working farmers as well as by larger corporations, and a number of recent entrepreneurs who have given up city life to farm the land. Many of these new entrants into the Kona Coffee industry are testing new techniques and expanding the bounds of coffee growing science.

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Kona Coffee Council Farm and Mill Tours

Photo by John Fischer, licensed to About.com

A great way to see how Kona Coffee is grown and processed today is to take one of the Kona Coffee Council Farm & Mill Tours offered during the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival.

My wife and I took one of these tours during the 2008 festival and it was certainly one of the highlights of the week for us.

Our small group of about twenty, both Hawaii residents and visitors alike, visited two Kona Coffee Farms - the Holualoa Kona Coffee Company and a smaller farm, Kona Earth, owned by Gary Strawn. Our tour guide was George Fike, owner of Fike Farms, but our "back of the bus" tour guide was Bob Nelson, owner of Lehuula Farms.

George and Bob are long-time coffee growers in Kona who both have very strong and often divergent views on the best way to do things. Gary is a relative newcomer. He is one of those entrepreneurs who are trying new techniques and experimenting with new ways to do old things more efficiently but always with the goal of producing better coffee.

Proving that there's no one way for success, both Bob and Gary were among the 16 finalists in the 2008 Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition.

The tour was educational and lots of fun. I highly recommend it if you make it to the 2009 Kona Coffee Cultural Festival.

If you can't make it for one of these tours, many large and small farms alike, offer their own tours throughout the year. We had a chance to visit and tour Greenwell Farms in Kealakekua. Their tour is excellent and very informative. I'll always remember how our guide told us that her long-time wish was to work in the roasting room - that is until she learned that those who work there say that it's almost impossible to get the smell of the roasting coffee off your body no matter how many times you shower!

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Kona Coffee Cultural Festival Events at the Keauhou Beach Resort

Photo Courtesy of Aloha Kona Coffee

As I mentioned, for our visit in 2008, the Keauhou Beach Resort was the official host hotel for the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. As such it was the location for many of the festival's biggest events. Sadly, the resort is now closed.

I really liked the ground level of the resort. Aside from the gift shop and meeting rooms, the entire area was open-air. With the mild climate of this part of the Kona Coast, it never seemed too hot or too cool and there always seems to be a soft breeze blowing.

Situated about 10 minutes south of Kailua-Kona, the Keauhou Beach Resort was the perfect place to stay for exploration of Kailua Kona, the Kona Coffee Country and the South Kona Coast.

Events that were held at the resort during the 2008 festival included the Kona Coffee Culinary Invitational, a sumptuous evening of professional island chefs "brewing" up culinary cuisine ranging from appetizers and entrees to delicious desserts, all featuring 100% Kona coffee as an ingredient.

The resort also hosted both the Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition and the Gevalia Crown Competition, These were blind tastings of Kona's finest coffee with a lot of strong competitors all vying to claim the prestigious winner's title. Over 50 local farms submitted entries for the Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition. The Crown Competition is open to larger farms that are required to submit 3,000 pounds of Kona coffee to enter the contest!

The resort was also home to the annual Keauhou Resort Kona Coffee Label & Website Competition. In 2008 Aloha Kona Coffee was awarded best label while Kona RainForest Coffeetook the top honors in the website category. A total of 150 entries competed in the two divisions for cash prizes and awards valued at over $3,000.

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Planning Your Visit to the 2015 Kona Coffee Cultural Festival

Photo by John Fischer, licensed to About.com

The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival is an event that everyone in the family can enjoy. Both coffee aficionados and non-coffee drinkers will find numerous fun and informative activities and events over the festival's ten days.

Kona Coffee Country and the Kailua-Kona area of Hawaii's Big Island are often overlooked areas. Far too many visitors to the Big Island remain at one of the resorts on the Kohala Coast never venturing less than an hour south to explore the cooler, fresher climate of the Kona Coast and the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa.

For those who do choose to stay in the Kailua-Kona area, there are many fun things to do. Be sure to explore historic Kailua Kona town with it's historic buildings, great shopping and superb restaurants such as Huggo's.

For those who want to get out on the ocean, Fair Wind Big Island Ocean Guides has two great vessels that sail daily from nearby Keauhou Bay.

Hawaii Forest and Trail offers several great adventures from their headquarters in Kailua-Kona including their most popular Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Adventure.

So, make your plans now to attend the 2015 Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and experience many of the events and activities that I've mentioned in this feature.

The festival has a great website at www.konacoffeefest.com where you can find details of the 2015 Kona Coffee Cultural Festival.

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