Kona Coffee Festival: the winners

Back in the day, most people — not even Hawaii folks — didn’t know that Kona coffee was the best in the world. We knew that Kona’s mountain slopes provided ideal growing conditions, but it’s only become a globally super high-end luxury item in the last 20 years or so.

The Kona coffee farms are high up, with interesting weather due to the microclimates found throughout the state. Mornings are warm and sunny, but the clouds roll in almost every afternoon and give the hills a cool shower. Since the Big Island is a young island with more volcanic soil than actual dirt, the coffee trees benefit from the porous lava that gets this daily water to the roots. Since it’s porous, the roots are also allowed to dry a bit (instead of getting moldy in dirt that holds the water in) until the next day’s shower. The constant and consistent conditions produce coffee cherries that are unique in size and flavor. And, once you take the plants out of Kona, they no longer possess the same properties. (People have tried to take coffee plants out of Kona and of course, were not able to replicate the quality of the beans.) The coffee is harvested by hand, which adds to its higher-than-normal price.

It’s the other subtle differences that give each farm’s beans distinct characteristics, which I’ll talk about in the next blog entry. As mentioned in my previous entry, cupping is the process by which professionals determine the qualities of these beans, like sommeliers determine the qualities of a wine’s grapes. And, like wine, each year’s crop yields different standouts. Kona coffee is already a recognized luxury item; if a farmer wins cupping competitions, it gives them the option to raise their prices and provides an increase in demand.

The Kona Coffee Festival has been going on since 1970, which helped to bring global awareness to the high-quality beans Hawaii produces. In just 10 years (or less), Kona coffee blew past its competition in worldwide contests, helping to skyrocket Kona’s fame (and prices). Is it worth it? I am not even close to having the taste buds my coffee nerd friends have, and I have a hard time drinking anything else.

There are two categories of bean entries in the Kona Coffee Festival: Classic, which comes from boutique farms, and Crown, which is from farms that have 1,000 pounds or more to sell. Here are this year’s winners, and the celebration around it.

Kona Coffee Festival 2013

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The second day of the Kona Coffee festival featured another day of cupping, this time with the finalist beans from the day before. UCC Coffee (represented on the left) is one of the big sponsors, so they get first dibs at purchasing the beans from the winner of the Crown division. Kamehameha Schools, represented by Les Apoliona on the right, is also a big sponsor of the festival and works with many (if not most) of the farmers in Kona.

Out of all the farms who won, I only snagged coffee from Heavenly Hawaiian through the silent auction. I’ll let you know how it is!

Most of the coffee grown in North and South Kona is cultivated on land owned by Kamehameha Schools, which leases tracts to more than 600 farmers there who produce the majority of the region’s coffee, plus macadamia nuts, exotic flowers, avocados, vegetables and fruits. The average size of these farms is seven acres. That’s a lot of coffee. A lot of high-quality coffee. Our laborer ancestors sure have come a long way.

Disclosure: This trip was provided by the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa.

To see all photos from this trip, click here.