Coffee isn't just for sipping on Hawaii's Kona coast. Home to 700 coffee plantations, most of them family farms, the lava-strewn slopes of the Big Island's southwest shoulder produce...

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Coffee isn’t just for sipping on Hawaii’s Kona coast.

Home to 700 coffee plantations, most of them family farms, the lava-strewn slopes of the Big Island’s southwest shoulder produce prized coffee beans.

While a piping-hot brew is the usual way to enjoy Kona coffee, the coffee bean is also blended into coffee jelly, ice cream, tanning butter and liqueur. Coffee is added to skin-care products for exfoliation and aromatherapy spa treatments. Coffee-scented candles are popular, as are clocks and other desk accessories made from wood of the coffee tree.

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The importance of coffee to the Big Island is celebrated each fall during the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, with parades, coffee tasting, a picking contest and an art festival.

Gourmands appreciate Kona coffee for its smooth, rich flavor and aroma. Much of the crop that is harvested each winter is roasted and shipped to mainland customers.

How do you know which plantation to order from? Take the Kona Coffee Country Driving Tour to learn firsthand what makes the Kona brew special and to sample brews from different plantations.

Kona’s main coffee-growing region stretches for 25 miles along the lower slopes of Hualalai volcano, between the towns of Holualoa and Captain Cook. The coffee plantations climb to 2,000 feet above the Pacific, with gorgeous views.

The driving tour map, available at the island’s ubiquitous brochure racks or on the Web at www.konacoffeefest.com, gives directions to nearly 50 coffee farms, cafes and museums. Some require advance reservations, but most welcome drop-in visitors. The coffee country tour is one of the most popular ways to spend a day while visiting the Kona district.

I began my tour at Wilfred Yamasawa Farms, where the morning air of Holualoa was welcome with its coolness. One of Hawaii’s most accomplished glass blowers, Yamasawa also maintains a century-old family tradition of hand-raising coffee.

A glance at a sales brochure for a neighboring farm showed the importance of having multiple sources of income for those who want to live in the hills above Kailua-Kona. A three-bedroom, 2,100-square-foot home, set on two acres, had an asking price of $825,000.

The value of the real estate is just one reason Kona coffee fetches $20 to $25 a pound.


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• Kona Coffee Cultural Festival: This year’s festival is Nov. 5-14. More information: 808-326-7820 or www.konacoffeefest.com

• Kona Coffee Council: www.kona-coffee-council.com

• Hawaii Visitors Bureau: 800-464-2924 or www.gohawaii.com


— The Seattle Times

Kona coffee comes from premium arabica beans, rather than the more common robusta beans. Because of the rugged growing surface, Kona beans must be picked by hand, not by machines, causing the largest growers to import workers from Mexico and Central America for the harvest. With a human doing the picking, the only beans picked are the ones with the red color that indicates their ripeness.

After the beans are soaked and the skin is removed, they are left to dry in the sun, not in the commercial dryers that are widely used where coffee is mass-produced. At virtually every step along the way, a Kona bean gets more attention from a human than mass-market coffees.

Down the road a couple of miles, Desmond Twigg-Smith’s Holualoa Kona Coffee Co. is a vastly different type of operation. With 16 acres of coffee trees set on a former sugar-cane plantation (Kona never had enough water to support sugar cane), it’s a virtual factory by comparison, with employees, plantation tours and a retail shop.

I continued on with stops at the Royal Kona Coffee Visitor Center and Kona Coffee Living History Farm. Both feature historical displays and information on the culture of coffee, plus free drink and food samples from local farmers.