There’s a reason why Kona coffee tastes so good -- and it’s not just because it’s grown in the United States. The region of Kona, on the southern shore of Hawaii’s Big Island, has the perfect climate, elevation, and geology for producing coffee. The area’s volcanic soil neutralizes the natural bitterness of the coffee bean, resulting in smoother, more mellow coffee. While larger commercial farms use machines that strip the fruit off the trees or shake it to the ground, Kona is one of the last places in the world where the majority of farms still harvest by hand. One tree might be returned to up to five times to ensure that all the fruit is equally ripe. The result is magic, thanks to soil, sun, and soul.
Pay no attention to hotels or grocery stores offering a “Kona blend” coffee. There’s only one place to try authentic Hawaiian coffee, and that’s in Kona itself. The majority of coffee farms in Kona and farther afield happily offer guests free tours -- and samples! I’ve been known to drink many a coffee sample (and buy even more to bring home), and these are the farms I recommend over the others.
Best Tour: Greenwell Farms
If you have time for just one coffee farm, make it Greenwell Farms. This historic property offers a very comprehensive tour, and I loved the staff’s passion and enthusiasm. They do a fantastic job of explaining how coffee is farmed, produced, and roasted, as well as how coffee came to be associated with Hawaii. The farm has been owned by the same family for over a century, and it’s fair to say that the employees really know their stuff. The farm also offers the most generous selection of coffee samples; I tried eight different varieties!
Their next-door neighbor, the H.N. Greenwell Store Museum, is part of the Kona Historical Society and is well worth a visit. The employees bake fresh bread most Thursdays as part of their historical demonstrations -- and, yes, I most certainly timed my coffee tour to coincide with the bread samples.
Best Views: Hula Daddy Kona Coffee
Part of what makes Kona such a great growing area is its elevation; it ensures that the crops get consistent moisture and daily light rain with a nice balance of sun. And that elevation comes with spectacular views. No vista in the area is so beautiful as the one that can be seen from Hula Daddy Kona Coffee’s back deck. I loved it there. It was so relaxing, and I felt like I could sit back and soak up the views for hours. Hula Daddy stands out from the crowd by offering cream and sugar with its samples, which are served in tiny ceramic mugs. It also has a fascinating cupping room/kitchen/laboratory you can see -- if you can tear yourself away from the deck.
Best Overall Coffee: Buddha’s Cup
I feel like I’m going to get into a lot of trouble by declaring that one particular farm has the best coffee in all of Kona. But it would be impossible to talk about who makes the finest cup without mentioning Buddha's Cup. The company won the 2010 Kona Coffee Cupping Competition and took home third place in 2014. Its Imagine roast was rated 95 out of 100 by Sherri Johns, president of Whole Cup Coffee Consulting, giving Buddha’s Cup the highest score in Kona. If you’re going to splurge on some coffee beans to bring home to friends and family, the roasts from Buddha’s Cup will blow them away.
Best For Those Who Aren’t Big Coffee Fans: Kona Blue Sky Coffee
If you’re not a big coffee fan (say it ain’t so!), but you still really want to see what a farm is like, you need to visit Kona Blue Sky Coffee. The tour there focuses on the diverse and beautiful flowers, plants, and produce -- not just coffee! I loved seeing all the fruit trees hidden amidst the lush, tropical plant life. The farm’s gift shop is a great source for local products like Hawaiian pancake mixes and macadamia nuts, plus mugs, shirts, and other gifts. Consider it a place with a little bit of everything for everyone.
Most Creative Products: Mountain Thunder
I’ll be honest: Of all the farms I toured, Mountain Thunder was my least favorite. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy my time there. I just felt that other properties offered a more personalized experience. Mountain Thunder has gotten a lot of publicity from television shows, and it’s more commercially focused than the other properties that harvest and roast by hand. However, the fluffy farm cats won me over, as did the unique selection of products made from by-products of the coffee bean. For instance, the red, pulpy berry that protects the coffee bean is rich in antioxidants and is used in many of the cosmetic products sold at Mountain Thunder. This would be a good stop for a coffee fanatic who wants to see as many farms and try as many products as possible.
Best Reason To Leave Kona: Ka’u Coffee Mill
It’s hard to drag yourself away from the amazing coffee farms of Kona, but if there’s one location worth traveling to visit, it’s the Ka’u Coffee Mill in the Ka’u district, east of Kona. The area was once known for sugar production, but coffee has since taken the lead. While the growing conditions in Ka’u are very, very similar to those in Kona, Ka’u coffee doesn’t yet have the name recognition -- which means that its farms are less crowded and its coffee less expensive. The Ka’u Coffee Mill is a great place to start for tours and samples.
Tips For Visiting A Coffee Farm
When you visit a Hawaiian coffee farm, you’ll have the opportunity to taste the product. This is no time to be shy! Start by taking small samples, in case you don’t enjoy a particular roast or blend, and try as many as possible. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going back for seconds (or thirds… or fourths…). This is all about discovering new flavors.
However, if there’s no cream or sugar on display, don’t ask for it. In fact, you should expect most places to serve their samples as black coffee. The staff members want you to taste their coffee in its basic, unadulterated state. For people who are used to flavored lattes or iced coffees laden with cream and caramel, the taste of strong black coffee can take some getting used to! Start with the lightest roast and work from there.
Speaking of flavored coffee, it’s not as popular in Hawaii as it is in other states, and it’s not commonly found at coffee farms. However, some farms make their own blends using local vanilla and macadamia nut oils, and these are certainly worth trying.
The tours are free of charge, and there’s no obligation to tip the person who shows you around. However, it’s good form to make a small purchase at the gift shop. These are working farms, and it’s important to show your appreciation. Most offer goods beyond coffee, including local jam, honey, crafts, and -- my personal favorite -- used burlap sacks with the company’s logo. These sacks are used for storing and transporting coffee, and they are usually sold for just a few dollars.
Remember, these are farm shops, not farmers market stands. It’s not appropriate to bargain like you might at a farmers market. However, many farms will offer a better price if you’re buying 5 or 10 pounds of one variety. Don’t be afraid to politely ask.
When To Go On A Coffee Tour
Many Kona farms experience light rain in the early afternoon. While this shouldn’t prevent you from touring, the mornings are usually the best time to go, weather-wise. After all, who doesn’t appreciate some caffeine to help them wake up?
February is the best time to see “Kona snow” -- the small, white flowers blooming on the coffee trees. From a botanical point of view, coffee has a lot in common with gardenias, and you’ll smell the resemblance if you visit during a “snowstorm.”
By April and May, the blossoms evolve into the red “cherries” of the coffee tree, and these are really neat to see as well. However, no matter when you visit, there will be a lot to see and do -- and taste!