Ka‘anapali Coffee Farms coffee
When Pioneer Mill sugar company shut down its 500-acre Ka’anapali Estate Coffee farm in 2001, along with its long-standing sugar cane operation, agronomist James “Kimo” Falconer was devastated.
Falconer was hired by Pioneer Mill as a research director in 1979 and had spent decades conducting trials on different crops that would be viable to replace sugar cane.
In 1988, the University of Hawaii conducted a study using 28 different varieties of coffee all around the state to determine which would grow best in what conditions. In Kaanapali, Falconer and other researchers had selected four varieties: Maui Mokka, Red Catuai, Yellow Caturra and Typica.
Before the Maui-grown coffee was able to really take off, Pioneer Mill closed its doors and ceased operations.
“It was the worst day of my life,” Falconer said.
Determined, Falconer set out to revive West Maui’s coffee-growing operation and leased about 80 acres of the old coffee field in 2003.
He harvested the first MauiGrown crop in 2004 and, in the 10 years since, has expanded the coffee growing operation at Ka’anapali Coffee Farms to 400 acres, the largest independently run coffee farm in the state.
The farm is the only commercial coffee grower on Maui, and the world’s only major producer of 100 percent Maui-origin coffee.
“You can’t grow coffee in any other state because of the climate, and we have the perfect microclimate here on Maui,” Falconer said.
Today, the farm harvests about 2.5 million pounds of coffee cherries, or unprocessed seeds, which, after shelling, produce about half a million pounds of “green coffee” every harvest. Coffee grown at the farm is sold to roasters around the world.
About 65,000 pounds of the harvested coffee are roasted and sold at the MauiGrown store in Lahaina, about five miles south of the farm. Green coffee is also sold wholesale to nearly all the roasters on island and in the state, including Royal Kona, Lion Coffee and Honolulu Coffee Co.
Nearly half of Falconer’s harvest – about 250,000 pounds – is sold to regional roasters on the Mainland and internationally, including large retailers such as Starbucks and Whole Foods Market.
“My priority market is obviously here in Hawaii. We’re 100 percent Maui-grown so, for the roasters here, it’s their own product,” Falconer said. “But Hawaii can’t absorb all of it so we sell a lot of coffee in the U.S. and elsewhere.”
In addition to being sold in every state, coffee grown on Maui is shipped to Japan, Korea, Australia and Europe.
The reason the 400-acre farm can afford to yield so much crop every year is that the coffee is harvested by large machines instead of by hand.
“A good hand-picker can pick 200 pounds of (coffee) cherry in an eight-hour day; one of those machines can pick 40,000 pounds in a day,” Falconer said. “It just makes sense.”
The farm has two machines to shake its rows of coffee trees and collect the ripe fruits during harvest season, which is usually from September to January. Each machine costs upward of $200,000.
The farm employs about 20 people during harvest period and about 16 people during the nonharvest period.
There are about 50 independent coffee growers on Maui, mostly Upcountry, though they produce only small quantities that are sold in specialty stores or online.
David Gridley, who owns Maui Oma Coffee Roasting Co., is one of the biggest on-island buyers of unroasted MauiGrown coffee. He roasts, blends and creates different flavor profiles for a number of retailers and restaurants, including Merriman’s and Longhi’s.
“In the beginning when people tried to do coffee they tried to do what Kona was doing. But Kona is Kona and people shouldn’t try to be somebody else, they should try to develop their own thing,” Gridley said. “That’s the great thing about Kimo. He brought in different types of coffee that grew in different environments. These varieties are a lot more unique, particularly the Mokka.”
The Mokka, he said, maintains its flavor characteristics much better and much longer than other coffee varieties.
“It is full-bodied, very smooth coffee with hints of chocolate and fruitiness to it that’s very unique,” Gridley said, adding that it is “the most unique coffee in Hawaii.”
“It’s a hybrid that was developed specifically for growing at the foot of the West Maui Mountains; there’s no other place in the world where that specific hybrid is grown,” Gridley said.
Looking to the future, Falconer hopes to add “another 200 acres or so” to his existing coffee farm while continuing to plant the four varieties currently growing at Ka’anapali Coffee Farms. However, he is always experimenting with breeding new varieties, including ones that are resistant to potential diseases like coffee rust, common elsewhere in the world.
Falconer said that the biggest obstacle for farmers has always been government regulation, referencing the recently proposed county bill to regulate pesticide and genetically modified organisms.
“It’s overkill on regulation; we’re just trying to make a buck,” Falconer said. “We’re already regulated by the state and the feds; we don’t need the county to tell us what to do.”
He hopes that someday MauiGrown coffee will be recognized to be as good as, if not better, than Kona coffee, which is long-established as one of the first specialty coffees.
At least the prices are more affordable than Kona’s top-shelf varieties. A pound of roasted MauiGrown coffee beans at the Lahaina store ranges from $17.95 to $19.95, with Maui Mokka more expensive at $29.95 per pound.
“This is our favorite spot; we come here every time we come to Maui,” said Paul Rose of Canada, who was shopping at the MauiGrown Coffee store Saturday morning. “It’s good coffee with better flavors.”
The MauiGrown Coffee store is located next to the Pioneer Mill smokestack at 277 Lahainaluna Road. It is open from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.