Maui County’s coffee farmers spill the beans on growing industry

While much of the focus of Hawaii’s coffee industry centers on the Big Island’s Kona brand, Maui farmers are proving it’s not the only coffee from the Aloha State worth tasting.

Local coffee growers are steadily shaping the Maui brand and, for many, this means being small in operations but big in diversity.

“It used to be, when you were a Kona coffee farmer . . . everybody was supposed to do it in the same way,” said David Gridley, a board member of the Maui Coffee Association. “What’s happened is there’s a new breed of farmers now that are being involved, and a lot of them happened here on Maui. We’re young. . . . Farmers are trying to push the envelope a little bit and they’re creating a new uniqueness and a new identity for their own farm.”

Gathered at a Maui Coffee Association event at the Maui Mall on Sunday, Gridley and nearly a dozen other members of the county’s coffee industry peddled their wares and offered passers-by samples of coffee that is growing in recognition.

While coffee beans have a 200-year history in the islands, on Maui the surge is more of a recent trend. Much of this has to do with Pioneer Mill, a former sugar plantation in Lahaina that is now the site of MauiGrown Coffee, which operates on 350 acres, said Jeff Ferguson, co-owner with founder James “Kimo” Falconer.

According to company history, Pioneer Mill had participated in statewide field-testing of 23 varieties of Coffea arabica in the late 1980s. Shortly after sugar operations shut down, fifth-generation Lahaina resident Falconer revived the coffee operations to become the highly successful MauiGrown Coffee in 2003.

“All of a sudden there became Maui coffee available on a lot of big levels,” said Gridley, owner of Maui Oma Coffee Roasting Co. “That stimulated a lot of Upcountry farmers to do what they’re doing.”

Coffee is the sixth-largest crop industry in Hawaii, according to a state Department of Agriculture survey, and fifth on Maui with a total of 545 acres across the island. Molokai has another 123 acres.

The Maui Coffee Association has more than 100 members, including growers, roasters and retailers. While around 30 farms are part of the association, Gridley estimates that there are around 60 in Maui County.

Bobbie Becker, owner of Maui Mountain Home Grown Coffee in Makawao, said that Maui’s coffee industry is marked mostly by small farmers.

“I personally think that the Maui brand of coffee has to do with the fact that we have a bunch of smaller farmers who are putting their heart and guts (into it),” Becker said. “(For many), it wasn’t handed down to us. We have chosen to be coffee farmers in a very competitive niche market.”

Becker, who came to Maui from Arizona in 2000, runs a 2.5-acre farm of which half is dedicated to coffee.

Kupa’a Farms in Kula, run by Gerry Ross and Janet Simpson, is also relatively small – spread across 14 acres, with coffee on around 5 acres.

Simpson and Ross pick the ripe coffee cherries by hand and go through what is known as a wet process, putting the cherries through a pulping machine before soaking them in water for 24 to 36 hours until they begin to ferment and bubble. The beans are then dried on screens, milled and roasted, developing a dark brown color as the sugar caramelizes, Simpson said.

Ross said that Maui’s microclimates produce “variety and diversity in the cup.”

Simpson added that while many Maui farmers are “still youngsters on the block,” they’re showing that the island has “just as good growing areas as Kona.”

Local coffee aficionados aren’t only trying to diversify the varieties they grow – they’re also playing with new ways of serving the drink.

Recent Maui transplants Li Wallis and John Dooley are “introducing bartending to coffee” with their specialty coffee shop Wallis McGrath, which had its soft opening in Wailuku last week. They make many of their own ingredients, including syrups and milks, and whip up drinks using bar techniques and tools.

What attracted Wallis and Dooley (who uses his mother’s maiden name in the shop’s title) to Maui’s coffee scene was the fact that coffee could be grown, processed and roasted locally, and served directly to customers, Dooley said. Wallis said that they appreciate the wealth of organic coffee options and the efforts of small farmers, which they hope to promote by featuring local coffees at their shop.

“We gave up our careers to do this,” Wallis said. “That’s how much we love and believe in Maui coffee.”

The access to fresh, homegrown coffee is also what Paia resident Samantha Campbell likes about Maui brews.

“I like that it’s grown here. I try to buy as much food grown here as I can,” she said. “A lot of places on Maui do cold press and not just coffee and espresso. (Cold press) is my favorite kind.”

Michael and Lori Kolbasovsky of Ontario said they enjoy the “dark roast and strong flavors” of Maui coffees.

The Kolbasovskys are regular Hawaii visitors but said they hadn’t realized how many farms were on Maui until this trip.

“We bought way too many bags,” Lori Kolbasovsky said.

Her comment highlights one of the biggest challenges facing Maui coffee growers which, in a way, a good thing: A demand so high that it outdistances the supply.

Gridley said that maybe, after sugar phases out on Maui, some of the land can be used to expand coffee planting.

Ferguson acknowledged that some farmers are “flirting with the idea,” but said not all former sugar land is ideal for coffee growing. He added that it would be a long-term process, as coffee trees take about four to five years to mature. Part of the reason Falconer succeeded was because some trees were already in place, Ferguson explained.

For now, however, the future of Maui coffee looks bright to its growers. Gridley said that the coffee industry on Maui is “probably the biggest it’s been right now,” and pointed out that Maui growers posted the best average score of any district in Hawaii’s annual cupping competition two years ago.

“Everybody’s farm’s a little different,” Gridley said. “We’re trying to get an industry where people work together and support one another, and people do share information and knowledge. That’s what I love about coffee.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.