Making Local Make Sense: Why four Hawaii companies use locally-sourced ingredients
Tea Chest Hawaii, Maui Wine, Big Island Bees and Koloa Rum Company say going local is worth it.
We see the words “made in Hawaii” often here, printed proudly on restaurant menus, the back of bottle labels and sprawled all over packages. But for many Hawaii manufacturers, using local ingredients is more than just a marketing or branding tactic. Doing things local is their company culture, a way of life. It’s their ethos.
And it’s not without its challenges. While supporting local farms and farmers is all well and good, the fact remains that Hawaii manufacturers don’t have many luxuries that mainland companies enjoy. There’s the reality of logistics, like scheduling mainland shipments and having a Plan B in case a freight loses your cargo. Or, when your equipment breaks down and you have to wait for spare parts to fly in from the mainland. Then there’s the cost, from labor to resources.
Is it all worth it? We chatted with the owners of four local companies—Tea Chest Hawaii, Maui Wine, Big Island Bees and Koloa Rum Company—and the answer is a resounding, unanimous “Yes.”
Tea Chest Hawaii
Tea Chest Hawaii, based in Honolulu, prefers to source locally in order to build relationships. “Working with local farms and farmers allows me to have close relationships that are built on trust,” says Byron Goo, who owns Tea Chest Hawaii with his wife Satomi. “I’ve had instances where I get a sample from outside the Islands, but then what’s shipped to me is totally different. It’s hard because it’s not like you can knock on their door and get a refund. You don’t have to deal with that if you use local farmers.”
Tea Chest Hawaii is known for its organic-certified and natural teas and for working with local farmers to source ingredients like the mamaki plant and lavender. These leaves are used in teas like the Lemon Mamaki, Jasmine Mamaki Green Tea, Mint Mamaki, Maui Earl Grey and more. Processing includes cutting the plant, then drying and sifting it to ensure cleanliness. “Scalability is a big issue,” says Goo. “We have to think about how much are we willing to pay to use local ingredients, whether it’s possible to make a profit, so we source as much as we can when it makes sense.”
The mamaki plant, which has dark green leaves with purple veins, grows all over Hawaii, thanks to our warm, tropical climate. So for Goo, it should be easy to find sources—and it is. But the challenge lies in finding quality. “People call me and say that they have mamaki plant for a cheap price, but then we realize that they’re foraging the plant. For food safety reasons, we can’t convert that into a food product.”
So he chooses to work with qualified farmers, such as Wood Valley Plantation in Pahala on the Big Island, which cuts the mamaki plant and also dries its leaves, so that it’s as close to the finished product when he picks it up.
The mamaki plant makes great tea—it’s caffeine free, and surprisingly sweet with a nutty, earthy tone, with purifying health benefits.
He says that if he chose to use ingredients outside of Hawaii, it would be at least five times cheaper, but he ultimately wants to create flavors for his teas that remind people of Hawaii. “When we can source local, it’s a win-win for both the farmer and for us,” he says. “Our goal as a company is to convey our unique sense of place.”
Maui Wine in Kula made its name with pineapple wine, which debuted in 1977 with the Maui Blanc. The pineapple fruit wine was supposed to be a temporary product because, back then, a growing wine business normally stayed away from fruit wines, especially while trying to establish itself in the industry. “It wasn’t very cool to be different,” says Paula Hegele, president of Maui Wine. “But now we have a great product, and we can sell every bottle of pineapple wine that we make.”
Along with the pineapple wine, Maui Wine makes estate wines with grapes—including varieties such as Syrah and Viognier—from its own 23-acre vineyard on the slopes of Haleakalā. Hegele knows that the key to making good wine is the fruit, whether it’s pineapples or grapes. That’s why she’s often out in the Maui Gold pineapple fields, handpicking the perfect fruit that’s right for her wine. “We need pineapples that aren’t too ripe or sweet. On a ripe scale of one to six, I tell my guy that I’m looking for three’s or four’s, sometimes two’s,” says Hegele. Too much sugar, and the wine tastes like a “pineapple bomb,” she says. Maui Gold is also happy to have Hegele’s business, because unlike other clients, she isn’t concerned about the pineapple size or exterior look.
Maui Wine crushes the pineapple and chills it. Solid pieces that drop to the bottom of the tank during the juicing process are removed, along with a clear fluid that rises to the top. Yeast is then added for the fermentation process, which takes about a week. Then the fruit juice is kept in the cellar for about 12 to 14 weeks before it is bottled, and then it’s another two months before distribution.
Hegele says they used to add artificial caramel coloring to the wine, but now they don’t, to keep things completely natural. Instead, Maui Wine blends multiple batches of fruit to produce a wine uniform in color.
If equipment breaks, spare parts or perhaps even a technician need to be flown in. Maui Wine sells 18,000 cases of pineapple wine a year, and all the bottles that they use come from the mainland, which means they have a 40-foot massive container fee. The freight can cost up to $12,000 dollars. Plus, the wine is shipped throughout the state, and is distributed in Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Guam and Canada.
“People thought what we were doing didn’t make any sense,” says Hegele. “The fact that we do everything from growing, pressing, producing and bottling means all our supplies have to be shipped here. Then, a huge amount of wine is turned around and shipped back out. If we’re talking dollars and cents, we’d do things instead on the mainland, but we don’t because we believe in agricultural integrity. We want to be part of the Maui story.”
Big Island Bees
A fourth-generation beekeeper, Garnett Puett of Big Island Bees met his wife Whendi while attending art school in Seattle. He was away from the family business for a while, but bees found their way into his artwork of beeswax sculptures. Eventually, he returned to beekeeping and the Puetts settled in Captain Cook on Big Island permanently in 1991.
At the time, Garnett was selling bulk honey which he’d send to the mainland where it’d be packed and sold to food manufacturers. But the honey would come back looking and tasting different. “The honey was pasteurized or superheated, and they’d gotten rid of the crystals,” says Whendi Puett. “But I didn’t want that. I decided I was going to have unheated, raw honey, and I was going to pack it here.”
Today, Big Island Bees sells organic ohia lehua and wilelaiki honey, along with soaps, teas, skin care products and more. The company now has 3,800 hives and 190 million bees, and while it’s shifted away from selling primarily in bulk, Big Island Bees supplies local restaurants and food manufacturers including Anahola Granola, Big Island Brewhaus and Volcano Winery. Occasionally, they sell to Costco on Hawaii when there’s enough honey, which Puett says is a great deal for local people. (You can get on the Costco alert list via BigIslandBees.com to know when it’s available.)
The bees have a symbiotic relationship with the land owners. “Our bees get fresh bloom to forage on, while the ranches get pollination and honey,” says Puett. For macadamia nut farmers, bees can increase their yield by almost 30 percent. Big Island Bees isn’t paid for pollination services, although on the mainland, that’s how beekeepers normally make money.
Bottling the honey also takes place at the Big Island Bees factory, which isn’t without its challenges. “We just ordered a shipment of glass, but the shipping company took the boat to Shanghai instead of Hawaii. Without glass, it’s not like you can drive and buy it tomorrow. It takes week, and can be a major operation,” says Puett. They dealt with the crisis by having glass flown by air, just to get by. “At least the glass company paid for it,” says Puett. “But you always have to watch your supplies because it can take 12 weeks for these things to get here.”
Puett says she chooses to source local because of community. “It’s fun knowing your fellow farmers, and getting to know your neighbors that way,” says Puett. “I know a woman who is a mac nut farmer, and I have a friend who makes soaps with my honey. It’s fun sharing things, and being friends as well as colleagues.”
Koloa Rum Company
There’s a 1,210-gallon distiller in the town of Kalaheo on Kauai—a giant copper pot made in 1947. It was refurbished for Koloa Rum Company, and since 2009, has been used to distill its rums. The company is currently preparing for the closure of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S) by contracting 170 tons of sugar from them, which will provide Koloa Rum Company with enough sugar for at least two and a half years.
Bob Gunter, president of Koloa Rum Company, says there’s a long-term plan: plant sugarcane themselves. They’ve recently acquired access to 18 acres of land on the outskirts of Kōloa, along with two plots of sugarcane fields on Kaumakani. They’re experimenting with cane juice by boiling it down into cane syrup, which will not only give the rum products a longer shelf life, but self-sufficiency after HC&S closes. “We’re feeling optimistic that this is going to work,” says Gunter. “Our experiments to date have been promising.”
Of course, they could always buy sugar from somewhere else. It would be a cheaper option on all fronts. But Gunter says, “We take great pride that we do everything here, from manufacturing, processing, packaging and shipping. It’s in our DNA.”
In addition to Hawaiian cane sugar, Koloa Rum Company buys papaya and passionfruit puree, guava, corrugated cardboard boxes and flavor essences from local farmers and producers. They also have a partnership with Kauai Coffee Company, which provides them with a special roast for coffee rum.
Products are shipped all over the mainland, as well as to France, Canada, Australia and most recently, Japan. This means that supplies like glass bottles, glass jars and caps are shipped to Hawaii and then shipped right back to customers on the mainland.
He says they once shipped a container of rum to an Australia customer, sending it first to California for $6,900 and then from California to Sydney for $1,900. This means it cost $5,000 more than it would if Kōloa Rum Company had shipped straight from the mainland to Sydney. “This is a story I often use to illustrate the extraordinarily high freight shipping rates that impact Hawaii manufacturers,” says Gunter. He credits these fees to the Jones Act of 1920, which mandated that all goods being transported by water between U.S. ports to be carried on American ships, constructed in America, owned and operated by American citizens.
While there are the challenges of labor and shipping costs, there are also unique advantages for Kōloa Rum Company to do business in Hawaii. Tourism, for example, is a big help. Koloa’s products are sold aboard Hawaiian Airlines, exposing the product to international visitors, and the company has a tasting room that hosts anywhere from 200 to 300 people a day. “We have a fresh set of visitors always coming in, and it’s a great product and brand exposure,” says Gunter. “People respond very well with the term ‘made in Hawaii.’ There is so much interest out there in the world for anything made in Hawaii, which is an advantage for us.”