The Few. The Small. The Delicious.

How will Maui’s landscape change, now that Big Ag is gone? The answer may lie with new “boutique” farms that offer the promise of diversity.

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Maui’s Changing Landscape | Part One | Part Two | Part Three
PART THREE in our yearlong look at the future of Maui agriculture

Maui boutique farms
A signpost whimsically points the way to O’o Farm’s coffee orchard—first stage in production of Maui-grown coffees. The sign sits in the farm’s vegetable garden, which supplies produce for several West Side restaurants, and for visitors touring the farm.

Story by Teya Penniman | Photography by Bryan Berkowitz

Grounds for Optimism

“We’re now in the ‘third wave’ of coffee,” says farm manager Ancil Clancy. I’m eavesdropping on a small tour group gathered in the roasting shed of O’o Farm. Contoured rows of leafy greens, broccoli, citrus trees, herbs and flowers provide a backdrop to his lesson. Coffee plantings are scattered throughout the eight-and-a-half-acre farm, which boasts some eighty different crops.

“Small batch,” “artisanal,” and “terroir” are part of the lingo that defines this stage in the history of coffee. It’s not until my attention shifts to Louis Coulombe that I discover I’m being guided by a master.

Louis purchased the Kula acreage in 2000 to grow food for his restaurants, Pacific’O, the Feast at Lele, and later, ‘Āina Gourmet Coffee. He was an early and enthusiastic adopter of “farm-to-table,” and all the produce grown here is used in his restaurants; ten employees keep the farm humming. In 2005, with Maui’s coffee industry still in its infancy, Louis put his first plants in the ground and then sent himself to coffee school on the mainland.

“I love coffee,” he enthuses. He walks me through each step: what and where to plant, when to harvest, fermentation, drying, husking, roasting, bagging and labeling. Attention is everything: each juncture in the process is a possible place to screw up.

The roasting shed houses a high-tech coffee machine. “I’ll make you a coffee,” he says. “Do you like coffee?” he asks, an afterthought. Coffee, Louis advises, should be ground to order, the instant before you’re ready to make it, the water temperature exactly 198 degrees and extraction twenty-five seconds. Such precision might seem a bit intense, but his conviction is contagious: the sheer joy in making the perfect cup of joe. And it is. Perfect. Like ambrosia.

At the bagging station, he points out the labels that go onto each bag. “We always get excited when we have a new crop or varietal.” Each batch is “cupped” (tasted by those trained to properly characterize its profile). The label includes current tasting notes and the roasting date. The type of coffee—its genetics—certainly influences the flavor, but current thinking gives new weight to the influence of the microbial environment on the fermentation process. Something in the air makes our island-grown coffee chocolatey, nutty and smooth.

ripe coffee berries
O’O Farm manager Ancil Clancy harvests ripe coffee berries.

The farm can’t grow all the produce his restaurants need, but 100 percent of the coffee served comes from this soil. As the trees mature, Louis expects production to double or triple.

How does his approach fit into the bigger picture of diversifying ag production here? “Land is so expensive on Maui,” he says. “To make it in farming, you have to integrate it, tie it into tourism. For us, we’re bypassing the wholesaler and going straight to the consumer.”

I leave with a bag of O’o Farm’s Mokka #11. Tasting notes: “Medium to heavy body with a smooth finish. Hints of baker’s chocolate and citrus.” And lungs full of Maui’s Upcountry air that help make the island, and its coffee, like no other.

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