Examining the Hawaii wildfires’ impact on the local coffee industry

Hawaii wildfires

The 2023 Hawaii wildfires have caused insurmountable destruction to land and livelihoods. Global Coffee Report speaks to the local coffee community about their impact and the road to recovery.

Origin Coffee Roasters Founder Heather Brisson-Lutz was in New Zealand to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup finals in August 2023 when she awoke to the news that her home, Maui, Hawaii, had fallen victim to a number of devastating fires.

Referred to as “the Hawaii Firestorm” by the United States Government, the fires were reported as one of the worst natural disasters in the country since the early 1900s.

“Initially I didn’t know how to process the information. I was getting notifications from people I hadn’t heard from in 10 years asking if I was ok,” Brisson-Lutz says.

Throughout early August, intense winds from a nearby hurricane and ongoing drought conditions worsened the rapid spread of the fires across Maui. They destroyed most of the historic town of Lahaina, as well as many other areas including Olinda, Pulehu-Kihei, and Kula. Thousands of people were displaced, and more than 100 died.

“The 80-mile-per-hour (about 128 kilometres per hour) winds prevented air support helicopters from providing assistance, as they couldn’t fly in those conditions. I was surprised that I was even able to fly out of Maui that day as the winds were so bad. I remember praying my flight wouldn’t be cancelled, not knowing the entire island would change,” Brisson-Lutz recalls.

“I love to surf in Lahaina and my wife and I got married there, it’s my happy place. It’s so devastating to think that an entire town can be wiped out so quickly.”

Brisson-Lutz says Origin Coffee Roasters was fortunate enough to retain its own roastery and most of its accounts, losing only four partners, while some of the bigger roasters lost more than 40.

“One of them was my biggest account, which really hurts my revenue stream, but my main concern was checking in on those people and making sure everyone was safe,” she says.

For the weeks to follow, Brisson-Lutz says people compared the island to “a zombie apocalypse”.

“There was no cell [phone] service, no electricity, and survivors didn’t know where they’d get supplies from. People from Maalaea Harbor in Maui were boating food over, and the local community really came to the rescue,” she says.

“With a 75 per cent drop in tourism throughout August and September, that’s US$13 million the Maui community lost [per] day.”

Fellow Maui coffee roaster Maui Oma Coffee Roasting Company lost 34 customer accounts on Front Street in Lahaina, including cafés, restaurants, and hotels, along with the equipment it supplies them. The loss of revenue, equipment and receivables is worth thousands of dollars.

Since the west side of Maui was closed for more than 10 weeks, Owner Maria Holmes has also lost revenue to accounts north of Lahaina, including Kaanapali, Honokawai, Kapalua and Napili.

“These accounts were temporarily closed as they were not physically devested, but were closed off due to roadblocks, lack of visitors and displaced residences. Only half of our accounts in these areas are now open, some 90 days later,” she says.

“We are not able to claim the loss with our insurance company due to the equipment not being within 300 metres of our roastery. We are working on writing grants with community organisations to get funding to replace the loss of equipment.”

As such, Holmes was forced to cut back on staff hours and expenses.
“We usually deliver coffee twice a week island wide. Now we only make deliveries once a week to save on manpower and gas,” she says.

According to the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, a total of 769,163 visitors came to the Hawaiian Islands in August 2023, down 7.3 per cent from August 2022.

“After the fires, the loss of visitors from all areas of Maui was devastating. September and October are usually Hawaii’s slower tourist months, and the fires exacerbated the number of arrivals to Maui,” says Holmes.

Hawaii’s largest independently owned coffee growing company, MauiGrown Coffee, lost both its roastery and retail store to the fires.

“We also lost our wet and dry milling facility that handles all the raw harvest, our warehouses and green coffee inventory, equipment, rolling stock and our main office,” says MauiGrown Coffee President James “Kimo” Falconer.

After sustaining heavy damage to its wet mill and dry mill, the decision was made to forgo the 2023-24 harvest season.

“The loss of existing green coffee inventory means we have nothing to sell until we rebuild our mill,” Falconer says.

For clients of MauiGrown Coffee, such as Maui Coffee Roasters, this meant whatever coffee was in warehouses as of August 2023 was all it would see until late 2024 or early 2025.

“Maui Oma was purchasing over 450 kilograms of Maui beans per week. That volume of coffee cannot be replaced by other island origins such as Kona, Ka’u, Waialua or Kauai. Many coffee roasters are now purchasing from smaller farmers in Kona and Ka’u, but the volume is not equal,” Holmes says.

“The price per pound of coffee is another huge factor. Maui coffee is good coffee at a reasonable price which most coffee roasters could afford. Although other island origins are of good quality, their price is twice as much, which makes it difficult for the roaster, their customers, and the final consumer. Most of us can no longer offer 100 per cent Hawaiian coffee or custom blends.”

Falconer is working to design and build new components for a fresh milling site. He is unsure when the current mill will be available for use.

“We still have not been granted access for insurance purposes and it may be years before the burn site is considered clean. We are also hoping for cooperation from our local government’s planning department to help streamline our permits. It all needs to be done by next September to make the 2024-25 harvest season,” he says.

Although Lahaina was only shut down for three months, the western side of the island remains partially closed. Falconer says MauiGrown Coffee has been unable to operate since August.

“Our lack of green coffee supply has dealt a hard blow to any roasting business that wants to carry Hawaiian coffee, as we were a big part of that supply chain. Those businesses have had to create new blends from outside Hawaii to survive,” he says.

Wildfires and natural disasters are becoming more commonplace as the world embraces the impact of climate change, but what hasn’t changed, is community spirit.

“We have had great government support and amazing outreach by truly generous people. When a friend passes or someone loses their house it is a tragedy, but when you lose your entire town, it is surreal. We are all waking up to a nightmare every day. It is going to take years, perhaps 10 or even 20, to make it back to normal,” Falconer says.

Despite the harsh outlook, Falconer remains optimistic about the future of the company. He says MauiGrown Coffee will be back, and hopefully with good production to boost supply.

“When our product makes it back into the market, it would be great to have buyer support return as well,” Falconer says.

“The world has already moved on, but people need to remember when they buy Hawaii coffee or plan to visit, this process will be long, and our Lahaina residents are still recovering. Please be patient with us.”

Maui Coffee Association (MCA) Board Member Christopher Speere says immediately after the fires, calls came in from the coffee industry across the state offering support.

“The MCA received coffee donations that we initially utilised to prepare brewed coffee for chefs and community volunteers who were making up to 10,000 meals a day at the University of Hawaii Maui College and for Federal Emergency Management Agency workers and other essential first responders. The MCA also directly delivered ground coffee to all our local fire stations to support their efforts,” Speere says.

Speere says there is a shadow over the island of Maui that only time can heal.

“Devastating losses like those that occurred in Lahaina have deep implications and long-term consequences. The loss of a sense of place, of something called ours, something called home, to rally around and support is beyond difficult,” he says.

The Maui situation is one of loss and tragedy, but there are also stories of hope and resilience. Speere says the MCA has established the Maui Fire Fund for all coffee professionals from roasters to baristas.

“We intend to use a portion of these funds to provide educational opportunities to build back our local coffee businesses and their employees,” he says.

The MCA also has a free three-day coffee roasting and cupping workshop in the planning stage for early January 2024. It will deliver a coffee professional certification series in partnership with the University of Hawaii Maui College, offering training from seed to cup to displaced workers and interested coffee enthusiasts at no cost.

“At the individual level we all look for and find ways to support each other and make Maui whole again. Business comes down to reciprocity, the act of helping one another, to pay it forward now so that tomorrow we come back stronger,” says Speere.

This article was first published in the January/February 2024 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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