maui gold pineapple tour: preserving maui’s pineapple legacy

HarvestingPineapples“Maui Gold is the only pineapple company in the U.S., this is the only pineapple tour in the U.S., and I’m the only pineapple tour guide in the U.S.,” proclaims Steve, who announces he’ll be our captain for the day. Janet and I, as well as everyone else aboard the colorfully painted pineapple bus, break into appreciative applause.

It’s a breezy day in Hali‘imaile: brilliant blue sky punctuated with fluffy white cumulus clouds, and strong trade winds riffling nearby fields of tall sugarcane. But today, it’s all about the pineapple—an industry that was nearly lost when Maui Pineapple Company shut down its operations in 2009, after 100 years in business. Fortunately, a hui of former investors started up Hali‘imaile Pineapple Company, purchasing the assets of Maui Pineapple and licensing the “Maui Gold” trademark, keeping 65 of the former employees in the process.

Steve tells us the color of the pineapple determines how sweet it is, and that we’ll be tasting fruit in various stages of ripeness later in the tour. “We’ll eat pineapple until we’re sick of it,” he says. “No one goes home hungry from this tour.” The company harvests on Mondays and Wednesdays, and processes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Since this is a Monday, we’ll be going out into the field to observe the harvesting process.

Steve shows us where the pineapples are rinsed after harvesting. Water injected with ozone kills any bacteria on the fruit, and the water is then recycled. After rinsing, the fruits undergo a high-pressure wash, then make their way to the waxing machine. “The wax seals in carbon dioxide, which makes the fruit last longer and gives it a nice sheen,” Steve says. “This company uses a vegetable-based wax—not petroleum—so it’s more eco-friendly.”

We make our way past the rinsing machine, climb up onto a metal platform, then descend a set of stairs into the packing room, where we’re met by a pungent, fruity odor, even though there’s no packing going on today. Steve shows us what he refers to as the company’s “meth lab” that’s really a testing station where company workers constantly monitor the fruit’s quality to ensure Maui Gold is the best-tasting pineapple in the world.

We find out from Steve that Maui Gold pineapples contain 15 percent acid and 85 percent sugar, as compared with Dole pineapples, which are grown in Thailand, and contain 30 percent acid and 70 percent sugar. “This company plants to demand, with less than 4 percent waste,” Steve says proudly. He shows us the $3 million pineapple stacking machine, then each couple on the tour is presented with a ready-to-ship box containing two Maui Gold pineapples. After a quick stop in the massive refrigeration room, where the temperature is a constant 50 degrees and a network of tubing on the ceiling releases ozone into the air for bacteria control, we hop back on the bus and head out to the field.

We turn up Baldwin Avenue, then make a right turn onto a dirt road that bisects acres of pineapple plants. The view of Haleakala to the left is breathtaking today; to the right, the West Maui Mountains’ sharp angles tower over the sparkling blue Pacific. Steve tells us 30 acres of pineapple are planted each week and 30 acres are harvested each week, attesting to the concept of planting to demand for minimal waste.

After bumping along the dusty pineapple road for a few minutes, we park near a harvesting machine manned by a crew of pineapple pickers, who wave at us in greeting as we step out of the bus and onto the field. “It takes a crew 30 minutes to pick five tons of pineapple,” says Steve. That’s incredible! Surrounded by the sweet aroma of pineapple, Steve demonstrates his pineapple-picking prowess: “A little twist and snap,” is all it takes, he says. Then Steve demonstrates the “thump test,” where you knock on the pineapple, much like shopping for a watermelon. “Hear that hollow sound?” he asks. “That’s what you want.”

“We’ll be tasting pineapple in three stages of ripeness,” Steve says. He whips out his machete, and expertly cuts off the outer layer of a fine specimen of fruit that’s mostly green with a little bit of gold. “This fruit has a shelf life of three weeks, and is 15 percent acid,” he says. It’s super sweet, and so juicy that my hand is soon dripping with fruit essence. No worries…Steve has brought along a container of baby wipes to remedy the situation.

Next we sample a pineapple that Steve says is referred to as “half ripe,” even though it’s fully ripe. It’s half green and half gold, with a shelf life of 10 days, and contains 10 percent acid. As he cuts it into pieces, Steve tells us it will taste like a pina colada. When we all declare that to be so, Steve quips, “I’m not a politician; I don’t lie.”

Lastly, Steve cuts into a fully yellow fruit that has a two-day shelf life and 5 percent acid. “It tastes bland for some, and like candy for others,” Steve says. I personally find it rather yucky with an overripe taste. “Don’t assume that a solid yellow pineapple has the best taste,” Steve says. He’s right, of course!

Steve advises us to always store pineapple upside down in the refrigerator after removing the crown. “There’s more sugar in the bottom,” he explains. “That way the sugar redistributes throughout the fruit.” Another nugget of wisdom from the uber-knowledgeable Steve: “Pineapple originated in Brazil. Westerners declared it looked like a pine cone and tasted like an apple, hence the name.”

We learn that Maui, at 1,500 miles north of the equator, is ideally situated for pineapple growing. Our rich, volcanic soil, coupled with ideal temperatures and plenty of sun, make for the perfect environment. As we drive past a section of field that was just planted this morning, Steve points out a layer of what looks like black plastic lying atop the fresh earth. It’s actually a carbon mulch material that keeps the soil warm and moist, promoting growth. It’s printed with a series of Xs that show workers exactly where to plant the crowns. Every piece is planted by hand, Steve says. “Pineapple planters are the highest paid workers in the field. They’re paid by the piece, and can earn up to $40 per hour. But it’s a grueling job, and they do it only three days a week. The other two days, I think they visit the chiropractor.” He’s probably not kidding.

Back at the plant, we say goodbye to Steve and head next door to Hali‘imaile General Store for the optional lunch add-on. Janet and I choose from five different options—she selects the Upcountry Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad, while I go for the “Cubawaiian Sandwich”. Janet’s salad has strips of grilled chicken atop a bed of fresh romaine, with homemade garlic croutons and freshly grated asiago cheese. My sandwich is composed of kalua-style pork, black forest ham, Swiss cheese, pickled pineapple (especially apropos after the tour), and wasabi BBQ sauce, served on a delightful hoagie roll and accompanied by seasoned french fries. Homemade mango sorbet for dessert is nicely flavored and is a refreshing palate cleanser.

Janet and I depart Hali‘imaile with our precious Maui Gold pineapples, knowing we’ll be reminded of today’s tour with each heavenly bite.

–heidi pool

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