It’s important to know what you value most in life. The concept of having strong personal core values is something that we engage with the most at Honolulu Coffee. When we take this concept and apply it to how we want to interact with our business partners, we are opened up to wonderful blossoming partnerships that serve our community, the local land or ‘Āina, and our local economy.
With these principles in mind, this is how we became connected with Saili Levi, the owner/farmer of Laie Vanilla Company. We got connected at the Kaka‘ako Farmers market one day a few months ago where he and his eldest daughter were selling their new vanilla bean harvest and at home vanilla bean extract making kits. Their passion for what they do is what propelled us to partner in a few amazing new products we have on our menu, including the vanilla bean syrup we use in our lattes! (Get our recipe for making your own vanilla syrup at home at the bottom of this page!)
Check out our talk story with Saili to learn more about his story and how his farm came to be:
How did Laie Vanilla Company come to be?
I believe there is a higher being and that I have a father in heaven that watches out for me. Back in 2016 I was diagnosed with cancer. And at this point in my life, if you hear anything about cancer, your next thoughts are, “OK you’re not going to live long and something is going to happen to you.” At that point, I knew I needed to focus on my family. I have three little girls and my wife and we had just moved back to Hawaii, to give them the same opportunities that I had growing up in Hawaii. When that happened, I did a lot of praying and soul searching and I asked my heavenly father and said, “Hey! Give me something that I can do so that I can be around my family a little more instead of working a 9-5 job.”
One day, I was working as a water distribution operator out in Laie and there was a water break. A friend of mine and I were working on this huge water main break and on this big pipe, there was this vine growing on it and all around us. So I asked him, “Do you know what this vine is?” I had no idea.
My friend had spent a couple of years in Tonga, and he knew what it was because they grow a lot of vanilla in Tonga. He explained to me that it was vanilla and how it was an expensive crop grown in Tonga, Tahiti, and how Madagascar is the number one producer. At the time I wasn't really thinking, I was just working trying to get the job done. But a few weeks later, after some research, we found out there was a farm on the Big Island and learned how she pollinated the flowers and how they sell them for $10 a bean and that it’s worth it! So I put it to my mind, and thought there is something there. First step was that we asked the Laie farmer’s manager about the land that we found the vine on and found out it had been abandoned for two years. From that moment, we went straight to where the vine was and got some to start planting it at my house, in my backyard. This was one year after my cancer diagnosis.
One year after that, we started to have vanilla flowers. See, because we were taking these long cuttings, we were able to get vanilla beans sooner. I soon filled up my backyard so much to the point a few years later, I was not able to walk around in it. Towards the end of 2019, I decided to focus on my new company and expand the farm and take it to a bigger plot of land. I found a lady that had a family plot of land in Laie, I knocked on her door and I just presented what I was trying to do. I explained I was looking for farm land for my vanilla plants and that I wanted to keep it in Laie because The Laie Vanilla Company was founded in Laie by my family who is from Laie. I said , “Would you take a chance on me?” That was October, and in January 2020, we signed the contract. I resigned from my job and took a leap of faith and I did it.
In February and March of 2020, we were supplying a lot of the restaurants on Oahu and then Covid hit and all of the restaurants shut down. There we were left with a lot of vanilla and did not know what to do with it. This ended up being a blessing in disguise, because we didn't know that my kids were not going to be able to go to school now, and that someone had to stay home and watch them during the day. My wife is a registered nurse, so she was working in the hospitals while I stayed home with the kids to do homeschooling. Around that time, we started looking into building our website and started up at the farmers markets because at that time we were sitting on a lot of vanilla, but no one knew about us yet.
From June until today, we are on our new farm location and the plants are all flowering now. And we are just so blessed. Like I said, from the beginning. My father was looking out for me, until today I am not in remission yet, but I take my medication daily to help manage my form of cancer. This is how I take it, maybe this was a wake up call from the man upstairs. So it’s just been a great blessing.
Wow, incredible story. Can you tell us a bit about the stages of growing, harvesting and curing vanilla beans?
With vanilla, there are three different phases. First, there is the flowering season. From February to June, the vanilla plant begins to flower, but these flower only once for 6 hours in a day. So if you don't pollinate that flower, then you lose the ability to have a bean grow from that flower. In one cluster, you can expect about 30-40 flowers and they don't all flower at once. One today, maybe two tomorrow, and then continue on like that from February to June.
Second stage is pollination. Inside each flower itself is stigma and anther. Under the anther is where all of the pollen is. To pollinate, the male and the female part of the flower sit inside the flower, so you lift the stigma and fold the anther back on top of it and that stimulates the stem and the plant knows, “Ok now we're going to have to form and give out fruit.” The stem of the flower is what grows over this period of time. So it takes about 6-9 months for the stem to turn into a vanilla pod and mature on the vine. One bean per flower.
When the bean is matured, it turns yellow at the tip and when the entire pod turns yellow, that tells you the bean is matured and ready to be picked. You can even smell the the full vanilla aroma from the beans at this point.
At that time, we go through and harvest all of the mature beans that are ready to be picked. From there, I find that blanching the beans at 150 degrees for 5 minutes will stop the bean from continuing its growing cycle. Then, we wrap and store them in an insulated box for 48 hours to hold its heat in. After 48 hours, it will be nice and brown, but still plump. That is when we go into the drying process.
The drying process is when we take the beans out during the day and let them dry in the sun. At night time, we wrap it all up again and throw it in the insulated box. Then, with the heat they have absorbed all day, it sweats out the moisture at night. The vanilla beans natural oils then permeate the beans so the flavors from the inside envelope the entire pod. We are trying to dry out the water content, so you are just left with the oils. We test the moisture and water activity levels making sure that it is less than 25-30% moisture. This process takes about a month until it is at the right consistency.
From this point, we vacuum seal them and let them cure in a cooler. It turns out, the longer you let vanilla rest, the more flavorful they will be. Which is good if you remember back in early 2020, we were sitting on a large supply of vanilla with nowhere to sell it. Those beans are stronger, and so now our next batch will be able to sit longer too. Another blessing in disguise.
What is going on at the farm right now?
Right now, we are currently pollinating flowers. I’m there from 6am-8am pollinating flowers. And then go back after I get the kids to school and then head back to the farm in the evenings.
From June through December, we pick and harvest and dry. And then in January through March, the plants are in a resting period. When the plant is not supporting the flowers or beans, the plants have all of this energy and the vines just want to take off. Sometimes when I don’t catch them fast enough, they try to grow over to the next row and reach higher and higher for the sun. its really cool to watch, they're so alive.
You can support Saili and his family company by checking them out at the Kaka‘ako farmers market or purchase directly from their website. Come by any of our locations to try some of our beloved Vanilla Bean products using the vanilla that they tenderly grow.
MAKE YOUR OWN VANILLA SYRUP AT HOME
- Use a knife to cut a Laie vanilla bean pod in half.
- Scrape out vanilla beans and add to a small saucepan.
- Mix together 16oz of water and 16oz of sugar.
- Stir to dissolve the sugar and break apart the vanilla beans.
- Let sit until cool and strain out the vanilla beans before pouring in a storage container.