There’s a sweet spot somewhere between four minutes and 210 degrees with a course grind that makes a perfect French press coffee. It’s a spot that Greg Suekoff, the new assistant general manager at Aina Gourmet Market has finessed, since he started working in cafe at age 17. It’s also a mark I rarely hit with my coffee maker. But Suekoff is a champion barista who’s entered regional, national and international competitions in DC, Orlando, New York, Charlotte, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Seoul, so he probably knows something I don’t. He earned the title “Ultimate Barista” from the Ultimate Barista Challenge by winning in Latte Art in New York. Since then he’s placed first in all of their competition categories: Latte Art, Espresso Cocktail, Best of Brew and Espresso Frappe.
With coffee’s huge popularity in the last decade and the resulting growth of cafe culture, most coffee drinkers consider themselves connoisseurs of the cup. But most baristas on Maui are preoccupied; it’s rare that I can geek out over a brewed bean with one of them. That’s why I’m glad that at Aina Gourmet, Suekoff and the new General Manager Solana Tao are changing this experience.
Aina Gourmet’s coffee is grown on the mountain behind it, at the Kaanapali Coffee farm run by James Kimo Falconer. They grow three distinct beans: mokka, red catura and yellow catura, with no blends at this time.
“That is the bloom,” says Suekoff as he pours the water into the individual French press carafes, one with the red catuai and the other with the yellow catura. He says the best coffee comes from fresh beans ground right before brewing, and it will rise up when you’ve poured hot water ofnthe grounds, which comes from the release of CO2 in the mix. Suekoff knows firsthand about the freshness of Aina’s coffee, having been up the mountain to the farm to roast it himself. Aina Gourmet’s Maui Grown coffee is roasted in small batches by hand in their 10-gallon roaster.
Suekoff describes the acidity in coffee as a spectrum that goes from soft at the low end to bright at the high end. Their heirloom mokka bean falls into the latter. This heirloom bean is tiny, intact with its original genetic features. I’m on my third cup and by now our mutual love of coffee has put us on a first name basis. He goes into a story of coffee folklore and dancing goats in Africa; it’s a dogged and domesticated hoofed creature that discovered the benefits of caffeine and shared it with humans.
Aina Gourmet is a bit off the beaten path, but there’s plenty of self parking and the gorgeous environment of Honua Kai make it an appealing stop. Their store and deli is gorgeous; it’s the kind of market you see puffed up 90210’s selecting wine and cheese from in LA (minus the pretentiousness and lack of parking). Instead, visitors stroll idly by, looking for souvenir Maui products and picking up coffee and gelato. I’m impressed with Greg’s genuine switch from geeking out with my coffee to asking some young visitors about their vacation. It’s nearly impossible to tell he just got here a month or so ago.
After almost three years as the third eatery under the Pacific’o and I’o brands, Aina Gourmet has gotten a true a makeover. Executive chef and owner James McDonald dropped in during lunch and talked about O’o Farms, where they grow produce for the restaurants and how that fits into their 100-mile lifestyle. The philosophy can mean lots of things, but for Aina it means everything is connected. It means following a more sustainable model. It means finding as many quality, locally sourced items as they can for the store.
There are lots of local goods and sustainable items to choose from on their shelves: Molokai tea, biodynamic wine and chocolate. The breads for their sandwiches and pastries come from local baker Harold Hardcastle at The Bakery. Gluten-free cupcakes are made by Real Foods Maui. They get their eggs from a farm in Launiupoko. And so on.
“Ten years ago that wasn’t the language people were speaking,” says GM Tao of her 100-mile concept. “Now everyone does. I have revamped the wine program here with sustainable, organic and biodynamic [features]. We offer a selection of alternative medicines, a chocolate wall and lactose and gluten-free foods. People have received these changes very well.”
The lunches show it. Like the Arugula and radish salad with only Parmesan and roasted garlic as its dry dressing, which was superb. Crunchy and bright, these four ingredients were gifted. The Beast, a roast beef sandwich with homemade horseradish cream stacked high with greens and whole grain bread, was a superior take on a meat sandwich. The panini of mozzarella and proscuitto was a beautiful Italian tribute. Tao says they will be changing the menu and revamping some of their items as well as building a new bar seating area outside of their market.
Tao and Suekoff will feature their Aina Gourmet specialties at the upcoming wine club at I’o. You’re invited to join them on Friday, Mar. 23 from 8-10pm on a sampling of their 100-mile lifestyle, with action stations for coffees, wine, martinis and pupus that highlight Aina Gourmet.
Aina Gourmet Market
130 Kai Malina Pkwy, Lahaina
Open 7am to 9:30pm.
For more foodie news, visit MauiTime’s food blog at: mauidish.com