Who knew mushrooms had the power to bring a community together?
This is my first thought when visiting Hamakua Mushrooms on Big Island, Hawaii’s only commercial mushroom producer. The factory is set on a working farm, where what started as a hobby for Bob Stanga became a sustainable endeavor that helped bring local businesses together in the state.
“We grow in Hawaii for Hawaii,” explains Lani Weigert, Hamakua Mushrooms’ Director of Marketing & Community Relations Rep. “You have a business because you have a community, so we try to work with local companies, give them our mushrooms and package their creations under our brand. We never viewed other local companies as competition, but wanted to work together and become strong to compete — not within Hawaii — but beyond Hawaii.”
Perusing the gift shop, their desire to partner with local Hawaii businesses becomes very clear. Some of the many items they’ve created or will soon create include mushroom-infused cookies with Rainbow Falls Connection; mushroom chocolate (the mushroom makes it feel a Krackel Bar) with Big Island Candies; mushroom coffee with Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee; mushroom wine with Volcano Winery; mushroom honey with Big Island Bees; and mushroom-dusted sweet potato chips with Blue Kalo Chips, to name a few. Essentially, if you have a product that’s edible, Hamakua Mushrooms will infuse their organic mushrooms into it.
“No one is safe from us now!” laughs Lani, an excited grin on her face.
From Hobby To Business
Hamakua Mushrooms started in 2003. Before that, founder and owner Bob Stanga had been a pilot. He loved Hawaii — especially the food — and decided he wanted a culinary-themed side project to do along with his piloting gig. After taking out a book on how to harvest mushrooms, he toyed around with the idea for 15 years. It wasn’t until he sold his helicopter business that he raised the funds to purchase the 35-acre (14-hectare) mushroom farm in Laupahoehoe with his wife, Janice, creating a sustainable business.
During the set up of the farm, Bob and Janice purchased all the wire rack shelving Costco Kona had to offer. They ended up purchasing 223 shelving units, which resulted in a call from Costco Headquarters in Seattle, inquiring what the couple planned to do with their unusual purchase. After informing the wholesaler they were planning to open a mushroom farm, the caller replied, “We want to be your FIRST customer, and buy ALL of your mushrooms.”
So along with KTA Superstores — a Big Island grocery chain — the Hamakua Mushrooms market was started. What began as a harvest of 50 to 100 pounds (23 to 45 kilograms) per week has now grown to 5,500 pounds (2,495 kilograms) per week. They sell to about 200 restaurants, resorts and hotels, and 70 supermarkets, all within Hawaii.
And for those who think Bob gave up an exciting life of piloting to go work on a quiet farm, he’s got news for you.
“Farming is much more dangerous than being a pilot!” he laughs. “When I was a pilot I never so much as got a scratch. Since working on the farm, I’ve had my hand caught in a conveyer and screws stuck into my wrist.”
A Focus On Sustainability
Still, he doesn’t mind the risks, as Bob is passionate about creating a truly sustainable, organic product that not only brings Hawaiians together, but also keeps them healthy through cancer-fighting properties, antioxidants and heightened vascular health.
Hamakua Mushrooms are made using a unique substrate of corncob, wheat bran and grandis eucalyptus saw dust, all of which are local byproduct. The combination of these woods contain the perfect balance of nutrients for the mycelium — a web-like root structure — to grow from.
Using a Japanese cultivation method, the mushrooms grow in bottles, which allows for a higher level of production as the process can be automated. The substrate is poured into these bottles, heated, sterilized and cooled, after which the mushroom spawn is placed inside and incubated at a temperature of 75 degrees Celsius (167 degrees Fahrenheit). This is what allows the mushroom roots to colonize the bottles, at which point they’ll change from brown to white. From here, the top of the roots are scraped to get the mushroom growing process starting. After about 20 days in environmentally-controlled rooms, beautiful and exotic mushroom will flourish, allowing Hamakua to offer a delicious and organic product.
Once the mushrooms are grown, the substrate — which is a recycled product in itself — is again recycled and sold to local farmers to strengthen their soil. And unlike many other mushroom producers, Hamakua Mushrooms uses no pesticides, with their only pest control being a mixture of clove and garlic oils used in their incubation room.
“What makes Hamakua Mushrooms unique is they are grown in the light — versus in the dark — and draws their nutrients from a wood decomposing mixture versus a manure decomposing mixture. Our mushrooms hold less water as opposed to the button mushrooms so shrink less,” explains Janice Stanga, Bob’s wife and Hamakua Mushrooms co-owner and vice president. “Additionally, we recycle and reuse our mushroom substrate to create another product that helps farmers and school gardens grow their produce and increase their yields. We use plastic bottles so we can recycle them with every run, and use the eucalyptus from the forest that surrounds our farm. We also develop our value added products with local vendors to strengthen our business community and ensure that we are inclusive so we don’t compete within Hawaii, but are positioned to compete beyond Hawaii.”
A Tasty Tour
I participate in their signature tour — Hawaii’s only mushroom growing tour — which begins with an informational video on how the mushrooms are produced and virtual tour of the facility. Afterward, there’s a cooking demonstration led by Bob and tasting (recipes below). While for many people a mushroom is just a mushroom, this isn’t the case with Hamakua Mushrooms, which are so rich and robust you don’t need to add butter or overpowering ingredients when using them to cook. Instead, Bob adds a bit of garlic, pepper, pink Hawaiian sea salt and olive oil, although they’ll soon be switching to local macadamia nut oil to make the recipe more local.
“When eating mushrooms it’s all about the buttery, silky mouthfeel,” explains Lani. “Mushrooms have a category of their own for taste called Umami, which means “delicious” in Japanese. It’s what’s pushing the flavor more. We want people to try it undressed to really taste and enjoy our mushrooms.”
Exotic Mushroom Varieties
There are a few varieties Hamakua Mushrooms cultivates. First is the firm, mildly nutty-flavored Ali’i” Oyster, nicknamed the “Royal Trumpet” or “King Oyster” due to its ability to be a meat substitute with a protein content almost equal. According to the company, the mushroom has excellent capabilities to fight cancer, tumors, high cholesterol, inflammation and can boost the immune system and work as an antiviral. The Pioppini — which was once grown by the ancient Romans and Greeks — is another mushroom variety, a crunchy, nutty mushroom with curative properties and the ability to act as a pain reliever. Their Abalone Mushroom — which resembles the shellfish — is dense and meaty, used for nutrition and medicine since 3,000 BC. Lastly, the Gray Oyster Mushroom offers a delicate flavor similar to shellfish.
As soon as the first bite of flavorful, meaty mushroom hits my tongue I’m instantly addicted. While I enjoy all the mushrooms, my favorite is the Ali’i” Mushroom, a thick, fleshy mushroom that has the exact texture and similar flavor to a scallop.
“Our motto is ‘top it or swap it'” says Lani. “You can top your food with our mushrooms or swap it for meat, as these mushrooms are packed with protein. Vegetarians especially love the Ali’i” Mushroom, as it makes them feel like they’re eating seafood.”
After our savory tasting, I’m invited to try some of their sweets and snacks. The tasting begins with their Mushroom Brownie Crisps, mushroom mingling with chocolate to add a delightful richness to the crunchy treat. Next we sample two cookies, a butter variety and a “Mushroom Delight Cookie” with chocolate, macadamia nuts, raisins and, of course, Hamakua Mushrooms. While you would think each of these flavors would contrast, the mushroom somehow binds the flavors while bringing out their unique qualities. Lastly, I sample a sweet potato chip sprinkled with mushroom powder, allowing me to really taste the local potato with the mushroom enhancing it. It’s a perfect example of how the company is not only going local, but trying to offer pure, healthy food.
More Than Just Mushrooms
Hamakua Mushrooms is truly a lifestyle brand, bringing the people of Hawaii together to enrich their economy, wellness and lives. Along with their many product goals for the future — including selling home-growing kits so locals can learn how to grow exotic mushrooms at home and offering their mushrooms in dehydrated form and their spent substrate soil booster for wholesale and retail — Hamakua Mushrooms hopes to have every school on Big Island visit for a tour, so children and their parents can learn the importance of growing their own food. If they succeed, future generations on Hawaiians will be able to lead sustainable and healthy lifestyles. Other future goals include offering their tour in conjunction with a trip to Laupahoehoe Train Station and the Hawaiian Vanilla Farm to establish the Hamakua Coast as a destination; presenting a pop-up restaurant showcasing local chefs and produce at Hamakua Mushrooms farm; and continuing to add local mushroom products crafted in conjunction with Big Island purveyors.
Hamakua Mushrooms offers three tours per day at 9:30am, 11am and 1:30pm. You can make a reservation by calling 808-962-0305 (24 hours advance notice required). They’re located at 36-221 Manowaiopae Homestead Road in Laupahoehoe on Big Island, Hawaii.
Mushroom Recipes (Provided by Hamakua Mushrooms)
Quick and Simple
8 ounces mixed or single variety exotic mushrooms
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon garlic, minced or quartered
Pinch or two of fresh chopped parsley
1 tablespoon white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
In a broad skillet, heat oil on high. Add mushrooms, stir to coat mushrooms with oil. Add salt, pepper, garlic and white wine. Cook 3-4 minutes, occasionally stirring. Sprinkle with parsley prior to serving. Serve hot over steak, chicken, fish or pasta.
Mediterranean Mushroom Medley
8 ounces mixed or single variety exotic mushrooms
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon each garlic and shallot, minced
1/4 teaspoon each dried oregano and thyme
3 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
6 sun-dried tomatoes, plumped in warm water and cut in strips
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat oil in broad skillet over medium high heat. Add shallot, garlic and mushrooms. Cook 3-4 minutes. Add herbs, tomato strips and lemon juice or vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm or cold as a side dish, or atop grilled or sauteed chicken, fish or with pasta.
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