story by Marc Boileau
photo by Macario
From Kohala to South Point, Big Islander Bill Whaling is known as the “nut guy.” And aptly so: He’s spent the last ten years perfecting a killer way to crack macadamia nuts. Getting the sweet macadamia pearls out of the hardest shell on Earth has always required determination and cleverness; Bill’s invention, the Star M-15 Cracker, is the powerhouse driving his Hui Mac plant in Hilo. It’s the latest and perhaps the most significant innovation in Hawai‘i’s long mac nut tradition.
The macadamia nut is not native to the Islands (it’s nicknamed the “Bopple nut” for its origin near Australia’s Mount Bauple), but it was determined pioneers from Hawai‘i who first appreciated the nuts’ unique flavor and commercial potential in the 1920s. They mastered the arts of tree grafting, orchard planting and, most importantly, nut cracking. (Mac nuts are notoriously expensive, but few realize that most of their value derives from the cost of shelling them). In the 1940s, Hawai‘i enjoyed the exclusive distinction as the world’s only source for mac nuts.
Today, the global industry is worth, conservatively, about $500 million, but Hawai‘i’s market share is declining rapidly. Competing countries like Australia have recently invested in their industries, and the state’s world leadership vanished in the mid-1990s. American demand currently exceeds the supply, and the US now imports about $50 million worth of mac nuts annually.
The industry in Hawai‘i, like the global industry, relies on an inefficient cracking process that’s fifty years old. Before they’re cracked, the nuts require silo-drying, which is expensive and often taints the kernel with a woody flavor from the heated shell.
Bill’s five Star M-15s currently in use work by oscillating fresh nuts at high frequency. This blasts the shells apart, leaving behind whole, fresh nuts. Not only is this more efficient, but it yields a tastier nut. “Pre-drying tends to ruin the nut oils,” Bill says. “Most people have never tasted a fresh mac nut, and they’re surprised when they do. They have more flavor than roasted. They’re better!” HH