Issue 20.3: June/July 2017
Native Intelligence: Hawai‘i Island

Strong Medicine

Story by Katie Young Yamanaka. Photos by Megan Spelman.

Brett Jacobson, founder of the Hawai‘i Island beverage company Hawaiian Ola, was sure he could get people to like his noni drinks if he could just get them to take a sip. But that wasn’t easy. Although noni has been used medicinally in Hawai‘i for generations—it’s believed to boost the immune system—it has a well-deserved reputation for tasting downright disgusting. The smell, which is akin to rancid cheese, hits you first. The bitter taste gets you next, making your face pucker. It’s a lethal combination. The store buyers whom Jacobson approached balked. No way were they putting noni on their shelves. But Jacobson persisted. “If you don’t like it, you can spit it in my face,” he told them. “That’s how serious I am.”

Six years ago Jacobson bought some subprime farmland in Miloli‘i, sight unseen, and moved from California to Hawai‘i Island. He didn’t know what he was going to farm, but he found his opportunity growing wild on the side of the road. “Noni can grow anywhere, and it also has cultural significance,” he says. “I thought if we can create a demand for something like this, then it’s a home run.”

However, he still had to make a beverage that people wouldn’t spit back at him. In his test kitchen Jacobson blended noni with other local fruit juices. After a year of trials, he arrived at Hawaiian Ola’s first product, a 2.5-ounce noni energy shot. The formula combines local, organic juices such as liliko‘i and pineapple with more than an ounce of organic noni juice.

And the taste? It’s tangy, sweet and thick like a smoothie. Hawaiian Ola now makes several flavors of sparkling noni beverages, and the generous portion of noni they contain is barely detectable in any of them. Jacobson’s palatable approach to noni has softened the resistance from store buyers, and Hawaiian Ola products can now be found in hundreds of retail outlets statewide. The lumpy, greenish fruit’s foul reputation may linger, but thanks to the beverage industry, Jacobson says, “noni has been given a second chance.”