In 2001, when Jon Olsen moved from his beloved Hawaii back to his home state of Maine, it took a little while for him to adjust. While he loved being back on the family homestead in the Lincoln County town of Jefferson, he missed lots about island life. Thirty-six years on Oahu, surrounded by palm trees and crashing surf will do that to you.
“I wanted to do something to honor that, and still engage in something that’s very Hawaiian,” said Olsen, whose son, Karl, still lives in Hawaii. “And Tropical Maine is what came of that.”
Tropical Maine is Olsen’s proprietary blend of Maine maple syrup and passion fruit, a crop native to Hawaii. It doesn’t taste like anything else out there, and it’s Olsen’s way of paying tribute to the two states he considers home. It’s available at a variety of stores statewide and online at tropicalmaine.com.
“I tell everyone, you have to taste it before you really get what it is,” said Olsen. “It’s a truly unusual flavor. It just explodes in your mouth.”
Olsen went to Hawaii in 1965 as a young man, traveling by car, Greyhound bus and boat before ending up in Honolulu. There, on Oahu, he got a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Hawaii, worked in marketing and raised a family. He had the idea of combining maple syrup with passion fruit syrup while he still lived in Hawaii, after noting that Hawaiians would combine the powerfully tart passion fruit with plain sugar to cut the sourness. Preferring a natural option to refined sugar, he thought Maine maple syrup would be an excellent choice. As it turns out, maple and passion fruit are a surprisingly good flavor match.
“It’s a lot easier to get maple syrup in Maine than in Hawaii, of course, so it wasn’t something I really tried until I came back to Maine,” said Olsen. “It’s a totally different flavor experience. I experimented on the ratio of the two. That’s my trade secret. It’s all in the ratio.”
In 2008, Olsen began marketing his newly-perfected Tropical Maine to retail outlets through midcoast and southern Maine. He uses maple syrup from Kinney’s Sugarhouse in Knox and imports pure passion fruit syrup from South America, because while passion fruit is cultivated in Hawaii (called lilikoi in Hawaiian), it is not a large-scale cash crop.
Olsen likes serving his product in a number of ways, though when he does taste tests in stores, he offers up a straight spoonful of the sweet stuff. At home, he likes it with butter on an English muffin. In a peanut butter sandwich. On pancakes. With yogurt and granola. As a marinade for fish. It has a very long shelf life, as maple syrup takes a very long time to spoil.
“It’s very versatile,” said Olsen. “I’m really happy with the product. I don’t think I’d try something like mango or other tropical fruit. This is the blend that works. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Tropical Maine is available in 5 ounce ($5) or 10 ounce ($9) bottles (plus shipping if necessary) at French & Brawn in Camden, the State of Maine Cheese Company in Rockport, Sweets and Meats in Rockland, Rising Tide in Damariscotta, Morse’s Sauerkraut in Waldoboro, Lisa Marie’s in Bath and Lois’ Natural Marketplace in Scarborough.