Growers' Insights: Hawaii’s "hot" chocolate is always in season

Island chocolate growers enjoy a continual harvest in this growing industry.

While the majority of the world’s cacao beans are grown in Africa, Hawaiian production is spiking. “The past few years have seen tremendous growth for high-quality dark chocolate, with a corresponding increase in prices, similar to California wines beginning in the 1980s,” says Tony Lydgate, an owner operator of Steelgrass Farm on the island of Kauai. “Chocolate and cacao are among the state’s fastest growing industries. We are increasing our orchard from 300 to 3,000 trees.”

Francine Frost, owner operator of Hana Gold Cacao Plantation, on Maui, has also seen growth recently. “We’re expanding from 700 trees to a thousand, with plans for more,” she says.

Hawaiian cacao production is growing for several reasons, including being free of child slavery often associated with other chocolate-growing regions. Another reason is that many farmers who have found success growing coffee are now venturing into the cacao business. As with many products, chocolate produced from Hawaiian-grown cacao has a distinct flavor.

“The trend is for using single-origin chocolate, made from a single region or even a single farm (‘single estate’), which creates a bar with a distinct flavor,” says Nat Bletter, Ph.D, ethnobotanist, cacao researcher and chocolate maker at Madre Chocolate, in Kailua, Oahu. “Chocolate has a terrior,” Bletter explains. “Hawaiian chocolate is fruity, whereas Indonesian chocolate suggests hazelnuts, New Guinea is smoky, Venezuelan chocolate can have nutmeg notes, Madagascar is reminiscent of dried fruit and Mexico’s heirloom chocolate is savory.”

Hawaiian cacao growers sell their product mostly to chocolate makers located in Honolulu. They receive about $9 per pound for fermented, dried beans. “In other places, they may get between 50 cents to $3 a pound,” Frost says. “Hawaii is not yet selling cacao beans by the ton; it is a budding industry.”

Artisanal dark chocolate bars cost anywhere from $5 to $20 a bar. “A healthy tree can produce 20 to 30 pods annually,” Lydgate says. “It takes about 10 pods to produce one pound of dried cacao beans. One pound of beans will produce around 10 chocolate bars, depending on bar size and its cacao content. In round figures, one ripe cacao pod equals one chocolate bar.”

One hundred-percent cacao mass would be extremely bitter, like unsweetened baking chocolate, so sugar is added. For example, a bar labeled 70% has 30% sugar added to the cacao mass and cocoa butter.

From the bean to the bar

Chocolate trees need three to five years to mature, Frost says, before they begin producing pods whose seeds become chocolate beans. “Cacao doesn’t have a harvest season per se,” Frost says. “The tree can have flowers, immature pods and fully mature pods all at the same time. We harvest, more or less, every two months.” On Kauai, Lydgate harvests every few weeks.

The Chinese rose beetle can be devastating to cacao seedlings. “But once the tree is larger they’re not such a threat,” Frost says. “We protect the seedlings from beetles and direct sun in ‘cages’ covered with a gray shade cloth. The trees thrive in the rich volcanic soil, the rain and overcast days. I’ve never irrigated, fertilized or used pesticides.”

Fermentation is key to chocolate making. “The pod has a gentle, flowery smell and beautiful, varied colors. The mucilage within the pod that covers the bean tastes like mango or lemon,” Frost says. “Fermenting the beans in wooden boxes takes about seven to eight days. Beans reach a temperature of 115°F, or more, allowing them to acquire a chocolate smell and taste. We sun-dry the beans, rest them for about 30 days and sell them to chocolate makers.”   

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