The botanical source of chocolate is cacao (pronounced ka-cow); the tree’s genus, Theobroma, is derived from Greek theo (god) and brosi (food), meaning “food of the Gods.” Theobromine, a stimulant, is an alkaloid of the cacao bean that’s used medicinally as a vasodilator (widens blood vessels), heart stimulant and diuretic.
No longer just a guilty pleasure, chocolate possesses cacao flavonoids with potent antioxidant capability. Increasing evidence confirms cacao’s ability to inhibit the oxidation of bad cholesterol (LDL) by 75 percent. These flavonoids have also been linked to immune system health.
With all these attributes, it seems like everyone should be growing cacao in their backyard and whipping up a batch of chocolate once a week. Right? The reality is, first, that cacao grows best at about 20 degrees north or south of the equator, and Hawai‘i is at the far northern edge of that range. Furthermore, concocting chocolate from cacao is a measured, multi-step process.
Keauhou Couple Leads the Way
Cacao beans grow in football-shaped, multi-colored pods on the trunks and branches of cacao trees. The cacao pod contains 30 to 40 seeds and it takes 20 to 25 pods to get two pounds of cocoa.
When does cacao become what we commonly know as cocoa—the stuff used to make chocolate? According to Pam Cooper, co-founder of the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory (OHCF), the terminology changes during the processing. “Once the pods are carefully cut from the tree and the beans are fermented and dried, cacao beans are then commonly called cocoa beans,” she explains.
Pam and husband Bob Cooper are the “go-to” source for people who want to grow cacao or make chocolate in Hawai‘i because they do it all at their Keauhou plantation. OHCF grows cacao, buys it “wet” from 15 West Hawai‘i growers, processes the raw product and turns it into delicious milk, dark or the rare criollo chocolate. OHCF makes about 8,000 pounds of single-origin (Hawai‘i) chocolate a year, processing 5,000 pounds of cacao beans.
Marking their 10th anniversary, these natives of North Carolina purchased their six-acre farm with 1,350 cacao trees in 1997 from retired urologist Dr. Clarence Hodges, who had planted their property’s acre of trees in 1992. He was part of the push to grow cacao on the Big Island as an experiment for several big chocolate companies, a venture which unfortunately didn’t pan out.
Bob, a retired country club manager, didn’t move to Hawai‘i to make chocolate. But his cacao was producing beans and the possibility of making the first chocolate grown and made in the U.S.A. challenged him. So Bob sent his beans to Spain to be rated. After receiving favorable findings of “prominent and forthright in flavor,” he applied for a loan from the state Dept. of Business and Economic Development to finance processing equipment for a micro-operation.
With the first batch of chocolate produced in 2000, OHCF became and continues to be Hawai’i’s only major “tree to bar” processing plant in the state. Since then, the Coopers have invested over $1 million in loans and grants to establish their factory and enlarge their orchard to 1,500 trees. Pam says OHCF is capable of processing 65,000 pounds of beans annually.
“To process this much, we’d need to add personnel and up processing time to 50 hours a week,” shares Pam, who says current supply and demand doesn’t warrant increasing production. “There aren’t enough beans being produced for us at this point and so far we’re meeting market demand for our chocolate.”
In addition to selling their chocolate to a stable of chefs and to the public online and via statewide retailers, the Coopers offer informative plantation tours (with chocolate sampling) on Wednesdays and Fridays.
“The Coopers showed it can be done and they had to go it alone for quite some time,” notes Dr. H.C. “Skip” Bittenbender, beverage crop specialist with the University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR).
Finding What Grows Best in Hawai‘i
Dr. Bittenbender is leading a new field project on cacao in an effort to provide prospective growers with quality stock. The study is part of a Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture (HDOA) task force for bringing Hawai‘i cacao to the marketplace. Along with limited processing capacity, a 2009 HDOA study cited “lack of quality plant stock” as one of the main issues keeping cacao from becoming a major island crop. It found “optimal tree genetics and best environment haven’t been established in Hawai‘i.”
Native to the central and western Amazon region, cacao is grown commercially in the humid, tropical regions of Brazil, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, and Nigeria. It grows best in fertile, well-drained soil with light shade. In its natural habitat, it thrives as an understory plant at altitudes up to 3,000 feet.
With Hawai‘i situated at the northernmost latitude of cacao’s growing range, the challenge of the field study is determining which cacao “selections” grow best in the state’s many microclimates. The methodology behind the study is to use four each of 10 grafted selections at various sites that contain germplasm (genetic resources) spanning the major cacao varieties: Criollo, Forastero, Trinitario and their hybrids.
Dr. Bittenbender says grafting is done to produce hard-working trees. “We’re after trees that produce flowers that set to raise yield, not just any seedling that flowers,” he emphasizes.
This is important as cacao, unlike coffee, is an open-pollinated tree, meaning two trees need to cross-pollinate to bear fruit. With two different parents, cacao trees grown from seeds don’t inherit the exact traits of their “pod parents.” Instead they are a mixture of the two.
“The study will show how environment impacts yield and quality while also making germplasm, in the form of branches,” adds Skips. The branches will be available for cacao growers to graft to existing trees or new seedlings. In addition, he says the study will involve fermenting and drying the beans to evaluate the sensory properties and flavor of cocoa liquor—a key component of chocolate making.
To date, field trials are planted on the Big Isle in makai Honaunau and Hawi, with mauka Honaunau, Hamakua and Puna eyed for the next plantings. Four O’ahu sites are also underway.
Dr. Bittenbender estimates there are currently about 100 acres of cacao under cultivation statewide. The bulk of it is spread out among growers on the Big Island and O’ahu. The state’s largest grower is Dole Food Company on O’ahu, which farms about 13,000 trees on 20 acres of former sugar land. According to Dan Nellis of Dole, the food giant uses only its own cacao to make Waialua Estate Chocolate. The product is manufactured by Guittard Chocolate in San Francisco.
A Vision for the Hamakua Coast
Tom Sharkey in Papaikou is a busy Hawai‘i Island grower with a vision for the industry. He cultivates cacao and uses it to make small batches of his Hilo Shark’s Chocolate. He also sells beans to chocolatiers online and grows seedlings for prospective growers. He manages 2,000 trees for others who have bought ag lots along the Hamakua Coast. The avid chocolate lover also offers chocolate-making workshops.
Tom says he visited the Coopers and “was inspired and challenged” to try cacao farming. The Minnesota native, who has a viticulture degree and worked in the vineyards and wineries of California, has always enjoyed growing things and “making the most out of them.” He started growing cacao 11 years ago, has 300 trees and produces 750 pounds of dried beans annually.
Looking ahead, Tom envisions the Hamakua Coast as a cacao destination with plantation tours and chocolate tastings, similar to Napa Valley with its wine or Kona with coffee. He estimates 5,000 trees have been planted in the area within the last four years and expects to see product in three-to-five years.
“I think there’s a possibility for cacao to be a viable industry on this island,” Tom muses. “There’s so much land here, it seems like a natural. But we’re going to need thousands of pods, a co-op to buy the pods, a processing facility and a chocolate factory.”
Saying he’s like a “steamboat captain” for getting it going in East Hawai‘i, Tom encourages “as many people as possible to get into it.” He recruits new growers by selling his seedlings at farmer’s markets. During chocolate-making workshops, Tom demonstrates how “the average Joe” can make chocolate using equipment ordered online or from converted existing appliances. His chocolate-making reference is the website, www.chocolatealchemy.com.
Dr. Bittenbender credits John Nanci, the website’s founder, with fueling the growth of Hawai‘i’s cacao farming as a cottage industry. “Nanci did earth shaking work when he experimented with consumer-level food processing equipment to figure out how to make small batch chocolate,” Skip explains. “He made it doable without specialized equipment.”
From Garden to Kitchen
Una Greenaway of Kuaiwi Farm grows about 100 cacao trees organically at a 2,000-foot elevation in Kealakekua. She started with 200 seedlings in 2001, sourced from the Coopers.
“We have found cacao to be very particular, it doesn’t like it too wet or too dry. For the first couple years, it was difficult to control rose beetle, but now the trees have matured and it doesn’t seem to be an issue,” she shares. “The cacao flower is pollinated by the midge fly.”
Using the Chocolate Alchemy website, Una Greenaway and husband Leon make chocolate for personal consumption. During two-day “From Bean to Bar” workshops, the couple demonstrates chocolate-making to anyone who wants to learn.
It’s a 48-hour process that starts with beans that have already been picked, fermented and dried. They use a hops crusher called the “Crankandstein” to crack the beans into nibs. The chaff is removed with a hairdryer and then the nibs are run through a Champion juicer to produce the pudding-like cocoa liquor. It’s put in a concher for 24 hours with powdery sugar and cocoa butter purchased from the website.
The next day, fun continues with tempering: a tricky step involving proper moisture, temperature and spreading technique. It’s done in thirds. Then the chocolate is poured into molds to set for an hour at room temperature before refrigerating.
“After visiting the Coopers, we asked ourselves, ‘how can we do it?’ and the Chocolate Alchemist shows you how on a small level,” details Una. “It’s hard work. It takes the beans 10 days to ferment at our elevation. But, we’re growing and making our own chocolate!”
Hawai‘i Cacao Chapter
In 2003, a cacao chapter was established as part of the statewide Hawai‘i Tropical Fruit Growers. Its goal was to share information on the industry’s history, genetics, orchard health, branding, marketing and representation.
While the chapter still offers a website, President Gini Choobua says the organization has been inactive for three years. “It takes leadership and active members to keep it going and everyone is busy,” she says.
Gini grows over 1,000 trees in Holualoa at Likao Kula Farm and says keeping the plants pruned properly is the biggest job, but an important one. “Cacao will turn into a multi-trunk bush with too much canopy,” she explains. “You don’t want all that shade as sun is needed for fruiting.”
While Gini has sold wet beans to the Coopers, her farm is now doing its own fermenting, drying, and marketing dry beans. “We provide dry beans that are roasted and then sold as a healthy cocoa bean snack in a joint venture with Greg Colden of Kokoleka Lani Farms.”
Whether it’s determining quality stock, recruiting more growers, increasing processing capability or tackling a host of economic variables, the local cacao industry is hoping for a sweet success. After all, the reward is chocolate!
Original Hawaiian Chocolate Company plantation tours (with chocolate sampling) on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Hilo Shark’s Chocolate: 808.895.6600
All photos by Fern Gavelek unless otherwise noted.