From its beginnings some scholars now believe was 5,300 years ago in the Amazon rainforest (not 1900 B.C. Central America, as previously thought), cacao and chocolate, the irresistible sweet made from it, went on to seduce the world.
Interesting Chocolate Fact
Money did grow on trees–at least for the Aztecs, who used cacao beans as currency. In the 1500s, in the state of Tlaxcala, central Mexico, you could buy these items at a marketplace with cacao: one good turkey hen, 100 beans; one turkey egg, three beans; one ripe avocado, one bean; one large tomato, one bean.
Hawaii’s introduction to cacao came relatively late: the earliest written record of it is a June 1831 entry in the journal of German botanist Franz Meyen. He observed a Guatemalan variety growing in the garden of Don Francisco de Paula Marin, a horticulture enthusiast from Spain who was a confidant of King Kamehameha I. In 1850, Dr. William Hillebrand, a German physician, planted a cacao tree at his home, on land that is now part of Foster Botanical Garden in downtown Honolulu.
Well over 150 years later, artisan chocolate made from Hawaii-grown cacao has caught the attention of gourmands around the globe. Dole Food Company’s 80-acre cacao farm on Oahu’s north shore is the largest in the state. At a factory at Dole Cannery, its harvests are turned into Waialua Estate Chocolate bars, which are sold at Dole Plantation in Wahiawa and at resort shops, Whole Foods Market and Foodland’s R. Field Wine Company throughout the Islands.
Cacao and chocolate are lucrative for many other local entrepreneurs as well. Here’s a wrap-up of classes, shops, events and tours that explain the entire chocolate-making process, from cultivating the trees to packaging the finished delectable product.
Big Island Chocolate Events
Big Island Chocolate Festival
This celebration sates chocoholics with seminars, cooking demonstrations, chocolate body painting, chocolate-and-beverage pairings and tastings of sweet and savory dishes. The one-hour guided tour of Original Hawaiian Chocolate on the slopes of Hualalai Volcano—where Hawaii’s cacao and chocolate industries were born—is always popular. Sign up early as space is limited to 30 people.
Hilo Cacao & Chocolate Festival
East Hawaii is the hub of cacao cultivation on Hawaii island, which is why this event spotlights that part of chocolate’s story. Yes, there are exhibits, farm visits, chocolate-making demonstrations and yummy samples. In addition, however, free cacao seedlings (one per family) are given away while supplies last, courtesy of the East Hawaii Cacao Association. www.hilochocofest.com
“Barefoot” hints at the nature of its offerings —relaxed and casual, “hang loose” as we say in Hawaii. Even so, expect to learn a lot. In addition to a farm tour, consider doing a Chocolate Bar Crawl with stops at craft chocolate shops in Hilo; a chocolate ganache truffle workshop; and a private chocolate tasting paired with your choice of whiskey, wine, beer or cheese. Three- and five-day chocolate retreats include the tour, bar crawl, samplings and chocolate making.
Hawaiian Crown Plantation and Chocolate Factoryhawaiiancrownchocolate.com
You’ll first tour the plantation, where cacao flourishes between rows and rows of apple bananas. Then you’ll drive to the shop and factory a few miles away in downtown Hilo for an up-close look at how cacao beans are transformed into chocolate bars with Hawaiian Crown’s banana and pineapple and other Hawaii island-grown crops such as coffee, mango and macadamia nuts. There are no walls or windows to obstruct your view; you’ll be standing right next to the workers and machines.
Hilo Sharks Chocolatewww.sharkstours.com
Tom Sharkey has been dubbed the Johnny Appleseed of Hawaii cacao; since 2005, he has played a major role in the industry’s boom by giving seedlings to any farmer interested in growing it. You’ll stroll through the orchards and greenhouse with either Sharkey or his son (co-owner Erin Sharkey) and learn how they produce their chocolate on site. Classes at the farm enable you to harvest cacao, crack pods and leave with chocolate you’ve made and a seedling you’ve potted yourself.
Interesting Chocolate Fact
Dark chocolate (the higher the amount of cacao, the darker the chocolate) is purportedly good for your health. It’s loaded with antioxidants, chemicals that fight free radicals that can damage cells. Among dark chocolate’s other benefits: it can lower blood pressure and elevate your mood and HDL or “good” cholesterol. It has also been shown to relieve inflammation, improve brain function, protect your skin from sun damage and reduce the risk of stroke, cancer and heart disease.
Original Hawaiian Chocolatewww.ohcf.us
Its name is fitting: in 2000, Bob and Pam Cooper’s Original Hawaiian Chocolate became the first company in the country to make chocolate commercially from 100% Hawaii-grown cacao. Those two chocolate pioneers still oversee every aspect of their business, and Bob will likely be your guide on an informative tour of the orchard and factory that gave birth to Hawaii’s chocolate industry. A 15-minute video shown in the shop provides an excellent summary of the chocolate-making process.
Puna Chocolate Company (Shop Only)www.punachocolate.com
From cacao grown at its six orchards as well as other Hawaii island farms, Puna Chocolate creates bars with imaginative ingredients. Think kava, Aleppo pepper, raspberries marinated in honey and Volcano Winery’s red wine, and CBD (cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis that has been found to relieve pain, anxiety and inflammation). It operates retail stores in Hilo and Kona, where the Cocktail Chocolate Bar offers a rotating menu of classic drinks with a chocolate twist.
Garden Island Chocolatewww.gardenislandchocolate.com
Owner, farmer and chocolate maker Koa Kahili is your guide through an Eden of 300 different species of tropical trees and plants, including durian, bilimbi, longan, and, of course, cacao. You’ll pick and savor whatever is ripe before tasting 20-plus types of dark chocolate that Kahili is currently making with fruits and spices grown on the property (he’s made hundreds of different bars over the years). Recent offerings: Chinese five spice, coconut milk curry, goat cheese and honey, and hemp seed and mint.
Kauai Chocolate Events
Wild Kauai Chocolate Class
Transform raw, fermented cacao beans into chocolate flavored with your choice of some 60 ingredients (including rose petals, spirulina and smoked paprika) at the Build-a-Bar workshop. If that just whets your appetite for hands-on learning, enroll in the four- or eight-day Chocolate School to hone your skills and delve into, among other topics, cacao history and the health benefits of chocolate. The highlight is Creative Day, when you’ll have five pounds of luscious chocolate to make whatever strikes your fancy.
Kauai Chocolate & Coffee Festival
There’s plenty to keep chocolate lovers happy, even though chocolate shares the spotlight with coffee in a down-home, al fresco setting. Look forward to live entertainment, informative presentations, educational displays and workshops, lots of samplings and children’s activities, including creating art with cacao leaves. The first night of the festival coincides with the weekly Friday Art Night in Hanapepe; it’s a small town, so you can easily attend both! www.kauaichocolateandcoffeefestival.com
The farm’s namesake is John Mortimer Lydgate, a botanist and Congregational minister who helped preserve important heiau (ancient Hawaiian places of worship) in Wailua. Two of his great-grandchildren own the farm, a botanical wonderland including cacao. During the tour, succulent fruit is always at your fingertips (soursop, sapodilla or mamey sapote, anyone?), and chocolate bars, cacao shell tea, and sorbet and jam made from cacao juice can be delicious mementos of your visit.
Princeville Botanical Gardenskauaibotanicalgardens.com
Get acquainted with many of the 700-plus species of plants, shrubs and trees at this family owned-and-operated oasis. You’ll sample some of nature’s exotic bounty (you may not even have heard of rambutan or mangosteen before) as well as honey from hives set amid the greenery. Chocolate is center stage during a presentation that sizes up products from Peru, France, Colombia and the Mainland United States with bars made from the garden’s cacao, which are not available in stores.
Interesting Chocolate Fact
Unfortunately for dogs and cats, the theobromine compound in chocolate is toxic to them. Symptoms include restlessness, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, panting and increased thirst and heart rate. Death from cardiac arrest is a possibility, especially with older animals that have a preexisting heart condition.
Aldon Frost wears four hats at Hana Gold: he is the part owner, farm manager, chocolate maker and lead tour guide at the 10-acre farm his parents started in 1972. Over the years, the Frost family tested several crops before striking gold with cacao in 2005. On tour day, you’ll watch whatever work is in progress outside and enjoy tastings of Frost’s branch-to-bar chocolate, which he has been making since 2016 with ingredients such as Hana-grown coffee and Molokai sea salt.
Maui Chocolate Tourwww.mauichocolatetour.com
Help make a hot chocolate drink by cracking, winnowing and grinding freshly roasted cacao beans by hand in a stone molcajete (Mexican mortar and pestle). During the guided tasting, you’ll discern the flavor nuances of chocolates made from cacao grown in Hawaii, Peru, Ecuador, Belize, Vietnam, Madagascar and the Dominican Republic. A plus: spectacular views of Kahului, Waihee and Maalaea Harbor from the site—Kupaa Farms, 1,900 feet up the slopes of Haleakala Volcano.
Sweet Paradise Chocolatier (Shop Only)www.chocolateonmaui.com
Master chocolatier Virginia Douglas fills her shop with treats that will intrigue your taste buds. For instance, the Hot Shot is a fabulous concoction of chocolate almond milk, Hawaii chocolate, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla and—surprise—chile made from beans that she dries and grinds into a powder. Classes at her Chocolate Zone kitchen in nearby Kihei allow her to share the magic of working with chocolate. The delight du jour varies—truffles, clusters, bark or something equally wonderful.
Oahu Chocolate Events
Annual Chocolate Extravaganza
Presented annually by Emmanuel Episcopal Church as a benefit for Family Promise of Hawaii (familypromisehawaii.org), this party features a bountiful buffet of chocolate creations (even chocolate chili), most made by members of the congregation, their friends and family. Always a big hit is the chocolate fountain where you can drizzle liquid chocolate over skewered marshmallows; Rice Krispies treats; chunks of strawberry, banana, pineapple; and other morsels.
21 Degrees Estate21degreesestate.com
This is a family-friendly activity; kids of all ages are welcome! Cuddle chicks and miniature goats and snack on fresh fruit— perhaps starfruit, mango or mountain apple—while you learn about cacao cultivation and chocolate making. Although the farm doesn’t make chocolate commercially, you’ll compare bars made with its cacao with other single-origin Hawaii chocolates. This taste test proves how the flavor of chocolate differs, depending on terroir—where the cacao in it was grown.
Dr. Nat Bletter, an ethnobotanist and founder and self-described flavor meister of Madre Chocolate, discusses all things chocolate on his tour of Nine Fine Mynahs’ farm in Waialua. You’ll taste various Madre Chocolate bars made with cacao from Brazil, Haiti, Thailand, Guatemala and different areas of Hawaii. For the fun finale, you’ll drizzle a frozen banana with chocolate and roll it in your choice of toppings, including almonds, ginger, cinnamon and shredded coconut. Ono!
Interesting Chocolate Fact
White chocolate is technically not chocolate because it doesn’t contain any of the dark-colored solids of the cacao bean, which impart the flavor and color to chocolate as we know it. Rather, white chocolate is a blend of sugar, vanilla, milk products and cocoa butter, the fat that’s extracted from the cacao bean.
Manoa Chocolate Hawaiimanoachocolate.com
“Chocolate sommeliers” are your hosts for a visit to Hawaii’s largest chocolate factory in terms of production. They get their cacao from farms statewide as well as ethical sources in Ecuador, Tanzania and the Dominican Republic. Walk-ins are welcome for the free 20-minute chocolate tasting and explanation of the bean-to-bar process. Or you can opt to do the 90-minute tour, which includes time to meet and chat with the chocolate makers (reservations are required).
Nine Fine Mynahs(808) 779-8608
The owners introduce small groups (two to 12 people) to cacao growing, chocolate making and their philosophy of farming in harmony with nature, thus maintaining the peace, health and balance of the ecosystem. As a Certified Wildlife Habitat, the farm is a sanctuary for animals and birds, including ducks, egrets, herons and Hawaiian moorhens. The chocolate the owners make is for private use, but you’ll be able to taste it along with whatever fruits are in season.
Choco Le‘a (Shop Only)chocolea.com
Products are made with a signature blend of local cacao and chocolate imported from Belgium (the owner’s aunt and uncle, chocolate hobbyists, created the recipe). Among the top sellers are truffles in 18 flavors, including lychee, matcha (green tea) and peanut butter and jelly. Ask how you can customize flavors and packaging, arrange a private tasting in your home and book a tour that includes a peek in the kitchen, a truffle-and-iced coffee pairing and “talk story” time with the owner.
Chocolate on a Mission (Shop Only)www.chocolateonamission.com
The third floor of a Chinatown building dating back to 1904 is an odd place to find a shop selling fine chocolates, but, true to its name, Chocolate on a Mission supports the humanitarian efforts of the River of Life Mission on the ground floor below it. A proprietary blend of chocolates from California-based Guittard Chocolate Company is used for cookies, candies and dipped fruit and pretzels. One Japanese-inspired bar is made with arare and furikake.
Interesting Chocolate Fact
Three brothers—Joseph, Francis and Richard Fry—who owned and operated J.S. Fry & Sons in Bristol, England, came up with the idea of molding the very first chocolate bar from a paste made of sugar, cocoa powder and cocoa butter. According to Guinness World Records, the world’s largest bar was made in 2011 by Thorntons, a British confection company, to celebrate its centennial. The bar weighed more than 12,770 pounds and measured about 13 feet long, 13 feet wide and 1 foot high.
Diamond Head Chocolate Company (Shop Only)dhchocolate.com
Displayed wall to wall are chocolates and confections from around the world, including France, Italy, Germany and Belgium. Truffles come in 20 flavors; favorites are amaretto, cappuccino, champagne and crème brûlée. A special combination of domestic and European chocolate is used for dipping fruits, Oreos and more in-house. The Ultimate S’more is a must: marshmallows sandwiched between two graham crackers, dipped in milk chocolate and sprinkled with crushed graham crackers.
Lonohana Estate Chocolate (Shop Only)www.lonohana.com
Most of the cacao for its products comes from its orchard near Haleiwa. It is bold in its explorations of ingredients; for example, flavors for its cacao salts include turmeric and kalamansi lime, and the rich, refreshing Chocolate Thai Iced Tea combines jasmine green tea with vanilla, milk chocolate and condensed milk. Lonohana’s factory in Kalihi is not regularly open to the public, but a one-hour tour can be arranged for groups of at least five people. Cost is $10 per person.
Padovani’s Chocolates (Shop Only)www.padovanichocolates.com
Philippe Padovani was one of the 12 acclaimed chefs who founded the seminal Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement in 1991. Since 2006, however, his focus has been hand-crafted gourmet chocolates that have won raves from the Dalai Lama; former President Bill Clinton; and A-list Hollywood stars Michael Douglas, John Travolta and Robert De Niro. Padovani shuns the ordinary, opting instead for ingredients like lemongrass, yuzu, strawberry guava, bourbon and Irish whiskey.