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Hawaii’s Big Island Chocolate Festival

In April I had the opportunity to participate in Hawaii’s Big Island Chocolate Festival. Many people do not realize that Hawaii is the only state to grow cacao commercially. Most of the beans grown on the island, stay on the island, being turned into chocolate at a number of small “tree-to-bar” operations. The purpose of the Festival is to introduce the island’s beans to a wider audience.

I was invited to make a presentation to local farmers on small scale chocolate making. Most growers do not make their own chocolate. The beans are sold to the few chocolate makers on the island. As the farms grow and look for broader markets, there is a need for the farmers to understand the quality and flavor profiles of their beans. My presentation concentrated on the type of equipment we use in Maverick Chocolate Company’s facility in Cincinnati, especially our test batch equipment.

I also acted as one of the judges for both raw beans and finished bars. While there is some great cacao on the island, there is room for improvement. Fermentation rates were inconsistent which produces off flavors. Fermentation is a big challenge for Hawaiian cacao because the evenings become quite cool – at least compared to the places around the equator where most cacao is grown. The coolness of the night slows down the fermentation rates making it harder to know when the fermentation is complete. Several of the other speakers at the Festival addressed these issues directly.

Marlene and I were able to visit several cacao farms and chocolate making operations on the island. Our first visit was to the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory. This is the oldest of the tree-to-bar operations on the island, being in operation for over 20 years.  The farm is not large enough to satisfy theirs needs so they purchase much of the cacao grown on the Big Island. The owner, Bob Cooper, gave us a tour of the farm and the chocolate making operation. We were able to see and learn about the unique issues facing Hawaiian chocolate.

Our most interesting visit was to Mauna Kea Cacao, north of Hilo on the Big Island’s west side. It rains over 200” per year in this area making it an ideal place to grow cacao. Susan Barrett, the owner, drove us in a 4×4 truck down into the plantation behind their house. The trees are still quite young but are already bearing fruit. It was certainly a thrill to be in such a lush forest of cacao. Susan showed us a unique fermentation system that she and her husband developed to ensure proper fermentation. They also invented a nifty cocoa pod opener so that the pods did not have to be cut open by machete.

Susan sent us a sample of the beans and we have made them into a test batch. We will wait several weeks for them to age but even in their early stages, the beans seem to hold a lot of promise.

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