In June 2017 we visited the Big Island of Hawaii to attend the Big Island Chocolate Festival and met with several cacao farms. Most notably was our visit with Susan of Mauna Kea Cacao and we left off with aging a test batch made with her cacao beans.
Well, the test batch turned out great and we made the leap to a full batch, about 400 chocolate bars. The 70% dark chocolate is very complex, some tropical fruit but also something like a shortbread cookie. It was a big hit with our employees and customers so we submitted it for the 2018 Good Food Awards.
A few months later it was announced our Big Island dark chocolate was a finalist for the Good Food Awards, right about the time we sold out of the chocolate! We quickly placed another order with Mauna Kea Cacao but had to wait a while for enough beans to be harvested. Following is a summary of the sustainability practices at Mauna Kea Cacao, which gives a glimpse into the complexity of cacao farming.
Sustainability Practices at Mauna Kea Cacao
Growing cacao in a climate well suited to cacao trees is Mauna Kea Cacao’s most important sustainability practice. Plenty of rainfall throughout the year ensures high yields without the need for irrigation. Our cacao also benefits from natural windbreaks growing along a mountain stream, as well as Eucalyptus and Cook’s Pine trees remaining from sugar cane days. Mauna Kea Cacao farming practices protect soil by disturbing only one square foot of soil for each tree planted. Approximately 15 percent of the farm is managed as natural buffers next to riparian areas.
Use and re-use of physical barriers, such as tree cages and ground cloth, protect young trees from insect pests and reduce weeds. Herbicide use is limited to quarterly spraying, primarily focused on sunny portions of fence lines that cannot be mowed. In addition to the shade canopy created by the cacao trees, the primary methods of weed control in the orchards are mulching, mowing, and manual weeding.
Due to our efforts to preserve a diverse landscape of orchards, grassy areas, and riparianforest, native animals are abundant on the farm. Many birds nest in our cacao trees and these nests are undisturbed during harvest. Our most prized native birds are the ‘Io (ee-oh, Hawaiian Hawks), which are an endangered species found only on the Big Island of Hawaii. The ‘Io nest is in our windbreaks and the hawks soar across the farm as they hunt.
Mauna Kea Cacao’s trees help to reduce the impacts of climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Cacao beans dry naturally in the sun and wind of the Hamakua Coast.
All of this care is reflected in the price, which some customers have asked why this chocolate bar cost more than all of the others. We also have made a commitment to paying a fair price and wage for all of our beans. Since Hawaii is a US state the cost of living is higher than many of the countries around the equator that grow cacao. Also, most of the cacao that is grown on Hawaii stays on the island to be used by local chocolate companies so it is rare to find any available. All of this adds up to beans that cost about 5 times more than our other cacao beans.
In January 2018 Ben and I traveled to San Francisco for the Good Food Awards and to meet with some of the stores in the city that carry our chocolate. At the award ceremony on the 19th, our Big Island Hawaii Dark Chocolate won a Good Food Award! We were awarded based on taste, sustainability and social good, all of which we’ve outlined above.
One of the highlights of the event was meeting up with Susan and her husband! They deserve as much credit for this delicious chocolate as we do. Their commitment to excellence and patience over the years has produced some of the highest quality cacao on the island and in our opinion some of the best tasting chocolate we’ve ever tried!
Our second batch of Big Island Hawaii dark chocolate is available online and in our store now and our third batch was just made and is aging now.
About Good Food Awards: The Good Food Awards celebrate the kind of food we all want to eat: tasty, authentic and responsibly produced. We grant awards to outstanding American food producers and the farmers who provide their ingredients. We host an annual Awards Ceremony and Marketplace in San Francisco to honor the Good Food Award recipients who push their industries towards craftsmanship and sustainability while enhancing our agricultural landscape and building strong communities.