Hawaii Chocolate Festival / Hawaii’s new wave of cacao entrepreneurs are geeks. They savor a single square of chocolate, murmuring about tree fruit notes, citrus, caramel and coffee. They’re on [TheChocolateLife.com] (the Facebook for chocolatiers, cacao growers and enthusiasts) discussing chocolate ethnobotany and the reclassification of cacao varieties.
They may be new to the bean-to-bar business, but they’ve immersed themselves in all aspects of the culture: Seneca Klassen of KoKa Chocolate opened and ran Bittersweet, a chocolate café, for five years in San Francisco. Nat Bletter of Madre Chocolate is an ethnobotanist who co-wrote a chapter on the ethnobotany and chemistry of cacao and chocolate, while his business partner, David Elliott, worked on rural development and environmental justice issues in cacao-growing regions of Ecuador and Bolivia.
“We’re passionate about every aspect of chocolate: the rich cultural history in the Americas and Europe, the link to fair trade and food sustainability issues, the science of the cacao plant and its cultivation, the engineering, ingenuity and craft involved in manufacturing it, connoisseurship and chocolate tasting,” Bletter says.
He, Elliott and Klassen know that chocolate is a guilty pleasure–and not just because it tastes so good. Chocolate has a certain social and environmental context. Consequently, they strive to make uniquely delicious bars in a socially responsible manner.
Klassen says, “The more I talked about chocolate, I found myself talking about these same issues which had to do with social and environmental justice, transparency, all the same things the rest of the food system is encountering; all these farm-to-table issues, knowing your food supply, understanding the chain of events that lead to this food.
“Chocolate is particularly challenged because the people who have marketed chocolate in the past have subtly encouraged consumers not to ask these questions. The facts of life are that an awful lot of our chocolate–mass-market chocolate–has a not very pleasant back story.
“I’m very curious to see what we can do to change the environmental footprint of the product. This is a very old-school colonial crop where you get a lot of steps that don’t add value, but do extract price. So there’s brokerage and shipping.
“Almost all of the processing of chocolate is done somewhere in the developed world in the northern hemisphere, and all of the chocolate grown comes from the tropical world. There’s just a tremendous amount of logistical movement. I’m interested in trying to provide a very small but legitimate kind of counterexample with local manufacture.”
Similarly, Bletter and Elliott describe their launch into making chocolate as a “social mission to make a positive impact on the lives of cacao farmers and their communities.”
In addition to working with local growers, Madre Chocolate makes a point to purchase raw, fermented beans directly from farmers and cooperatives. They’ve also developed a winemaker/farmer relationship with their growers by bringing finished chocolate back to the farm and “tasting the chocolate and comparing notes on what we’d like to improve,” Bletter says.
Madre Chocolate bars are made locally, from bean to bar.
Klassen’s approach is to do it himself, “to have a vertically integrated operation. Everything from planting trees, growing cacao, harvesting fruit, processing, the fermentation and drying and chocolate-making and selling things. To integrate the system and have a seamless, transparent operation.”
He’s growing cacao on 14 acres above Haleiwa.
So how does socially conscious chocolate taste? Judging by feedback from the recent Cacao Fest at the Haleiwa Farmers Market, delicious.
Klassen used the same formula on two different varieties of cacao, yielding completely different taste profiles and color: one blonde and one dark.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Klassen says. “You’re not used to seeing that much variation.”
Madre Chocolate will have samples at the Hawaii Chocolate Festival (see sidebar). Its Hawaiian chocolate bars are made with local cacao and ingredients, including lilikoi and pink peppercorn. Its line of Mexican chocolate showcases the terroir of chocolate’s birthplace and some of it has traditional ingredients like chipotles, cacahuaxochitl or jocote mixed in as well.
February is Hawaii Grown Cacao Month, and the Hawaii Chocolate Festival is on Sat., Feb. 26, from noon to 5pm at the Dole Cannery Shops. Tickets are $20 in advance, and includes 10 chocolate samplings. Expect to see Sweet Paradise Chocolates, Padovani Chocolates, Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory, Waialua Estate Chocolate, Ono Pops and a limited edition Pipeline Porter from Kona Brewing Co., made with Kona-grown cacao nibs.