From Pod to Bon-bon, Island Cacao
Food & Drink / If you still have room for sweets since the Chocopocalypse known as Valentine’s Day, you’ll want to stop by one of chocoholics’ most exciting events of the year, The Hawaii Chocolate Festival. The 2nd annual festival, which culminates on Saturday, Feb. 25 at Dole Cannery, celebrates this rich, local product with vendors that grow cacao trees or make chocolate here in the Islands. Treat your palate to a jolt of Madre Chocolate’s intense dark chocolate with bold tropical flavors, or roll Padovani’s Chocolates velvety confections over your taste buds. Each of our many local chocolates tells its own story about its unique growing conditions here in the “North Pole” of chocolate (anyplace north of Hawaii is too cold for cacao to survive).
To whet our appetites, the Weekly visited a few of the local chocolatiers who will share their experiences with you at the Hawaii Chocolate Festival. Here’s a taste of things to enjoy.
Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory
If you happened to catch “Turn On the Dark,” the final episode of the Food Network series Good Eats with honorable food nerd Alton Brown, you might have caught a glimpse of Pam and Bob Cooper, owners of the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory. For fifteen years, the duo has made their chocolates from tree to treat without needing to leave their farm nestled in the hills of Kona. Speaking of Brown’s recent visit to the farm last July, a hint of Pam’s southern drawl slips out. “He is just a prince of a fellah, the nicest, nicest guy you could ever want to meet!”
Although the couple is originally from North Carolina, they’ve been around long enough to notice a spike in the demand for locally grown chocolate. “We were one of the pioneers to start this in ‘97, and we’re really pleased that the industry has taken off with the Chocolate Festival,” says Pam. A lot more people are growing cacao–we think it’s going to be the next new specialty agricultural crop for the state.”
If a tour of the six-acre farm is out of reach, you can find their premiere chocolates at the Honolulu Chocolate Company, Whole Foods and Shop Pacifica at Bishop Museum. The factory offers three types of artfully wrapped single-origin chocolates. As I bit into their creamy plumeria-shaped milk chocolate, I could taste a complex multitude of flavors that seemed delicately floral. Pam is absolutely right when she says, “There’s no better way to spread aloha than with chocolate.”
Malie Kai Chocolates
“I came to visit Hawaii and I basically fell in love with the place,” says Nathan Sato about how he and his wife decided to move here from California. In 2004, when the Berkeley grad and his wife arrived, he noticed there wasn’t much chocolate for sale, beyond chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and international brands, such as Godiva and See’s. “We wanted to make something distinctly Hawaiian. When we discovered they were growing cacao on the North Shore, the light went on,” Sato says, and thus began his endeavors at a small Waialua orchard.
When I tried Malie Kai’s Kona Coffee Cappuccino Bar, it wasn’t the intense chocolate-covered espresso bean taste that I was expecting. Instead, the bar hints at coffee without overpowering the creamy milk chocolate. The milk chocolate bar with Hawaiian cocoa nibs is just as delightful–smooth and creamy, slightly nutty, with a subtle crunch. “My favorite is the dark chocolate with cocoa nibs, but it’s kind of hard for me to choose because it’s like asking to pick which is your favorite child–you kind of love them all,” Sato laughs. “It really showcases the unique Hawaiian flavor of the chocolate, which is a very raisiny, berry kind,” he explains.
The Waialua orchard, owned by Dole, is 20 acres and produces roughly 20,000 pounds of beans a year. “That’s not very much compared to the worldwide production of chocolate, but more and more farmers are getting interested in growing cacao and the potential is really enormous–not that we’ll ever become a major chocolate producer because there just isn’t enough land in Hawaii, but locally, it could be a very important business,” Sato says, adding that he thinks it has the potential to overtake coffee in importance to the state. “We already know that the quality we’re growing is world-class–we took our chocolate to the New York Factory Food Show and people from very prestigious chocolate companies said that it was very, very good.”
Malie Kai Chocolates is available at multiple locations, such as Foodland, Whole Foods and Native Books. They may even open their very own retail store sometime in the future, so keep your eyes peeled and your sweet tooth ready.
Kokoleka OKa Aina Chocolate
Kokoleka OKa Aina translates to “chocolate of the land,” which fits well for Seneca Klassen, the man behind the modest cacao growing operation he runs with his father and best friend. Klassen was originally a chocolate retailer in California, but wanted to be more connected with the start to finish farming aspect. This made Hawaii his ideal destination, as the only place in the US that’s able to support cacao trees.
“My role with the business that I was running up there increasingly became educational,” Klassen says. “Being on the mainland, you don’t have any opportunity to show people the agricultural components of the way the crop is grown, so you’re reduced to pictures and things. All those things just lacked an emotional component that I really wanted,” he explains.
Klassen got his first eight acres in the North Shore in 2009. This year, for the first time, his trees are beginning to bear fruit. By the end of 2012, he plans to add on another six acres. “My long term goal is really to develop an agritourism destination up here on the North Shore where people will be able to see everything from the growth through manufacture. I think it’s this unique combination of place and audience that generates a tremendous amount of potential,” he adds. Keep an eye out for the fruits of Klassen’s labor–the family business hopes to have chocolate available by the summer or fall this year.