Leading up to the trip to Hawai'i, there were a couple things I wanted to look into and see about doing. When I travel around I tend to plan a couple things before getting there then go with the flow and see what works best. It's hard to make the best of it when the weather isn't good or if there are sudden closures happening that can interfere with plans.
As a chef I love to visit farms and I want to better understand how the ingredients I use are produced and grown. I went to my trusty friend, Google, and searched for big island farm tours. I figured I'd get the standard Kona coffee or macadamia nut places but then google found the best option, Cacao. I knew cacao was grown on the islands but I didn't know that there were so many farms with tour options.
As I narrowed down the options, I had a few things to check off. First I wanted to make sure the farm was more ecologically and culturally good. I didn't want to visit a farm taking advantage of the land rather than working with it. That brought us down to three farms to choose from. There was one that was really interesting because they talked about being very sustainable and growing other products to keep the soil healthy. I sat and thought awhile but one thing stood out that made me pick Mauna Kea Cacao, on the tour we cut and open a pod on the farm to taste fresh from a tree. Like what?! Fresh cacao and pulp, from a pod, on an island, how can this get any better? Well it did....
After booking the tour it was time to wait. And wait. And wait. Until we finally left and flew to the island. Then it felt real and I knew I was about to have the best time. The day came for the tour and we packed into the rental and we were off. Now first off I want to make a mention of how weird addresses in Hawai'i are. They are typically something like "00-0000 Seaside Road" but this isn't like where I grew up and every house has a number out front easy to see and there isn't an easy way of seeing one number and knowing what the next is. A lot of places are also out in fields and the forests where people have property and one address is down the road from the next that won't even have a sign with the number out front. Luckily I have my good friend Google to help once again.
We punch the address into Google Maps and off we went. We eventually arrive in the village of Pepeekeo just north of Hilo. We take the side road like the GPS says and keep going. Eventually coming to the end of the map in the middle of a one lane road with a hole in the fence and a small sign with the address we were given. Cue "we are about to die" thoughts that I and I know many others go to first thing. Pulling into the farm we were a little worried, this looked like someone's home and there were not others around so we weren't sure if we were at the right spot. We decide to pull in and see if there's anyone to help us and if we are in the right spot. As I get out of the car I see someone inside the house get up and come outside. There I met Susan, she runs the farm with her husband. And we had found the right place.
As we get our things together for the tour, changing into comfy shoes and grabbing water, Susan informs us that we are getting a private tour that day since we are the only ones to sign up. They only do tours one day a week and as a newer farm they aren't very active online to promote and get more visitors. They simply love to share their story and the way they grow cacao. My mood immediately changed from am I about to die to this is the best day of my life. On the side of Mauna Kea, looking out into the ocean, on a fucking cacao farm. Literally heaven on Earth.
Starting our experience on the farm, Susan gave us a little history of their time there and how the tour would go. She and her husband John purchased 20 acres in 2011 while still living in Colorado. For the first few years they would come out to their land a couple times a year and plant a few cacao trees and let them go. The trees take a while to produce pods for chocolate so they just wanted to get started. In 2015 they officially moved to Hawai'i and began harvesting, fermenting, drying, and selling beans. Upon our visit she mentioned that they have over 600 trees and are planning to add more and more as they have the ability to do so.
To start the tour, we walked all the way down the hill into the trees and started with the beginning of the process, the plant. We walked through the trees, both baby ones and older ones that were producing, as Susan talked to us about their farm and process. The two of them literally have been learning as they go and deal with what happens to them. As they plant trees they have figured out better ways to arrange them, protect them, and grow them. They are one of the first farms to start giving the trees more space than what is standard. This decreases what they produce in a specific amount of land but allows for more air to move between the trees since it is a different environment than typical cacao farms. They also have an issue with a small bug that will eat
and kill the trees. She showed us some that had been affected. The bugs eat at the leaves leaving this web pattern of dried leaf. Through trial and error, Susan and John discovered a way to prevent this though. They surround each young tree with a cage and line the inside with a mess lining. The bugs that eat the tree do not fly up and down but mostly stay horizontal with the wind, as long as the wind doesn't knock them into the cage, the tree doesn't get affected. They also are welcoming to weeds and other native life that will surround the saplings. If the invasive bug hits the weed it flies away since it's not cacao, thus protecting the smaller cacao tree in the middle of weeds. The weeds also provide some sun protection as the young tree is growing into a more mature one.
As we walked further into the fields we duck into the larger trees and you can start to see the fresh cacao pods growing from the trunks. Now if you’ve never looked into cacao and how it grow’s your mind might be blown. It grows these little flowers straight from the trunk of the tree and those flowers eventually will become the cacao pods. Each tree had at least couple pods, some had way more than others. The colors range from yellows, orange, and reds even into these deep purple red colors. It was here that we could pick our pods to open up. Susan handed us clippers and each of us cut our own pod right off the tree.
From the rows of trees, we walked back up the hill towards the house but veered off to the drying area. Here they have built a covered area that they use to dry the beans after harvesting. Susan discussed how other chocolate growers told them that they wouldn't be able to do this with the higher humidity on their side of the island. Although their drying time is longer because of the moisture, they have since found that it allows for a different flavor to develop in the beans allowing for a distinct product. At the worst, Susan will have to tuck them away when the rain is hard and blows into the drying area. At the time, she had most of the racks full of beans drying. Some were almost done and some were about halfway through. On the sunny days while the beans are out, she will walk around and massage the beans against the filter at the bottom of the drying rack. As the pulp on the beans dries up this, massaging helps break off the pieces as they fall to the floor. This part of the process was probably one of the most fun parts. In the drying area, she allowed us to massage the beans like she does. This helps to dry them as they move and allow more humid sections to be exposed to air. As we played and moved the beans around, Susan had us to crack some open to sample partially dried cacao. It was interesting to taste two different parts of the drying process and further understand the flavor changes and developments. The ones that were partially dried were very soft and slightly chewy. They had a sharp acidic flavor which I kind of expected from a fermented product since it does contain alcohol as a byproduct. The ones that were almost done drying had a slight softness but were crunchy and had a lot less of the sour flavor with a stronger cocoa flavor. This part of the process would probably be my favorite. The feeling of moving the beans around the drying board was very calming and the little bits of cocoa butter that leak coat your hands, making them softer.
After seeing the drying process, we took our pods back to the house to see how to crack them open and how they ferment the beans on the farm. In a lot of videos I have seen over the years, cacao harvesters use machetes to cut open and remove the seeds. Susan didn't want something to happen to her doing it this way so her husband crated a wooden contraption that she can use her foot to crack the pod and remove the beans. One by one we each walked up and cracked out pods then started sampling the various beans. It was a great way to see that various flavors can develop from pod to pod and tree to tree. As we stood there sucking the flesh off bean after bean, Susan continued with the process and how she separates so many cacao pods in a timely fashion. You can tell she has done thousands of pods at how easily she moves from cracking over to a bucket, sliding her fingers in and getting the beans out in the blink of an eye.
Once the beans are removed from the pods they go into the fermentation stage. This stage is super important for the development of flavors in the chocolate and Susan has created her on way of doing things. I have seen many ways people in various regions and cultures have done this step. Originally it was done on the ground on the farm around the main house. Beans were piled on the ground then covered with banana leaves to prevent a lot of moisture loss. The beans are fermented and turned every so often to keep everything even. Once done fermenting they get dried. Over time more high production places started using boxes to ferment but they find a small issue. The fermentation process depends on the natural heat produced from the
microscopic life. Four sided boxes tend to be cooler in the corners leading to beans that aren’t properly fermented or needing more care to turn often and equally ferment. Instead of a wooden box, Susan’s husband made her octagonal rings that she can stack to be as tall or short as she needs. The larger angle for the sides allows for a more equal distribution of heat and a more even fermenting process. Throughout the tour, seeing and hearing about all the contraptions they have come up with and made for their version of the process, I realized how amazing this farm is in changing the game and learning from previous experiences to create a better solution. To me it shows the way we should view life and taking the bad times as experience to learn and grow and create a better way the next time around.
Seeing how they ferment the beans, I knew we were nearing the end of the tour which can also be the best part, chocolate tasting. Susan took us to the porch on the other side of the house where we sat overlooking the farm with the ocean in the distance. There we sat as she did a quick description of how chocolate is made from the dried beans. She didn’t need to spend a lot of time here since I knew the process and over the years Bree and Ben have learned as well. She did talk about how they like to make their own chocolate at home. They send their beans to a few producers that make bars for sale but they also make small batches for personal use. We looked at the roaster that they use to roast a couple pounds at a time. She showed us the windowing contraption they have to remove the cocoa nib from the shell after being cracked. And then the machine that will grind them down into chocolate. They use a machine that I have seen a few professional chefs use to make praline and small batch chocolate. Then it was time to sample.
They have three companies that buy beans and produce bars. We sampled each to see the slight variations in their products. One had more cocoa butter that created a fast melting and smooth chocolate. All the chocolates were in the dark category, 70-75% for the three we tasted. It was really interesting to taste the slight variations in flavor based on crop and method of roasting. They were also not really bitter like other dark chocolates. The Hawaiian cacao creates a less bitter and creamier chocolate product. The last sample we got to try was some of their homemade chocolate. This was really special. They have custom made molds that they use to make little pieces to share. They also don’t temper their chocolate when that make small batches so it was cold chocolate that melted in the mouth so fast. But because they don’t do any separation of the cocoa solids and cocoa butter, theirs was high in cocoa butter and created just the best chocolate. I wish I could have bought some of their homemade stuff but since it’s not tempered it has to be refrigerated. I told them I am more than happy to help them temper some time but that can wait for another day.
Luckily we could at least buy some of the bars made from other chocolate producers still using their beans. I bought a couple bars and some cocoa nibs for a friend, then it was time to end our stay. Susan walked us out to our car answering any last minute questions, telling us their future plans for their farm and business, and share with us her life and how it all has led to this simple life on an island growing cacao. Overall this was an experience that I had a blast doing and I know I will cherish the time and memories for the rest of my life. I do hope to make a trip back one day and see how far they grown from the first visit but that’s a long time away. We packed into the car with our chocolate bars tucked in the cooler and we were gone. Driving away from something that felt like a dream but was just an amazing experience at Mauna Kea Cacao.
If you even find yourself on the Big Island, please check out Mauna Kea Cacao. I’m very particular on the companies I support and I can say this company is wonderful. Susan was like an old friend. She was welcoming and so knowledgeable on the whole chocolate production process. It was great to see the hard work that goes into something you see on the self at the register every day and really helps you to appreciate how spoiled we are to have it so easily accessible. Chocolate is one of my three most favorite things to use and eat and it’s great to learn more about my food and where it comes from. Now too see what farm should be next…