Hawaii may not seem like an obvious place to go looking for quality chocolate. With average daytime temperatures of 27.5C the chocolate is going to get a bit melty for a start.
But Hawaii is uniquely placed in the chocolate world. Connected to the bean-to-bar revolution happening on the US mainland, it’s the only US state with a climate suitable for growing cocoa. The result is a bean-to-bar chocolate industry that uses locally grown cocoa and hundreds of small cocoa farmers hoping to make a living from the crop.
But along with the opportunities come challenges. Hawaii’s location at a latitude of 21° North put it just outside the 20 degree band that is usually considered ideal for growing cocoa. The result is that rather than the usual two harvests per year, most Hawaiian farmers have a continual year-round crop, which they have to harvest every couple of weeks.
That may seem great, but in order to produce quality chocolate, the cocoa beans must be fermented as soon as they are harvested. And with small, regular crops throughout the year, getting enough beans together to ferment effectively can be almost impossible for a small farmer.
There are currently only around 100 acres in the whole of Hawaii dedicated to cocoa farming. US agricultural company Dole owns a quarter of that, with its Wailua Estate in the north of Oahu. The beans from that farm are exclusively processed by Guittard in San Francisco, meaning local chocolate makers only have the output of a maximum of 75 acres to play with.
But that cocoa ripens in small batches throughout the year, making it both difficult to process and particularly expensive. As a result, chocolate makers like Kailua’s Madre Chocolate end up having to import cocoa in order to produce their growing range of exciting chocolate bars.
These challenges are one of the reasons that Hawaii’s Kona Cacao Association set up the Big Island Chocolate Festival. As well as being a celebration of Hawaiian chocolate, it’s an opportunity for growers, chocolate makers and experts to come together and help overcome some of these issues.
This year, I was lucky enough to be invited to the festival. On my 9 day trip to Hawaii, I met chocolate makers and growers, visited factories and plantations and attended all the talks at the festival. I came away learning as much about chocolate production as I have done in years of writing about it and with a huge respect for everyone involved in the Hawaiian chocolate industry.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing some of the stories of the people I met in a series of posts. I’ll be going behind the scenes at chocolate factories and cocoa farms, and sharing Hawaii’s unique cacao story.
My trip to Hawaii was the adventure of a lifetime, and I’m already planning a return visit. If you love chocolate and tropical sunshine, it should be at the top of your list of places to visit.
Without exception, everyone I spoke to was friendly, enthusiastic and happy to share their love of chocolate. It’s an adventure I can’t recommend highly enough.