It’s probably no surprise that chocolate is what drew me to Hawaii. The bean-to-bar revolution happening in mainland USA has certainly had an impact in the Pacific island chain, and I managed to visit no fewer than four chocolate factories during the course of my 10 day stay.
But what really drew me there was the cocoa. You might know that with its southerly location, Hawaii has the distinction of being the only US state where cocoa can grow. So one of the most exciting parts of my trip was a visit to the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory on Big Island.
OHCF don’t just make chocolate from the bean, they grow the cocoa for it on site. Where most chocolate companies have all sorts of logistical and ethical issues sourcing beans from around the world, Bob and Pam Cooper can see the trees from the factory window.
Hawaii’s climate is challenging for cocoa farmers, forcing OHCF to harvest their cocoa pods every two weeks, year round. With small, regular harvests, maintaining consistency throughout the fermentation, drying and chocolate making process is no easy task.
With pods at all stages of development on every tree, finding the ripe ones can be a challenge in itself. A small cut in the pod to check the colour of the flesh underneath helps the team identify the ripe pods. The farm is relatively small, with 1,400 trees, but checking and maintaining every tree is a major task.
Looking around the farm, it’s clear to see why many smaller farmers struggle to make a living from their crop. It’s a lot work for a crop that is ultimately undervalued. The cocoa price may be on the rise, but while much of the world is addicted to cheap confectionery chocolate, for many farmers around the world it’s simply not a worthwhile endeavour.
Of course, OCHF have a major advantage in that there are no middlemen taking a cut along the way, and all the cocoa they grow (along with that from a couple of neighbouring farms) goes straight into their own factory.
And a very impressive factory it is too.
The Coopers have invested significantly in chocolate making machinery at OHCF. And while it’s still small by most chocolate making standards, it’s significantly bigger than any of the other chocolate makers in Hawaii – and bigger than most I have come across.
While many small-batch chocolate makers rely on a small Cocoa Town melanger and a DIY winnower, the Coopers opted to source the kind of equipment you’re more likely to find in a more automated chocolate company. This is serious kit.
OHCF currently have a range of three main bars; a milk chocolate, dark chocolate and a dark chocolate made with Criollo beans from a neighbouring farm (different variety beans are kept separated to prevent cross-fertilisation).
Tasting the bars, I feel they’re designed to appeal more to the mass market than they are to the bean-to-bar connoisseur. Despite my preference for the more refined small batch chocolates out there, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It proves that even an every day chocolate bar can be produced from tree to bar, efficiently, ethically and sustainably without commodity trading middlemen skimming off more than their fair share. It’s good for the industry and it’s great for a local economy that’s still feeling the effects of economic recession.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory. There is a public tour and if you get a chance, it’s well worth visiting. It’s truly wonderful to be able to see how chocolate is made from the first flowers growing on the trunks of the cacao tree right up to a finished chocolate bar. It certainly made me appreciate chocolate and the people that make it more than ever.