Hawaii is the only state where cacao trees can be commercially grown. This makes for some of the best farm to bar chocolate in the world.
Where cacao grows
Cacao trees need constant warm temperatures and plentiful rainfall to thrive. This environment only occurs in specific places along the Cacao Belt from 20 degrees north latitude to 20 degrees south latitude. Even Key West, FL, the southernmost point in the continental United States is outside that latitude range at 24 degrees. So, while a few backyard gardeners might try to grow cacao trees in Florida, the occasional cold snap will ultimately take the crop making commercial production impossible in the Sunshine State.
Parts of Hawaii, on the other hand, lie just within the required latitude range. The Big Island of Hawaii is at 19.9 degrees north, just within the belt. The islands of Oahu (21.4), Maui (20.8) and Kaui (22.1) lie just outside the zone, but still produce cacao.
Worldwide chocolate producers
The Ivory Coast in Africa is, by far, the largest cacao producer in the world. In fact, Côte d’Ivoire, produces as much cacao as the next 7 countries combined! Hawaii, meanwhile, only harvests about 1% as much as The Ivory Coast. So, chocolate is a very small and specialized industry in Hawaii.
What makes good chocolate?
Ask my brother and he’ll tell you “single origin or go home.” I’m inclined to agree with him, although I have, and still do, enjoy chocolate that is a blend of beans from different regions or farms.
That said, to really taste the difference between different regions, single origin is the way to go. Just like fine wine, you want to be able to savor the terroir and character of where the chocolate was produced.
In addition, quality chocolate requires good growing methods and attention to the trees. They must be pruned and cared for regularly.
Then, the beans are harvested and dried (fermented). This process also requires skill to make a good chocoalte.
But, the most important thing that differentiates good chocolate from bad is the ingredients. Good chocolate is made from real cocoa. Chocolate makers looking to cut corners and save money will use ingredients like “chocolaty,” “chocolate flavoring” or “compound chocolate.” Stay away from these. The best chocolate doesn’t use these ingredients.
And that’s why a bar of artisan single origin chocolate can cost $10, $15, $20 or more while a bar in the supermarket costs $1.
Hawaii chocolate producers
There are tasting rooms open for sampling in Hawaii and some cacao farms offer tours. Most of these places offer shipping of their products if you can’t visit Hawaii yourself. Here are a few of my favorites.
Lonohana Estate Chocolate
My favorite chocolatier in all of Hawaii. Lonohana has a small, 14 acre cacao farm on the north shore of Oahu. Their dried and fermented beans are processed into chocolate at their solar powered factory in Honolulu.
The farm itself is remote and tours are rustic (no facilities or running water).
Lonohana has sold their chocolate online and through their chocolate club, but in 2017 they opened a store at SALT in the Kakakako neighborhood of Honolulu. SALT is a very hip little mixed use block of shopping and restaurants. There’s lots of good places to eat, a couple of coffee shops, and a cool record shop. But the best reason to visit SALT is Lonohana. The shop usually has dozens of chocolates to sample, all made from their farm on Oahu.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Dylan Butterbaugh started Manoa Chocolate shortly after graduating from the University of Hawaii. Dylan sources beans from Hawaii and around the world for his artisan chocolate. The single origin Hawaiian bean bars are extraordinary. One of my favorites is the Breakfast Bar, made with cacao and coffee beans from Hawaii.
The shop and factory are on the windward side of Oahu in the town of Kailua. The tour and tasting are definitely worth your time. You can really taste the difference when you sample chocolate made with Hawaiian beans and, say, Guatemalan beans. Plus, you’ll see the bicycle that was used to power Manoa’s first winnowing machine!
Manoa might be the most widely available artisan Hawaiian chocolate with many stores in Hawaii and on the mainland selling their bars.
Madre Chocolate makes very good bars from Hawaiian beans. They also have bars made with from Latin American and Southeast Asia. Farm tours and chocolate making classes are available by appointment.
Original Hawaiian Chocolate
One of the first to make single origin Hawaiian chocolate. Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, Original Hawaiian Chocolate has tastings and tours available.
On the island of Kauai, Lydgate Farms grows their own cacao along with award winning vanilla and honey. The farm is owned and operated by Emily and Will Lydgate, fifth generation Hawaiian farmers. They offer and in depth 3 hour tour of the farm.
The Road to Hana is one of the most popular attractions on Maui. Near the end of the journey is Hana Gold, a cacao plantation with a little store that sells their chocolate.