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Chocolate from Hawaii

First planting of Cacao beans in 1850

Chocolate from Hawaii began with the introduction of cacao beans to Hawaii happened in 1850, when German physician William Hillebrand brought the first plant to Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu.   The first commercial crop of cacao beans was planted in Hilo in the early 1890’s.  World War I brought a shortage of chocolate and with higher prices, efforts were undertaken to expand the growing efforts.  The end of World War I, also brought back normal chocolate supplies and with it, declining prices for chocolate, and the end of chocolate from Hawaii.

No further attempt was made to commercially grow this crop until 1986, when once again, interest in growing cacao in Hawaii resurfaced.  By 1992, the first crop was planted at Hodge Farm in Keauhou.  In 1997, Hodge Farm bought by Bob and Pam Cooper and a processing plant was added to the orchard and Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory was born.

The University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources is deeply involved in the researching of identifying the ideal cacao plants that will do well in Hawaii.  So far, they have identified 11 varieties of cacao trees that possess traits favorable for growing in Hawaii.  The University of Hawaii rarely receives enough credit for the role it plays in helping to assess and cultivate produce that will do well for Hawaiian growers.

They have been instrumental in developing pineapples that are both appealing and hardy enough to thrive and survive shipping.  The same can be said of the papaya’s that are commonly found in Hawaii’s grocers and farmers’ markets.  What people don’t always fully appreciate is that the end product found in their grocer’s produce section may not be the best available, but rather a compromise between taste, color, and hardiness!

Chocolate from Hawaii Still In Its Infancy

Still in its infancy, there are currently just a handful of growers with a total of 50-to-100 acres growing the cacao trees.  A familiar name holds the lead role with 13,000 plants on 20 acres in Waialua, Oahu, is Dole Company.  Based on the University of Hawaii’s reports, the Agricultural Department estimates that there is potential of between 315 and 3000 acres that could be put into cacao production.

The problem facing Hawaii cacao farmers is the same that faced Hawaii coffee growers…low-cost competition from overseas.  The chocolate farmers may have the same solution as the coffee growers and that is to position themselves as a premium product which demands a premium price.  And, while they are a long way from establishing that market position, they are making strides towards it.

Chocolate from Hawaii…A Premium Product

Another step that would increase the money they can receive for their efforts is processing the cacao beans into “chocolate from Hawaii”.  Dried cacao seeds sell in the neighborhood of $2.47/lb.  Processed chocolate, on the other hand, retails for upwards of $40/lb.  Kaua’i farmer Koa Kahili began planting cacao seven years ago and harvesting his trees four years ago. Kahili’s Garden Island Chocolate sells for $8 to $9 per 2-ounce bar, that’s $64-72/lb!   “They sell out faster than I can make them,” he said.

The only major chocolate processing factory in Hawaii is the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory.  Since purchasing Hodge Farm , the Cooper’s have invested $1 million in the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory and have the capability to process up to 100,000 pounds of seeds annually.

A unique feature of chocolate from Hawaii is that just about every other chocolate in the world is made up of a blending of cacao from multiple regions.  Chocolate from Hawaii is made of 100% Hawaii grown cacao beans!

And, while the state Agricultural Department believes that opening another processing factory in Honolulu would help to foster the growth of this industry, Dole Company does not believe it would be economically feasible unless there is at least 300 acres of cacao.  This is not the first time that an attempt has been made to foster chocolate from Hawaii.

One earlier effort was made by former Chicago advertising executive Jim Walsh, who obtained backing from Hershey Chocolate Co. and moved to Hawaii in 1986 with a goal to establish the first commercial cacao farm in America.  But after years of work with varieties of cacao and initial success producing chocolate from Hawaii in 1994, crop losses led Walsh’s Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate Co. to substitute foreign-grown cocoa beans for Hawaii-grown beans in the late 1990s, and passed off the product as being chocolate from Hawaii.

A state Agriculture Department investigation led to the disclosure, which somewhat tarnished the image of chocolate from Hawaii, similar to what Kona coffee had to contend with.  Initial crop failures are a common occurrence in the history of Hawaii, from pineapple, to sugar cane, to tobacco, and coffee, so it should be no surprise that cacao faces the same initial setbacks.

Ultimately, finding suitable land to grow the cacao trees and willing people to invest the effort to grow them will determine the success or failure of the chocolate from Hawaii industry to thrive.  Whether it remains a cottage industry or becomes a major crop in Hawaii remains to be seen.  For the present, Hawaii will have to settle for being the only state in the United States to grow cacao beans commercially.  At any rate, chocolate from Hawaii is probably here to stay.

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