Crops like sugarcane, coffee, and pineapple have always taken center stage in Hawaii’s agricultural history. While these valuable commodities have brought rapid population growth and big business to the islands in the past, the future looks bright for another particular plant that thrives in the Hawaiian sun: cacao.
Hawaii is the only U.S. state that grows cacao commercially. Trees are grown, harvested, and processed on each of the major four islands—Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii Island. In its purest form, cacao is believed to contain some of the highest levels of antioxidants and magnesium in the food world; Even its scientific name, “theobroma cacao,” comes from the Greek “food of the gods.” A combination of small-batch production and unique quality means that Hawaiian artisanal chocolate products are some of the most sought-after and expensive on the market.
What Is Cacao and Why Is it Grown on Hawaii?
To those who’ve never wondered how their chocolate goes from bean to bar, a peek inside a cacao pod may come as a bit of a shock. A single cacao tree will typically grow up to 50 feet tall and have a life expectancy of 50 years. Once ripe, the palm-sized, rigid pods range in color from green to red to yellow. Inside, they are filled with slimy white beans that look nothing like the chocolate you’d buy at the store. The gooey beans have a bitter aftertaste on their own and must be fermented, dried, cleaned, and roasted before developing their chocolatey flavor. Cacao trees, which are native to the Amazon region, thrive in the humid, tropical climate and fertile, well-drained soil, making Hawaii the perfect place to grow them.
According to the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture, cacao was first introduced into the Hawaiian Islands by Dr. William Hillebrand in 1850. However, it is also believed that the crop grew in King David Kalakaua's personal gardens as early as the 1830s. The German physician and botanist worked for the Hawaiian monarchy and grew cacao trees in a Honolulu area now known as Foster Botanical Gardens. Cacao orchards began popping up throughout the islands since then, with the industry growing and falling sporadically, disrupted by events such as World War I, until the 1990s. In 1996, the Dole Food Company planted 20 acres of cacao on Oahu’s North Shore and, in 1997, what is considered the state’s first chocolate processing plant opened in Keauhou on Hawaii Island.
Chocolate Farms and Factories in Hawaii
These days, several beautiful and tropical cacao farms throughout the four major islands offer informative tours and tastings so visitors can get up close and personal with the inner workings of chocolate, from tree to bean to bar.
- Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory: This Hawaii Island farm that became the first in the state to make chocolate is still around today. The owners bought a 4-acre farm full of cacao, macadamia nut, and coffee trees back in 1997, and made their first batch of chocolate in 2000. This historic place offers one-hour orchard and factory tours that give visitors an inside look at every step in the chocolate-making process on Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.
- Kuaiwi Farm: A 5-acre certified organic farm, Kuaiwi Farm hosts two-hour tours every day of the week that include tastings of coffee, jams, macadamia nuts, avocados, bananas, pineapple, tea, citrus, and chocolate grown on-site. For those who want to learn even more, the chocolate candy making class combines the farm tour and tasting with a chocolate-making class.
- Kahi Ola Mau Farm: Honoka’a Chocolate Company is located at Kahi Ola Mau Farm on the Hamakua Coast. The farm, established in 1920, now boasts about 500 cacao trees. The company just started conducting chocolate tastings in 2018, which includes a 45-minute farm tour and select chocolates from both on the property and around the world.
- Hamakua Chocolate Farm: Hamakua Chocolate Farm was previously used to grow sugarcane before the new owners converted it into a chocolate farm and botanical garden in 2009. Guided 2.5-hour tours take visitors through the farm, gardens, and cacao processing facilities before capping off with a chocolate tasting experience.
- Manoa Chocolate: Located on the windward side of Oahu, Manoa Chocolates is one of the most popular producers of chocolate on the island. They even have chocolate sommeliers on-site who can guide you through their wide range of chocolate bars available from ghost pepper to lavender-infused, and even chocolate tea. Short walk-in tastings are free, or you can opt for a 60-90-minute factory tour for $15.
- Waialua Estate Coffee and Chocolate: One of the largest growers of chocolate in the state can be found on Oahu’s North Shore, with a whopping 85 acres completely dedicated to cacao. The award-winning chocolate is made from cacao grown exclusively in the orchard originally planted in 1996. Stop into the gift shop for a short tour and tastings of both coffee and chocolate.
- 21 Degrees Estate: A veteran-owned and family-operated boutique cacao farm located in Kahaluu, 21 Degrees hosts two-hour tours in small groups for up to 20 people twice a week. Taste the tropical fruits grown at the farm, and enjoy an extensive dark chocolate tasting comparing estate chocolate, to examples from all over the world.
- Madre Chocolate: Organic, lightly-processed, and made using cacao from both Hawaiian farms and around the world, Madre Chocolate can be found in two locations within Honolulu and Kailua. There are all kinds of special flavors available, such as caramelized ginger and lilikoi to name a few, or you can opt for a make-your-own-bar class or a chocolate-pairing event.
- Lydgate Farms: Run by a fifth-generation Kauai family, find Lydgate Farms next to the famous Mount Waialeale. The exclusive farm tours are three hours long and give visitors the chance to taste raw cacao, farm-fresh fruit, and chocolate tasting.
- Garden Island Chocolate: This North Shore-based farm only produces chocolate with a cacao percentage of 85 percent or more, so dark chocolate-lovers will definitely want to stop by. The three-hour chocolate tours, held Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, includes all-you-can-eat chocolate tastings of over 20 different types of chocolate. For true chocolate aficionados, there is a six-hour chocolate making seminar available by appointment.
- Hana Gold Chocolate: The couple who bought this remote Hana farm in 1978 started with just two cacao trees purchased from a local Maui nursery. Once they realized how much the crops took to their land, they continued planting more, eventually ending up with the 1,000 cacao trees on the property today. Tours are held Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the afternoon.
- Maui Kuia Estate: Visitors can enjoy a curated chocolate tasting in Maui Kuia’s 2,000 square feet chocolate pavilion in Lahaina. Choose from a free three-flavor tasting, or pay a little more for five or ten flavors. Even better, tasting fees go towards any chocolate purchases.