Cacao Farm Tour and Tasting in Hawaii!

Hello, beautiful readers!

I'm so excited to tell you all about my visit to Garden Island Chocolate, a small, sustainable cacao farm in Kilauea, on the northern shore of the island of Kauai, Hawaii. They're one of the only places in the U.S. that is truly a "seed to bar" chocolate business. They grow the cacao trees from seed and care for them with an environmentally-friendly permaculture model. After harvest, they break open the pods, then proceed to ferment, dry, roast, crack, winnow, and grind the beans. They add any extra yumminess, then mold the chocolate and sell it. It's so cool to see one family-run business (with four adults and three kids) put so much care into the process from start to finish!

Cacao pods

My novel, TREE OF DREAMS (formerly called WILD CHOCOLATE ), is coming out March 26, 2019 (with Scholastic Press, ages 9 and up)-- so I've been filling my life with all things chocolate these past couple years of research and writing. Grueling, I tell ya. ;-)  I've already done research with the fabulous Nuance Chocolate's factory and shop here in Fort Collins (which you can read about here and here)... but I really wanted to explore a sustainable cacao farm so that I understood the whole process. Here are my notes from the tour, interspersed with photos-- I thought I'd share them with you!

Koa's son

Koa, owner of Garden Island Chocolate, was our tour guide for the morning. He explained how he and his crew start seeds in pots, since the saplings are very delicate and you really have to baby them. Once they're established, Koa and the crew transplant the tiny trees into the ground. They plant them in dappled shade that comes from strategically placed taller trees, so that the cacao trees will be sheltered from wind and strong sunlight. Some of the trees that co-exist nicely with cacao on their farm are cinnamon, allspice, acai palm, breadnut, lychee, coconut, jackfruit, lahala, aku, avocado, zapote, and tamarind. (We also got to sample the spice and fruit from several of these trees!)

Cacao trees protected from too much sun and wind by taller trees

A few cacao pods might appear when the tree is two years old. By the time the tree is about five years old, it is producing about 20 pods per tree. By eight to ten years of age, it's producing about a hundred pods per tree. The pods are about the size of a Nerf football, and they grow directly from the branches and trunk of the tree. They are gorgeous colors, from garnet red to lemon yellow to pale green to deep purple. You can do a scrape test with your fingernail to see if the pod is ripe--  If it's yellow where you scrape it, it's ripe; green means unripe.

Cacao trees mostly grow in tropical climates, close to the equator. Hawaii is one of the only sub-tropical places where cacao is grown successfully (farther from the equator). Kauai is a pretty rainy island (especially when we were there in March), but cacao can handle 200-300 inches of rain per year. The harvest is done between December and June here. Since the trees are fairly fragile, only about 16 out of every 20 trees survive.

Koa's other son

I was impressed with the permaculture model that Koa's farm uses... it's the idea that if you plant the right combo of plants and trees in the right conditions, that they can pretty much take care of themselves. For example, the larger trees provide sun and wind shelter for the cacao trees... and trees like tamarind, which are nitrogen-fixing, can provide a rich soil balance. Banana trees that have already produced fruit can be left up as a place for wild yeasts to thrive (useful for fermentation later.) Nothing is wasted-- for example, the chaff from the winnowing of the cacao beans (at a later stage) can be used as fertilizer and mulch. And as far as threats like wild pigs damaging saplings, well, you just suck it up and make peace with them.

Splitting open the cacao pods with a mallet

Garden Island Chocolates has a mixed variety of cultivars, largely hybrids. Koa was able to point out some pods that had criollo features, like white beans, a pointy shape, red and bumpy skin. (The main categories of cultivars are criollo (sweet, floral, light, disease-susceptible), Nacional (highly prized, rare), trinitario (hardy hybrid), and forastero, with a great many sub-varieties and hybrids, which makes any kind of standard classification difficult.) The farm allows wild midges (tiny flies) to pollinate the cacao, so there's plenty of cross-breeding and delightful randomness that defies categorization.

Freshly bashed-open cacao pod

The pods are harvested with a machete or sharp blade, never twisted off (to avoid damage). They are then bashed open with a mallet. (Koa's tween/teen sons enjoy this part-- they demonstrated with gusto, and then the participants got a chance to try. ;-) We got a chance to taste the interior of the pod at this point-- it's basically a bunch of beans/seeds in goopy mucilage. I sucked on a bean to taste the goo, which was a little sweet. Koa said that different varieties have different tastes... some more lemony, some more of a honey melon flavor.

Cacao beans still in the mucilage

After Koa and family and co-workers remove the seeds by hand (which usually takes an entire day per batch), it's time for fermentation. The crew does a wild ferment, which uses naturally occurring yeasts from the shells/skins and from the banana leaves the beans are covered with. Sometimes Koa adds wine yeast to give the chocolate a fruity flavor. He says that fermentation is the most important step in the chocolate-making process. He and his crew put the beans in a mahogany box with slats on the bottom so the liquid can drain out. He describes the smell of fermentation as a mix of bakery, brewery, and locker room (mmmmm...) He knows when fermentation is done by smelling the beans, and making sure they're brown all the way through. During fermentation, the naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria eat the sugars and convert them to alcohol and acids, a process that brings out the flavor precursors so that the final chocolate flavor is complex and layered. The fermentation stage lasts about a week at Garden Island, but could be shorter or longer elsewhere, depending on the types of cacao and environmental conditions.

Goopy cacao beans freshly scooped from the opened pods

The next stage is drying. Since northern Kauai is so rainy, which brings a threat of mold, Koa uses a dehydration machine; however, farms in dryer areas might spread the beans out on mats and let the sun and air dry them. After the drying stage, the cacao is ready to be roasted. Koa usually roasts a batch about once a week. I won't go into the details of the next stages here, since I discussed them in detail in earlier blog posts about my visits to Nuance Chocolate's small factory and charming shop in Fort Collins. To summarize, the beans are roasted, winnowed (husks separated from beans-- Koa uses a hair dryer!), cracked into nibs, ground in a melanger, mixed with other ingredients like honey or sugar, tempered (controlled heating and cooling), and poured into molds. For Garden Island Chocolate, all these steps-- from harvest to finished chocolate-- take about a month for one batch...

Cacao beans that have been fermented and dried

And voila... chocolate! The intricate flavor of chocolate depends on so many factors... the soil the cacao was grown in, the yeasts that fermented it, how long it was fermented, how long and at what temperature it was roasted, how long it was ground in the melanger, and of course, what ingredients were added to it. We got to taste over twenty samples of Garden Island chocolate during the tour, with palate cleansers of apple-banana and bread in between. Koa makes most of these especially for tour groups, and changes up the recipes all the times, depending on what's in season and on hand. He uses locally grown, organic ingredients, and sweetens them with honey. Our favorite was the lemon-coconut-honey chocolate. Some of the other samples we tried were: crystallized ginger, coconut milk curry, hemp seed, coffee, hazelnut, macadamia nut, cranberry, bee pollen, 5-chile spice, 99% cacao with salt and vanilla, and milk chocolate. It's so much fun to try to distinguish and describe the intricate layers of flavor in each sample. We washed the taster flight down with Mayan hot chocolate made with vanilla, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, coconut milk, black pepper, and turmeric. Yum!

Ready-to-eat chocolate samples!

Garden Island Chocolates grows many of the ingredients they add to their chocolate, including fruits, nuts, spices, and honey from their hives. They also use cacao and other ingredients from other farms in their co-op in Kauai-- many of these farmers have other professions, but produce these foods as a hobby. Koa has been making chocolate for about 10 years and growing cacao for 14 (along with all kinds of other tasty foods). During his tour, his passion and curiosity come through-- delightful qualities I've noticed in other chocolate makers. If you find yourself in Kauai, I highly recommend you swing by for a tour... more info here.


Garden Island also sells their chocolate at this cute stand at their farm in Kilauea. Koa and his boys were kind enough to share their library of chocolate books with me... including this awesome pop-up version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! I was enchanted by the original version by Roald Dahl as a kid... and I'm super-excited to contribute my own kids' book to the realm of chocolate-themed kid lit... TREE OF DREAMS, coming March 26, 2019 with Scholastic (cover art in progress). I had so much fun weaving all my chocolate research into the novel (along with my Amazon rain forest research)! You can read more about TREE OF DREAMS here. It's technically a kids' novel, but truly for lovers of chocolate and forests of any age!

Koa's boys with their mini chocolate-library

 Thanks so much for coming by!