Monthly Chocolate-Making Classes and Tour at Madre Chocolate
What’s new with Madre Chocolate, from kids classes to how to get free chocolate.
Six months ago, shortly after Valentine’s Day, Madre Chocolate quietly closed the doors to its quirky Kailua factory. After seven years in the neighborhood, high rent and transportation logistics became a burden for the small business. “We loved being in Kailua,” says owner Nat Bletter. That’s where the company started. But that’s not where it ends.
Madre opened a second location in Chinatown about four-and-a-half years ago. It’s more than twice the size of the Kailua one, with a backroom where all the storage, fermenting and grinding now take place. Bletter says it’s nice to have everything in one place, rather than having to transport chocolate across the Ko‘olau Range. (The roasting, tempering and wrapping take place at the O‘ahu Food Hub in Kalihi.) Madre also holds monthly chocolate-making classes in the Pauahi Street shop, along with its popular whiskey-and-chocolate and wine-and-chocolate pairings.
Madre Chocolate lets you get up close and personal with cacao pods.
PHOTOS: AARON K. YOSHINO
“We picked this spot because it had this beautiful oasis in the middle of Chinatown that everyone was super surprised by,” Bletter says. Hidden in the courtyard of the Stack building, liliko‘i, kalo, ginger, cacao, vanilla, lemongrass, chilies and more grow in a 2,000-square-foot garden. Bletter uses many of these ingredients in Madre’s unique chocolate bars, produced just steps away in its new factory.
The garden doesn’t look like much when you walk through Madre’s back door. If you don’t know anything about plants, it seems like an overgrown courtyard. “We tried to pack it in with as many plants as we could that we could use in the chocolate,” Bletter says as he points out dragon fruit, coffee and fig trees. (There are 25 plants in total.)
Clockwise from Left: Madre Chocolate owner Nat Bletter shows off cacao pods he grew in Chinatown; liliko‘i flowering; figs; chocolate bars produced in the factory.
Maintaining the garden is a labor of love for Bletter, who got his Ph.D. in medicinal plants and ethnobotany (a fact I learn after he tells me liliko‘i leaves have an antianxiety compound that can help you sleep; he makes tea with them). It’s not easy to grow cacao in Hawai‘i—let alone in Chinatown, which doesn’t get as much rain as the trees like—and he’s tried (and failed) to keep birds from eating all the figs. But it’s worth it. As an ethnobotanist, Bletter says Madre is about “respecting history and injecting that into the chocolate by picking a flavor that matches the origin.” For instance, Madre created a tom kha bar using ingredients like lime leaf and galangal with Thai cacao beans. “I love educating people in a fun way,” he says.
Part of the fun is getting customers involved. “We have a liliko‘i chocolate bar that’s one of our most popular, but there’s been a really small harvest of liliko‘i in the past few years,” Bletter says, so “if you have liliko‘i growing in your backyard, we’ll buy it or trade you chocolate.” They’re also looking for mangoes or other interesting flavors with which to experiment. If you want to grow your own cacao, they’ll give you free beans, too: “We try to be Johnny Cacaoseed and give out cacao to everyone we know,” Bletter says. Once they fruit, bring in your pods and the folks at Madre will turn them into chocolate for you.
Giving out free chocolate might not seem like the best model for a small business, but Bletter emphasizes it’s Madre’s relationships with farmers—and bridging the gap between those who grow cacao and those who eat it—that sets the company apart and is the reason for its continued success.
One way to improve the industry and grow demand for artisanal chocolate is through education. Every Wednesday and Friday, Madre hosts Make Your Own Chocolate Bar classes where you learn about chocolate, tour the garden, and get to pour and flavor your own bar. Occasionally Madre hosts a three-hour bean-to-bar class that goes more in-depth, as well as farm tours so you can see where the beans come from. Madre recently launched monthly kids tours, led by shopkeeper Paris Vapaille-Watson, who also experiments with creating delicious chocolate baked goods you can find at the shop’s counter. Kids learn what cacao looks like when it grows, the history of the plant, why Madre uses non-GMO organic beans and why white chocolate isn’t real chocolate. Then they get to make their own bars with fun toppings such as Oreos, gummy bears, sprinkles and peanuts. “I’m a geek; I love science activities and experiments,” says Vapaille-Watson. “It’s fun and leaves you wondering.”
Madre is also experimenting with other ways to use the cacao plant, including making fruit leather from the sweet pulp. Bletter says they’re considering opening a full-service café, featuring Madre’s award-winning drinking chocolate and other products. But the long-term goal in the next few years is to have their own farm, now that they understand the entire tree-to-bar process.
Back in the garden, Bletter shows us the cacao tree, which has about 20 pods growing on it. It’s the first time this tree has fruited since it was planted four years ago. He points out the markings that distinguish this as the rare, highly sought-after Criollo variety. A vanilla vine, which Bletter harvested from Mānoa, climbs its base. If the vanilla flowers this year, they’ll have cured beans next year, he says. Sugar cane grows nearby. Those three ingredients are all you need to make chocolate. “When our cacao tree gives us enough fruit, we’ll make the first Chinatown-grown chocolate bar ever.”
Madre Chocolate, 8 N. Pauahi St., (808) 377-6440, madrechocolate.com