Hawai‘i Chocolate: Meet Madre Chocolate’s “Flavor Meister”
Check out Madre Chocolate in downtown Honolulu or Kailua.
Madre Chocolate founders Nat Bletter and Dave Elliott.
Photos: steve czerniak
The back room of Madre Chocolate’s Kailua shop seems like a pretty normal chocolate factory, not at all evoking Willy Wonka. But Roald Dahl’s peculiar candy king and Madre’s co-founder, Nat Bletter, aren’t entirely different.
“Our ethnobotanist is ... eccentric,” the tour guide says after leading a chocolate tasting and showing us into the factory. She tells us that, when he tastes chocolate, he closes his eyes, hums and rubs his fingers together to block out his other senses, allowing him to really focus on the nuanced flavors. His business card says “Flavor Meister.” And he named all the storage drawers and appliances after mythological beings.
There are freezers named Poli‘ahu, the Hawaiian goddess of snow, and Boreas, the Greek god of winter. The scale is named Dilga, after the Australian goddess of justice. (The names are fitting; after all, chocolate’s scientific name, theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods.”)
And, like Willy Wonka, Bletter goes to the source for Madre’s chocolate, emphasizing how, for farmers to truly understand what they’re producing and how to make it better, they have to taste it for themselves. Cacao growers, Bletter says, “are responsible for at least three-quarters of the final flavor of the chocolate.”
“Most of the world, they’re just shipping off their bags of beans and they never see it again or taste it, so they’re just going to do whatever’s easiest and cheapest,” Bletter says. Which is why Madre Chocolate holds a boot camp every summer, teaching cacao farmers in places that have included the Dominican Republic and the Solomon Islands about such things as fermentation and harvesting methods that can transform a bad bean into a good one. “We’re trying to show people how chocolate is a lot more like wine than they might think,” he says. “There are all these different subtleties of flavor from where it was grown, how it was fermented by the farmer. That’s why farmers are so important.”
As a bean-to-bar chocolate maker, Madre has also made a big impact on local growers over the past five years. “This is probably the first time in history that you have cacao growers, chocolate makers and great research universities like UH and HPU all in one place, so you can really close the design loop,” Bletter says.
“I could talk about chocolate for hours,” he says, though he only started making chocolate because his friends “forced” him to. While in grad school in New York, he’d co-written a chapter in Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, but that wasn’t filling any stomachs. “I had debated between going to culinary school and grad school for botany, so [making chocolate] was kind of a way to bring those two interests back together,” he says, and started experimenting with a coffee grinder and food processor while finishing his thesis.
He’s come a long way since then. Opened in 2014, Madre Chocolate’s second location, in Chinatown, is just as quirky as the one in Kailua. Multicolored lights hang across the back room above a drum kit (Bletter’s band, Shredd Papaya, practices there). In the backyard, there are fig, taro, liliko‘i, sugar cane, hibiscus and, of course, cacao plants. Though Madre focuses on connecting people back to where chocolate originally came from, even serving chocolate drinks (two of them recently won first and third place in their respective categories at the World Drinking Chocolate Competition), Bletter’s not a purist—he’s enthusiastic about new flavors he can add, especially local ones. At the end of the day, “We want to make sure that everything we make tastes amazing.”
This story is part of The Everything Guide to Local Chocolate in our December 2015 issue. Click here for more.