When the Waialua Sugar Mill closed in 1996, Dole Food Co. Hawaii sought crops that could replace sugar. Michael Conway, Dole’s manager of agriculture operations on Oahu, had a personal interest in planting cacao, the tree from which chocolate is created.
“I had toured different cacao estates and so we used seeds I had collected from around the world, Asia, South America. We put in other crops, too, lychee, coffee. In about 20 acres, in the lowest spot in Waialua, a protected area, which you need for cacao, we got the cacao trees going.” But busy with other projects, Dole turned away from the project and the crops lay abandoned for close to four years. But then Conway went back and the trees were still there. “We pruned the trees and they were fine. We had never even harvested the pods before.”
The pods are cut off the tree, and then the wet beans, covered in a fruity pulp, are scooped out, by hand. One bean is about twice the size of an almond. “We put them in wooden boxes or barrels, and allow Mother Nature to take over, kind of like composting,” says Conway. “Yeasts and bacteria digest the fruity pulp around the bean. You get all sorts of smells coming out—like bread baking, like vinegar. It gets to be 118 degrees in there. A week later, we take them out and spread them in the sunshine. You can smell when they’re done. Now they’re each the size of an almond. There’s no mechanical way to do this process.”
Conway sent the beans to a chocolate company on the West Coast, Guittard, and asked if they were any good. He didn’t hear from anyone for two weeks, and just as he was ready to pick up the phone to follow up, the president and vice president of Guittard called.
“They were here on Oahu—they had flown over to see me. They said, ‘You have a very interesting chocolate. It’s got some flavors and flavor notes and features that we normally don’t see in chocolate. And when you do see them, the chocolate comes from high-end producers, like estates in Ghana or Equador.’” That meeting developed into a partnership in which Dole provides the beans, Guittard buys them and Dole buys them back in the form of chocolate.
Still at only 20 acres, Dole’s cacao farm is nevertheless the largest in the United States, according to Conway, but very small compared to those in other chocolate-producing counties. “We hope to expand on this and to create a whole new industry,” says Conway. “It’s a crop that should be able to follow the Kona coffee model—a lot of small producers growing it, and then selling the beans to us.”
The cacao is grown pesticide free. “It’s not organic because we use inorganic fertilizers,” he notes. “But it could grow organically. We’re not putting anything on the trees; we haven’t found any pests.” Hawaii is at the very edge of the cacao-growing zone; 80 to 90 percent of it is grown within 10 degrees of the Equator, while Oahu is twice as far away. Some believe that the fluctuation in temperature to which the trees are exposed contributes to the flavor characteristics, just as a chilly morning in California helps grapes make better wine.
The resulting chocolate is known to be full-bodied, with flavor notes of raspberries, cherries, red wine and dried fruit. Alan Wong is a big supporter and you can find the chocolate in desserts at his restaurant. You can also buy it at the Dole Plantation Store under the Dole brand name. It’s also contained in some products from local company Malie Kai Chocolates.
“It’s a higher end chocolate,” says Conway. “It could be considered the rarest chocolate in the world.”