Maui Ku‘ia Estate: a Lahaina Cacao Farm and Hawai‘i’s Largest Chocolate Factory
Buy Maui grown and made chocolate online, and sign up for chocolate tastings, virtual and at the Lahaina tasting room.
Cacao harvest at Maui Ku‘ia Estate
Photos: Martha Cheng
Gunars Valkirs invented the first rapid visual pregnancy test and holds more than 30 U.S. patents—and for the past seven years, he has been growing and making chocolate on Maui. “I’m a scientist and inventor,” Valkirs says. “What I like about chocolate is it’s creative. But it also has a lot of scientific method applied to it. Not just in the field and the farm, but also in the factory. It’s very technical—you need to run experiments to optimize.”
Five years ago, Dylan Butterbaugh of Mānoa Chocolate told me that Valkirs would shape the future of Hawai‘i chocolate. At the time, Valkirs was only two years into planting his cacao farm on the slopes above Lahaina, in the Ku‘ia ahupua‘a, which lends its name to Valkirs’ chocolate company: Maui Ku‘ia Estate. It would be a few more years before Valkirs could even harvest his first cacao pods to make chocolate, and few more on top of that before he would build the largest chocolate factory in Hawai‘i and sell his first bar of chocolate.
But he seemed to be onto something big. Money wasn’t a restriction: A biotech entrepreneur, Valkirs had sold his company for $1.7 billion in 2007, and he didn’t plan on making any money off the chocolate—all profits would be donated to Maui charities.
As for the chocolate itself, “the more I started making chocolate, the more I saw the analogies with wine making, except with cacao, it’s totally unevolved,” Valkirs told me back in 2015. “It’s dominated by commodity producers and they don’t care about quality very much. It’s like taking all the red wine grapes grown, throwing them in one field, harvesting it and throwing it all together. That’s the way chocolate is now.
“The ultimate goal is to make single varietal chocolates,” as well as estate blends, by thoughtfully combining varietals, much like a Bordeaux blend. He and Dan O’Doherty, vice president of farm and factory operations for Maui Ku‘ia as well as a global cacao consultant, planted 50 cacao varietals over 20 acres. “This first 20 acres is really sort of test planting to determine which of these varietals are highly productive in this region and make great tasting chocolate,” says Valkirs. Valkirs and O’Doherty made and tasted chocolate from individual trees and selected varietals that grew well: “Look at this miserable bastard,” said O’Doherty when I visited the farm two years ago, as he held up a drooping branch in disgust. “That’s just a trait of the tree, it’s just a weeping willow. No matter how much I prune it, it degrades into this horrible disarray. You could have the best flavor and the prettiest pods, but if it’s a junk shape, it’s a deal breaker.”
In November 2019, six years after Valkirs started his cacao farm, Maui Ku‘ia Estate finally debuted its chocolate to the public, and right now, you can get it shipped to your door. Valkirs doesn’t yet have enough cacao in production to produce a single varietal chocolate, so at the moment, it’s a blend of varietals—but all of the cacao for the Maui chocolate is grown on Maui Ku‘ia’s farm. Similar to other Hawai‘i-grown chocolate, it tastes fruity and bright, like summer’s juicy cherries. Maui Ku‘ia also offers a 78% cacao made with beans from Costa Esmeraldas farm in Ecuador, which tastes nutty and fudgy—the most “chocolatey” of all of Maui Ku‘ia’s offerings. Also intriguing is the dark chocolate made with wild cacao O’Doherty harvested deep in the Amazon jungle, accessible only by canoe. O’Doherty thinks he’s the first to harvest and make chocolate out of it, and his first bars tasted of caramel and, weirdly, dried blueberries. Those notes are missing in the current batch for sale, but here’s hoping the next batch delivers some of the cacao’s unique flavors.
For now, the Maui and wild Amazon chocolate is only available in gift boxes of 5-gram tablets ($18 to $26 for 18 pieces)—Valkirs’ original goal was to have 1million people taste the chocolate in a year and was pushing out the amenity-sized chocolates to resorts and restaurants. More than 500,000 chocolates were given to guests before the pandemic shut down tourism. So now, business has moved online (with larger bars coming soon) and you can register for virtual chocolate tasting events on Zoom with Valkirs or O’Doherty. Maui Ku‘ia also holds in-person tastings in the shaded, open-air pavilion above the factory in Lahaina.
78 Ulupono St., Suite 1, Lahaina, Maui, mauichocolate.com