National Chocolate Day: Visiting a Hawaii Cacao Farm
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
I did promise to mix up our literary talk with bits of chocolate and tea, so here we go. For those in the US, today is National Chocolate Day, and although every day feels like National Chocolate Day in my house, I still think it's something worth celebrating.
In addition to literary tourism, I'm also a fan of chocolate tourism. I love to scope out chocolate factories, tours, shops, and experiences anywhere I go. Until recently, I'd seen just about every step in the chocolate-making process except the growing and processing of the cacao itself.
So, I remedied this a couple of weeks ago with a beautiful and informative two-hour tour of a local cacao farm, 21 Degrees Estate, located on the windward side of Oahu in Kaneohe. And while I fancied I knew a lot about chocolate before I came, I still managed to learn a ton.
First of all, why the name 21 Degrees? Cacao is best grown in the regions 20 degrees north and south of the equator. It's abundantly grown in Western Africa, which produces about 70% of the world's chocolate. Ecuador, Indonesia, and Brazil also grow substantial amounts, primarily sold to big chocolate companies like Mars, Nestle, and Ferrero (if you want to learn more about the worker conditions and human rights issues in the "big chocolate" supply chain, check out this excellent article from the LA Times).
The islands of Hawai'i lie approximately at the 21 degree north latitude, technically just outside the 20 degree mark, but farmers here still manage to grow cacao, and delicious cacao at that. Its location makes it the only state in the US that can do so. Still, land in Hawaii isn't cheap, so cacao growers here typically operate small farms that contribute a relatively minuscule amount of cacao globally.
But what Hawaii cacao growers lack in quantity, they certainly make up for in quality, specializing in high quality bars that are locally manufactured.
If you've never tried a single origin chocolate bar (most chocolate bars are made from mixing cacao sourced from all over to maintain a relatively consistent flavor), you might not realize how different chocolate tastes depending not only on what state or country it's grown in, not only the specific farm it's grown on, but even on the time of year and climate conditions of the specific farm it's grown on. That was something I truly came to appreciate on this tour.
The 21 Degrees Estate tour first took us on a guided walkthrough of the cacao grove. I'd never realized the variety of cacao trees and how many different colors the pods can be, from yellow to green to red to deep purple.
The tour guides explained how the pods need to be picked at exactly the right time, and if you pick too early or too late, you're out of luck. Split open, you can see that the inside is filled with the seeds (which will become chocolate) surrounded by a white, sticky pulp. Eaten raw, the outer pulp is quite sweet, while the hard, purple bean is very bitter and earthy-tasting (plenty of people on the tour decided to spit this out after giving it a taste).
The beans have to undergo a process of fermentation and drying before they start to take on that delicious chocolate taste. After weeks of fermentation and drying, the cacao is ready to go to a chocolate maker, who roasts and processes the beans into what you'd recognize at the store: chocolate bars, chocolate chips, and the like.
Our tour of the estate concluded with what we'd all been waiting for... the chocolate tasting! Guided by one of the farm owners, who's also a Chocolate Sommelier (yes, that's a thing!) we tasted seven different chocolate bars all made from the cacao grown on their farm. The difference in textures, mouth feel, and flavor just between different seasons of cacao harvests were remarkable (and delicious)!
Of course, I couldn't leave without raiding the gift shop to buy some of my favorite bars in larger quantity.
Tips for visiting
Interested in visiting "the most charming cacao farm in America?" 2-hour tours, including a chocolate tasting, are available every Tuesday at 2 pm and Saturday at 10:30 am. Tours fill up fast, so try to book at least two weeks in advance.
Tours and tastings cost $45 per adult, $20 for 13-18 year-olds, $10 for ages 6-12, and free for 5 and under (military and kama'aina discounts available).
I recommend bringing sunscreen and/or a hat, bug spray, and water (if the heat doesn't get you thirsty, the chocolate will!). The gift shop accepts cash or credit card.
The tour is kid-friendly. Kids are able to pet and feed the farm's goats, visit the chickens and bees, and wander around the farm a bit (though they are not supposed to touch the cacao trees!).
In addition to tours, the Estate hosts special events throughout the year, including goat yoga and farm-to-table dinners. If you're local, you can also sign up to volunteer on cacao harvest days.
Just want to buy the chocolate?
The sad truth of the chocolate industry is that it's rife with human rights issues, including child labor and impoverishment of farmers. If you can't make it to Hawaii in the near future but just want to taste some delicious chocolate grown and manufactured ethically from bean to bar, you can shop at Manoa Chocolate Factory's online store. They partner with Hawaii growers (and some growers in other countries) to produce delicious, ethical chocolate.
They even just released a "Flavors of Hawaii" package: Check it out here. Why not order a bundle and have your own chocolate tasting with friends or family? (But if you decide to keep the bundle to yourself, I certainly won't tell).
Happy National Chocolate Day! Is visiting a cacao farm on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments.
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