Seneca Klassen clips a green-yellow pod from a tree, cracks it against the trunk and dislodges half the husk before tossing it aside.

He notes the silk-white pulp covering the beans inside, its taste changing from row to row or depending on the tree’s provenance. It’s fresh, sometimes effervescent or mellow, and a stark contrast to the richness of Lonohana Estate Chocolate‘s final product. But the difference in raw flavor will translate to the bar.

Klassen is among a growing cadre of cacao enthusiasts making niche enterprises with this classically commodified crop, using Hawaii-grown cacao in an emerging industry for artisanal, high-cocoa content chocolate. Hawaii presents a unique opportunity for those wanting to use cacao — given its history of commodifying sugarcane, copra and coffee — as they can go from bean to bar within the state’s borders.

But it’s not all sweet in Hawaii’s nascent cacao industry, as the cost of growing and producing cacao requires heavy investment of time and money.

Lonohana Estate Chocolate founder Seneca Klassen stands with the canopy of his orchard of Cacao trees.
Lonohana Estate Chocolate founder Seneca Klassen stands under the canopy of his orchard of cacao trees. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Klassen’s 6,000 tropical evergreens are parceled by comparatively towering koa, milo, neem and mahogany, to shelter them from the winds off coastal Haleiwa and the sun. The floor is carpeted with decaying leaves — natural weed control and a habitat for cacao’s pollinators.

“You feel the humidity is higher in here,” Klassen said, noting the day’s gusts. “The wind is still — there’s no breeze.”

Shelter is crucial on Klassen’s plot, a lesson learned after about 1,000 of his trees died eight years ago. Heavy winds and a lack of shelter tore through his first block of trees, leaving them susceptible to a disease that killed them all within three months.

“Now I’m slowly getting back to the area, now that I’m more confident,” he said.

‘Suitcase Exports’

Cacao is typically grown within a climatic belt cinched 20 degrees on either side of the equator, and is grown most in countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Indonesia and Nigeria, though it is cultivated throughout West Africa, South America and the Pacific.

The current wave of interest in cacao in Hawaii really started to grow in the late 1990s, according to Skip Bittenbender, a former extension specialist at University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Bittenbender is considered one of the pioneers of the still budding industry. Specializing in beverage crops — cacao, kava and coffee, among others — he focused on cacao towards the end of his career three years ago.

Being able to grow and process in Hawaii because of its well developed infrastructure, unlike many other cacao-growing places, meant it could elevate to the status of Hawaiian coffee.

Lonohana Estate Chocolate founder Seneca Klassen holds a Cacao flower that is pollinated and turns into the Cacao pod.
Lonohana Estate Chocolate founder Seneca Klassen holds a cacao flower, pollinated by tiny chocolate midges. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“We call these suitcase exports because the tourist pays for the shipping,” Bittenbender said. “This was part of the logic of moving into cacao.”

Cacao remains new to Hawaii as a successful commercial concept, though it has been in Hawaii for at least 190 years. Businesses have tried and failed to establish in-state plantations before.

“The history of cacao is littered with multinational failures. Hershey was involved here, Mars was involved at one point, Nestle wanted to be involved,” Bittenbender said.

Original Hawaiian Chocolate, in Kona, was the first to prove bean-to-bar was possible, in 2000, while Dole’s Waialua Estate was proved managing largers orchards was possible. It remains the largest cacao orchard in Hawaii at 80 acres.  Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Waialua Estate Chocolate was the first bean-to-bar operation in Hawaii. 

“It did start out with some big ideas,” Bittenbender added. “Since then it’s been small farmers — some with jobs already, some getting into retirement and having a significant amount of capital to put into it.”

A High Percentage Of Enthusiasts

John and Susan Bassett, engineers from Colorado, started Mauna Kea Cacao in 2011 by planting trees during their twice annual vacations.

The couple has now transitioned to live and work on the Big Island full-time, with 1,800 trees on their Pepeekeo plot.

Cacao beans drying at Kualoa Ranch on Oahu. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

Mauna Kea Cacao was among five selected to represent Hawaii at the International Cocoa of Excellence Programme in France in 2019 and 2021.  It also recently started supplying cacao to two-Michelin-starred Providence Restaurant, in Los Angeles.

The success of Hawaiian cacao is its flavor profile, lack of bitterness and astringency, according to Susan Bassett.

“A high percentage of cocoa does not necessarily tell you how intense the flavor will be,” she said. “It really depends on the cacao beans that were used to make that product.”

Commodity To Specialty

The whole chocolate industry has historically worked on a premise of balancing flavors and beans to maintain the status quo, according to Cacao Services owner and consultant Dan O’Doherty.

“The whole definition of a commodity is that it’s interchangeable. The market does not penalize bad quality or reward good quality — the price is the same,” he said.

O’Doherty, who is also Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate’s vice president of operations, works as a cacao consultant, brokering between artisanal chocolatiers and growers across the world to create fairer trade standards. He has also been employed by several Hawaiian cacao businesses and farmers to help, salvage and advise their businesses.

Lonohana Estate Chocolate Cacao orchard with some Cacao pods.
Cacao trees decide on their yields depending on the nutrients available to them, prioritizing certain fruits and killing off others. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Hawaii’s cacao system will never compete internationally as a commodity, due to the volume needed versus cost of the final product, he said. According to O’Doherty, the going rate for one kilogram of cacao is $5 to $10, but Hawaiian cacao could be double.

And, according to the 2020 Hawaii Cacao Survey, just short of 133 acres were harvested in 2019 with a total yield of 32.8 tons of dry beans. The voluntary survey is not entirely comprehensive but its findings represented a just over 70% increase in dry bean production since 2014.

Given that the state has likely no more than 250 acres of trees — the size of some individual farms internationally — available to get the state to a level where it could compete on a global scale, there would have to be more expert investment, maintenance and research, according to O’Doherty.

“I like to say we’re the Jamaican bobsled team of chocolate.” — William Lydgate, Hawaii Chocolate & Cacao Association President

But Mauna Kea is looking towards technology to improve productivity on its 20 acres, to increase the amount of data available to help inform more farmers about the practice of growing cacao.

It was an investment no matter what, despite there being a low barrier of entry.

Hawaii’s emerging cacao and chocolate business is tailored to a niche industry focused on high quality, distinct flavors. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2021

“It takes about four to five years for trees to produce pods, so there’s certainly a delay there in terms of revenue,” Susan Bassett said. “You have to be prepared for that.”

O’Doherty said that is why several growers in Hawaii are able to grow cacao, because they have less to lose as hobbyists, retirees or people with alternative incomes.

“(They’re) what they call gentlemen farmers. Most of them are retirees who are independently wealthy enough to move to Hawaii with no intention of making money off it,” O’Doherty said.

Showing Off Hawaii

The key to successful cacao businesses is something called vertical integration, industry insiders say. Not just bean-to-bar or adding fruit or nuts or pineapple, but a more complex and cooperative system of chocolate makers and cacao growers.

For Klassen’s Lonohana Estate, 70% of his cacao comes from his farm while the remainder comes from two cacao growers in Hawaii, from operations like Mauna Kea. Many chocolate makers follow similar models, keeping products entirely produced in Hawaii, but not just from their own farms.

William Lydgate, who owns Lydgate Farms on Kauai, encourages those interested in farming cacao to get involved, to be part of a larger ecosystem of farmers that can sell to larger outfits who process their product into chocolate.

Lonohana Estate Chocolate founder Seneca Klassen holds an opened Cacao pod.
The cacao pod’s hull is thick and its fruit is sweet, but the beans are what is turned into chocolate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Agrotourism also plays an integral role in the success of Hawaii’s cacao producers, as Lonohana, Maui Ku’ia and Mauna Kea provide tours and tastings.

“Without those tours, we don’t have gift shop sales either,” Lydgate said. Tours of his Kauai farm are often sold-out and accounted for somewhere between 20% and 40% of his revenue prior to the pandemic.

Education was central to the tours because of that. While Americans might know the qualitative difference between wines, cheeses and beers, chocolate remained a lesser known area, he said.

The craft industry represents less than 5% of the total chocolate industry, according to the Fine Chocolate Industry Association.

“People don’t yet know that there’s more than Halloween candy when it comes to chocolate,” Lydgate said.

Because of Hawaii’s unique product and reputation for quality, tours were not the only hope for cacao chocolate operations, he said.

Lydgate, who’s also president of the Hawaii Chocolate & Cacao Association, which has represented the industry since 2012 and has approximately 70 members, believes the integration method, agrotourism and cooperation between farmers is the future of the industry.

“We want to sell directly to the visitor,” Lydgate said. “If you can sell them the experience as well, it’s that much better for the aina.”

Moving Forward

Hawaii’s challenges and opportunities make for an interesting confluence of considerations for farmers: The cost of business, expensive land and inputs and shipping among them.

“I think in some ways, discount agriculture is not the future here. Why even try to do that? Napa Valley doesn’t try to discount wine. We need to be quality,” Lydgate said.

So while Hawaiian Halloween chocolate is out of the question, the state can present a novelty within a niche industry, one that has already yielded international recognition for its quality.

“I like to say we’re the Jamaican bobsled team of chocolate,” Lydgate said.

Small Cacao plants at Lonohana Estate Chocolate Cacao orchard located near Haleiwa.
Twenty varieties are being trialed by Oahu Resource Conservation and Development and USDA in Hawaii across several farms, to see which variety produces best under what conditions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

At Lonohana Farm Chocolate Estate, Klassen is planning for the future.

His 1,000-tree failure has recently been replaced by 200 young cacao plants of 20 different varieties as part of a statewide USDA trial to find more productive varieties of cacao.

In increments, pioneer trees are planted to shoot up and provide cover for the cacao, and he is working on his production and business to account for an increase in production.

But Klassen says he realizes it is a risk for people who hope to make a viable business out of it, especially if they do not have agricultural backgrounds like him at the beginning.

“It’s not the most sensible move and requires a level of risk,” Klassen said. “We need crazy people. We wouldn’t have a wine industry in California if we didn’t have similar people.”

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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