Cacao farming on Oahu

While on Oahu, Richard and I visited two and a half farms growing cacao. Why the half? Let me explain…

The first farm we visited was Kahuku Farms, on the North Shore. Dr. Nat of Madre recommended we stop by here. Kahuku provides farm tours or, as they call them, smoothie tours. We rode around on a wheeled bench, pulled by a trailer through the rows of beautiful crops in the demonstration portion of the farm and received a delicious homemade smoothie made from the ingredients we had seen just moments before. Our tour guide is married to Kylie, a fourth generation Kahuku farmer and has taken on the education part of the business. We learned a lot about the history of the farm and their attempts to share such fresh and delicious vegetables with the local population. Hawaiian food traditionally includes a lot of meat, but the Kahuku food truck serves only vegetarian foods made from their farm’s produce. Surprisingly to the farming family (but not to us Californian hippies), it’s a huge hit!

Kahuku Farms

Kahuku Farms

By calling ahead and telling our tour guide about our chocolate interest, we were able to take a detour on the tour to visit the cacao plants. We even got to pull a pod off the tree and demonstrate (and eat) the pulp to the rest of our tour group. What a special experience! Learn more about Kahuku farms here.

cocoa pods

cocoa pods

Richard and a cocoa pod

Richard and a cocoa pod

Landen and an open cocoa pod

Landen and an open cocoa pod

raw cocoa bean

raw cocoa bean

Our next farm visit was to the Waialua Estate, a subsidiary of Dole. This is our “half farm,” since we visited their large factory but didn’t quite get out to the farmland. We were led on a brief tour of the process of making both chocolate and coffee. Waialua Estate also partners with Guittard, our neighbor in the Bay Area, throughout its chocolate-making process. Waialua Estate was the first place we saw another step of the chocolate process. These trays house cocoa beans as they are drying after fermentation.

Drying cocoa beans at Waialua Estate

Drying cocoa beans at Waialua Estate

Our final visit was the most authentic and intimate. Richard and I met up with Seneca Klassen of Lonohana: Hawaiian Estate Chocolate in Haleiwa on our last morning on Oahu. We jumped in his truck and drove up to his 14-acre farm in the hills above town. The sun was warm and the red dirt squished between my toes as we traipsed through his rows upon rows of cacao trees.

Lonohana - young cacao trees

Lonohana – young cacao trees

Seneca’s mission is clear:

Lonohana Estate Chocolate is located on the island of O‘ahu, Hawaii and is the result of two families’ dream to create a vertically integrated chocolate company here in the United States. By controlling the entire product cycle, starting with our own Hawaii-grown cacao all the way through crafting small batches of world-class chocolate bars in Honolulu, we hope to share where this beloved food comes from, how it is grown and made.

He is creating the first tree-to-bar chocolate operation in Hawaii. He spends many days on the farm, weeding, harvesting, planting shade trees or windbreaks, and keeping up his fledgling farm of cacao. The rest of his days are spent in his factory in Honolulu, where he manages all of the post-production – fermenting and drying – as well as the full bean-to-bar chocolate-making process that we do at home. His supply is so limited that he sells chocolate with a subscription method – sending out bars to subscribers at regular intervals like a CSA (Consumer-supported agriculture). His personal history is closely interwoven with the bean-to-bar movement in the San Francisco Bay Area, as he is one of the co-founders of Bittersweet Cafe in Oakland. Read more about Seneca, his family, and the Lonohana story here.

cacao pods and beans at Lonohana

cacao pods and beans at Lonohana

Seneca spent time to break open a few cacao pods to show us the differences among them, both in appearance and in flavor. His knowledge of the genetics and how they affect the future of the plant and therefore the beans and their eventual chocolate is incredible. He seemed grateful for the visit of some chocolate-makers looking for an education on the intricacies of farming. This is an angle many chocolate-makers never have the privilege to see. And we are extremely thankful for his openness and willingness to teach us about his work and learnings!

Cocoa bean quality

How do we know the quality of cocoa beans when they show up in one of those giant burlap bags? How can we tell they’ll be tasty once we’ve put them through the intensive processes that result in a chocolate bar?

We did some research and asked some friends, but we’re always learning, so don’t take this post as the be all end all of cocoa bean evaluation. The best way to learn to evaluate beans is to travel to cacao-producing countries and learn from the makers and farmers themselves.

In a nutshell, here’s what we’ve learned so far: it takes all the senses and some background research to determine high quality cocoa beans.

Let’s start with the basics… what are we looking for in a batch of cocoa beans?

  • Well fermented – not too much, not too little
  • Well preserved – as few bugs as possible
  • Well bred – good genetics (read more about genetics in this post)

This is all in addition to the circumstances on the farm where the beans came from, including working conditions, wages for farmers, pesticides, farming practices, etc.

The question is, then, how do we know the beans are good enough to import in larger quantities and potentially serve as the source of one of our chocolate bars? The process looks different depending on how big the chocolate-maker is. Check out this description by the ICCO about checking the quality of cocoa beans. Without a panel of tasters or any fancy instruments, here’s how we do it:

1. Look at the bean

Beans have a wide variety of appearances, depending on how they are processed at the farm. Here are some pictures of drastically different beans from our visit to John Nanci’s warehouse in Oregon. Can you tell the difference?

Jamaican beans

Jamaican beans

Papua New Guinea Beans

Papua New Guinea Beans

Side note: in Papua New Guinea (PNG), because the weather is so wet and humid, some farmers dry their beans in a smoker, leaving them with a smokey flavor that I’m pretty excited to taste! Check out what Dandelion did with some PNG beans here.

When looking at the beans, we’re looking for mold, if they appear to be washed, if they’re very dirty, if there are a lot of doubles or broken shells or buggy beans, etc. This is similar to what we look for when sorting beans. Our sample looks pretty good – nothing terrible stands out.

whole raw cocoa beans

whole raw cocoa beans

2. Taste the beans

Keeping in mind that these are raw beans and have been subjected to the messy process of fermentation, drying, shipping across borders, and could harbor some potential diseases… but we taste most raw beans anyway. As I’ve mentioned before, this is not my favorite part. Richard’s much better than I am at picking out the flavor notes in raw beans. However, we both picked up the same flavors here: a very mild start, slightly earthy or woodsy hints, and then very little bitterness on the back end. The good news? These beans are definitely not acidic or putrid. The bad news? They may result in a boring chocolate, since we didn’t sense any specific strong flavors.

We’ve heard that the taste in our mouth after we’ve finished a raw bean – in other words, the aftertaste – shows the flavor notes that could appear in a chocolate bar made from those beans. Try it out!

3. Perform a cut test

This is a particularly fancy part of checking bean quality and provides a numerical score to bean quality. High end bean-to-bar chocolate makers use what’s called a guillotine to slice at least 100 beans (typically 300) in half, lengthwise, thus opening up each one so the inside is visible. Given that I don’t own one of these expensive devices, I manually sliced 100 beans and laid them out on a cutting board.

cut test

cut test

Now, we’re looking for a few different results on the inside of these beans. This chart by the Cocoa and Coffee Industry Board of Trinidad and Tobago shows many of the potential options very clearly! The summary: we’re looking for a) fully fermented beans, b) slatey beans, c) partially slatey beans, d) purple beans, e) over-fermented beans, f) moldy beans, g) germinated beans, h) infested or insect-damaged beans, or i) flat or shriveled beans.

As far as I can tell, these are either all fully fermented or over-fermented. There were no slatey, partially slatey, purple, moldy, germinated, infested, or flat beans in this sample.

There are additional tests and measures to determine if cocoa beans will be good for high quality chocolate. That said, with our experience level, we’ll stick to these methods, but we’ll continue to share what we learn as we go!

So far, we’re doing pretty well with these particular beans! We’ll have to make them into some chocolate and see how they turn out!