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!

Advice from Experts

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with two true chocolate experts. The first was Chloe Doutre-Roussel, author of The Chocolate Connoisseur: For Everyone With a Passion for Chocolate. We sat at Dandelion in San Francisco, where she was doing a book signing on her way up to the Northwest Chocolate Festival last weekend.

I felt honored to spend some time talking to Chloe about her vast experience with chocolate. I sat down with a Mission hot chocolate from Dandelion and when the chocolate-making staff at Dandelion joined us, I felt totally surrounded by experts. I had the opportunity to show them my bean to bar activities at home, and we discussed roasting and winnowing issues.

Landen and Chloe Doutre-Roussel

The second expert was Tad Van Leer. I’ll go into detail about my conversation with Mr. Van Leer – I learned a lot! Mr. Van Leer grew up and worked in his family’s chocolate manufacturing company, Van Leer Chocolate, until selling to Barry Callebaut in 1999, and more recently worked as General Manager of J. Emanuel Chocolatier, in Chester, NJ. His Van Leer chocolate was named the top chocolate in the world in a blind taste test at Chez Panisse in 1995 by Cook’s Illustrated also our cocoa powder was the top choice by Cook’s in 1999, and was the chocolate provider for the White House from Carter to Clinton’s presidency.

I also happened to go to high school with Mr. Van Leer’s daughter, Liz. So, it was an honor to be able to reconnect and discuss his background and recommendations in the world of chocolate. And some of what we discussed melded well with some of the lessons I’ve previously learned and other parts were entirely new and different! There is a wide range of advice out there as far as how to make chocolate, and we’re open to learning it all!

Let’s go through the chocolate-making process and I’ll highlight the new and different bits from my conversation with Mr. Van Leer.

Beans

Mr. Van Leer recommends getting cocoa beans from Ghana. He loves the Accra beans; they have “the cleanest flavor” and ferment better than anywhere else. Ghana beans also have the best yield, have more cocoa butter, and have the truest “chocolate flavor”. They are also the beans that went into the chocolate that won Van Leer Chocolate all its awards. Previously we had heard that most of the best bean genetics (Criollo) are in Latin America. Now we’re looking forward to expanding our bean sourcing horizon! He suggests that everyone develop their own taste rather than taking the advice of others.

Winnowing

Using screens to filter the nibs and husks could improve the speed and quality of the winnowing process. Using screens after cracking allows the nibs to go through the screen while keeping the shell above. One can then easily “blow” the shells away. Using a series of smaller screens mimics a true winnower, and will give you the cleanest nibs.

Roasting

Rather than our intensive kill step at 400 degrees, then dropping to 250 degrees, Mr. Van Leer recommends a completely new way of roasting (two step process): one to pop the shells, and again after winnowing and cracking the beans, never taking the temperature above 212 F. This allows for a more even roast with more of a consistent sized nib. Cocoa beans are of varied size- roasting them as whole beans over roasts small beans and under roasts larger ones. He suggests roasting with steam in a drum, something we haven’t heard before and are curious to try. Some of the roasting devices used by other bean-to-bar makers look like engineering feats out of Star Wars, particularly Art Pollard’s creation at Amano Artisan Chocolate. I encourage anyone interested in this to check out the documentary, Bean to Bar, which can be viewed on IndieFlix. If you roast in an oven ensure that the nibs are even on the pan. Coffee drum roasters also work well.

Refining

Mr. Van Leer’s refining recommendations were the most different from our previous advice. He suggests using a mill only to make the chocolate liquor. From there, the best refiner for uniform particle size is the three roll refiner. We’ve seen these before – Ritual Chocolate uses one, and goes into more detail on it here. Mr. Van Leer recommends a particle size of less than 25 microns, and encourages us to refine sugar to small particle size as well! He suggests refining the chocolate liquor and the sugar together. This makes for more uniform mass and also improves the conching flavor. Using a three roll refiner allows more fat release from the bean which makes the mass flow better, reducing the viscosity.

Conching

Another idea is to remove the chocolate from the Premier Wonder Grinder for further conching in a Kitchen Aid mixer, placed on a heating pad at about 145 F for 12 hours. At the moment, we’re conching directly in the grinder, so this could provide an alternative method! We learned that “cheap” chocolate is conched in a grinder- you usually get a less consistent flavor and the particle sizes are not uniform. He suggests tasting a cheap Easter Bunny from CVS or Walmart as an example.

Tempering

Tempering seems to be a point of agreement (besides the exact temperatures) among chocolate-makers. Mr. Van Leer recommends starting the chocolate liquor at 105, then cooling rapidly to 85 degrees, then heating it back to 90-92 F. He suggests a microwave at power level 3 (for about a pound of chocolate) and stirring often. His recommended test is not paper or a knife, but rather to pour it into a small flat mold and see if it shrinks with no discoloration. If that works, then the chocolate has been tempered appropriately.

Molds

Finally, Mr. Van Leer suggests using polycarbonate molds, found online at many sites including TomricMicelli, and Chef Rubber among others. At the moment, we’re using some polypropelene and some silicone molds – neither are amazing, so we’re definitely open to alternatives.

This was quite an educational conversation and we’re excited to stay in touch as we build out our recipes and process further! Let us know if there are additional chocolate experts you’d like to hear from, and we’ll try to get in touch to share their knowledge as well!

What do genetics have to do with it?

There are a lot of factors working together to create fine flavor chocolate. We have learned that the very DNA of the cocoa beans is one of those factors. In an attempt to educate myself on the chocolate industry, I’m reading the amazingly interesting, important, and thorough book, Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate, by Pam Williams and Jim Eber. The book covers four essential parts of the chocolate production process: the genetics, the farmers, customer education, and finally the art of the Chocolatier.

I certainly do not purport to know as much as the experienced authors on this matter, but I am eager to bring the concept of genetics to the lay people in this picture, particularly the consumers of chocolate.

Let’s do a quick refresher on the definition of genetics in the first place. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, genetics is a branch of biology that deals with the heredity and variation of organisms. In other words, genes are the root of the wide diversity of life on our planet. And they are passed down through generations.

In the case of Theobroma cacao, the tree that means “food of the gods ” in Latin, and produces cocoa pods that house the cocoa beans that give way to chocolate as we know it, there is a wide variation within the species. However, a few factors are contributing to a homogenization of the genetics. First of all, the tree’s tendency to be promiscuous (pollinate with any other Theobroma cacao in the vicinity regardless of genetic similarity) dilutes the gene pool by melding the DNA of various phenotypes (physical expressions of genetic combinations) into one plant, and even one cocoa pod. Because of this trait, cocoa beans can have drastically different genetics even within the same cocoa pod!

Secondly, certain variations of the tree are particularly prone to disease, especially the traditional classification, Criollo. I’ll go into that more in another post.

Finally, decades of increasing demand has spurred farmers and chocolate manufacturers to experiment with genetically modified versions of Theobroma cacao that are more resistant to disease and produce larger and heartier cocoa pods. In other words, these variations are now able to survive many of the threats facing Theobroma cacao, which is good news, but they are also not bred for their flavor.

Still, Theobroma cacao has traditionally been separated into two classifications: Criollo, known for its fine flavor and Latin American roots, and Forestero, considered of lower flavor value and traditionally found in Africa. A third type, Trinitario, named for where it was genetically crossbred between Criollo and Forestero in Trinidad & Tobago, is often included in the list of traditional classifications.

However, there is much debate as to the true division of classifications of cocoa. The International Cacao Germplasm Database genotyped 1,241 samples and proposed a “new classification of cacao germplasm into 10 major clusters, or groups: Marañón, Curaray, Crillo, Iquitos, Nanay, Contamana, Amelonado, Purús, Nacional, and Guiana.” Meanwhile, C-Spot, an incredible resource on chocolate, identifies 9 primary strains of cacao, in addition to a myriad of cultivar strains. C-Spot also describes the flavor implications of each of the 9 primary strains, ranging from the earthen flavor of Amazon to acidic “strawberries and cream” of Criollo.

“Why do we care?” you may ask. Yes, the genetics of the tree contributes to the flavor of the eventual chocolate. And yes, there is something to be said for preserving biodiversity, as the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative intends to do. But the bottom line of why I care is because the origin of my food matters to me. Similar to the local food movement and the organic food movement, tracking the unadulterated genetics of cacao is an exercise is purity, sustainability, and an effort to return to a simpler time.

Why do you care about the genetics of your food? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.