Tuesday | April 21, 2015
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Hot chocolate

With the demand for Hawaii-grown cacao on the rise worldwide, chocolatiers and growers near and far say the crop will play a major role in Hawaii’s future.

“It’s really the crop of the future for Hawaii,” said Farsheed S. Bonakdar, president of the Kona Cacao Association. “I see that very, very clearly and more and more people are getting into growing now.”

Island-grown cacao could be on its way to becoming the next Kona coffee, offering farmers the opportunity to produce a product not only in high demand, but capable of netting a high price, he said. Island-grown cacao nets approximately $2 per wet bean pound, which is the stage before beans are fermented, dried and roasted.

“If we can create that for cacao, hopefully, we will be in good shape,” Bonakdar said, also noting that the association would have to protect Hawaii-grown chocolate to ensure that a mixed product containing beans from others areas of the world is not sold as Hawaii-grown.

“That’s something that we have to learn from our past experiences, especially the Kona coffee thing,” he said. “Hopefully, we start clean, do our research, and will be able to have a brand that we can market.”

Bonakdar said he has received calls from mainland chocolate producers seeking the high-demand Hawaii-grown beans, as well as support from master chocolatier Jacques Torres, who visited the island last year.

“There’s a huge demand — even Jacques Torres came and saw the beans and said we have really something great going on here,” he said. “If we can get farmers to be consistently good and produce really good crops then we do have something that everyone is going to want.”

About a dozen people turned out for a presentation on creating a successful cacao farm during the annual Big Island Chocolate Festival on Friday at The Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii. The presentation was made by Bonakdar and Hamakua cacao grower Scott Greer, of Mahilani Partners, after the originally scheduled presenter was unable to make it.

Friday also featured a demonstration by Honolulu-based Madre Chocolate on making a chocolate bar from bean to the final product that was attended by just about a dozen people.

Participants learned from the company’s co-founder and chocolate “flavormeister” Nat Bletter about the entire process from winnowing, or removing the paper-like coating, to grinding the cacao and preparing a tasty chocolate bar. Each of the attendees also formed their own chocolate bar with the option to add chipotle chili powder, cacao nibs, allspice or cinnamon.

Currently there are about 25 to 30 farmers producing cacao on Hawaii Island, said Bonakdar, though noting that without a well-established association it is hard to estimate the exact number. The Kona Cacao Association, he said, is seeking members who are interested in growing cacao.

A survey of cacao growers early this year by University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources’ Cacao Extension specialist H.C. Bittenbender received responses from 26 growers statewide, with 15 of those hailing from the Big Island.

Bittenbender’s survey found in 2012 farmers had planted about 46 acres statewide, but planned by the end of 2013 to increase acreage to 62 and by 2018 the acreage to 113 acres statewide.

According to Bittenbender’s data, the farms produced in dry bean about 30,500 pounds. Hawaii County accounted for about 2,800 pounds of the production.

Bonakdar did not have exact statistics on him regarding production and acreage, however, he said that because the survey did not include all farms, but rather only those that responded, the production level is higher.

Cacao grows best between 600 and 800 feet elevation, though it can be grown between 300 and 1,200 feet, Bonakdar and Greer said. It prefers an area that receives about 60 inches of rain annually, unless irrigation is used.

Among the challenges faced producing cacao, Greer said, are pests, particularly the Japanese rose beetle. To mitigate that, he said, growers could plant a crop the bug enjoys more, or simply use plastic tree guards to wrap around the plant until it reaches about 3 feet tall.

“It protects the tree from bugs. It gives it its own little greenhouse out in the field,” Greer said.

Cacao, which comes in several varieties, is also a prolific plant that rarely provides the grower more than a two-month hiatus between harvests, Greer said. In addition, very little goes to waste including the actual pod, which can be composted or dried and used as a serving dish, Greer and Bonakdar said.

For more information on the Kona Cacao Association, visit the website, which is still under construction, at www.konacacaoassociation.com. More information can also be obtained through the Big Island Chocolate Festival website at bigislandchocolatefestival.com.