Chocoholics that we are, we were super excited to learn about a chocolate farm tour on Kaua’i. Hawai’i is the only state in the US where cacao is grown, and very few growers of cacao process it into chocolate.

One place that does the whole cycle from bean to bar is Garden Island Chocolate, a sustainably-run fruit farm and small-batch, artisinal chocolate producer.

Before our farm tour, we fortified ourselves with macadamia pancakes with coconut syrup at a place that celebrated one of the island’s most notorious denizens: the chicken.

diner-chickens

In fact, the pancakes were so good that we went back and had them again a couple days later.

pancakes

We knew the chocolate tour was going to be good when, first thing after arriving, we were presented with a plate of homemade truffles to sample.

truffles

At Garden Island Chocolate, they grow cacao right there on the farm and also source beans from other cacao growers around the island. Cacao trees need lots of protection from the wind, so they are often grown alongside banana and plantain trees. Banana leaves also help to ferment the cacao beans, a key step in turning the bitter beans into tasty chocolate.

bananas

Cacao pods turn all sorts of fun shades of yellow and red as they ripen, but even when ripe, they have to be carefully cut from the tree to avoid damaging the pod and the tree’s ability to grow new pods.

harvesting-cacao

When you open it up, the cacao pod contains a white, semi-gelatinous cob of beans encased in pulpy fruit.

cacao-pod

The texture of the pulp is a little odd, slimy and jelly-like, but also fibrous. When you pop one of the pods in your mouth, you get a tropical fruit taste as you suck on it, but you can’t chew through the white pulp at all. The cacao bean sits in the middle of this fruity pulp, and at this point it’s bitter and tastes absolutely nothing like chocolate.

How do we get tasty chocolate from this weird fruit?

Chocolate, like so many good things in life, is a fermented food. The cacao pods are stripped from the cob, laid out in a layer, covered in banana leaves, and fermented. There’s a white, almost powdery film on the underside of the banana leaves containing a yeast and other microorganisms that aid in the fermentation process.

fermented-dried-beans

After fermentation, the pulp starts to disappear and the beans are dried. Now they start to look more like what we know as cocoa beans.

We tasted two varietals of cocoa beans: criollo and trinitario. The criollo beans were from the Garden Island Chocolate farm and were an heirloom variety. They were fruity and also fairly bitter and didn’t taste all that much like chocolate. The trinitario beans were grown on the big island and tasted darker and more like chocolate.

When these cocoa beans are crunched up into little pieces, which you can do just by rubbing one in your hand, they break apart into cocoa nibs, the final state before being processed into chocolate bars.

Speaking of chocolate bars, we tasted a few of those at the end of the tour. And by a few, we mean close to 20.

We started with flavored chocolates. All were made right there at Garden Island Chocolate, and many of the flavorings came from the farm as well.

We had chocolate bars flavored with:
Banana
Coconut curry
Mole
Ginger
Macnut coconut (that’s macadamia coconut for all you mainlanders)
Cayenne and chipotle (with a spicy kick)
Orange with cacao nibs
Chinese five spice
Hemp seed and mint

…and more that we can’t even recall in our post-chocolate-binge haze.

There was a little break from the chocolate bars before diving into the next round of tasting. And apparently on the chocolate farm, a “break from the chocolate tasting” meant drinking some hot chocolate. Yeah, it’s a rough life.

They made the hot chocolate right there on the terrace with a big chunk of chocolate, hot water to melt it, ground allspice berries, cinnamon, coconut milk, and even some of the fresh coconut meat from a coconut we’d cracked open earlier in the tour. It was tasty stuff.

chocolate-bars

After the hot chocolate, we tasted a variety of bars that were straight chocolate, with no additional flavorings. There were bars made from just criollo beans, bars that blended criollo, trinitario and other varietals, bars made with palm sugar, bars with 90 percent chocolate and very little sugar, a bar from a single source—a neighbor’s farm, and a bar that had been aged for five years. There was a surprising amount of flavor variation among these bars, especially given that most of the beans were grown on Kaua’i. But even the slightest changes in soil, wind, temperature, and processing can impact the chocolate’s flavor.

We probably had more chocolate over the course of the tasting than either of us had ever had in one sitting. We left sated and happy and proceeded to lie on the couch for the next few hours contemplating the yumminess and our full bellies. And, y’know, brought home a couple bars to remember the good times.