Chocolate, like cheese and bread, was something I didn’t understand until I left Hawai‘i and ate a real chocolate bar in France. Until then, chocolate meant fun-size Snickers bars after dinner, Hershey’s kisses on Halloween and maybe, if we were getting fancy, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts from the crinkly Hawaiian Host box.

And this is too bad, I’m told by Nat Bletter and Dave Elliot, founders of Madre Chocolate in Kailua, because Hawai‘i might be one of the best places in the world to make chocolate.

“We have this really diverse climate within Hawai‘i,” Dave explains, “really distinct valleys … that’s very similar to the best growing region in the world for cacao: … Venezuela [which] has a lot of valleys just like that. Each valley is known for having very distinctive cacao.”

I’m standing around a table with Nat and Dave in their shop in Kailua, feeling a little giddy and almost queasy. Nat’s been feeding me samples of seemingly endless different chocolate bars for the last half hour to make a point: Chocolate, like coffee or wine, is about the delight of subtle variety.

Connoisseurship without coattails

Madre is all about highlighting the regional, or even micro-regional, differences in chocolate grown locally on small farms on the windward side of O‘ahu and the Big Island, or brought in (fair trade) from small growers in Latin America. Nat explains the concept of terroir—the unique taste that is imbued by the precise conditions in which cacao is grown.

“We can do that because we’re small … whereas a big chocolate company, all of their customers are demanding consistency. So they have to erase all the differences … they’re going to roast it very heavy and process it for a long time to make it all homogenous,” says Nat. In contrast, Madre processes very lightly, and matches its chocolate with local and regional flavors like ginger, coconut, pink peppercorn, earl grey and cardamom.

According to Dave, chocolate has never taken off in Hawai‘i because of a lack of processing facilities and a concurrent lack of interest in growing cacao. But now, he claims, there’s a growing market for what Madre’s got: a small-scale connoisseur appeal, mixed with a DIY ethos and a healthy dose of agri-tourism. (Madre offers a 3-hour bean-to-bar chocolate-making class once a month and organizes tours of local farms that grow cacao.)

“There’s this chocolate revolution happening right now in the U.S., kind of like the microbrewing revolution that happened about 25 years ago. Go into your grocery store … and look at the beer section and see how much of the shelves are dedicated to microbrew. The same thing is happening now with chocolate,” says Dave.

Of course, microbrewing feeds off the general DIY spirit that seems to have gotten a foothold in the popular consciousness of late, and I see that here. There’s an easy-going vibe. They joke about the time Dave fermented a batch of cacao beans at home in a kegerator. There are neighborhood friends in the shop with us, hanging out, sampling chocolate, asking questions. Although Madre strives to make world-class chocolate, and won, for example, a silver medal for flavored dark chocolate in the 2012 international chocolate awards, Nat and Dave seem just as enthusiastic about teaching others as they are about refining their craft.

Closing the loop

There are some downsides to making chocolate in Hawai‘i. For one, it’s the North Pole of cacao—the coldest place in the world where cacao is grown. This gives the cacao a higher cocoa-butter content, creating a creamier, milder flavor, which is nice. But it also causes problems with the post-harvest bean fermentation process, which gets stalled and can go awry during relatively frigid Hawaiian nights. Plus, to temper chocolate, you need less than 50 percent humidity, which can only be created artificially in Hawai‘i.

Partially for these reasons, Nat tells me, cacao growing and fermentation usually happen in very hot regions of the third world. Then the beans are shipped to rather cold places in the first world to be turned into chocolate bars.

“The cacao grower never sees it or tastes it, so they have no idea … [how their growing and fermenting practices affected flavor],” says Nat. He argues that although chocolate makers try to take all the credit, it’s the cacao farmers who are most responsible for the flavor of the cacao, and thus the chocolate.

“The great thing about making chocolate where the cacao grows in Hawai‘i is that we can close the loop of chocolate making with the cacao farmer,” says Nat. “We’ve been doing that. We’ve been working pretty closely with four or five different chocolate growers around Hawai‘i, trading ideas about fermentation.”

For example, Madre has been working closely with a grower in Hāwī to produce its criollo bar. It’s 70 percent dark chocolate with nutty amaretto flavors, and comes from a bean that was bred to be mild. Initially, this bean ran into problems with fermentation. But Madre worked with the farmer to get it right, and the result has been a high-selling dark chocolate bar that tastes almost like milk chocolate. It’s known at Madre as “the gateway chocolate” because it might just have the power to convert milk-chocolate lovers to the dark side.


From growers to rock stars

“We’re trying to turn windward O‘ahu into the Napa Valley of cacao,” says Nat, “so you could hop from one place to the next and taste the differences between each farm’s cacao and each chocolate maker’s chocolate.”

It’s tempting to call this particular ambition a boast, or yet another thinly veiled tourism scheme, but as ethno botanists who’ve spent time in Latin America, Nat and Dave seem sincerely concerned with helping small farmers make gains financially as well as in terms of prestige and acclaim.

“We’re trying to turn the cacao farmers into celebrities, rock stars,” says Nat.

Dave explains that during his time working in the Amazon, he saw “really humble communities [growing] the best chocolate in the world … growing a crop that’s really high quality, but they’re poor.” This made him want to highlight the contributions of cacao growers, whether they’re in the Amazon or Waiāhole.

“We’re looking to support organic growers and people who have respect for the ‘āina, and make cacao part of a sustainable future for Hawai‘i where it can support agricultural families and livelihoods,” says Dave.

One wonders though, if the cacao industry in Hawai‘i has already missed its chance. For example, Madre roasts its cacao beans in a shared facility in Kalihi; there is no large infrastructure for cacao processing. And even if there was, wouldn’t cacao follow the path of sugar and pineapple; that is, isn’t it just cheaper to grow cacao elsewhere?

“The cool thing about cacao is it’s a knowledge-based crop,” says Dave. What he means is that, as with wine, there is so much knowledge needed to grow, ferment and process cacao into chocolate that you can’t outsource and expect the same quality product.

“We can really develop an advantage here. We’re never going to compete with Hershey’s based on price, but we can make the best chocolate in the world by bringing together these great local farmers, chocolate makers, researchers at UH … almost like a tech industry,” says Dave.

And it might be necessary to do this, not only for Hawai‘i but for the future of chocolate. Nat and Dave tell me that there aren’t a lot of young cacao farmers and, globally, land used for cacao is being infringed upon to grow bioenergy crops like palm oil. “[There is] plenty of cacao in the world, but the amount of really fine aromatic cacao is constantly reducing as the old guys pass away … that’s something we want to change,” says Dave.

Connecting to mother chocolate

Madre’s name means “mother chocolate,” and it represents one final goal for the team, which is to reconnect people with the roots of chocolate. So in addition to Madre’s Kokoleka line, which is made entirely from local cacao, there’s also the Xocolatl line—made from organic, fair-trade, Latin American cacao.

“We realized that in the U.S. you couldn’t really get any chocolate made from Mexican cacao. That’s like saying you couldn’t get tea from China. … It just didn’t make any sense. We wanted to reintroduce people to their chocolate,” says Nat.

This can be difficult, because Mexico, where chocolate was invented, mostly grows and ferments cacao for drinks. Nat and Dave have made several trips to Mexico, trying to find and convince Mexican growers to use a process better suited for making chocolate bars.

As we talk, Nat checks in with Dave about whether a Mexican grower he’s been talking to recently is ready to “do some more fermentado,” which is the technique that leads to chocolate bars.

He is, replies Dave. And I’m glad.