Songs Through the Radio Static

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Well, we’re at the beginning of December and I’ve finally found my spark again, thank goodness. The flame of my passion was starting to feel so smothered, that I wondered if it might be snuffed out completely. The isolation was starting to get to me. I was having a hard time finding the motivation to write with the weight of the world’s troubles and my own loneliness resting heavily on my heart.

More’s the pity that so many little tidbits of the Hawaiʻi cacao and chocolate scene had found their way to me, like uplifting songs peaking through the constant searching of radio static. I wish I’d written of them while the events were fresh. But better late than never, lest I forget them completely. Among them were:

  • Rumors of a virtual version of a Hilo Cacao and Chocolate Festival, perhaps as soon as February 2021. The prospect has giddy. I’m keeping an ear out for further confirmation as I pinch my pennies in anticipation.
  • A surprise chocolate drive-by. An East Hawaii Cacao Association board member recognized me as she was driving past, stopped, and shared her latest chocolate experiment with me, a local chocolate peanut butter cup. She wanted to make some further tweaks to the treat and I greatly look forward the final result. That little act of random kindness left me wrapped in a shawl of gratitude. (If you happen to read this, thank you again, Jahnavi.)
  • Progress on a co-op continues. A dream many years in the making is becoming more of a reality everyday. Despite much of the world coming to a standstill in the light of this pandemic, construction on a facility to support a cacao farmers co-op is coming along nicely. While it is still pending approval for a commercial kitchen, much of the groundwork is already in place and I can’t wait to take a tour when it’s done.
  • Finding out Halloween day that a local baker is using Hawaiʻi chocolate in his pastries. I hope he starts a trend. Knowing that the amazing chocolate-caramel-macnut mini pie with a hand piped marshmallow ghost on top was slave-labor free, made the pastry all the more enchanting to me. Side note: I’m pretty sure that’s not what he named the pastry, but my memory with names can be as flaky as one of his truly wonderful croissants. This baker, under the name Dulce The Art of Handmade Pastry, is often at the Hilo Coffee Mill’s Saturday farmer’s market in Mountain View.

But by far, the best of all these pleasant songs of chocolate and cacao finding their way to me through the monotony of relative isolation, happened way back in June, when I was able to have a virtual interview Ethan Swift, partner of Island Sharks Chocolate. I saw some of the company’s posts on Facebook promoting online chocolate tastings. While I hadn’t been able to attend them, I was incredibly curious how the switch to virtual experiences was treating them and if it might be an integral part of the Hawaiʻi cacao and chocolate industry moving forward.

The short answer, no, probably not.

During our interview I found out that while the online tastings had been heavily requested by some of their consumers, it quickly became evident to Ethan that the type of interpersonal connection that makes tastings and cacao ceremonies so meaningful, doesn’t translate gracefully to a virtual setting. However, setting up a store for online chocolate sales has been a lifeline to the company. I imagine many local businesses are in the same boat.

Most of our interview was less technical though. I was largely curious about how Ethan became involved with Hawaiʻi’s chocolate and cacao industry. Especially since when I’d first met him years ago I knew him as a musician who played some of Hilo’s small downtown venues.

Ethan had moved across the country, out on his own in 2007, not to Hawaiʻi at first, but to Portland, Oregon, with aspirations of both music and massage therapy. He recalls being impressed with a local Chocolatier shop he lived near by, but working in the chocolate industry was still far from his mind.

He told me he decided to move, sight unseen, to Hilo in 2011. When I asked why, he immediately said something along the lines of “To get away from the rain.” I burst out laughing as the rain fell in the background of our video chat. (Fun fact: According to Climate-Data.org* Hilo’s annual rainfall is around 135 inches.) He went on to say that at least when it rains in Hilo, the sun usually comes out afterwards.

In a more serious note, he admitted there were some other motivations for his move. On the positive end of the spectrum, he’d heard of the Hawaiʻian phrase “Hoʻoponopono” which he’d understood to be a form of meditation on forgiveness. He was intrigued and wanted to learn more.

But it wasn’t just positivity and sunnier skies that inspired his move. This May, the very public and unjust murder of George Floyd had many Americans re-evaluating the impacts of racism in their life, and upon reflection, Ethan realized a big underlying reason he moved to Hilo was a desire to escape some pretty blatant racism around him as a black man. Hilo offered some respite, though he found once moving here it wasn’t so much that he fit in, but that he stuck out less.

But he’d made it safely here, was playing music, and like me had fallen in love with Tom Sharkey’s chocolate, and the promise of Hawaiʻian cacao. It seemed simply to be the best chocolate heʻd ever tasted at the time. He started to delve into the chocolate world and work specifically in brand design for chocolate. One of the people he started working with was Tom Sharkey’s son, Erin Sharkey. (They currently still work together as partners of Island Sharks Chocolate.)

When he later got a debilitating back injury and was forced to stop playing music, it just further shifted his interest into not only fine chocolate making, but into the mindful and spiritual consumption of cacao. It was a big change in perspective, deciding chocolate and cacao’s role in his life was “not about getting chocolate wasted all the time.”

He also traveled and met chocolate makers and cacao growers from around the world, where it came as a shock to learn that Hawaiʻi’s cacao was not simply the best as he previously thought. But he saw the potential for it to be, with a little more adjustment to developing the beans’ natural flavor profiles. He admitted his company’s chocolate bars are not the best in the world…yet. But his company is constantly fine tuning their process in hopes that one day they will be. Ethan says the motivation to elevate Hawaiʻi chocolate is the reason his company also offers one bar not made from local cacao, but ethically sourced beans from Tanzania that impressed him. He wants people to compare the two differently sourced bars for inspiration.

On top of his quest to make the best bar, Ethan is also passionate about removing slavery from chocolate production. He’s helping to found a non profit to help combat the issue. He referred me to their website (https://www.ponococoa.org/). It looks like the organization is still pending approval for their non-profit tax status. So far the organization’s focus seems to be getting a seal of ethical production labeling on as many eligible cacao products as possible to help consumers shop mindfully. I hope to see this organization blossom and make far-reaching positive impacts.

On the local side of things, I asked Ethan what he thought the biggest challenge for Hawaiʻi’s cacao and chocolate industry might be. He said he’s concerned about some local chocolate companies who have the goal of bringing down the price of the Hawaii cacao beans. I agree with the sentiment. It would be devastating to farmers who are not pulling a big profit to begin with. We’ve got to pay our farmers well if we want them to develop the best beans possible. Not only for the sake of our chocolate, but for our tea as well. Which, it turns out is Ethan’s current favorite way to consume cacao; a “ Hot water extraction with the whole bean” to be exact. Which on these cooler nights is sounding progressively wonderful as we head into Hawaiʻi’s version of Winter.

Ethan also referred me to his blog where he reviews chocolate from around the world, https://hawaiichocolatereview.com/. Perhaps due to my lack of technical savvy, it took me a minute to navigate the site and find where the link to the reviews were (You click the “Hawaiʻi Chocolate Reviews” button. I’m embarrassed I didn’t try to click that link first). I enjoyed reading a local maker’s glimpse into the global chocolate bar scene. The last posts are dated 2018. Probably because securing fine international chocolate to review requires international travel. Hopefully new posts are on the horizon in the after-times of this pandemic.

I got to do a little reviewing of my own in late July, tasting the bars Ethan helped create. I’d ordered 5 bars from Island Sharks Chocolate. A small tragedy struck when the order got lost in the mail. I was disheartened, but the company turned my frown upside down. Unknown to me when I requested a refund, the company had already sent another order to me with a bonus bar of their latest experiment, which I could have on top of the refund. (This in no way impacted my review of their chocolate bars.) When the order did arrive, man was I impressed!

I started with their 72% Hawaiʻian cacao bar. I was dying to know how their bar would compare with Tom Sharkey’s bar knowing the cacao was sourced from the same farms. Would this be a case of different wrapping, same product? No! I was blown away, the two bars were different beasts completely. Somehow Island Sharks Chocolate had managed to develop in their chocolate an evolution of flavors that reminded me of Wonka’s three course dinner gum, except I didn’t turn into a giant blueberry at the end.

Even the smell was different, like rich honey, which was astounding since the bar doesn’t have any honey in it, just cacao and sugar. The experience of eating this bar, from the packaging to the product itself felt very intentionally crafted. It reminded me of when I saw a Shakespeare play performed at the local university comprised of the three actors in black suits with only a hand full of props. It had been a demonstration about how a good show didn’t have to be dependent on lots of extra trappings. A simple and well executed performance is sometimes more compelling.

I also tried the 100% bar, which though it is intended for use in ceremonies, I enjoyed just as it was. I do regret that I never tried to drink it as recommended on the label. Instead I nibbled at it with the fervor of a mischievous child sneaking cookies from a cookie jar.

Next was the bar with cacao sourced from Tanzania. I had to try it after hearing why Ethan specifically wanted his company to offer this bar. As I shared it with my household, it became a great demonstration that “good” is relative when it comes to flavors. My Mom, who normally isn’t drawn to darker chocolates, immediately picked up on the tart cherry notes and was smitten. My dad, whose motto with chocolate falls more in line with “the darker the better”, wasn’t expecting the different flavor profile and outright rejected it. In my own experience with the bar, I felt a little bit of both. When the flavor first hit my palate, my tongue almost tried to retreat from it, but a few seconds later that tart cherry note started singing for me. With each successive bite, the fore flavor I found disagreeable became less and less noticeable, and the flavors I enjoyed in it became more addictive.

The 71% sea salt bar, while delicious, had a hard act to follow with the 72% Hawaiʻian cacao bar. I love some salt with my chocolate normally, but in this bar it felt a bit like it was stealing the spotlight from the cacao’s amazing performance of shifting flavors. Had I tried this bar first though, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

Eating their vegan vanilla white chocolate bar was a fascinating ride. It was so light that it felt like it dissolved the second it touched my tongue. It is by far the most unique white chocolate I’ve had, to date.

The last bar, which I was very lucky to get to try, is not currently available for sale on their website, it was an experimental Hawaiʻian cacao bar with Laphroaig 10-year whiskey. The whiskey definitely was a prominent flavor, with the cacao serving as more of a support flavor in this bar, but they worked so well together that I didn’t mind. It packed a delectable, almost smoky punch. I only wish I could have bought more.

If you would like to try Island Sharks Chocolate bars, here’s where you can find them:

As COVID-19 cases spike across the country, I know my train car won’t really get moving for a good while. I’ll just keep building up steam here, keeping the engine warm, searching for and sharing more songs through the radio static, until the day the Hawaii Cacao Express can really put its wheels in motion again.

*https://en.climate-data.org/north-america/united-states-of-america/hawaii/hilo-110/

Old radio image by Przemysław Krzak from Pixabay

Rainbow in the rain image by Kevinsphotos from Pixabay

Update 12/9/2020:

It has come to my attention that Dulce The Art of Handmade Pastry, at the Hilo Coffee Mill’s Saturday farmer’s market, doesn’t always use Hawaii chocolate in his pastries. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’m a bit disappointed, but I will still greatly enjoy his non-chocolate pastries.

In good news, I discovered that Abundant Life Natural Foods in downtown Hilo is also a vendor of Island Sharks Chocolate bars.

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