A Peek into the Future

Sometimes we are struck with inexplicable hope, even as the wreckage of a tragedy still smolders in view. As disastrous as this past year has been for Hawaii’s economy and small business owners, I am filled with such hope this new year for the frontier of Hawaiian cacao and chocolate.

In 2020 it felt like all wheels had grinded to a halt. My goal of getting out into the cacao fields and shaking hands with as many farmers and chocolate makers as I could were dashed, and I worried that this pandemic might be the ruin of the local chocolate industry. But it isn’t. Slowly but surely everyone is adapting and staying busy. Global crisis or not, the cacao pods are still growing and the chocolate is flowing.

In mid December, with cases of Corona virus on Hawaiʻi Island stabilizing, I masked up and accepted Patrick Merritt’s invitation to come take a sneak peek at the cacao co-op nearly 4 years in the making, Cacao Farmers of Hawaii.

Patrick had warned me that the road to their new processing facility in the center of Hawaiian Acres could be rough in a few spots, but I was unconcerned. I had a general idea of what to expect.

As you travel towards the center of Hawaiian Acres and off of the main entrance roads, you’ll find mostly gravel with patches of pavement, if you’re lucky. Swerving along at 5-10 miles per hour on the path of least potholes is no trouble, assuming one’s car doesn’t have low clearance to the ground, and high bouts of rain haven’t created pools of muddy water of unknown depths in the natural dips in the road.

Forgive my cardinal sin of filming in portrait mode.

As one might imagine, these road conditions do discourage unnecessary traffic. And as a result, passage along them certainly feels, at times, more akin to driving into the wild on a safari than it does driving to a friend’s house, or processing facility in this instance.

When I arrived, I’ll admit, I was a little surprised. I knew the facility was going to be small, but in my head I hadn’t quite pictured a tiny little sliver of a room inside the carport of someone’s house. As I was walking up to the house, past the outdoor chicken enclosure, I seriously started to wonder if I was somehow in the wrong place. But then I saw the sign on the wall of the tiny room, and through its window could see Patrick with the property’s owner, Sean Tanksley, bent over a some sort of machine. I’d indeed arrived at my destination.

The machine, it turned out, was a type of chocolate melanger I was unfamiliar with, one that has a separate unit for the engine. Patrick was in the middle of tightening the belt when I arrived. He took a break from tinkering to give me a tour of the facility, and I will say its size is deceptive.

Patrick was demonstrating to me how the chain is just a little too slack.

The space outside the room in the carport had everything needed to process fermented and dried cacao beans into cleaned cacao nibs, including a large roaster for cacao beans, and something that has almost become a right of passage for local chocolate makers, a handmade winnower, usually constructed using either a leaf blower or converted vacuum cleaner.

This area will also feature a new sink designed to run off of county water that will be trucked into the site. Once it’s installed, the co-op will have everything needed to get certified as a commercial kitchen and begin commercial operation.

The room they make the chocolate in might have nary enough space for two people to pass each other, but this almost literal hole in wall is jam-packed with all of the equipment needed to turn cacao nibs into chocolate. In fact, it has a feature that even some established local chocolate makers don’t yet have; air conditioning. A fantastic tool, because as it turns out, the weather conditions that grow great cacao, warm tropical temperatures and high humidity and rainfall, are not ideal for chocolate making.

As we moved through the tour, I could see the excitement and pride in not only Patrick’s face, but Sean’s. Sean had met Patrick golfing and I recognized the “cacao bug” he’d been bitten by. I know it well myself. I suppose you’d have to have it to some degree of it to offer part of your house, for the very generous price of $50 rent, to be modified into a processing facility to help launch a co-op.

I’m not too surprised to see it though. I’ve witnessed how Patrick has a way of bringing people together during his time serving as president of the East Hawaii Cacao Association. He has a very calm, approachable enegry, a “let’s find a way to get it done” kind of attitude. Quick to crack a smile and joke, and open up about his own successes and failures in his various ventures, the effect it has is quite disarming, even on socially anxious people like myself. He’s a person who would unabashedly construe himself as unpolished in demeanor, while quite skillfully walking a tightrope of diplomacy between differing opinions in the local cacao community. Proficient at diffusing tensions and encouraging others in their ambitions, he makes a great natural leader.

And in reflection of his experience, it seems only natural to me that Patrick might be instrumental in helping to establish the Cacao Farmers of Hawaii. Although, Patrick was quick to point out that he couldn’t have done it alone. Chris Mayberry, who I didn’t get the pleasure of meeting with that day, in particular has been invaluable to the co-op’s establishment. Serving as secretary in his official capacity, he is also Patrick’s right hand man; both a computer guru, and most trusted confidant. Together they’ve put in 100’s of hours getting the nitty-gritty details of incorporation and bylaws settled. But this might have never have come to pass had someone else started a cacao co-op first.

During the tour Patrick admitted he never had the desire to help start a co-op. It was as he started growing cacao himself, and became more involved with the community through the East Hawaii Cacao Association, and his business Cacao Boyz, a cacao orchard maintenance and harvesting service, that he became acutely aware of how helpful one would be. But stated he’d much rather have just joined one.

But maybe it’s for the best that that wasn’t the case. Would another co-op have been as focused in making ease of use for farmers a guiding principle? I imagine Patrick’s influence as one of the founding members, had a fair amount of impact on the policy that the current $500 membership buy-in can be paid for in cacao, with the very fair pricing of $0.35 a pod. It’s that kind of flexibility that shows me they have their members’ best interests in mind, and is probably a large factor in how they’ve been able to acquire 11 members even before their official launch.

My little diagram of the basics of the Cacao Farmers of Hawaii’s business model.

Patrick explained that this time before the launch has been an incredibly productive one. In the short time they’d set up at the site (about two months), they’d learned a lot along the way and had produced hundreds of pounds of chocolate. Some lessons have been learned. Such as, for consistency, they’d like to have control over the chocolate processing from the point of fermenting the cacao beans and onward. He also mentioned a very costly ($1,500) blunder that involved accidentally mixing some over roasted cacao nibs into a large container of perfectly roasted cacao nibs, ruining all of them for chocolate making purposes.

In making so much chocolate they’ve been able to monitor their electricity useage/costs, and have been finding new ways to improve their efficiency and quality in crafting their chocolate. To quote the Beatles “It’s getting better all the time.”

They can’t sell any chocolate they make before their commercial kitchen becomes certified, but they can give samples to interested persons who are willing to give them feed back on it. If you’re such a person, dear reader, email Patrick Merritt at farfull444@gmail.com, to see how you can acquire your sample. This is a rare opportunity to have your feedback help a local chocolate maker fine tune their chocolate’s flavor profile. 

I was gifted three different samples to try. An early batch of chocolate in the form of a tempered, hand poured, bar; and a later batch of chocolate in the form of both a tempered bonbon shape, and completely untempered chunk. It should be noted that the bonbon shaped chocolate originally had a beautiful shine, which was spoiled by my unfortunate decision to store it with the untempered chocolate, which ended up coating its surface. After I rubbed off the layer of untempered chocolate dust, the bonbon’s surface became dull.

I had a lot of fun with the tasting experience, and each sample was so different from the other. It is with great anticipation I wait to see what kind of flavor the final chocolate bar will have.

Aside from the chocolate samples, I was also gifted a beautiful young cacao tree. Should I be able to tame the land on my property enough to plant this tree with a spacing of 12’ X 12’ before it perishes under my care, maybe it will be the start of my own cacao orchard. Hmmm, I should change my tone. Let’s be optimistic about this.

Sean’s cat approved of the cacao tree too.

WHEN I successfully plant an orchard, I’ll have the peace of mind that should I ever want to turn my small production into a little profit, there will be a co-op to help me do it, I won’t have to invest years of labor and thousands of dollars in equipment to start turning my cacao pods into chocolate.

Being a project in the making since March 2018, Patrick has found it incredibly rewarding to see all of the pieces needed for the co-op finally falling into place. This upcoming launch of the Cacao Farmers of Hawaii is a step towards a grand ambition; helping Hawai’i Island become “The Chocolate Island”, turning the growing market for Hawai’i Cacao and Chocolate into a booming industry and source of eco-tourism that benefits everyone. It’s an ambition I see shared among many of the local farmers and chocolate makers, and I’d love to see it become a reality.

As for Cacao Farmers of Hawaii’s place in that future, Patrick painted me a picture of the co-op scaling up as members and funding increase; their 20 lb capacity melanger being replaced with a 100 lb capacity melanger and getting three of them; an automatic tempering machine; their handmade winnower prototype evolving into a permanent one custom made with glass and metal; competing in and winning awards in chocolate competitions. All of theses additions and improvements over time culminating in a large processing facility, centrally located, designed with tours and educational community events in mind, desirable to farmers for its efficiency and ease of use, and making world renowned chocolate.

It’s a bold undertaking, but not an impossible one. As the Chinese proverb goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The successful launch of the Cacao Farmers of Hawai’i will be more like an enthusiastic leap and I’m rooting for them to stick the landing.

I plan to continue checking in with the co-op throughout the years to see their evolution. Perhaps one day I’ll have the pleasure to stand in their dream facility bustling with activity and visitors, and be able to recall this moment in time, standing on Sean’s carport in the cacao co-op’s humble beginnings, basking in the excitement of what’s to come.

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