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April 8, Thursday, 2021

Finally! A true adventure, meeting people in person again, in a place I’ve never been before. The Hawaiʻi Cacao Express is back, full steam ahead! And what an excursion to kick things back into gear. The visit to Honokaʻa Chocolate Co. would touch on quite a few topics I adore over the tour/tasting; including local history of the area, fine cacao, mechanical ingenuity, context on the modern cacao industry, “How To’s”, and their personal story.

With cases of Coronavirus being low on Hawaiʻi Island, combined with the precautions of Hawaiʻi businesses and the open aired nature of a farm tour, I felt confident for the first time in a long time setting out on a trip that comprised of more than just a supply run.

The weather on Friday, March 12th was wonderfully indecisive on the drive, like a partygoer trying on and throwing aside outfits searching for the most appropriate fit; flipping on quick bands of rain, bone dry patches of road baking in the sun, and grey stretches of overcast.

Coming into Hilo Bay I could see the remnants of the previous weeks’ deluge of rain; waves tinted olivine by the freshly churned muddy waters of the Wailuku River. But just a few miles up the Hamakua coast the ocean returned to its normal, vivid blue hue.

Once reaching Honoka’a, a short drive off of the highway, up a winding road framed by old growth trees, led me to my destination. The cacao trees were the first thing I noticed as I approached the property, but the very distinctive custom wooden sign reading “Kahi Ola Mau Farm” made it very easy for both myself, and the family of five visiting from Arizona who arrived before me, to feel confident we were in the right place for the tour. Mike Pollard greeted us and directed us where to park, and even under a mask, his sunny disposition that day shone through.

Kahi Ola Mau Farm, wooden sign

The weather seemed to settle on a comfortable overcast sky for the duration of our time there, and the slight spot of drizzle we had during the tour was welcomed by the family from Arizona, who seemed content to soak up every drop of moisture they could find. One can only assume the weather at home in Arizona had been dry and sweltering for some time. I’m not one to mind the clouds and rain, but their enthusiasm reminded me that, as inconvenient as it can be when it doesn’t seem to stop for weeks at a time, the plentiful rain on the east side of Hawaiʻi Island is something never to be taken for granted. And it certainly keeps the cacao trees happy.

As for the tour itself, we began by taking a moment to appreciate where we were, as Mike made sure to explain to us the name of the farm, “The place where life is perpetual or strong” and how it tied to the land. He felt it important to pay respect to the Hawaiian culture and help expose visitors to more than just the most common Hawaiian words such as “Aloha” and “Mahalo”.

I find this has value for longtime residents like myself, too. Unless someone has made the effort to study the Hawaiian language, it’s easy for a lot of the Hawaiian names of local places and organizations to pass one by as hollow memorizations without context.

Mike then moved on to how he personally came to be here on this land, which was a nice expansion of the “about us” section on the website. I kind of love the fact that Mike’s catalyst to going back to his roots, a 200 year old legacy in the making, was the simple act of having a desk job after moving to Hawaiʻi. After all, who among Hawaii’s residents hasn’t felt the pull of the land on a particularly gorgeous day. Some of us take the day off to go to the beach. Some of us go on an impromptu road trip. Mike and his wife Rhonda decided to start a farm. The land they chose for this endeavor has a century of history, and I’m glad that Mike and Rhonda are able to keep it alive.

The farm dates back to 1920, when the land came into the ownership of the doctor for the Honoka’a Sugar Company. The massive, roughly 100 year old avocado tree, planted in the heart of the property is still thriving and producing today. And despite the state of disrepair the property was in when they purchased it in 2013, Mike and Rhonda have retained much of the original plantation era building for their home.

100 year old Avocado tree

This avocado tree is bigger than it looks in this photo. It beckons you forward along the paved path into the center of the property to stand under the canopy of its high boughs.

The next owner after the doctor kept the land well, acquiring it in 1976, and is still a part of the community in Honoka’a, a regular character on main street. But when he sold the land in 2003 to an owner based on Oahu, that’s when the maintenance of the property declined.

10 years is a long time to let land lay relatively untouched in such a robust and lush environment. As a result, it took quite a lot of work just to clear enough wild overgrowth on the land before they were able to plant anything. The decision of what they would grow wouldn’t be determined until Rhonda returned home with a cacao pod in hand, inspired from attending the Big Island Chocolate Festival.

It should be noted that while there are several sections of cacao tree plantings on the 5 acre farm, even the oldest trees are not yet fully mature and ready for consistent harvesting and use in their chocolate. Currently Honokaʻa Chocolate Co. is sourcing its local cacao from other Hawaiʻi Island farmers.

But for the purposes of the tour, the orchards on the property serve as an excellent show and tell of a cacao farm’s ins and outs. Mike was an open book regarding exactly how he maintains his cacao trees and the reasoning behind his methods.

The highlights for me were:

  • His explanation of how he tackles bug infestations with a policy of monitoring “acceptable amounts of damage” so he doesn’t have to over treat his trees
  • The confirmation that the Queensland long horn beetle is not yet impacting cacao in the area.
  • Finding out that he’s planted one of the more promising cacao hybrid varieties created by the University of Hawaiʻi. I knew the University was working with farmers to identify cacao varieties, I just had no idea they had branched out into making new ones too.
  • His method of scratching pods about every two weeks to check for peak ripeness. I’ve heard different approaches to this in the past, and I wonder if Mike’s method is the new standard or if there’s still debate between farmers regarding the issue.

I noticed both the kids and the parents in the family were engaged with asking questions about the trees, and Mike seemed pretty practiced on tailoring his information to appeal to both demographics.

In fact, Mike was very skillful in general about how he broke up information during the tour and tasting, inter-splicing moments of looking at plants and equipment and tasting chocolate with really dense and varied topics, including context about the global chocolate industry with its dependance on slave labor, why mass produced chocolate tastes so different from artisan small batch chocolate, a brief history of cacao in Hawaiʻi and how it’s on the verge of a major boom in production, the nitty gritty details of his specific chocolate processing, what to keep in mind while tasting chocolate, and more.

The information you get on this tour is worth the $60 price alone, but the chocolate tasting that’s offered is not to be missed.

The set up for the tasting was a thoughtful experience all around, featuring outdoor but covered picnic benches set up with stations of complimentary hand sanitizing mist, water, and cacao tea; as well as visual examples of the sugar used in his processing, whole cacao beans, nibs, and cocoa butter. Mike even brought out themed coloring sheets for the kids that Rhonda had custom made, which as the parent of a young child I think is brilliant. (Yes, I did ask to take one home for my son. Mike gave me two.)

chocolate tasting, cacao tea, honoka'a chocolate co.

As for the tasting itself, what really makes the experience is Mike’s attention to terroir; the difference in environmental growing conditions that lead to distinct and complex flavor profiles, of cacao in this case.

We compared his 70% Hawaiʻi cacao chocolate bar with six of his international cacao chocolate bars, all sourced from different regions, but made using the exact same processing method and ratio of sugar as used in the Hawaiʻi bar. Removing all the variables you would get from sampling bars from different makers, this tasting is the best showcase I’ve ever seen (or rather tasted) for how diverse of a spectrum you can achieve in carefully crafted artisan chocolate.

As a side note, I inquired with Mike about where he sourced his international beans from. He said he sourced one directly, but the others he sourced from the trusted retailers https://chocolatealchemy.com/ and https://meridiancacao.com/.

Along with the 70% bars, we also sampled his Hawaiʻi cacao 85% bar, and the Hawaiʻi cacao Goat’s Milk bar. So the tasting was really comprised of two themes, differences in terroir featuring all different cacao, vs. differences in recipes with the same beans, going from very dark to lighter milk chocolate.

I will admit, not everything went smoothly during the tasting portion. I committed a faux pas while we were trying one of the internationally sourced bars, which I only realized in retrospect. One of the bars had a very strange lingering flavor for me. It took me awhile to figure out why. I must have sprayed my hands with the hand sanitizing mist too soon before trying the chocolate. It’s lavender scented, which in combination with the unfamiliar flavor profile of the chocolate, my confused brain interpreted as having a slight taste of dog hair. But even with my blunder, I found all of the chocolate bars deeply fascinating.

After the tasting, Mike guided us through his hand-built processing center. I was happy to see his attention in creating a separate space that’s climate controlled just for tempering his chocolate. And I always enjoy seeing each chocolate maker’s version of the standard machines of the trade: a crackenstein, melangers, a winnower, and a roaster.

It was the roaster that impressed me most, at first glance it seems like a regular kitchen oven hoisted up on a tabletop, on second glance I noticed the custom drum turned by a standard BBQ rotisserie. It turns out, this appliance was carefully modified by replicating the features Mike wanted in pre-made professional cacao roasters, that would have cost him one whopping pretty penny, some five digits long. His D.I.Y. roaster was a much more manageable expense at $1,500.

Mike’s so pleased with how his roaster works, that when he expands he plans to just duplicate the same machine rather than upgrading to a larger capacity roaster.

If I could have changed one thing about this part of the tour, it would have been to see the equipment in use. Everything was turned off; immaculate, but sterile and still. It was like we were examining the specimen of a great mechanical beast in captivity, and I found myself wishing we could glimpse what it’s like in the wild. Admittedly, it would be very hard to accomplish that without at least one person solely focused on the processing while Mike guides the tour and tasting.

But perhaps it won’t be long before that’s possible. Honoka’a Chocolate Co. has had a very good year despite the odds being against so many local businesses. It’s garnered a lot of interest of late, and sounds like it has big plans in the works. Including a destination shop in a renovated historical building in Honokaʻa town, collaborations for cacao-infused signature cocktails on Oahu, almost a doubling of their current chocolate processing capacity, lots of cacao orchard plantings, and integrating controlled grazing into their agriculture.

There are just so many reasons for me to keep an eye on how this company will evolve. Mike has proven to me he’s passionate and dedicated in making high quality chocolate, and I can’t wait to see and taste what he’ll do next, especially when his own trees are ready to harvest.

At the end of my time at Kahi Ola Mau Farm, I took a few things back with me as I boarded the imaginary train car of the Hawaiʻi Cacao Express (a.k.a. drove home in my van).

I took with me a sense of wonder that such a short tour could encompass most of the information it has taken me years to collect, delivered in a way that someone who’s completely new to the world of cacao and chocolate can easily understand. Mike’s knowledge and willingness to share was so in depth, I struggled to think of any additional questions to ask him. In short, I was impressed.

I carry with me still, a new found burning curiosity to find out more about the hints of local history mentioned on the tour. I want to fill in the vast gaps in my understanding of the traditions of the people who cared for this area of land during the long reign of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

I also want to know more about the people in the early 20th century who built the town of Honokaʻa, living on the outskirts of the Honokaʻa Sugar Company’s plantation, run by steam powered ships and tracks, and on hopeful immigrants’ hardworking backs.

Maybe a century or two down the line, someone will be studying this period in Hawaii’s history as the beginning of the cacao era. Will this industry, that Mike Pollard and so many others predict will explode for Hawaiʻi in coming years, also make its own unique mark on the future of Hawaii’s culture? I look forward to finding out.

The last thing I carried with me brings us back to corporeal here and now. Wonderful bars of chocolate. I’d come prepared with a cooler to safely transport the treasure trove.

As much as I enjoyed tasting the chocolate made from international beans, I found I most wanted to buy the bars made with Hawaiʻi cacao (85%, 70%, and Goat’s Milk), with the exception of one the international bars from Peru, whose unique flavor profile just struck chord with me. Its central, warm, cinnamon, graham cracker flavor I found I needed to taste just one more time.

Along with the tried and true treasured trio of locally sourced cacao chocolate bars, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try that same local cacao infused with alcohol in the form of their Rum Bar; it wasn’t part of the official tasting, but it was far too tempting to pass up. I was going to buy it even without a sample, but when Mike offered, I was more than happy to indulge. I was tickled pink at how much it amplified the banana-like notes in the chocolate for me. This is the second chocolate maker I’ve seen doing these alcohol-infused chocolate bars, and I hope it becomes a trend.

If you’re curious, this is what I taste in the 85%, 70%, and Goat’s Milk Bars for Honokaʻa Chocolate Co., that keeps me coming back for more.

85%:

I noticed creamy, avocado notes that melt into the wonderfully, unique flavor I love and have come to associate with finely roasted cacao nibs. It’s one of those flavors that is hard to describe if you haven’t had it. The closest thing that comes to mind is a cross between coffee, and the color purple. The lingering flavor of the chocolate has a nutty note that reminds me of walnuts.

70%:

By comparison to the 85% bar, the initial flavor is incredibly light and fruity; it’s something bright, like a subtly flavored lychee syrup. As it develops there are hints of sticky banana, and it ends with a warm, clean, nutty flavor, like almonds.

Goat’s Milk:

Right away this bar hits me with notes of sweet and tart raisins. It melts into creamy decadence, like a fantastic cup of hot chocolate, and ends on a prominent hint of goat cheese that to me is a subtle nod to the “Chocolate Cheese” I grew up eating as a special treat. It added an extra layer of nostalgic appreciation to an already fantastic chocolate.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, let me explain. “Chocolate cheese”, which has no chocolate in it, and some debate whether it qualifies as a proper cheese at all, is a soft, fudge-textured, light brown, block you slice. It’s from Norway, where it’s called Gjetost, and it’s made from boiled/caramelized, goat’s milk and whey.

While the soft, brown, cheese may be divisive based on one’s personal tastes, this Goat’s milk chocolate bar from Honokaʻa Chocolate Co. I can see having mass appeal for its nuanced flavor. It sounds strange, I know, especially if goat’s milk is not usually your cup of tea, but do yourself a favor and try this bar if you get the chance. It’s sure to delight.

If you’d like to book Honokaʻa Chocolate Co.’s tasting/tour, or order chocolate yourself, you can do so through their website here: https://honokaachocolateco.com/

Here are some other locations where Honoka’a Chocolate Co.’s products can be found:

  • Kona Wine Market (Kona)
  • Four Seasons Hualalai (Kona)
  • Four Seasons Lanai (Lanai)
  • Kukio Provisions Store (Kona)
  • Mauna Kea Resort Store (Puako)
  • Liquid Life (Waimea)
  • Healthways II (Waimea)
  • Honokaʻa Country Market (Honokaʻa)
  • The Locavore Store (Hilo)
  • Koana (Mountain View)
  • The Chocolate Dragon bittersweet cafe & bakery (Oakland, CA)

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