Botanical Bonanza

Saturday, July 3, 2021

On Saturday, June 19th, I had the great pleasure of making the next stop on the Hawaiʻi Cacao Express at Hamakua Chocolate Farm, owned and operated by Dan Corson and Berndt Stugger. Berndt was unfortunately off-island visiting family, so I didn’t get to meet him, but Dan did an excellent job as a tour guide despite Berndt’s absence.

It was a wonderful, heart soaring adventure that almost didn’t come to pass. Due to the hazards of the property, it was expressly stated that no children are allowed. I had planned for my father to watch my two year old during the excursion, but misfortune struck days before, resulting in him getting a serious back injury that has left him mostly incapacitated while healing. 

My mother was healing herself from a planned medical procedure on her heart, which left me more than a little nervous, wondering if I should cancel my plans. Luckily, the night before, she convinced me that she was far enough along in recovery that she could manage watching my son for a few hours, especially if he was strapped in the car for a nice, long, leisurely drive.

She is my knight in shinning armor, and I dedicate this entry to her, for making that day possible. 

To say I enjoyed myself would be a gross understatement. From start to finish; cacao and chocolate demonstration, treehouse botanical wonderland, and chocolate tasting buffet; it was a simply rejuvenating experience that tickled both the flavor snob and inner child in me.

To start, as I made my way up the unmarked gravel road to the blue house on the hill and joined the group on the covered patio, I really began to see how Dan’s eye for design, particularly in terms of his career in public sculpture, shaped how they developed this property. I was immediately put at ease in the stylish and roomy space that captures both the breeze and the view.

Hamakua Chocolate Farm, patio view, cacao farm

It didn’t start and stop with the building. I felt that artist’s touch of intention throughout the day; in the choice of their company name that acknowledges the serendipitous divine meanings of cacao and the coastline, an architectural flourish in the tree house railing, a planting that was meant to resemble lava flowing down the side of the hill, and a custom chocolate bar mold styled with a topographical map of the property.

The art wasn’t the only aspect that was interwoven throughout the tour. I would be hard pressed to try and detail the day strictly by chronological order of events, because everything blended into each other.

For example we didn’t just have a chocolate tasting at the end of the tour. Dan started us off with a very generous sample of their 75% chocolate in a volcano cone shape, and as we made our way around the property Dan had us stop, feel, taste, and smell, the botanical bounty around us whenever appropriate.

I attribute any day spent learning a cacao grower’s and chocolate maker’s story, in the dappled light of a cacao orchard’s canopy, with trees bedecked in flowers, as we review facts about the plant and its cultivation, while eating a freshly picked pod, a little slice of heaven.

  • Dan Corson, Hamakua Chocolate Farm, cacao orchard tour
  • Hamakua Chocolate Farm, cacao flowers
  • Dan Corson, Hamakua Chocolate Farm, cacao pod

It warmed my heart, but was unsurprising to hear that Dan and Berndt’s journey into starting a cacao farm began in Tom Sharkey’s coffee shop where they first saw cacao pods here in Hawaiʻi. 

What did surprise me was the way they discovered the property needed an electric fence and that it took three attempts to establish the orchard we were standing in.

Their orchard has many different varieties of cacao that all cross pollinate with each other, resulting not only in a wide variety of colors on the flowers and outsides of the pods, but also on occasion causing multiple colors of beans in the pods themselves. In their experience, they haven’t found that the genetics of the pods effect their chocolate’s final flavor profile as much as the processing does.

I really admired how he didn’t shy away from talking about their recent bought of black pod rot in the past year, what conditions caused it, and what measures they’re taking to combat it, including some grafting efforts with more resistant varieties of trees. Their orchard is currently the picture of perfect health, so I never would have imagined anything would’ve been affecting their trees so recently.

Hamakua Chocolate Farm, grafted cacao tree
An example of one of their grafted trees

Beyond the orchard, lay the Iʻo Hale, the treehouse named after the Hawaiian hawk that would visit the area. The whole group was eager to explore it, and with only a fleeting moment of restraint I joyfully bounced with each step along the plank of the suspension bridge towards our destination.

We didn’t linger in the tree house long, but it was a nice point of relaxation as we chatted among the boughs. It made me yearn to rent out one of the rooms Dan and Berndt offer on the property through AirBnB, so I might dedicate a good stretch of time tucked among the branches with a cup of tea and a book.

Down onward along the sloping path to the green house we had the opportunity to swing from some hardy banyan roots. I didn’t resist the temptation and in one fell motion was quickly reminded by my body that I have some muscles that I haven’t used in a while. 

I loved seeing the patch of wild cacao trees; their experiment to see what will happen when cacao is allowed to grow without intervention. They were beautiful, tall specimens that I imagine would be a nightmare to attempt harvesting.

In the greenhouse Dan showed us the fermenting box and drying racks and explained their methods. The space was much larger than the current use demanded, due to it nearing the end of the harvesting season. 

Later, during the chocolate tasting, Dan revealed that they will subtly adjust their cacao processing from batch to batch with the final flavor profile of the chocolate bar they want to make in mind. This made me really wish I had thought to ask more about that process in detail. It’s an approach I hadn’t heard before from local chocolate makers, and I applaud the artistry it must involve.

As we explored the rest of the property to the river and back, I was struck over and over by the beauty all around. The spice trees in particular were a highlight for me. And Dan’s enthusiasm while sharing it all with us, even having laminated posters for further details on some of the plants he wanted to highlight, made it all the more delightful. 

It is no wonder that during the tasting we got to try so many interesting inclusion bars on top of their straight dark chocolate bars of varying strengths. Being surrounded by so many spice, fruit, and decorative trees from around the world must be a constant source of inspiration.

Hamakua Chocolate Farm, chocolate bars

And that, to me, is where Dan and Berndt really shine as chocolate makers, as experimental flavor wizards. I wasn’t alone in my envy upon hearing they had done an experiment distilling the cacao juice they produce into a brandy, which produced so little it was not available for sampling or purchasing. Dan mentioned it had surprisingly chocolatey notes despite the fact that cacao fruit and juice tastes nothing like chocolate. 

But Dan was more than generous with the flavors that were available for sampling on top of the chocolate, providing us with roasted beans, prepared cacao tea (and a bag to take home), and precious cacao juice. I couldn’t help but cringe when one of the younger women promptly dumped her cup of cacao juice after hearing that an unfortunate technical name for it is mucilage.

After Dan gave a demonstration of their roasting and winnowing process, as well as pointed out the wall of batteries that helps power the off-grid property, we got to look in on their beautifully designed chocolate kitchen. We remained outside so we could continue to go mask-free if we wished under current COVID-19 restrictions in Hawaiʻi, while Dan pointed out the different machinery and brought out as much as he could to show us their processing up close.

Two pieces of their kitchen equipment had me envious; the continuous tempering machine, which can be used to stream perfectly tempered chocolate directly into the molds, and the dental vibrator, which removes air bubbles from the filled molds. If you’ve ever had to pour a batch of tempered chocolate into molds using a catsup bottle and hand tap out all of the bubbles before the chocolate starts to set, you understand why.

When I heard Dan say they set their chocolate in the fridge, I was under the misconception that it was because the kitchen lacked climate control. I was happy when Dan corrected me, informing me that the space is air conditioned, not only keeping the chocolate cool but lowering the humidity, so that the difference isn’t that great when transferring the filled molds from the room into their refrigerator with its low setting. This result of which is a fine chocolate, that I really would have loved to have featured in one of my next Chocolate Trunks.

Alas, I believe they’re operating under Hawaii’s Cottage Food laws, which only allows them to sell to customers directly. A farm exclusive, you’ll not find their scrumptious chocolate anywhere online or in stores. As such, I bought as many bars as my wallet would allow before I left.

Below is my unscripted, quick-while-my-son’s-taking-a-nap video review of my favorite bars I bought that day. I mention in the video I’d been waiting weeks to eat them, but I realized after it’s only been a week and a half at the most. Time slows when I’m waiting for the perfect moment to eat chocolate. (Edit: The video is having issues. Hopefully I can get it working in the next couple of days.) (Edit 7/7: There’s something still wonky with the video feature, I can’t seem to delete the first video window that failed to upload properly, but the review is visible in the second video window now)

In conclusion, I highly recommend this tour, I love the combinations of flavors with their chocolate, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on them to see what they make next. Hamakua Chocolate is not the most convenient locally made chocolate to find, but they’re certainly a stop you don’t want to miss. 

You can find them online at: 

Website: hamakuachocolate.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HamakuaChocolate/

Instagram: @hamakuadan

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