Early on the morning of July 15th, I headed to downtown Hilo, right as the Hawaiian Crown Plantation and Chocolate Factory was beginning to open. Tom Menezes was setting up a batch of cacao beans to roast in the outdoor seating area on the side of the building, and it was then, with the intoxicating brownie-like smell of roasting beans permeating the air, that I had the great pleasure to talk with Tom about his story.
I had heard other local cacao growers and chocolate makers mention how Tom was one of the first people making tree to bar chocolate in Hawaiʻi. But I was amazed to hear his experience in Hawaiʻi cacao extends much father back than the creation of the Hawaiian Crown company, which got its official start in 2006.
His start goes back about 40 years, to an experiment between the major chocolate company, Hershey, and some local organizations by the names of Puna Sugar and Hawaiian Vintage.
I’d heard whispers of Hershey’s Hawaiʻi cacao project from the 1980’s somewhere in the Keaʻau region, largely because the abandoned fields had been supposedly harvested in secret by those who were looking for free cacao seeds to start trees. The latest rumors say that the fields are no more, having been finally cleared out in recent years.
Back when the project was just starting Tom went to go check it out, and told me what a privilege it was to work with experts in cacao from around the world when he was brought onto the project as the farm manager. While ultimately Hershey pulled out of the project and decided to continue sourcing their cacao outside of the U.S., Tom says it was during that project that he proved commercial cacao production in Hawaiʻi was possible.
Not giving up on cacao’s potential in Hawaiʻi, Tom started growing it on his own farm and took courses in European style chocolate manufacturing. At first he just produced the beans for sale, but eventually after about two years of trial and error, he started making chocolate he was proud to start selling.
He says around six years ago his daughter helped him set up his shop in downtown Hilo. And while currently his daughter lives in Oregon, in her absence he has found a dedicated team of workers helping him both in the shop and on his farm tours. I hope to take a farm tour myself one day soon.
The shop itself is not just a chocolate retail outlet and place to order a refreshing drink; it’s the actual chocolate factory, as the name implies. Clearly visible behind the counter is Hawaiian Crown’s chocolate manufacturing equipment, which will most likely be in action making the next batches of chocolate before your eyes at the time of your visit.
The fruit of all this labor is a hearty variety of products including: beans, nibs, tea, truffles, dipped cookies, and a proper rainbow of chocolate bars.
I asked Tom what his current favorite chocolate product is, and he told he how excited he was to be working with ʻulu, also known as bread fruit, in his chocolate dipped shortbread cookie, in the form of ʻulu flour. Tom’s a member of the local breadfruit co-op by the name of the Hawaiʻi ʻUlu Cooperative, so it was probably only a matter of time before he started finding delicious ways to combine the two nutritionally dense foods of cacao and ʻulu.
Tom also mentioned he was very excited to start making cocoa butter and powder. He’s still waiting for the machine to arrive, a US manufactured oil press made from german steel, but once it does he’ll be able to move away from using imported cocoa butter for making things like white chocolate. I share in his enthusiasm, and not just because he’ll probably sell the cocoa powder in his shop giving me a local option to use in my kitchen. I love seeing local chocolate makers using as many locally grown ingredients as possible.
Beyond expanding his factory equipment, Tom mentioned he’s looking to forge more relationships with local cacao growers who might be willing to supply him as a chocolate manufacturer.
I had a sizable budget on this trip to the Hawaiian Crown Hilo shop, so while I couldn’t indulge in everything they had to offer, I came back with quite the haul that took me several weeks to finish.
The truffles were wonderful. Of the two I tried, the dark chocolate coconut truffle ultimately stole my heart, which will come as no surprise to anyone who read my rave review of Puna Chocolate Co.’s coconut clusters, in which I divulged my love of the candy bar, mounds. The fact that these coconut truffles are bite sized, and a part of the regular selection is alone enough to keep me coming back to Hawaiian Crown’s Hilo store.
The coffee in the chocolate turtles was a beautiful crunchy combination, and the shortbread cookie, while being a little chewier than I was expecting, was both satisfying and filling, almost a meal unto itself. I’m seriously considering taking one along on my next road trip, but I’d need to buy it the day of. Otherwise I might be tempted to eat it at home with a warm cup of tea, while sitting on my couch.
I won’t bore you with a solitary review of each of the eleven chocolate bars I tried, but here are some aspects worth mentioning:
The mould of Hawaiian Crown’s 1.5 ounce chocolate bars features inset, beautifully detailed cacao pods, but it’s thicker nature, while I wouldn’t say is too thick, does make me more inclined to chomp down on the bar, rather than letting it slowly dissolve on my tongue.
While the company prides itself on its use of quality ingredients without too many additives, their chocolate does contain sunflower lecithin, which I do not, but others may consider a controversial ingredient in craft chocolate.
Their sugar free chocolate was a pleasant surprise. Often I steer clear of “sugar-free” products, because I don’t usually care for the aftertaste, but I was determined to try Hawaiian Crown’s selection on behalf of a friend with diabetic loved ones. To my delight, the monk-fruit sweetener in the sugar free bars was only slightly detectable and quite complimentary to the flavor of the chocolate in both the 80% dark chocolate layer of their “Shaka Bar”, and the 90% dark chocolate bar. In fact, I tried both versions of their 90% bar side by side, and at one point swapped the samples on accident and didn’t notice at first.
Their inclusion bars tend to use their 70% dark chocolate as a base, which goes stunningly well with dried fruit. The pineapple in particular had me humming with bright, tropical notes.
I’ve had the privilege of trying two other chocolate bars that weren’t in stock that day, through friends and family: the 80% dark chocolate bar, and the 55% vegan coconut milk chocolate bar. Both are delightful and worth a try as well. Something about Hawaiian crown’s chocolate profile pairs magically with coconut, as I’ve used the 80% bar in my kitchen with coconut milk to a quite scrumptious effect, and their coconut milk chocolate bar is a special delight that just sings to me.
But that’s not to say that their regular 55% dark chocolate is lack luster. It’s probably one of my favorite locally produced milk chocolate’s I’ve had so far, as it strikes that classic milk chocolate flavor profile to perfection.
Long story short, you’re bound to find a flavor that resonates with you. Give Hawaiian Crown Chocolate a try.
You can find Hawaiian Crown Chocolate online here:
Find Hawaiian Crown Chocolate in person:
Hawaiian Crown Plantation and Chocolate Factory (Hilo)
160 Kilauea Ave, Hilo, HI 96720
If you’re curious about the Hawaiʻi ʻUlu Cooperative, check them out at their website here: eatbreadfruit.com