From Tree To Bar on the Big Island: Visiting a Chocolate Farm in Hawaii

“Look, there’s a whale,” Tom said matter-of-factly as he pointed down the hill toward the ocean. “We see a lot of breaches when we’re working up here. Can’t beat this view!”

I was following Tom Menezes, farmer and co-owner of Hawaiian Crown Chocolates, around a hilltop field north of Hilo, Hawaii. He was showing us his cacao orchard and explaining how he makes chocolate from beans that he grows himself.

You’ve probably heard of the Big Island’s most famous culinary export, Kona coffee, but did you know that Hawaiian farmers also grow and make chocolate? When I told her we were going to Hawaii, Sunita de Tourreil, the owner of Palo Alto’s Chocolate Garage put me in touch with Tom, “he’s the best cacao farmer in the state!” I sent him an email and he agreed to show us how cacao is grown and how chocolate is made.

Chocolate 101: Did you know that chocolate comes from a fruit? Cacao (or “cocoa”) is a football-shaped fruit pod. The seeds (also called “cocoa beans”) and sugary pulp are fermented for several days before drying, roasting, and cooking it down into the chocolate we know and love.

The chocolate industry is huge, and most big chocolate makers buy low-grade chocolate from a few corporate suppliers. In recent decades, a “bean-to-bar” chocolate movement has started, honoring small artisan chocolate makers who do everything from sourcing the highest quality “beans” to producing the “bar.”

Tom Menezes takes this one step further. He’s a “tree-to-bar” maker–a cacao farmer who does everything from growing the fruit to crafting the final product. He grew up on the island of Oahu and studied agriculture at the University of Hawaii. He’s been farming in Hawaii for over 35 years, was one of the first cacao growers in the state. He’s a respected agricultural scientist and considered a leading authority on Hawaiian cacao farming. His chocolate is in high demand–a recent agricultural survey concluded that his cacao had the highest percentage of naturally occurring cocoa butter of any grower in Hawaii.

This hilltop field was one of three parcels that Tom farms on the island. The east/Hilo side of the Big Island is rainy and wet, and Cacao fruit is not a fan of the misty breezes, so Menezes grows his cacao under taller banana trees to shield them from the elements.

He’s currently transitioning his orchards over to organic, a process that takes a few years. In addition to cacao and bananas, he grows pineapple and taro.

Cacao is harvested from October to March. On the day we met up with Tom, he was in the middle of fermenting a batch of cocoa beans. It was a surprisingly low-tech process. He raised the lid of a 120 quart plastic Igloo Cooler to reveal a funky, white mash of beans. The pungent smell told us it was fermenting!

After fermentation, the beans are cleaned and then spread out to dry in the sun. When they reach only 7% moisture–Tom can tell when they are ready just by touching the beans–they bag them up and store them for roasting.

After we walked around the small plot of land, we met Tom back at the Hawaiian Crown Store & Cafe in downtown Hilo. It’s a small storefront that he opened back in 2014. His team does all their chocolate production in-house (we could smell a batch of cocoa beans roasting when we walked in the door), and they also have a full cafe menu with hot chocolate, coffee, fruit smoothies, acai bowls, and sandwiches.

We agreed to join Tom for lunch. He was demo-ing a new vegetarian-friendly menu item that he wanted me to try… a Taro Burger!

If you’ve ever had the notoriously bland, purplish-grey Hawaiian food staple “poi,” you’ll know taro. It’s a starchy root vegetable similar to a potato. I was curious how this would work in burger form, but I was pleasantly surprised. Tom’s homemade taro burger  patties were seasoned well and had great texture–soft but firm and a little crisp on the outside.  He served it with a side of taro chips which showed off the fruit’s marbled colors. It was a creative option and one of the best veggie burgers I’ve ever had.

After lunch, and blowing our travel budget on Hawaiian Crown chocolate bars and chocolate covered macadamia nuts, we said goodbye to Tom (and his daughter, Oona) Hawaiian-style.

How To Visit Hawaiian Crown Chocolate:

If you are visiting the Big Island, you can visit the Hawaiian Crown Store & Cafe (160 Kilauea Ave) in downtown Hilo.

You can also find Hawaiian Crown’s chocolate at Foodland and Whole Foods grocery stores around Hawaii. On the island of Oahu, Tom’s co-owner runs a Hawaiian Crown store in Honolulu (159 Kaiulani Ave. Suite 105).

Hawaiian Crown doesn’t currently offer public farm tours, but they are looking into getting the permit to do them in the future. If you stop into their store during the week, you might catch them in production…

On the Kona side of the island, the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory offers cacao farm tours by appointment.