By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The fledgling cacao industry is still a tiny piece of agriculture in Hawaii. So small, in fact, that the state doesn’t even keep track of production like it does for crops like pineapple, macadamia nuts and coffee.
But industry observers, including cacao growers and processors on Hawaii Island, see cacao in the same place coffee was 25 years ago in Kona.
Cacao, the basic ingredient of chocolate, is a high-quality Hawaii-grown product in high demand worldwide, and a growing number of local growers and processors are eyeing the ground floor of a local agricultural niche poised to take off.
“I must get five calls a day from people who want to know whether they should plant cacao trees,” said Tom Sharkey, who makes his own chocolate from the cacao he grows on 300 trees in Papaikou.
Interest statewide is definitely picking up. The second annual Hawaii Chocolate Festival and the first Hawaii Chocolate & Cacao Association conference both were held in February in Honolulu. Amy Hammond, executive director of the association, said the second conference and third chocolate festival will be held this February.
Hammond said the organization has 23 members. Interest is “definitely growing steadily statewide,” she said. “We get calls every day from people” wanting more information about cacao.
Meanwhile, the inaugural Big Island Chocolate Festival, sponsored by the Kona Cacao Association, was held in June and is scheduled again for March 23, 2013, at the Fairmont Orchid.
“It’s a growing industry because of a lot of demand,” said KCA founder Farsheed Bonakdar, owner of Cocoa Outlet, which sells chocolate to chefs and bakers. “Experts say the beans here are very good.”
Membership in the trade organizations may be just a fraction of the total number of growers, however. Sharkey, who’s been in the cacao business for close to 12 years, says he’s aware of at least 50 growers of various sizes in East Hawaii alone, with as many as half growing at least 100 trees.
And in West Hawaii, Bonakdar, who buys cacao from local growers, has been trying to sort it all out.
“We’re trying to get everybody together so we know who does what,” he said. “There are a lot of them, probably 20 to 25 small growers” and two or three “really big growers,” he said. “One has 4,000 trees.”
“Some do it for themselves, making chocolate in their own kitchen” as a hobby or as a small cottage industry, he said. But others are looking toward a more profitable future.
Production of chocolate is like coffee, wine or honey, with factors such as soil, climate and methods of production all affecting the nuances of taste in the final product.
“It’s like wine,” Sharkey said, with different growers offering a variety of distinctive characteristics in their chocolate.
H.C. “Skip” Bittenbender, a specialist with the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture, said cacao is “definitely growing momentum.” State and federal ag departments do not track statistics on cacao growth and production in Hawaii yet so “there are no firm numbers,” but “we’ll be expecting that soon” as the industry advances.
Bittenbender compared cacao in Hawaii today to the young Kona coffee industry in the mid-1980s. “I know there are a number plantings that are not producing yet,” he said. “It takes up to three years for a tree to begin producing.”
Cacao has been in Hawaii for about 150 years and Hawaii is the only state in the United States where chocolate is manufactured from locally grown cacao. Cacao is now grown on every island but Lanai, Bittenbender said. “It’s going to be a statewide industry.”
Sharkey processes his own cacao seeds into chocolate bars that he packages for sale mostly in his two Shark’s Coffee shops and outlets such as Mauna Kea Observatory and Haleakala National Park. Sharkey’s 8- to 10-year-old trees produce about 1,600 pods a month, which contain the seeds that are fermented, dried, roasted and ground before mixing with sugar, cocoa butter or lecithin, and smoothing it all out in a process called “conching.” At that point, it’s real chocolate, ready for molding and packaging.
Finished premium chocolate products can fetch up to $40 a pound, he said. But he’s reached the limit of his own processing capabilities. “I don’t have enough beans to sell.” Sharkey said the local industry needs a co-op or someone with the financial ability to organize the growers so they can build flexibility into the industry for the growers.
“The bottom line is, you have to add value in Hawaii,” Sharkey said, which means taking the locally grown seeds at least through the fermentation process or, better yet, by manufacturing Hawaii-grown chocolate products ready to market. “The prices around the world are outrageous,” he said.
Bittenbender agreed. “Hawaii is already well-known in the fine chocolate industry. It’s rising just as specialty coffee in the state picked up in the early ’80s. The cacao people see that model.”
Email Hunter Bishop at email@example.com.