Chocolate in Hawaii – 21 Degrees Estate and Manoa

Cacao tree with purple and red pods

What’s your vintage?

Ah, the question that I get to ask myself, what is my favorite vintage?  I’m not talking about wine or cheese or even coffee.  No, I’m referring to chocolate, the delectable concoction that is a gift from Quetzalcoatl and the fruit of Mesoamerican culture.  

Originally used as currency and eaten as seeds, chocolate has evolved into a confection that touches nearly every diet.  Some of us only imbibe on the good stuff to celebrate, whereas others, to include myself, need it daily for a mental and morale boost.  The kids are screaming? A bit of chocolate is the answer.  The car battery died? Chocolate will definitely help.  The day was fantastic and you just want to wind down before bed? Chocolate can help you do that. 

It turns out that Hawaii is the northernmost region where cacao trees will grow, or more specifically, where cacao trees will produce cocoa pods.  They will not grow north of 21 degrees latitude in the northern hemisphere nor south of 21 degrees in the southern hemisphere.  Luckily, I live exactly at the 21st parallel and can skip down to my local cacao farm for a nibble, a tour, or a harvest at will. 

Cacao farming in Hawaii has taken off, and visiting 21 Degrees Estate is a treat.  Nestled in the Kahalu’u Valley and snuggled up to the Ko’olau Mountains, 21 Degrees Estate enjoys the tropical rainforest climate that allows it to grow 650 cacao trees among other tropical plants and fruits as well as raise bees and goats on ten acres of land. When you arrive Buddy, Lilikoi, Wilbur, and Orville  – the primary weed management technicians – greet you with curious bleating and a desire for ear scratches and treats.   If the goats had their way they’d eat cacao leaves all day and in fact there’s a sacrificial tree there for that purpose.  But alas, Mike Rodgers and Maria Carl-Rodgers grow the cacao for bipeds and I am eternally grateful. 

Requiring partial sun and good drainage, cocoa trees grow pods nearly year round.  Cacao trees and pods are cauliflory; they grow from flowers which emerge from the trunk and primary branches of the tree instead of new growth and shoots.  This allows animals that can’t climb or fly to reach the pods, open them, and propagate the seeds.  Each pod takes 7-8 months to grow, however they grow and ripen independently of each other, which means that they’re harvested every two weeks.  Harvesting pods at the peak of their maturity takes insight and knowledge about the individual tree because if the beans are harvested too early their sugars will not have developed enough, but if the harvest is too late the seeds will have sprouted inside the pod making it useless for chocolate production.  The window of peak maturity is the matter of about a week.  Each tree has different colored pods that change their hue when they’re ready to be cut.  The harvester needs to know the trees well because a yellow pod on one tree might mean its ready for harvest, whereas on another tree means it has some maturing to do.   The trees themselves are the criollo variety at 21 Degrees Estate but are mostly a mix of various parentages and thus making each tree’s pods truly unique.

Each pod weighs roughly one pound, a quarter of which is the weight of the wet cacao seeds.  Those are the wet with their fruity pre-fermented pulp.  The pulp ferments for roughly ten days here.  It varies by region because overnight temperature is crucial to fermentation and colder temperatures mean that fermentation takes longer.  After fermentation they’re dried and more acetic acid is given off and sugars are concentrated.  They are dried for two weeks and then gauged for quality. 

It typically takes two pods to produce one almost 2 ounce bar of chocolate (it’s actually 50 grams, which is 1.76 ounces).  Are you now seeing why quality chocolate is so costly?  The chocolate makers look for uniform size, no unpleasant scent – it should smell mildly vinegary, and no mold growing.  It’s apparent when the beans have either had a bad fermentation, were left to rot, or were fermented in less than ideal conditions – such as on the ground near a dusty dirty road, which happens frequently in other locations.  After that they’re tasted and assessed for three qualities: bitterness, astringency, and acidity.  While acidity can be nice, bitterness and astringency need to be managed because they make it difficult to roast and can leave the mouth panting for water.  Each quality can be tempered or intensified during the roasting process with higher temperatures and longer roasting times bringing out different qualities while sending others into the background.

Post roasting, the beans are then winnowed; the shells are separated from the nib center.  The shells are used for chocolate tea.  They are brewed and steeped like a traditional tisane producing a chocolate scented tea that is light, restorative, and full of polyphenols.  Nibs are collected to then be ground into chocolate and mixed with sugar and other ingredients. 

In a manner similar to making peanut butter, cocoa nibs are ground for days, depending on the machine, until they have a smooth consistency.  First, nibs are ground on their own and then heated while being ground and they go from solid nibs to liquid coco liquor.  The process of melanging, conching, and grinding refines the chocolate.  Conching ensures that the cocoa butter within the beans enrobes the cocoa powder is equally distributed.  The Hawaiian chocolate makers, Manoa, ultimately aim for particles between 14-20 microns for their chocolate.  This is also the step where sugar and cocoa butter are added.  When you add sugar to the newly liquid chocolate is very important, because sugar locks in certain characteristics of the chocolate.  Sugar volatilizes acetic acid and adding it early on will lock in various flavors whereas waiting until later in the grinding process will let those flavors mellow.  It is part of the process that is at the judgment of the chocolatier and will vary from season to season and with each batch of beans.  It is during grinding that produces (or not) a smooth, silky texture for the finished bar with the chocolate maker scraping down the sides consistently as well as sieving any nib that didn’t get fully ground.  Cocoa butter is added in this phase at the chocolatier’s discretion, as it’s a matter of preference.   Different chocolatiers add varying amounts of cocoa butter which on the one hand can make the flavor more pronounced, however too much impedes the distinct flavor profile and too little can leave a bitter nibby flavor.  As Manoa chocolatier Dylan Butterbaugh likes to say, cocoa butter is the melt in your mouth, the cocoa powder is the flavor.  During the tempering phase the cocoa butter structures are aligned and brought close together so that they bring out the cacao powder flavors as well as produce a smooth texture instead of a gritty one.  Tempering also affects taste because if chocolate isn’t properly tempered the fat separates from the solids making the chocolate taste “off” and out of balance.  Blooming has more to do with temperature fluctuation than age.  Well tempered chocolate should snap when broken, not bend, and when you look inside the particles are close together and indistinguishable versus gritty and where the fat has bloomed.

It’s a mark of a talented craft chocolatier to bring out the special and particular nuances in each variety and each harvest of chocolate whereas mass produced chocolate companies aim for a consistent one note product.  Deciding which and if there should be any inclusions in the chocolate is another art form.  Inclusions being: milk, salt, spices, or flowers.  Milk chocolate is chocolate with an inclusion of milk.  The better the chocolate, the fewer the inclusions.  At 21 Degrees Estate Maria guides everyone on a chocolate tasting and highlights how each harvest and therefore batch of chocolate varies in taste.  Some of the chocolate varieties we tasted had backnotes of banana (Spring 2018) while others were more floral and bourbon-y (Fall 2018).    

Chocolate should be tasted at 65-74 degrees Fahrenheit so that the chocolate will melt in your mouth properly and the fat won’t be too hard.  In fact it’s not recommended to ever eat frozen chocolate (for tasting) since it alters the crystalline structure because the fat is frozen and thereby compromises the taste.   Only liquids can enter the holes in your taste buds, otherwise known as papillae, which is likely why chocolatiers advise having a sip of room temperature water before and in between tastings.  A bite of chocolate should glide gently across the palate, coating it fully. It’s not a race to the end, but a bite to savor as long as possible. Only then can you pick up on the undertones in the bars and the differences them.

A less common treat are the seeds themselves. The seeds, which I could snack on all day are coated in a white mucilaginous substance has a fruity sweetness and encases the crunchy nibby bitter center.  Unfortunately, I have to contain myself with the seeds lest I eat too many and deprive the chocolatiers of turning them into chocolate and selling it to me.   It would be a shame.

However, the seeds are sometimes turned not into chocolate, but into a drink.  I love the fermented bean drink just as much as I do chocolate.  It is a true pick me up and I find it sweet and fruity.   Manoa offers it in their factory, and they’ve promised to help me find some pulp for home use.

All in all, 21 Degrees Estate and Manoa Chocolate are my favorite culinary treasures in Hawaii.  In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d find myself on a cacao farm or getting to walk – walk – to a chocolatier to see how its produced and ask endless questions and have endless tastings.  Manoa is not just a bean to bar chocolate, it’s a farm and farmer to bean to bar; they’re able to take it one step (a very large step) further than chocolate makers on the mainland and elsewhere.  Both 21 Degrees Estate and Manoa, their expertise and kindness is something I shall always treasure.  And it’s a great souvenir to bring back in my heart when we move away.

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