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Vol. 17, no. 2
April / May 2014


Kaua'i Cacao 

Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photo by Elyse Butler

“Good chocolate starts with good dirt,” says Koa Kahili. The bright-eyed owner of Garden Island Chocolate proves his point during tasting tours held at one of his Kaua‘i orchards. Ten years ago he began growing cacao on the island, giving away free plants to his neighbors and buying back everything they produced. He now manages five thousand trees and, for the past seven years, has been handcrafting chocolate from their cacao harvests.

Kahili’s popular tours start with hazelnut truffles and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice served beneath a broad banyan tree. From there the group meanders through the mixed orchard, stopping to snack on coconut, Cuban banana, avocado, lychee and Tahitian lime. The fruit trees serve as supporting cast for the star of the show: cacao. Cacao trees are slender, with scarlet or yellow pods that poke straight out from their trunks. Inside the hard pods, clusters of beans are ensconced in feathery pulp. The pulp is sweet, but the beans — the raw ingredients of chocolate—are bitter. Before becoming the confection beloved around the world, they’re fermented, dried, roasted and ground into liquid.

After illuminating chocolate’s origins, Kahili regales guests with its end products. The tasting starts with Garden Island Chocolate’s most commercial bars: coconut milk, sea salt and macadamia nut. It progresses to small-batch specialties: gleaming dark rectangles studded with crystallized ginger or spiced with chipotle. One exceptional sample is aged fifteen months: Its complex flavors light up the tongue—a sharp nuttiness gives way to hints of rose and caramel. Another employs nutmeg, kava and turmeric to increase the chocolate’s natural effects on serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain.

Kahili credits the Kaua‘i terroir for his chocolate’s fine quality. The surrounding fruit trees protect the cacao from too much wind or sun, and organic mulch feeds the nutrient-hungry crop. Processing plays a role, too. Kahili ferments the cacao in small batches, producing only enough for the local market, which allows a high level of quality control. At the tour’s conclusion everyone gathers around the mélange, a stone grinder that transforms roasted beans into dark, silky liquid. To the mix Kahili adds homegrown vanilla, allspice, cinnamon and honey—and no one refuses a shot glass of his ambrosial nectar.