The Connoisseur of Cacao

Dan O’Doherty wants to grow a better bar of chocolate
Story by Martha Cheng. Photos by Bailey Rebecca Roberts.

Deep in the Amazon jungle, Dan O’Doherty is in a twenty-foot wooden canoe motoring through the Rio Juruá, its waters the color of chocolate. It is, of course, merely muddy, but along its banks, in the rainforest’s dappled shade, grows wild cacao that has never been harvested before.

O’Doherty cuts down the pods, which sprout directly from trunks and look like ridged, toy footballs. They are striking: Some are wartier than others, and they range in color from avocado green to those of ripe papaya and caramelized pumpkin. Once their seeds are fermented and dried, he’ll take them home to Honolulu to make chocolate. He will find that the result tastes of caramel and, weirdly, dried blueberries. Initial DNA testing suggests that it’s of a variety never before identified. After a decade of studying the fruit and traveling the world to help farmers with Theobroma (“food of the gods”) cacao, he’s still discovering mysteries and surprises.

O’Doherty’s house in Honolulu has everything you’d hope for in a cacao consultant’s home. Cacao grows in the backyard, while framed photos he took of the fruit from Kualoa Ranch to Mexico hang on the walls. He makes cocktails out of cacao juice stored in the freezer—the pulp that surrounds the seeds yields a nectar that tastes of lychee and grapes. One side of the guest bedroom is stacked with boxes of cacao beans (the fermented and dried seeds), labeled by weight, date, varietal and country of origin. And his neighbors tell stories of O’Doherty returning home from his travels to Peru or some other equatorial region with a container stuffed so full of chocolate bars that they tumble out when he opens it.

Cacao consultant Dan O’Doherty (seen above right) travels the world to help farmers grow and process better cacao. “It’s one of the most difficult crops to cultivate,” he says. “It’s a super finicky, high risk, disease-susceptible fruit.”

But he’s not often home. Tomorrow he’s heading for Belize to help Mayan farmers select and propagate heirloom trees and to visit a friend who’s cultivating ancient cacao discovered in remote Mayan ruins. From there it’s Ecuador, for the beginning of the harvest season so he can adjust the fermentation in response to the yearly changes in weather. O’Doherty has worked with more than a hundred clients around the world, including about twenty in Hawai‘i. “He’s changing the world of chocolate,” says Dylan Butterbaugh of local company Mānoa Chocolate; wherever on the planet Butterbaugh buys beans, O’Doherty has consulted there.

Demand for O’Doherty grows as the world wants better chocolate. A growing number of chocolate makers and consumers are discovering new flavor nuances in the dark stuff, akin to vintners wakening to the subtleties of cabernet sauvignon and Riesling after drinking only boxed wine.“As a fruit, it’s hundreds of years behind every other domesticated fruit,” O’Doherty says, despite a three-thousand-year history of cultivation. Mesoamerican cultures would use the beans as currency or grind them into a drink reserved for royalty or the worship of deities. Colonizing Europeans brought chocolate back with them, where it was still a rarefied experience until the Industrial Revolution brought it to the masses. Companies like Lindt, Nestlé and Hershey emerged with chocolate in bars and boxes. “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get,” Forrest Gump said. Except, until recent decades, when it came to the chocolate itself, you kind of did: It would be brown, sweet and generically “chocolaty.” A Lindt truffle would always taste like a Lindt truffle, and a Hershey bar was always a Hershey bar.

O‘Doherty’s love of plant biology led him from Baltimore to the St. John Plant Science Laboratory at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. A lone cacao tree in the school’s courtyard sparked his interest and, as he says, “led to a single-minded obsession of living, breathing and eating, literally, what I do.”

Because uniformity was the goal, most companies didn’t much care about the beans, whether they were from the Ivory Coast or Ecuador. Roasting them heavily and blending them with heaps of sugar and milk also covered any flaws in the raw product. In Bahia, Brazil, O’Doherty came across two bags of cacao, “one full of disease, one not diseased, and there was zero price difference between the two,” he says. “It’s a major hassle making really nice cacao, so as a grower, what incentive is there to process well when you’re not going to get paid more?”

Now, though, following a trajectory similar to fine coffee and a framework laid down by winemakers, more bean-to-bar businesses are interested in highlighting the nuances of chocolate from certain regions, such as the fruitiness of Hawai‘i chocolate or the nuttiness of Ecuador’s. And they’re willing to pay more for good cacao. Enter O’Doherty. Five years ago he visited “a drowning farm about to be sold” in Costa Rica. Its cacao sold for $2 a kilogram. Within a few months of fine-tuning fermentation techniques, the beans fetched almost five times that price and three times the price of commodity cacao, which generally hovers around $3 a kilogram. O’Doherty had transformed the cacao “from some of the worst I’d tried to some of the best,” says Greg D’Alesandre, who sources for Dandelion Chocolate, a small-batch chocolate maker in San Francisco.

While O’Doherty remembers developing a taste for dark chocolate before most of his peers did, he was drawn more to plant biology in general than cacao specifically. He grew up in Baltimore but had a desire to “be far away from where I came,” he says. After college he spent a year cooking in a restaurant and managing the orchid collection at a botanical garden in Baltimore before deciding to come to Honolulu. He headed to the St. John Plant Science Laboratory at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and knocked on any open door. In that way he met a professor who needed a limu (seaweed) research assistant. O’Doherty had wanted to work in the jungle but found himself in the sea.

It wasn’t until after he finished his master’s while studying seaweed genetics that he noticed a cacao tree in St. John’s courtyard. He remembers seeing the red pods and wondering, “What’s the deal with these things, are they ripe?” His questions led him to Skip Bittenbender, a professor who specialized in cacao. Bittenbender gave him a test: If O’Doherty could graft some trees he was having trouble with, he’d give him a job. During his time with the orchids, O’Doherty had taught himself how to graft, and he did it well. Bittenbender took him on as a research assistant, and from that point O’Doherty and cacao were bound together, feeding and sustaining each other. He says, “Being in the right place and right time [led] to a single-minded obsession of living, breathing and eating, literally, what I do.”

He remembers a year ago, when he was in Sulawesi, Indonesia, on a cacao farm, watching the fog rolling through the jungle trees, or waiting out a downpour in an elevated hut, with a hot cup of coffee by the fire. “I stopped for a second, ‘How did I get here?’ Never in a million years, growing up in a crappy corner of Baltimore, would I have thought I’d be in these far-flung places with these people I don’t know in settings that are rare and hard to experience. I don’t perceive myself ever changing this course. It’s been close to ten years. I don’t see how I could do anything else.”

Because Hawai‘i-grown cacao tends to be more expensive than cacao grown in regions with lower labor and land costs, “Hawaiian cacao can’t just piggyback on Hawaiian caché,” O’Doherty says. “It has to be really good for flavor.”

At Maui Ku‘ia Estate, high above Lahaina, O’Doherty and a farm crew encircle a mound of cacao pods mixed like the colors in a bag of M&M’s. This is part of the farm’s first harvest, from twenty acres of cacao O’Doherty planted three years ago. He cracks the pods with a machete he traded for a headlamp in Sulawesi, the tool’s thick and weighty blade fashioned from metal salvaged from an old truck. “It’s the perfect pod-cracking knife,” he says, and he’s used it to cut tens of thousands of pods in other countries. “If you really want to know something, you gotta just get dirty and do it. It’s repetition.” His first international job was in Costa Rica, where he cut pods five hours a day, every day for five weeks. “You see the patterns you would never have seen from the outside,” he says. Patterns in ripeness, seasons, disease, insects, sugar content, the ratio of pulp to seed, pod wall thickness. He observes these subtleties around the globe, from Southeast Asia to Africa, Latin America to the Solomon Islands. “To see[cacao] everywhere, and in the wild, too, you get a perspective. One piece of information without a context is useless. What works for cacao in Ecuador may very well not work in the highlands of Sulawesi. And that’s a terroir thing. That’s a varietal thing. There are so many layers. Unless you’re down in the trenches for a certain period of time, how are you going to do it?”

O’Doherty was hired for Maui Ku‘ia Estate to work on a novel idea: to create single varietal chocolate—as with wine.“We want to build a vineyard model,” he says. Just as vineyards have separate fields dedicated to pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, he wants to plant different cacao varietals, ferment them all separately and taste them individually, as one might a barrel tasting. Then he can either create a single varietal chocolate or harmonize them in an estate blend. In the cacao world, where varieties are all jumbled up both in the field and in the chocolate, O’Doherty says it’s never been done.

O’Doherty is trying to develop a model for cacao orchards like that of grape vineyards. At Maui Ku‘ia Estate near Lahaina, bean varietals and terroir become important considerations in growing cacao and making chocolate.

On Maui Ku‘ia Estate, O’Doherty is also breeding unique varietals to be released into the public domain. “It’s one of the goals I have for Hawai‘i,” he says. “Right now we have ordinary cacao varieties, and with our terroir, it tends to be pretty good stuff. But it would be nice to have a Hawaiian type, our own varietal that nobody else in the world is cultivating. It would be good for everyone in the state.” Hawai‘i is the only state to grow cacao commercially, and farmers are looking to capitalize on the niche: In the past decade, cacao acreage in Hawai‘i has grown from about 25 acres to approximately 150, with another 200 acres being planned within the next few years.

Once all the pods are cracked and the seeds transferred into wooden fermentation boxes O’Doherty built, he mists the fruit with a yeast solution. He gently covers it with banana leaves, as if tucking a child into bed. He makes a point to always place the leaves face up, to minimize the cacao’s contact with dirt that might be on the top surface. It seems like a strange detail given that the boxes will rest in the open air and the beans will ultimately be roasted anyway. “It’s a slippery slope to not caring,” he says. The job is all about paying attention to detail, from genetics to microbiology, and imposing order on the vagaries of nature.

O’Doherty once told a friend who had asked him to partner in a chocolate company without a business plan that “I am not cruising into oblivion with you.” And yet he enters the unknown almost every day in his work. “I feel like I know a lot more than most about cacao, but I’m just scratching the surface. I could work my whole life in this and still have an endless list of questions.” HH