Puna Chocolate Co.

Hilo, Puna, Hamakua, Kona

Cacao Pods
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Tif & Em from Locavore Processing Cacao in the Orchard
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Tif from Locavore Checking Cacao Trees for Fruit
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Matt Adam & Ben with Mature Cacao Fruit
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Crops:

Cacao, Tea, Ti, Banana, Coffee, Macnut, Avocado, Fig

Methods:

Regenerative, Sustainable

We met Ben and Adam about ten years ago when we were still slinging produce and plants at a little farmer's market in Pahoa. Ben and Adam had recently purchased land in the area when they stopped by our market stand and asked about a weird, orange, football-shaped fruit. Little did we know that this, their first encounter with fresh cacao, would be a seed for what would become the Puna Chocolate Company. They have since planted over 15,000 cacao trees across 100+ acres in four districts, hired more than 20 employees, opened three retail locations, and now offer regular farm tours in East and West Hawaiʻi.


THE BEGINNING
Puna Chocolate Company is truly a bean-to-bar operation, growing and processing their own locally-adapted cacao stock here on island. What they don't grow themselves, they source from other Hawaiʻi farms. Their original 65-acre plot outside Pāhoa was home to their first cacao orchard and nursery. Shortly after getting started, and with over 3,000 cacao trees in the nursery, the 2014 Kīlauea eruption began. The farm went into emergency evacuation mode and had to relocate all 3,000 trees. They sold some to other farms, but most went to start three new orchards for their business.

Having received a Tropical Plants and Soil Science degree from U of H, Benjamin is now the head of farming and planting operations for all the company's cacao orchards. He uses his education and extensive experience to work closely with farmers and landowners who supply their cacao crops to Puna Chocolate Co.

THE TOUR
The Hara family owns one of these orchards in Kurtistown, where they grow 600 cacao trees on 3 acres. During our visit on a lightly overcast and drizzly day, we got to help harvest and process a batch of these cacao pods. We learned that the bark of cacao trees contains sensitive reproductive tissue that allows the fruit to develop up and down the tree trunk and all along the branches. Not only does this make the trees look a little odd during the fruiting season, but each fruit has to be carefully clipped, not torn, from the tree to avoid damaging the tissue. If the tissue is damaged, it prevents future fruits from developing on that spot.

THE HARVEST
We shimmied through wet leaves and branches to peek inside the tree canopies, searching for the fruit's yellow, orange, and red hues that would signal it was ready for harvest. Each cacao tree will produce thousands of flowers, then hundreds of immature fruit. Unlike some other crops, cacao trees self-thin, aborting most of these young fruits and making only 30-50 mature fruits each season. After carefully clipping the ripe fruits, we would unceremoniously toss the hearty pods into the center of the lane between the rows of trees. Once we had harvested one section, Adam came through to collect our colorful bounty in a matching orange wheelbarrow. Once these wheelbarrow loads made big piles of fall-colored fruits at the end of each lane, the cracking commenced.

PROCESSING
Using a cleverly-mounted machete, Ben cracked open pods while the rest of us scooped the seeds into 5-gallon buckets. The seeds are attached to each other and look like a little ear of corn with exaggerated white kernels. The connective tissue that holds the seeds together and attaches them to the pod is called the 'placentaʻ. We had to be sure not to let any of it sneak into the buckets with the seeds because it would decompose during the fermentation process and ruin the flavor of the batch. The white color of these weird little cacao corn cobs is from the fruit pulp surrounding each seed. While tasting absolutely nothing like chocolate, this pulp is delicious, with a tart, sweet flavor like guava or ripe 'ulu. Puna Chocolate actually captures a byproduct from the pulp during fermentation and uses it for cocktails!

FERMENTING
Matt Anderson, the company's groundskeeper and tour guide, takes the buckets of "wet seed" to the fermenter, just a few miles away. The fermenter is a long, wooden box with three compartments, each with the capacity to hold 70 gallons (or 14 5-gal buckets) of seeds. Before the cacao is loaded in, Matt lines the compartments with freshly harvested banana leaves. The leaves will also get layered into the cacao as it goes into the fermenter. Banana leaves are excellent sources for wild yeasts (that's all the powdery stuff on the underside of their leaves) and will kick start the fermentation process (just like bread or beer). A heating pad is used in each compartment to maintain the correct temperature needed to complete the process within a week. The box has a mesh bottom which allows the juice from the fruit pulp to escape. This super limited "cacao nectar" is collected in the first few hours of fermentation and later boiled down to create a unique and delicious syrup.

TO BE CONTINUED!
And this process happens every week with 60-70 gallons of "wet seed," 12-14 buckets, or 2,400 to 2,800 pods. We didn't get the chance to see the next steps in the chocolate-making process, but we hope to soon! Mastering chocolate-making is a true feat and Teri Potter, Adamʻs sister, helped create the company's chocolate recipes. We are so proud to be a part of Puna Chocolate Company's story and honored to host their line of decadent chocolates. We couldn't have imagined that our introduction ten years ago would come so full circle.

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Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to farming and to growing your current crops.

"Growing up on a dairy really got me to understand the great outdoors and where our food comes from. Learning discipline and hardworking skills prepared me for the real world and starting our own operation here in Hawaii."

What does your average workday look like?

"We have just purchased a coffee farm on Kona side, so we are incorporating that into our workforce and understanding the whole process of coffee production. We are adding a few more acres of cacao, ulu, avocado, sugarcane, and bananas on our Ninole farm, so planting and clearing out more land there and getting it fenced off from cow and pig. Also, working with the employees at our three shop locations to ensure they have everything they need, having my one shift of chocolate making over on Kona side and filling in for employees when we need an extra hand or someone is on vacation."

What has been the most rewarding part of your farming journey?

"Knowing that we are starting to provide food for locals and tourists and not having to ship things from the mainland as much. (Increasing) future food sustainability (and) carbon sequestration through long-term plantings around the island."

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What is something you wish everyone who enjoyed your food knew about what you do?

"How much work really goes into producing and processing cacao into chocolate."

What do you wish more people knew about farming in general?

"That farming is an everyday chore that you have to stay on top of and be proactive, or you are going to fall behind very quickly."

What's a helpful tip or trick you can share about the food you grow/raise?

"Cacao doesn't have to be grown in shade like everyone says, as you'll have more problems here in Hawaii, especially on Hilo side."

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What is your favorite product from your line?

"90% dark chocolate as you really get to taste the flavor that Hawaii impacts on the end product. Each district has its' unique environment that will impact the flavor profile."