Cacao, pronounced ‘ka-KOW’, is the raw, agricultural ingredient used to make chocolate. It is grown in various parts of the world along the Equator, where humid temperatures and jungle-like surroundings provide ideal conditions for growing this colorful fruit. In shades of red, orange, yellow and green, cacao pods sprout from the trunks of cacao trees, and cacao beans (seeds actually) are found inside the pods where a delicate, sweet, fruity pulp surrounds the cacao bean cotyledons (which later become nibs). Cacao pods are harvested throughout the year as they reach optimal ripeness, mainly from October though May. Cacao grows very well on Kauai and we now have acres of producing plants that we make chocolate out of.
First the pods are harvested by a skilled farmer with a sharp blade as not to harm the floral cushions on the trunk of the tree. Great care must be taken; since leaves and stem sprouts grow where the fruit was, the continued growth and flowering of the tree depends on avoiding damage. The pods are split open by hand. The beans are scooped out and the outer shell is discarded. If you tasted a bean at this point you would notice the sweet, lemony flavor from the pulp surrounding the bean. The actual bean would be bitter and hard to eat. Once the cacao beans are scooped from the pods, they are fermented and dried in the two-step curing process that sets in motion the development of the flavor nuances. Fermentation is the first critical process to develop the beans’ flavor. The beans, still covered with pulp, are placed in large, shallow wooden boxes and covered with banana leaves. Once fermentation begins, the sugar in the pulp is converted into acids that change the chemical composition of the beans. Fermentation generates temperatures as high as 125° F, activating enzymes that create the flavor precursors. The fermentation process takes anywhere from two to eight days. (Unfermented or lightly fermented beans have less chocolate flavor but are higher in health-promoting antioxidants.) This is where cacao stops being considered “Raw”.
The next key process is drying. The best way to dry cacao beans is to lay them on bamboo mats and let them bask in the sun’s warming rays. The drying process takes several days during which the beans lose nearly all their moisture and more than half their weight. The next critical step is roasting the beans for a long time at low heat, which allows the more delicate flavors. We accomplish this on a custom made drum roasting cylinder on a gas grill, which in our opinion gives the best control, and flexibility. The process is similar to roasting coffee beans, except with gentler requirements: 20-45 minutes at temperatures between 120-163 degrees C (250-325 F). You must generally expose the beans to an initial high temperature, lower the temperature gradually, and stop roasting when the beans start to crack (but not burn). Next is cracking and winnowing the beans, whereby the husks (chaff) are removed. Again we are using a custom built machine with three steel rollers that lightly crack the cacao. To grind the nibs into the cocoa liquor we use a standard Champion juicer. This common piece of equipment is strong enough to liquefy the nibs and separate the remaining husks. The cacao liquor is then poured into a melanger/concher. This is the process of reducing the particle sizes of both cocoa solids and sugar crystals in finished chocolate. The goal is somewhere around 20-30 microns. Your tongue loses its ability to determine texture and grittiness at around 50 microns. We accomplish this with a Santha wet grinder. The process involves heating and mixing for several hours to several days the ingredients of chocolate – cacao nibs, sugar, and vanilla. The last step is to temper the chocolate. This is likely the most difficult part of the process, but it is a very vital step. Tempering the chocolate gives it shape and helps the chocolate harden correctly as the cocoa butter crystalizes. If you don’t temper the chocolate, it will be soft and mushy, and will melt in your hands. Once we have tempered the chocolate it is ready to be poured into molds, wrapped and packaged. Chocolate companies invest millions of dollars into tools and machinery to turn bitter cacao beans into delicious chocolate bars. With many days of hard work, dedication to detail, and research, we have created some innovative machines to go from the cacao bean to chocolate bar. This long process is the major reason why Nanea Chocolate is the only chocolate factory on Kauai.
Commercial cacao production in Hawaii is increasing. The diverse agricultural environments on the islands provide the opportunity to develop unique flavors in the beans producing specialty chocolate that commands premium prices. Two successful commercial farms are currently producing cacao in Hawaii. Dole Foods Co. expects a yield of 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of dried beans this year from 20 acres of cacao planted in 1996, just after Waialua Sugar Mill shut down on Oahu. In 2000, Bob and Pam Cooper started The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory processing about 6,000 pounds of beans a year to produce an all-Hawaii-grown chocolate bar from their home/factory in Kona.