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Cacao pods hang from trees at Steelgrass Farm in Hawaii, the only U.S. state that grows the bean that becomes chocolate.

KELLY DINARDO, Washington Post

IF YOU GO

Tours of Steelgrass Farm in Kapaa, Hawaii, are held Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 9 a.m. Cost is $60 per person (1-808-821-1857; www.steelgrass.org).

Explore the sweet side of Hawaii

  • Article by: KELLY DINARDO
  • Washington Post
  • February 14, 2012 - 8:34 AM

My boyfriend stares at the goats.

Arms crossed in front of his chest, JP watched the two white goats butt heads and wrestle, and I could almost see the thought bubble up and float above his head like something from the comics. "We're in Hawaii, and I'm staring at goats."

It's not an unreasonable thought. After all, the island of Kauai is best known for sun and surf and lush green mountains, and we'd spent most of our time there hiking along jaw-dropping coastline trails or kayaking rivers to picnic at waterfall lagoons and then rewarding our efforts with cocktails.

But before we'd left home for our trip, a foodie friend had offhandedly asked whether I knew that Hawaii is the only place in the United States that grows cacao, the bean that eventually becomes chocolate. That innocent question is what had detoured our right-out-of-a-Corona-commercial vacation to Steelgrass Farm in the hills of Kapaa, on the eastern side of Kauai.

We left the goats to play and began our three-hour tour of the 8-acre working farm with a guided walk through the tropical fruit and flower garden. Our guide pointed out different varieties of bamboo, including one that can grow more than 20 inches in a day; showed us vanilla beans, which look like long, spindly green beans; and offered us samples of tropical fruit, such as the lychee, a small, almost translucent white fruit with the texture of a peeled grape.

Finally, we got to the cacao orchard, which is a little more than 2 acres. Bright yellow and orange pods the size and shape of Nerf footballs hang from the trees. Inside each of these cacao pods, a sweet, yogurtlike pulp covers 30 to 40 beans.

Just the right place for cacao

The cacao tree is famously finicky and grows only along a small strip 20 degrees north and south of the equator. It was introduced to Hawaii in the 1800s, but production was disrupted by both world wars. In the mid-1980s, a Hershey-backed farm helped renew interest in the crop, but the Hawaiian cacao industry continued in fits and starts for several years.

More recently, small growers began planting on all the islands; then Dole Food got into the business, planting cacao in former sugar fields on Oahu. Today, there are still only a few cacao farmers; the Department of Agriculture estimates a combined 50 acres of trees, with the largest grower, Dole, cultivating about 20 acres.

Our tour moved to a tented area, where our guide explained how the cacao becomes chocolate. The pods are hand-harvested and cracked open with a machete. The beans are fermented and sun-dried before being roasted. After roasting, the shells are removed, and the remaining nibs are blended with sugar and other ingredients to make chocolate.

Like most cacao farms on Hawaii, Steelgrass Farm doesn't process the beans but sells them to other companies, such as Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory on the Big Island of Hawaii. Thankfully, Steelgrass does still share the finished product; their tours start with a small sample of chocolate and end with a larger tasting.

Our tour wound down with a blind taste test of 11 types of chocolates, including two Hawaiian ones. Our guide passed out clipboards with tasting notes and porcelain ramekins containing small pieces of chocolate and conducted the session like a wine tasting. As we sampled more of the candy, the group got more talkative and, toward the end, a little rowdy. We were all hopped up on the "food of the gods," as the Aztecs called chocolate.

My curiosity about cacao was fully satisfied. I thank the man who stared at goats, and we return to the Aloha life for a few more days.

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