HOW I STARTED MAUI KUʻIA ESTATE CHOCOLATE
April 1, 2020
The origins of Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate Inc lie in my heritage. My father was a farmer in pre-WWII Europe and although he was displaced as a result of the war, he always had an orchard of fruit trees because he was fortunate to end up in San Diego where citrus trees were easy to grow and to him they were exotic. I have always grown fruit trees, mostly citrus, during my entire career while living in San Diego. When I moved to Maui and was fortunate to have enough land to plant fruit trees I continued that lifelong activity. The difference was that there are opportunities for growing things in Hawaii that will not grow on the mainland. Cacao is such a tree so I started to plant cacao at my home in Kapalua almost 10 years ago as part of a UH Manoa field trial to determine what growing conditions were suitable for cacao. Dan O’Doherty was a graduate student at the time and was in charge of the field trial under the supervision of his professor Skip Bittenbender. I learned that cacao is susceptible to the trade winds in Kapalua that stressed and ultimately killed most of the trees. In retrospect it was predictable that wind would damage the large cacao leaves but I was intrigued enough to search the West Side of Maui for a place to lease land that was protected from the trade winds. I found it in the ahupua‘a of Ku‘ia on land owned by Kamehameha Schools. In 2013 we started planting on the winter solstice, December 21, with trees that Dan had hybridized. At the same time we planted windbreak and shade trees to protect the first ten acres of cacao. It took until 2016 to get the first ten acres fully planted and the second ten acres followed in 2017 and 2018. Wind is still an issue for Ku‘ia with brief but severe Kaua‘ula winds that come over the mountains and accelerate downslope and occasional northerly winds that occur during the winter months. The worst wind event was from Hurricane Lane that accompanied the Lahaina firestorm in August 2018. The winds were 70 mph sustained for several hours and defoliated the entire cacao farm. Four months of intensive pruning brought the trees back and we had a decent but delayed harvest season in 2019.
In 2016 the realities of farming in Hawaii became clear to me as I saw that the cost of producing cacao (cocoa beans) was astronomically higher than the world commodity price and much higher than anyone was paying for the highest quality beans available. Cacao as a raw agricultural commodity is not viable in Hawaii. We were making very small quantities of chocolate to evaluate the flavor profiles of the first hybrid trees that were planted and I determined that the first two bars we made cost $400,000 each. However, they were delicious! It was very clear that we needed to make and sell chocolate from the cacao we grew and get the cost down as production increased but the time needed to plant and mature 50 acres of cacao is ten years. In order to be able to make chocolate, reduce losses from the farm operation, and ultimately make a profit from the chocolate business we are importing unique cocoa beans from a single-family estate in Ecuador, Costa Esmeraldas. This is a farm that Dan has worked with for many years to develop their post-harvest processing, primarily fermentation and drying processes, so that their beans can be sold for premium prices. The success of that effort has resulted in a Cocoa of Excellence Award given in October 2019 at the Salon du Chocolate in Paris, the largest and most prestigious chocolate show in the world (https://www.salon-du-chocolat.com/international-cocoa-awards/?lang=en). We are proud to support the sustainable practices of this farm and use one of the world’s best cocoa beans in our chocolate products. Over time the percentage of chocolate made from our own Maui cacao will grow but we will always try to bring unique chocolate to our customers if we can control the quality at the source. We are a farm-to-bar chocolate company and that means we must be able to control the quality at the farm even if we do not own it. Dan visits Costa Esmeraldas twice a year to ensure the standards he developed for them are being practiced. Maui chocolate must by law be 100% grown in Maui to be called Maui chocolate so we will not be blending our Maui beans with other sources. Our Maui chocolate will be a unique reflection of the microenvironment of the farm and the varieties of cacao that we grow. I am happy to say that the promise of the first two $400,000 bars of chocolate has been fulfilled. The chocolate is amazing and I expect to share it with you by the end of May 2020. I promise that the price has gone down as a result of increased production.
Mahalo nui loa,
Dr. Gunars E. Valkirs
CEO & Food Safety Officer