The Challenges of Making Chocolate in Hawaii: A Visit with Dr. Nat Bletter of Madre Chocolate


Uncategorized / Monday, July 7th, 2014

In advance of our free chocolate event with Madre Chocolate this Tuesday, 7/8 from 5-7pm, I spoke with Dr. Nat Bletter, one of Madre’s co-Founders, about his unique route to becoming a chocolate maker and the challenges of making chocolate in Hawaii.

Nat has a very interesting background that almost screams “cacao”. He received a PhD in Ethnobotany, which is the study of the plants people use for medicine, psychoactivity, construction and food. While Nat happened to be studying ethnobotany in a lot of places that grow cacao, such as Guatemala, Peru and Mali, he had no particular interest in chocolate.

It wasn’t until a friend, Cameron McNeil, asked him to contribute a chapter to her book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, that he developed his interest in chocolate. While he liked chocolate, he was reluctant to write the chapter because he didn’t know anything about chocolate. Once the book was published, Nat had a lot of requests to make chocolate. He said to me, “My friends didn’t care that I’d contributed a chapter to the book, they just kept asking me to make chocolate.”

He began making chocolate in New York City using a food processor and a coffee grinder, and selling the chocolate at farmers’ markets and holiday markets in the city. Making chocolate was still a hobby for Nat, so it didn’t factor into his decision to leave NYC and move to Hawaii to pursue post-doctoral work. Hawaii, however, proved to be transformational. Nat met up with his business partner, Dave Elliot, and they founded Madre Chocolate.

Madre doesn’t own a farm or cacao trees. It purchases cacao from other Hawaiian cacao farmers, and Central American countries. Why purchase cacao from another country when you have it growing on your doorstep? Growing cacao in Hawaii is an expensive and challenging prospect. Nat and Dave save the Hawaiian cacao for special single-origin bars and use the delicious, but more cost-effective Dominican Republic cacao for most of their inclusion bars.

While cost is one significant issue in working with Hawaiian cacao, climate is another.

Considered the “North Pole” of the cacao-growing region, Hawaii offers some interesting challenges for cacao farmers and chocolate makers. It’s either too hot or too cold, depending upon what you’re doing.

While Hawaii may seem downright tropical to those of us living on the mainland, it’s relatively cool compared to most cacao-growing countries. Properly fermenting cacao is the most important step in developing good chocolate flavor, but fermentation relies on tropical heat and heat-loving bacteria. In most cacao-growing countries, cacao undergoes wild fermentation, building up heat and bacteria from its surrounding environment. Hawaii’s relatively moderate climate means that the fermentation process needs to be helped along. In order to reach the temperatures of proper fermentation (115° to 120°), Madre innoculates the fermenting cacao with bacteria that can survive in higher temperatures. The bacteria they use are ones that cannot survive in the wild in Hawaii.

While too little heat is a problem for fermenting cacao, too much heat is a problem for making chocolate bars.

Processing chocolate requires a cool environment with low humidity. Temperatures in the 80°- 90° range coupled with high humidity make it tough to grind cacao and temper chocolate. This is true for chocolate makers in all cacao-growing countries, including craft makers such as Grenada Chocolate, Kallari, El Ceibo and Pacari. What makes it more difficult in Hawaii is the astronomical cost of electricity.

Hawaiian cacao is the most expensive cacao in the world. It’s currently selling for $9-$10/lb. Compare that with the rate for commodity cacao from other parts of the world, which currently costs just over $3.00/lb. That’s quite a gap.

What accounts for these differences in price? The costs of growing and processing cacao in the US are much higher than they are in the tropical countries that sell the majority of the world’s cacao.

Inputs are “crazy” expensive, as Nat put it.

High electricity costs come into play in a number of ways. Grinding cacao is an electricity-intensive activity. Air conditioning needed for tempering and molding chocolate in a cool, moisture-free environment add to the electricity-intensive activity of a chocolate factory.

Labor costs in the US are significantly higher than other cacao-growing countries. US laborers are paid by the hour instead of by the sack of cacao, and their hourly pay rate is significantly higher. While it would certainly be better for cacao farmers everywhere if they were being paid by the hour, that’s not how the market works at this time. The consumer is paying very little for a mass market bar of chocolate, keeping most cacao farmers at a subsistence income.

Madre uses a lot of fantastic, local Hawaiian ingredients such as passion fruit, hibiscus and ginger in their inclusion chocolate bars. Just like the Hawaiian cacao, these local ingredients are significantly more expensive than the same ingredients would be if they were sourced from a developing country.

There are a few things Madre is doing to try to mitigate some of its disadvantages. The Hawaiian chocolate community is a close one, meaning that many of the small-batch chocolate makers are working together to try to put their chocolate in a more competitive position. Madre shares resources with Lonohana and Manoa Chocolate, both craft chocolate makers carried at Chocolopolis. Madre currently roasts and winnows at Lonohana, and at one point they shared a roaster with Manoa.

Unlike some of the other craft chocolate makers in Hawaii, Madre doesn’t farm its own cacao. While this means that Madre is at the mercy of local cacao growers for a very limited supply of beans at a very high price, it also means Madre has the advantage of being able to explore different farms and produce chocolate bars that highlight the terroir of different farms on the island.

While making chocolate in Hawaii is challenging, it’s wonderful to see the continued growth of the burgeoning craft chocolate community. Stop by Tuesday evening to meet Nat and to taste some of America’s own chocolate, from bean to bar.