Existentialism in Hawaiian Chocolate

 Dan Corson of Hamakua Chocolate dreams big

Dan Corson of Hamakua Chocolate dreams big

Hawaii. Hawaiian cacao. It exists. Explorer botanists transplanted trees to those islands in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth, pineapple giant Dole brought in some more. The 21st century has brought small growers and artisanal producers here, looking for arable land and interesting soil in that optimal zone within twenty degrees of the equator. Madre and Lonohana, both based on Oahu, are the good stuff. I heard a lot of promising things about a chocolatier on Maui, and the company she started now owns a cacao orchard, though she's since relocated to Arizona, leaving that burgeoning bean-to-bar business to someone else. Her move was probably motivated by some things that do not exist: an assurance that bars en route to customers and retailers on the mainland won't melt at the Honolulu airport, a way to afford developed-world wages for workers, an economy of scale (across Hawaii, there are about 100 acres of cacao--you might compare that to Peru, the smallest of the top ten cacao-producing countries today, which harvests cacao from about 250,000 acres).

 

One very exciting thing that doesn't exist: Hamakua Chocolate. At least it doesn't exist yet.  On this rainy patch of Hawaii's Big Island, Dan Corson and Berndt Stugger's have about 500 cacao trees (planted on either side of a path big enough for a pickup truck), which are now five years old. When I visited earlier this year, they were making one of their then-only-occasional trips to their property from their registered home in Seattle, where Dan is known as a sculptor rather than a farmer and Berndt's work in the tech industry subsidizes this South Pacific activity. At the moment, they donate most of the harvest to Colin Hart (owner of the truck collecting the pods that day, and the person to whom I offer my gratitude for the invitation), an agronomist who also grows and makes chocolate for himself as well as for another local character named Tom Sharkey. But Dan and Berndt have a long-term plan. And long term plans work out well for them--when I asked how long they've been a couple, they said long enough that they can hardly count the years anymore. Their intention is, in Dan's words, a "chocolate dude ranch," where the home that they're building themselves is also both a factory and a guest house with a concrete patio for cracking pods after harvest and hands-on fermentation tanks. Of course, there will be bedrooms with ace ocean views, plus a treehouse only reachable by a military-grade supsension bridge. Possibly even a room-service menu offering cacao smoothies--I made that one up, but it seems to fit. Dan and Berndt are also good gardeners who have also planted fruit and flower plants along with true cinnamon and other spice trees. The foliage has reached near jungle proportions already (even through much of it was only planted when they bought this former sugarcane plantation seven years ago), running down to the edge of their own river. Dan's sculptures will ultimately be "infested into the landscape." 

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It would be cool if Hamakua Chocolate succeeds at creating great chocolate by combining those things that are unusually expensive in Hawaii (raw materials, utilities, skilled and unskilled labor) with the ones that are unusually lucrative (mainly tourism). Especially if they can simultaneously match their Herculean efforts with enjoying the idyllic lifestyle they've envisioned for themselves. The place may eventually sponsor visits for colleagues in the chocolate industry and/or secure funding for artists in residence. They're in the process of relocating permanently, with hopes of finishing construction on the house by the end of the year. A new cacao crop will soon follow, and they might be open for business in 2017.

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