On Valentine’s Day, I headed to Honolulu — alone — in search of chocolate. It was my first-ever trip to the island state, and I wanted to see the headquarters of Mānoa Chocolate, a gourmet bean-to-bar chocolate maker owned by Dylan Butterbaugh, an Oahu local I met at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle in 2019 while doing research for a book I was co-writing called “Buy the Change You Want to See.”
Hawaii is the only state in the nation warm enough to grow cacao, the bean that is the base of my favorite food: chocolate. Hawaii’s cacao industry is still relatively new, and Butterbaugh, who started making chocolate as a student at the University of Hawaii in 2010, is leading the charge to develop it.
Waking up in Waikiki
I arrived in Waikiki on a rainy Tuesday afternoon and checked into White Sands Hotel, a quiet, mellow, three-story property wrapped around a small pool and located a block from Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki’s bustling shopping strip. Bamboo balustrades line the hotel’s balconies, and the property has hipster amenities, including swings for seats at the round poolside bar and Crosley record players in the suites.
From the balcony of my third-floor suite, I watched a dove nestling in a tree. In the living room, a pile of records sat on the desk, including one entitled “The Remarkable Voice of Hawaii’s Mahi Beamer in Authentic Island Songs.” The record jacket featured a picture of a man sporting a pink lei. Still tired from my flight and a little discombobulated by the rain (which did not exactly convey the message: “Welcome to paradise!”), I blew dust off the old record and set it spinning. Beamer’s tenor falsetto filled the room, instantly putting me in an island-vacation mood.
Despite its proximity to Kalakaua Avenue, my room was quiet at night. By morning, the rain had stopped, and I had two places to go: the Mānoa factory and store in Kailua, a small, vacation town on the windward side of the island, and 21 Degrees Estate, a cacao farm owned by a husband-and-wife team, located in the hills of Kahalulu, a verdant inland region. As we’ve written before, Honolulu is a real city — tall towers, traffic, vintage record shops. Waikiki can feel a lot like any other bustling, tropical tourist town. But as I saw on the 30-minute drive to the cacao farm, much of Oahu is filled with the rolling tropical jungle for which Hawaii is known.
In search of Hawaiian-grown cacao
Less than an hour after leaving my hotel, I stood on a dirt lane looking across row upon row of young cacao trees. I recognized their wide, pointed oval leaves and the bright yellow, Nerf-football-sized cacao pods springing from the branches. The air was warm and balmy, filled with the farm’s goats bleating in the distance and the chattering of white-rumped shama birds.
Michael Rogers, who owns the farm with his wife, Maria Carl, cut off a pod with a knife and hacked it open. Inside, a clatch of cacao beans were nestled in a thick white goo. I removed a waxy bean and sucked on it, tasting the sweet and tart miel de cacao, or cacao fruit nectar, as the goo is called. Yes, I thought, I’m a single mom who has traveled alone to Hawaii on Valentine’s Day, but touring a cacao farm to see where it all begins will now be one of my favorite activities in the world.
Rogers and Carl bought their 10 acres about nine years ago, cleared the jungle, planted trees and nurtured them. They currently harvest about 12,000 pods a year from 70 trees, yielding 1,200 pounds of cacao beans. As the trees mature, that yield should double. Rogers says he and his wife had four conditions when they decided to retire from their careers in the military and run a family farm: they wanted to grow something fun, unique, interesting and not too labor-intensive. “We hit three out of four,” Rogers says.
Hawaii sits on the very northern edge of the cacao-growing zone. Because of the latitude and consequent weather variations, Hawaiian cacao beans vary in taste depending on the season. 21 Degrees has created three harvest flavor profiles: autumn, spring and summer. As Butterbaugh had told me back in Seattle, labor and land costs in Hawaii exceed those of famous cacao-producing regions such as Ecuador or Africa. Creating a chocolate industry in Hawaii, therefore, requires ingenuity. Mānoa produces chocolate bars for 21 Degrees Estate, which then sells them for $14 a bar, a cooperative strategy that so far is working. Rogers and Carl also offer tours and events as part of their business model.
Back up at the estate’s house-like central building, I stood on the long, covered porch as Rogers and Carl explained how the military experience is helping in this endeavor. “The military trains you to be a planner, to work hard and to not be a quitter,” Carl says. “You have a vision, work toward that vision and follow through. You definitely have to have your ‘vision goggles’ on.”
After sampling chocolate (I preferred the autumn harvest), I caught a ride with Carl to Kailua, where I grabbed a sandwich from the Kailua General Store and took a walk on the quiet beach. As thick clouds started rolling in, I hurried back to the store, arriving just as rain began pelting the ground. Within minutes, a stream of rainwater rushed past the curb. I tried and failed to get an Uber, then bought a coffee cacao nib swirl ice cream pop from local artisan pop maker Pop Culture and watched the rain come down. I looked at the wrapper. The cacao nibs came from Mānoa, my next stop.
Bean-to-bar by the beach
Cacao nibs are half cocoa solids and half cocoa butter, Butterbaugh told me when I finally made it to Mānoa. The factory is connected to the store and chocolate-tasting room/wine bar in a single-story building painted with the cheery, welcoming Mānoa logo and images of cacao plants. When you enter the store from the parking lot, you are hit by the undeniable, enticing scent of roasting cacao.
I followed Butterbaugh through a glass door in the chocolate-making and packaging area. “We buy straight from the farmer or a broker,” says Butterbaugh, explaining one of the key differences between a craft chocolate maker such as Mānoa and a commodity maker such as Hershey. The development of smaller, affordable equipment over the past decade or so has helped facilitate the ever-growing bean-to-bar craft chocolate movement.
Mānoa makes single-origin bars from Hawaiian-grown chocolate and other bars from blends of internationally sourced beans. “Quality chocolate is a lot about the post-harvest handling,” Butterbaugh says. We stopped by the roaster, which had a huge front bin filled with warm, just-roasted beans from Uganda. We both thrust a hand into the warm beans. I bit into a bean and tasted that warm, chewy, cacao-buttery center with the slightly crunchy exterior. Okay, this is my favorite thing to do, I thought: Be onsite where the chocolate is being made.
While all chocolate factories are different, the process is basically the same. After being roasted, the beans get winnowed to remove the shell, cracked into nibs, then ground for hours with sugar into liquid in a mixing machine called a mélanger. The molten, refined, super-smooth chocolate is then conched, tempered, poured and packaged.
Mānoa has grown since it started and continues to do so. Butterbaugh is in the process of building out a bigger factory, his fifth upgrade. Other growers and makers are also cropping up in the state, a movement he welcomes. “There could be a hundred more,” he says. “We are going to have the best chocolate in the world coming out of Hawaii.”
That night, I returned to the wine bar for a wine and chocolate tasting — four kinds of chocolate set out on a white plate. It was a full house, with locals and tourists there for the wine, the chocolate and the chance to hear a Mānoa employee singing jazz standards. I sat by myself, across the bar from a 95-year-old woman, and felt that sense of optimism and possibility that travel brings. Drinking wine with chocolate…now this is really my favorite vacation activity, I thought.
The truth? I’d be happy with just the chocolate.
If you go
21 Degrees has 2.5-hour, family-friendly tour three times a week, as well as quarterly farm-to-table dinners and “cocoa and flow” goat yoga.
Reserve online at 21Degreesestate.com or through the sustainable travel nonprofit Travel2Change. Mānoa factory tours for adults and kids over 12 are at 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. manoachocolate.com.
Wendy Paris is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well” and other books. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Psychology Today, Jewish Journal and elsewhere. She lives in Santa Monica.