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Cacao Trees: The Heart of Chocolate Production

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

I. Introduction The Theobroma Cacao Tree

Check it out, it's fascinating -- a plant that has played an important role in the history of human civilizations for thousands of years. With its origins atop the Amazon Basin, the cacao tree has now spread to countries around the world, including Hawaii. This blog article will explore the history and significance of the Theobroma Cacao tree, its cultivation practices in Hawaii, and its impact on local farming and chocolate - making.

A. Definition of Theobroma Cacao

The Theobroma Cacao tree is a tropical evergreen tree that is native to South America, specifically Ecuador. It is a small understory tree that typically grows up to 30 feet tall, with a trunk of 2-3 feet in diameter. The tree is known for its oblong-shaped leaves and small, colorful flowers that bloom from the trunk and branches. This is known as cauliflory -- fruiting along the trunk.

The most important part of the Theobroma Cacao tree are its incorrectly named, flamboyant drupes known as cacao pods. Botanically speaking, pods open when ripe and drupes typically contain just 1 kernel. So it might be berry. The large and football like cacao pod, stays closed (and cool) when ripe, containing 25 - 80 seeds or so within. Raw Cacao, are beans surrounded by a sweet, edible flesh and are the main ingredient in chocolate. It is the fermentation and roasting of these sweet and acidic seeds that makes them into cacao beans. The terroir (soil contents, companion planting, local airborne yeast, etc...), the cacao strain or variety and the fermentation method are the 3 primary things that give each chocolate origin its distinct flavor and aroma.

B. Brief history.

The Theobroma Cacao tree has a rich history that dates back to the ancient civilizations of the Mayans, Aztecs and even Olmec people. These civilizations used the cacao beans for both culinary and religious purposes, and they valued the beans so highly that they were used as currency, even taking it as far North as Utah! The Mayans of today believe that the cacao tree was a gift from Quetzalcoatl, and still use it in ceremonies to honor elements, directions, gods, pacha mama, etc...

Over time, the cacao tree and its beans made their way to Europe, brought back by Spanish conquistadors after their (genocidal) expeditions to the New World. The popularity of chocolate soon spread throughout Europe, and by the 17th century, chocolate had become a luxury item for the wealthy. This was the first time in the trees' 4950 year history that sugar was added. Sugar, as recorded, was the drug of the aristocrats, kings and Queens, during this time. Then called, xocolatl', which is the Nahuatl word from the Nahua people of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua is now pronounced, chocolate.

Today, Theobroma Cacao trees are grown in many countries in the tropical regions of the world, including countries in Africa, Asia, and South America. The chocolate industry is a multibillion-dollar industry that continues to grow, and the Theobroma Cacao tree remains an important livelihood. for millions of farmers and the chocolate professionals a round the world.

In the following sections, we will explore the Theobroma Cacao tree in Hawaii, including its arrival and cultivation practices, its impact on the Hawaiian economy, and its role in the Hawaiian chocolate industry.

Though there are rare Theobroma Bi-Color (white chocolate) trees in the Islands and even Cupuaču (theobroma grandiflorum) possibly still numbering in less than 4 digits world-wide. Slightly less rare pure criollo strains are also hard to find in the Islands. These other theobroma species, about 20, can all be used to make chocolate as well.

C. Importance of Theobroma Cacao

The Theobroma Cacao tree has played a significant role in the history of human civilizations, and its importance extends beyond just the chocolate industry. Here are a few reasons why the cacao tree is so important:

  1. Economic significance: The cacao tree is an important crop for farmers in many countries, providing them with a source of income and food security. In addition to the sale of cacao beans, many farmers also use the cacao pod's sweet flesh to distill into liquor or pasteurize and bottle as is. Even paper chocolate boxes are made by some farms in order to utilize the whole pod.

  2. Cultural significance: The cacao tree has a rich cultural history, and it continues to play an important role in the cultural traditions of many countries. In many cultures, chocolate is considered a symbol of love, celebration, and community, and it is traditionally used in ceremonies and special occasions.

  3. Environmental significance: The cacao tree is an important species for the conservation of tropical forests. The tree grows in the understory of the forest, providing habitat for many other species, and it plays a critical role in maintaining the health of these ecosystems. It's leaves create precious homes for the tiny micro cosm of hard-to-find pollinating insects and their larvae.

  4. Health benefits: In addition to its delicious flavor, cacao is also recognized for its health benefits. Cacao is a rich source of antioxidants, fiber, and minerals, and it has been linked to a range of health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease, improving cognitive function, and reducing inflammation. Check out the Cacao Master List for more.

It is a vital part of our daily lives and always has been.

II. Cacao Tree Cultivation in Hawaii

A. Why Cacao Trees are Da Kine

As a local in Hawaii, you're always on the lookout for something delicious and exotic, and that's exactly what the cacao tree brings to the table. This ancient tree are all young here around this author's locale. All commercial cacao in Hawaii is 60 years old or less whereas in the Amazon they well may live 200 years! They are covered in pods, flowers, buds and cherelles all at once. They literally perform all stages of their reproductive cycle simultaneously. In the photos and video this is clear. If cauliflory and all life cycles at once was not enough, the flowers only live for about 2 days. Sometimes less. A bud will grow out of the tree's trunk if the flower is pollinated within in that short-lived amount of time. There are 5 species of pollinating midges in Hawaii. More than any country in the world. These midges get to work and carry pollen from tree to tree and even from tree to itself. Hawaiian (and most) Cacao is asexual but also takes pollen from many many nearby trees in the orchard. The midges bite, fire ants burn and the machete's or clippers are sharp. Field work is tough but here are some more really unique things to learn from it about the mystifying tree and its flowers.

1. The flowers put out an embryonic baby cacao pod called a cherelle, after pollination. The cherelles, in about 6 months will become full fledge cacao pods, full of beans and ready to harvest.

2. The flowers are so numerous, only 1 - 2% of all the tree's flowers are pollinated at a time. You will see hundreds and hundreds of flowers (die) on the trees.

3. The flowers are edible but after picking will brown within a day. The cherelles are edible but have no beans inside and taste like a very under-ripe.raw bean sprout.

4. Indigenous peoples have (taken cacao as far north as utah) made medicines out of the bark and leaves, the latter of which is full of antioxidants and alkaloids.

5. The flowers can pop-up as early as 2.5 years on grafted trees.

B. How to Cultivate Your Own Cacao Tree

Why not grow your own cacao tree? It's easier than you might think, and the rewards are worth it!

  1. Choose the right variety: There are many different varieties of cacao trees, each with their own requirements and needs. Do your research and choose the variety that best suits your needs and the environment in which you plan to grow it. It most likely will not produce much further North than Oahu, but it will grow.

  2. Find the right location: Cacao trees thrive in tropical environments, so make sure you have the right indoor climate, heat lights and deep pots for the tree's deep taproot.

  3. Get started: Once you have the right location and variety, it's time to start growing! Cacao trees can be propagated from seeds or cuttings, and with the right care and attention, they will live for many years and bring lots of joy.

All unprocessed forms of cacao are a welcome addition to any chocolate lover's life. With its unique nectar, beyond ethical sourcing and the opportunity to grow your own, it's no wonder that more and more people are moving to Hawaii to embrace this ancient tree and its ambrosia. So why not get started today and nurture your own cacao tree, and be part cacao tree history?

III. Theobroma Cacao in Hawaii

A. Arrival of the Cacao Tree

Hawaii is known for its lush, paradiscal landscape, making it an ideal location for growing the greek named, Theobroma Cacao tree. The first cacao trees were introduced to Hawaii in the early 20th century from Brazil to the Queen of Hawai'i, and since then, the industry has had its ups and downs. The warm, moist climate, many environs and volcanic soil provide the perfect conditions for cacao tree growth, and the cacao tourism industry has flourished in the state. This is really what has caused Hawai'i craft chocolate to improve its quality and tastes as Hershey's and Dole corporations each bailed on it -- brands not known for quality. There are now more than a dozen producing cacao farms that make world class chocolate. The University of Hawaii even dropped it in the 60's but picked it back up in the 2000's making it academically more viable and profitable.

Working with the U of H's first fermentation science graduates has taught this author a lot about fermentation and the rest of this article has all been from field research detailed in my photographs. Read on to learn more about the tree, though, we will touch on trending fermentation styles since fermentation is so popular right now.

B. Cultivation Practices

The cultivation of Theobroma Cacao in Hawaii involves a range of practices, from planting to hooping the little trees to protect them from the rose beetle which turn their tender leaves into lace. It actually only grows 20 degrees North and South of the Equator. Here are a few key steps in the cacao cultivation process in Hawai'i at 20.5 degrees North latitude:

  1. Planting: The cacao tree is typically planted under taller trees of the forest, but in Hawaii, this has not been necessary for orchards. Typically cacao keiki (sprouts) need some short of shade regardless, for their first year. The trees are usually then planted, and spaced about 20 feet apart, to allow for adequate light and air circulation but sometimes we cram them in 10 feet or even less. It has caused some black pod rot and need for intensive and intrusive pruning and even replanting. Even in just the past 10 years, the practice has advanced.

  2. Care and maintenance: The cacao trees require regular care and maintenance, including pruning, mulching, and fertilizing. In Hawaii, the trees are typically grown using sustainable, organic practices, reversing the impact of the industry on the environment. Sometimes pest control is used for invasive LFA's or little red fire ants but healthy soil typically sees less of these pain inducing baby monsters.

  3. Harvesting: The cacao pods are always harvested by hand, and they are usually harvested once 30% of each has turned a bright yellow or orange color. The pods are then cut from the tree and split open, most often by hand, revealing the wet cacao beans inside. This is hard work as there can be about 4000 pods every 2 weeks.

  4. Processing: The cacao beans are then fermented and dried (for 2-6 weeks in rainy, wetter microclimates of Hawaii), which helps to remove the bitterness (tannins) and bring out the chocolate flavor. It of course also sterilizes the seed, making sure it will never germinate. This happens in the first 2 weeks when the pods are first cracked open and the beans are scooped out. The beans are covered in wet pulp that is super sugary. Yeast from the air, worker's hands, and bacteria from the pods combine in large heaps of beans (as in Africa, the South Pacific and South America) or wooden boxes that are not the stair-step style as seen in places like the Dominican Republic. The pulp's sugars are digested by the yeasts and create ethanol and C02 so these horizontal boxes are filled with bubbling alcoholic beans essentially. It is no wonder the beans die, or are "cured", because after that, acetobacter bacteria will consume the ethanol and produce acetic acid. Burning, vineagary and sterilzing aroma, then, often burst from the boxes when in the first stage for the first day. It gets much milder after the ferment is reintroduced into oxygen on the second day in the second stage. Drying takes place at the end of the second stage and the volatile aromas begin to dissipate at room temperature. This needs to happen not only until the beans are at low or no humidity, but also because the chocolate will have a chance to continue internal enzymatic reactions. That can happen as fast as one week or, as stated before, in rainy areas it can take a month to dry beans properly. The beans are rested for 2 more months because the tannins and aromas are still being dissolved. After they stop being smelly, the aromas have married a bit as well. The beans are then roasted, which further enhances the flavor and aroma. The roasted beans are then processed into chocolate, which is then wrapped by hand and sold online.

C. Impact on Hawaii's Local Economy with the New Chocolate Industry

The tree has had a significant impact on the livelihoods of Hawaii farmers. The jobs are in agriculture, but also in manufacturing. New jobs in chocolate making are brand new opportunities to learn a trade for the local community. Some chocolate-makers have been imported from the mainland as well. Even Hawaii's migrant community have been able to provide themselves with a new source of income. These opportunities were never available before! The industry is also contributing to the growth of tourism in the state, with visitors coming to Hawaii to learn about the process of farm-to-bar chocolate making, visit the colorful cauliflory first-hand and to taste the unique flavors of Hawaiian chocolate. Cacao tourism is exciting for Hawaii.

In terms of the Hawaiian chocolate industry, the high-quality cacao beans produced in Hawaii (only within the past 10 years) are sought after by chocolate makers around the world, and the state is known for producing some of the finest chocolate in the world, yearly. Many real and authenticate craft chocolate makers in Hawaii use stone-grinding techniques, locally sourced ingredients, hand-pour and hand-wrap each unique and delicious chocolate product. These brands are harder to find, more rare and most precious. Some local companies do not make craft chocolate but instead use industrial machines that literally do everything for the company, including packing in cheap-thin plastic, reducing the presentation and purpose of craft chocolate. It takes all types to make an industry.

In addition to the economic benefits of the Theobroma Cacao tree, the industry is also contributing to the conservation of Hawaii's tropical forests. The cacao trees provide habitat for a range of species and help to maintain the health of the ecosystem, making a positive impact on the soil and the 'aina.

It will have more impact on Hawaii's local economy and industry, in coming years than any other crop. The high-quality cacao beans produced in Hawaii are new to the world.

IV. The Modern History of the Cacao Tree

A. The Industrial Revolution and Modern Chocolate

The industrial revolution brought about new techniques for processing cacao beans, making chocolate more accessible and affordable albeit built on 220 years and 8 generations of child-slavery. Today, chocolate is a global industry worth billions of dollars and the cacao tree is grown in many equatorial countries and indoor greenhouse around the world. Child-slaves are trafficked from Mali and Burkino Faso to Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Only 2.1 million out of 60 million child-slaves in the world are currently facing cocoa-labor, the "worst form of child-labor in the world" (ILO).

B. The Legacy of the Cacao Tree

The cacao tree has a rich and fascinating history, and its impact on the world has been significant. From its origins as a sacred tree in ancient civilizations, to its current status as a major agricultural commodity, the cacao tree has left its mark on the world.

In conclusion, the cacao tree has a rich and fascinating history, and its impact on the world has been significant. From its origins in the Amazon Basin, to its arrival in Europe and the development of the chocolate industry, the cacao tree has played an important role in the history of humanity. Today, it continues to be a major source of income for farmers and a beloved treat for chocolate lovers around the world.

V. Theobroma Cacao: Sustainability and Future

A. Sustainability of Cacao Farming

Sustainability is a critical issue in the cacao industry, and it is crucial that farmers and chocolate makers are aware of the impact of their practices on the environment. In Hawaii, the cacao industry is working towards a more sustainable future, with farmers and chocolate makers adopting environmentally-friendly practices, cultivating indigenous plants and promoting the health of the Islands as one whole ecosystem, in their operations.

  1. Conservation: Mono - cropping is not really a problem on 3 to 4 acres but permaculture farms are better. All commercial-scale cacao farms are mono - cropped in Hawai'i but take up few acres. Approximately 65 acres of cacao is grown state wide. Much conservation is done in West Africa where there are no property lines, cacao is interplanted for hundreds of acres of trees approaching the end of their most productive years and yes, healthy ancient forests full of fauna and Ghanian trees are being cut down to plant new cacao trees.

  2. Fair trade: Many chocolate makers in Hawaii use beyond fair trade practices, which ensure that farmers receive a beyond livable wages for their cacao beans and that their working conditions are fair and equitable. Pono, in Hawaiian. Hawaii has some of the most expensive cacao beans in the world at $15/lb and up. Fair trade does not exist in Hawaii because its all ethical. Fair trade exists in places and for places like West Africa where child-slavery is the norm and beans cost about $2 USD per pound. Fair trade has never been child-slave free but there are 0 cases of it in Hawaii.

B. Future of Theobroma Cacao in Hawaii

The future of Theobroma Cacao in Hawaii is bright, with the industry continuing to grow and the demand for high-quality chocolate products increasing. Cacao tourism will continue to boom.

Cherelle Growing in Hawaii
Cherelle Growing in Hawaii

The tree is much more than just the source of our beloved chocolate. It has a rich history dating back to ancient civilizations, plays a crucial role in the global (and local) economy and has a positive impact on the environment through cacao farm tourism and sustainable farming practices.



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