By Léo Azambuja
It’s a chilly, rainy morning in Wailua. About 30 people, mostly visitors, have been building their excitement for a three-hour tour on a farm full of trees loaded with cacao — the main ingredient for chocolate. But this is no ordinary cacao farm. One of the best chocolates in the entire world comes from right here.
“We have so much fun on this tour. I’m here five days a week, and it never gets old,” said Andrea Kiser, a tour guide at Steelgrass Farm. A lifetime surfer from California, Andrea left her real estate broker career behind and moved to Kaua‘i six years ago seeking a life change. Here, she found chocolate, great chocolate.
Steelgrass Farm, owned by siblings Emily and Will Lydgate, sits on a 46-acre property, with four acres dedicated to cacao. The rest is taken by at least 30 varieties of tropical fruit trees, and several species of palm trees, hardwood trees, bamboos and Hawaiian plants.
“We’re the largest chocolate farm on the island, probably the top-10 largest in the state, and because of that, top-10 largest in the United States,” said Will, explaining that Hawai‘i is the only state in the U.S. where cacao is grown.
Still, compared to the rest of the world, Steelgrass is tiny, but only in size. When it comes to quality, their cacao is huge. Last year, in the prestigious Salon du Chocolat, the world’s largest event dedicated to chocolate, held annually in Paris, France, Steelgrass’ beans were picked as one of top-15 in the world in the Cocoa of Excellence, competing against 166 submissions from 40 different countries.
“To me that’s a big deal, we’re this little teeny farm,” Will said.
Steelgrass may be building a reputation for its chocolate, but it also excels in other products. A few years ago, its small honey production — only two hives — won best in the state in a show on the Big Island. Since then, its honey production has increased to 16 hives. They also produce vanilla, a peculiar orchid that has only a six-hour window to be hand-pollinated, or else it won’t yield any beans.
The first part of the chocolate tour is mostly about the farm’s history and tasting a ridiculous amount of tropical fruits. It’s such an indulgence that you can easily forget you are on a chocolate farm tour. Pull no punches, taste everything. The tour’s segue is when Andrea stops by a cacao orchard, chops one of the large, bright-colored cacao fruits in half, and offers a taste of the raw deal to the audience. Cacao beans are involved by a white pulp, sweet and easy on the palate. The beans vaguely resemble chocolate, and some love it while others don’t care for it.
But the real decadence is right around the corner — the chocolate tasting tent. While there’s a real temptation to grab as much chocolate as humanely possible during the first couple varieties, you should refrain from it. You need to save room for about 10 different kinds of chocolate to taste, each with distinct cacao percentages and notes, including spices, coffee, nuts, wood, honey, butterscotch, fruits, herbs and more. Half the varieties are from Steelgrass.
The cacao beans are fermented and dried at Steelgrass, then sent to O‘ahu, where they are crafted into chocolate in a state-of-the-art facility. All the chocolate bars are sent back to Steelgrass, and there are three ways to buy them: after a tour at the farm’s gift shop, online or by appointment. While their chocolate costs considerably more than a run-of-the-mill chocolate bar, no one flinches at the prices. You probably wouldn’t either.
We don’t need to go into details of chocolate seduction. Most of us love this stuff. But what a lot of people don’t know is that chocolate is actually a superfood. Dark chocolate has the highest concentration of antioxidants in any familiar food — nearly 15 times more than broccoli, 10 times more than spinach, five-and-a-half times more than blueberries, and almost two-and-a-half times more than açaí berries.
There are also many other benefits from chocolate. Cocoa butter — half the weight of a cacao bean — does not raise cholesterol, and is believed to reduce it. Naturally occurring compounds in dark chocolate, theobromines, boost our serotonin and endorphin levels, our happy hormones. Additionally, dark chocolate contains essential amino acids such as magnesium, phosphorus and calcium. Yes, there’s caffeine in chocolate, but you would have to eat five bars to match the caffeine of one cup of Joe.
One of the most exciting things about Steelgrass is a branding makeover in April. While planning the future of the business, Will looked into his family’s past — five generations to be exact. To honor the Lydgate family’s legacy to the island’s agriculture and community, Steelgrass Farm is changing its name to Lydgate Farms.
Will’s great-great-grandfather moved to Hawai‘i in 1867, when the islands were under the rule of King Kamehameha V, the last Hawaiian monarch of the House of Kamehameha. John Mortimer Lydgate, Will’s great-grandfather, grew up on the islands, and became a citizen of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. Though J.M. Lydgate died in 1922, his contribution to the community deeply inspired Will to rebrand the farm.
J.M. Lydgate led a fascinating life. Still a teen, he worked for botanist William Hillebrand in the late 1800s, and many plant species discovered at that time carry the name lydgatei. Upon returning from an education on the Mainland, J.M. Lydgate settled on Kaua‘i, where he worked as sugar plantation manager, a land surveyor, and was also a preacher both in English and in Hawaiian language, which he spoke fluently. He was central force in preserving many heiau in the Wailua River area, and Lydgate Park at the river mouth was named in his honor. J.M. Lydgate was also instrumental in founding and supporting the YMCA, Kaua‘i Historical Society, Lihu‘e Library and the island’s longest-running daily newspaper, The Garden Island.
“Great-grandfather represents a lot for me,” Will said. “He gave his life to the community.”
Will’s uncle, John Lydgate, who passed away in May 2017, used to say “the purpose of deep roots is to put forth branches and bear fruits,” according to Will.
“So when it came to renaming the farm and this Lydage Farms project, I was very much inspired by my great-grandfather’s legacy,” he said.
To come up with a new logo, Will worked with kumu Sabra Kauka. Everything in the new design has a meaning. The five arrows in a row represent the Lydgates’ five generations on Kaua‘i moving forward. The cacao fruit stands for chocolate and success. The kalo leaf means community building.
“Community is something that I really care about,” Will said. “I want to support this island, I want to support the people, I want to do good things for the island, I want to do agriculture.”
Will’s plan is help agriculture to move forward, to get where it needs to be. And part of his plan includes an ambitious challenge. Steelgrass’ cacao plantation is projected to double to eight acres by next year. But Will’s vision is much larger than that.
“I want to see 1,000 acres in Hawaiian chocolate on this island, and I want to be directly involved in that,” he said. “I made a bet with my friend Dylan (Butterbaugh). Dylan has a company called Manoa Chocolate on O‘ahu, and whoever gets to 1,000 acres first has to take the other one to Europe to the Salon du Chocolat.”
An important key to make Hawaiian cacao — and other crops planted here — successful is turning it into value-added products, according to Will.
“Value-added (products) is the future of Hawai‘i agriculture, I can’t say that more strongly,” said Will, adding that by turning his cacao into chocolate bars rather than selling the beans on the market, he is able to multiply his profits significantly. “That’s what allows me to have all these wonderful people that you see (working at the farm).”
A common component of farms producing value-added products is a tour through the farm. Ag-tourism usually leaves a low-foot print, and the bulk of the profits stay on the island rather than being sent offshore.
“People are spending their money in a place that goes directly into the local economy. Every one of those dollars that gets spent is going to my payroll, for my local people, and it’s also going into local businesses, local vendors that I buy from,” Will said.
His dreams go beyond the 1,000-acre challenge. He envisions Hawai‘i as the new “Napa Valley of chocolate,” with impeccable processing. He said he feels passionate about it, and wants to share his knowledge with others. He envisions a partnership with Davao, one of Kaua‘i’s sister cities in the Philippines. Davao also grows cacao, but sells its produce in bulk. If we can tell them what we know, Will said, they could make two or three times more money.
Will said chocolate is at the same stage coffee was in the U.S. 30 years ago. Back then, most people here didn’t know anything specialty coffee. Last years, however, 50 percent of all coffee sold in the U.S. was specialty coffee — high quality coffee, which brings more profit to farmers.
“I believe chocolate is about to do the same thing,” said will, explaining specialty chocolate has the same markers that pushed specialty coffee to become popular, including a quality grading system in place since 2002 that helps to judge chocolate for flavors and moisture content. Since there is no competition on the Mainland — Hawai‘i is on the northern threshold that allows cacao trees to thrive — Hawaiian farmers are in a privileged spot.
“We are uniquely poised to be very successful,” he said of the cacao industry in Hawai‘i.
Visit www.steelgrass.org for more information on tours and how to buy their chocolate.