Last week I went to my favorite food event of the year: the Caputo’s Annual Chocolate Festival. It supports a great cause, dives deep into one craft chocolatier, and involves chocolate. I got to sample my way through culinary creations by some of our best chefs in the city. Did I mention there were some great cocktails as well?
The event was fantastic. But I also took advantage of Dylan Butterbach, the founder and chocolatier of Mānoa Chocolate of Hawaii, being in town for the event. We chatted about the ins and outs of chocolate, how he formed his company, and the ethics behind high-quality Hawaiian-grown beans.
From Chocolate Skeptic to Chocolatier
Believe it or not, Dylan never liked chocolate growing up. You might think this was an inauspicious start for a chocolate maker. But I think he was saving himself for the good stuff. He told me that he was around 23 when he first tried chocolate that he actually liked. After wandering into a lab at the University of Hawaii where a friend was studying plants, cacao plants specifically, he started his chocolate geekery journey. The friend’s job was to look at post-harvest handling and genetics of cacao plants and how those things impact the flavor of quality chocolate. Dylan would hang out and ended up helping him crack pods to extract the wet seed and assist with micro ferments and drying. Eventually, he became involved in the final processes of finished ground chocolate and tempering—he was hooked. After a few months, Dylan decided chocolate was way more fun than what he was studying and set out to start a business.
That was 12 years ago. Dylan was still in school but bought a little grinder, made a roaster out of ingenuity and a barbecue, and built a winnower out of a bicycle, PVC, a vacuum, and a back massager. All this came together to make a mini chocolate factory he ran out of his parent’s kitchen. After a year, mom kicked him out of the kitchen, and Dylan managed to find commercial space to grow.
Growing an Ethical Chocolate Business
“Right from the beginning, I knew I didn’t want to just be a chocolate maker,” says Dylan. “I think many people get into it because they’re like, ‘I want to make chocolate’. Instead, I wanted to grow a chocolate-making business that could buy from wonderful farmers with good projects and make super high-quality chocolates that I could export worldwide.”
And that is what sets Mānoa Chocolate apart from any other chocolatier in the United States. They are the only ones who can say they are making chocolate with U.S., Hawaiian-grown cacao, and creating single-origin craft bars. Not only do they have single-origin bars, but they also have estate-grown chocolate bars that can be traced back to an individual farm. This is incredibly unique in the chocolate world. And nearly impossible for a U.S. chocolatier to do since Hawaii is the only place in the United States where cacao can be grown. That means there’s an incredibly limited supply of high-quality cacao to source from.
Luckily, Dylan and his team have formed amazing partnerships with local growers. He speaks fondly of some of those relationships. “One closest to home is a guy named Ben Field. Ben has a nursery where he started growing cacao seedlings and selling to people,” says Dylan. “Ben ended up planting about two acres in his own yard and giving it all to his neighbors. Next, other people started buying seedlings from him. So he buys all the wet seed back from these farmers and does the centralized post-harvest handling. He controls the quality that comes in and does the fermentation and drying. And then he gives us the beans. We then turn it into chocolate, sell it, and split the profit with them. So that’s one grower that’s close to home. It works because it’s not a super big operation.”
“There’s another farm in the middle of Oahu called Mililani Estate,” continues Dylan. “They have some of the best beans I’ve ever tasted in my life. I love that fruity chocolate that comes from them. That’s our main local supply. We’ve been buying from Kilo on the Big Island for years.”
Dylan told me that being close to the farms where his suppliers grow the cacao beans has helped him develop as a chocolatier. It’s an intimate relationship with the land and knowing how things like weather, seasonality, location, and co-planted crops all impact the flavor of his chocolate at the end of the day. Most chocolatiers never get a chance to visit the estates where their cacao beans are purchased. Mass-produced chocolate comes from poor-quality beans grown in bad monoculture conditions and often with enslaved or child labor. Even high-quality chocolatiers doing it right often purchase their chocolate without directly visiting the farm. Now imagine the difference between being able to walk the land and talking to the grower. Picture partnering with them on which beans to grow and what flavor profiles to curate.
“I think it’s helped me develop my own style of chocolate making because I can go to the farm and I can see the fruit, have an idea of when it’s ripe, see how they’re fermenting, what the weather is like, when they’re harvesting and how,” says Dylan. “And this connection with the agricultural side has allowed me to form my own style of chocolate making. We’re so accustomed to saying such great chocolate comes out of Belgium. But cacao doesn’t grow there. It’s grown and coming from very far away. So I think we’re going to start to see the chocolate industry switch to a lot of manufacturing in the origin it grows.” Which leads to Dylan’s next adventure.
Mānoa Chocolate’s Cacao Farms
Five years in the making, Dylan’s farm started out as a mix of sustainability and experimentation. “A lot of it came out of necessity because we couldn’t always get our own local supply when we wanted,” says Dylan. “So now we’ve got a farm started on the north shore of Oahu. We are at around 1,200 or 1,500 trees and four acres. It’s planted out right now. We expect our first harvest large enough to do a bar next year.”
Growing cacao to harvest is slow going initially—it took Mānoa Chocolate about five years to get to this point on their Oahu property.
“I underestimated the amount of work that it would take. It was just raw land, so there was no real road, electricity, or water,” says Dylan. “We had to dig a well and get the electric company power. We ran out of a generator. Our road is getting better, but it’s still pretty rough when it rains, you need four-wheel drive. But we also deal with conditions that many countries don’t have. Wind, for example. Wind is an enemy of cacao. So we’ve over-engineered wind blocks. We’ve approached cacao a lot more like trying to grow the best grapes in the world. We’re trying to grow the best cacao in the world because that’s how we see making the best chocolate.”
The Flavor of Hawaii in Chocolate
Dylan and I spent some time talking about terroir, aka the flavor of a place. It’s a geeky term used quite frequently when discussing wine. But it applies to chocolate as well. The soil, the salt in the air, the natural yeasts that lead to fermentation, and the unique cacao beans all lead to a truly unique flavor that comes through in the Mānoa Chocolate bars. They literally taste of Hawaii.
At Mānoa, they take it one step further, however. While they do a fantastic job with their single-origin or estate-grown bars, they also make some beautiful chocolate with inclusions. Inclusions in chocolatier terms mean ingredients that are added outside of your standard bar. It is not flavored chocolate that contains natural or even artificial flavoring additives. Instead, think of nuts, spices, or fruit mixed in.
“Originally, we wanted to make single-origin bars,” Dylan explained. “Then we added Hawaiian sea salt or Kona coffee as inclusions to some of the bars. We found that people understood chocolate when we did a tasting with them with the single origins. Then they would buy the inclusion bars. I like the inclusions too. So we started to focus on being Hawaiian and making Hawaiian flavors.”
Where to find Mānoa Chocolate
Learn more about Caputo’s 2022 Chocolate Festival here.
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