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Cacao growing in West Maui … Oh, Wow!

Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate bursting at the beans, er, seams, with ripe pods

Cacao pods ripen into a rainbow of colors in the Lahaina sun. -- BRAD PAULSON photo

Island’s newest farm-to-bar company is harvesting fruit now for its Lahaina factory — opening in coming months

“Nine out of 10 people adore chocolate, the 10th person is a liar.” — Anonymous

As a chocolate lover, I want my husband to look at me in the same way I longingly gaze at a double-fudge brownie. I also hope that the creative mastermind behind Maui’s much anticipated farm-to-bar chocolate factory will spill the (cacao) beans soon on exactly when it will open to the public.

Anticipation is high as chocolate is a sweet and sensual mood enhancer. It lowers blood pressure, boasts antioxidant properties and also inhibits LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. No wonder its scientific name, “Theobroma cacao,” literally means “food of the gods.”

Alas, Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate Factory is still under construction in Lahaina Business Park (yet well underway), so CEO, Dr. Gunars Valkirs, tells me that he prefers to focus on what it takes to plant, grow and harvest his cacao in the West Maui mountains — and explains it from the ground up.

Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate bar -- BRAD PAULSON photo

The first plantings were on Winter Solstice in December, 2013, with the majority of the trees planted later. The chocolate company’s second harvest just transpired Wednesday with crews hand-picking fruit. (The first harvest was in the spring of 2018, but a rapid wildfire in Lahaina hampered efforts.)

“This is the first harvest day of this year,” said Valkirs on Wednesday. “Last year, there was an abrupt Lahaina wildfire, and we had to cut off remaining fruit to maintain the trees. The wind scorched through up to 70 miles an hour. Some cacao trees just couldn’t handle the burden of maturing the fruit. So we cut it off to redirect all of the energy.”

With consistent rains this year, the Maui Ku’ia Estate Cacao is thriving — ripe for the picking. Registered as J&G, Inc., the commercial farm is located on the leeward side of the West Maui Mountains in the ahupua’a of Ku’ia, covering 50 acres of former sugarcane land leased from Kamehameha Schools, according to the farm’s press release.

“This arid environment is very different from the lush jungle where cacao is normally grown,” says Valkirs. “Cacao normally thrives with an annual rainfall of 100 inches or more and with a jungle canopy that protects it from the wind. By comparison, Lahaina’s average annual rainfall is about 15 inches per year.”

Neem and panax wind-break trees are meant to protect the orchard, and the mountains mostly block trade winds. Now, the cacao is flourishing, producing colorful pods full of beans and nibs from which chocolate is made.

A worker transports cacao pods to be husked. -- BRAD PAULSON photo

“The neem and panax prevented most of the cacao from being scorched last year,” Valkirs says. “Some had to be replaced. Most recovered and are sprouting. Without the perimeter trees, we would have lost a lot more. It only affected the new plantings. The older trees pretty much all survived.”

This is great news for the chocolate factory and showroom, which will open in the coming months, permits pending.

When the chocolate factory opens, it will be a completely solar-powered, 9,000-square-foot facility near Star Noodle in Lahaina Business Park. In fact, it will be the largest off-the-grid facility on island.

The factory will feature the Pavilion for events and a retail store with chocolate tastings and window views into the factory. You may also indulge in the ultimate in fine dining at the chef’s table in which all of the seating faces the gourmet kitchen.

“This twice-weekly culinary experience will seat 23 at our beautifully-crafted communal dining table, where you interact with Executive Chef Riko Bartolome as he presents a tasting menu, which will pair perfectly with beverage selections,” says publicist Charlene Ka’uhane of Ka’uhane Inc.

The crew sits in the shade while husking the Lahaina pods by hand. -- BRAD PAULSON photo

The biggest news is that 100 percent of the net proceeds will go toward local island charities. Valkirs is a big benefactor to many nonprofits already. He holds a doctorate degree in Physics from the University of California at San Diego and made his money as the man who invented the first home pregnancy test.

He also co-founded Biosite Inc., developing novel diagnostic medical tests with a team that grew to 1,200 employees with annual sales of $300 million. Then he retired from being a famous biotech engineer, and moved here to call Maui his home.

“I have a history of medical diagnostics,” he says. “I was born in San Diego. My father and grandfather were farmers from Latvia. They had to flee their farm in order to avoid capture by the Soviets. And they spent years in displacement camps in Europe.”

Valkirs family farm background instills in him the ethic to keep busy in his orchards, working alongside the crew.

They are Krishna Narayan, vice president and general manager and Daniel O’Doherty, vice president of Chocolate Operations. The farm employs four full-time and several part-time people. David McPherson is farm manager and the three cacao farmers are Andy Baltonado, Joseph Ward and Palani Wright.

A beautiful flower is the start of wonders to come. -- BRAD PAULSON photo

It’s tough work, for sure, as any farmer knows on the island and elsewhere.

“The raw agricultural commodity is not economically viable, because you can’t recover your investment,” says Valkirs. “Break even is the best you can do. By adding agrcultural tours to a farm, by adding value, you can make an economic farm model work. The vast majority of growers are doing that. Dole is doing that on Oahu. I have to do that.”

The only other “branch-to-bar” cacao farm on Maui, Hana Gold, also does that with tours on its East Maui property and by making chocolate bars at its Kihei factory for retail sale to guests as well as online.

The difference between Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate and other farms and factories in the islands is that it gives back 100 percent of its net profits to local charities.

“When Gunars and his wife JoRene retired to Maui, they built their dream home in Kapalua,” says Ka’uhane. “Since their arrival, the Valkirs have been dedicated to giving back to the island, using funds from the Biosite sale to establish the Makana Aloha Foundation. Contributions have benefited so many Maui community nonprofits in countless ways over the years.”

Harvesting is done by hand. -- BRAD PAULSON photo

“It makes me feel good and that’s why I do it,” Valkirs says. “That’s why I have a factory in the first place.”

What’s in it for him?

“The satisfaction of knowing that I’m helping people,” he adds. “Bringing more money to the nonprofit community. It’s nothing new. We’re at a pretty high level, contributing about $250,000 per year. We don’t need it to live on. We’re fine. I don’t have a private jet.”

The giving back to Maui was the main reason he needed to add the factory to the farm, to generate money.

“I knew that I had to make a good business out of it,” says Valkirs. “The farm will never be profitable, unless I actually added value to the product. That’s where all the money is — in the chocolate. I couldn’t sell the raw material at a high enough price. It became the priority when we decided what to do with the money.”

Since the Maui-grown cacao only represents about five to 10 percent of the total needed to make the factory viable, he imports beans from Ecuador and the Amazon.

He sources from the top South American trees for the finest cacao.

“In the first year, it’s going to be about five to 10 percent of Maui-grown cacao and then it will grow over time. Our 2019 Maui chocolate production is somewhere between the range of 2,000 kilograms and 2,500 hundred. We haven’t started the factory up yet. We hope to make as much as 30 metric tons. I am talking about 100 percent grown on Maui cacao beans.

“If you call your chocolate island special or Maui specific, it has to be grown 100 percent in that region,” says Valkirs, who was instrumental in getting that legislation passed.

The fact that he will make chocolates from other origins is a necessity, and everything will be labeled to show where it is grown.

“The Ecuadorian beans are more than fair trade. We deal directly from the farm,” he says. “Our single-origin beans are from single farms managed by Dan O’Doherty. He has a hand in every source that we use. We also get to choose the best of their product, from the best lots from some of the best farms in the world. You can’t make a bad chocolate out of a great bean. The raw material matters. We pay up to $750 per kilogram, three times the commercial price.”

Maui Ku’ia Estate’s luxuriant dark milk chocolate is a blend of 60-percent cacao along with 20-percent milk powder and 20-percent sugar.

The dark chocolate is made with 65 to 75 percent cacao complemented with sugar. Experiments with lemongrass oil and peppermint are in the works, and the results are off the charts.

“All I’m doing is bringing the analytical to the operations. Dan has an analytical mind. Data is what matters.”

You can find the chocolate now. Some island restaurants are already using the chocolate for desserts. For instance, Star Noodle Pastry Chef Ed Morita is wowing with Ku’ia Estate Chocolate Mousse, a flourless chocolate cake with coffee and Chinese five-spice syrup with miso caramel all topped with Oreo Cookie crumble.

At Aloha Mixed Plate, also in Lahaina, Corporate Chef Ivan Pahk impresses diners with his Three Island Chocolate Cream Pie. It’s made of Ku’ia Estate Chocolate and Big Island ulu, or breadfruit, from Hawai’i Ulu Co-operative in Kailua, Kona, crumble made of kiawe flour from Waianae Gold on Oahu along with fresh apple bananas grown at Hoaloha Farm in Waikapu.

At Taverna in Kapalua, Chef Roger Stettler makes Torta di Cioccolato, a flourless Ku’ia Estate Chocolate cake drizzled with Tahitian vanilla sauce, candied hazelnut and white chocolate tuille

Where else can you dive into this chocolate now?

Ka’ana Kitchen at Andaz Maui at Wailea’s Pastry Chef Ashley Nakano is baking up Ku’ia Estate Chocolate pot de creme with banana Bavarian, hazelnut Nutella crumble and local frozen bananas.

Luxury Maui properties such Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa in Kaanapali and Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea along with restaurants such as Hula Grill, will soon have their desserts available for everyone to enjoy as icing on the cake.

Getting back to the factory, it will be the place to go for housemade ice cream, pastries, made-to-order chocolate drinks and desserts.

“In order for us to meet our 10-year plan, we asked chefs and hoteliers if they would support us early on if we sold Ku’ia Estate Made in Maui and all of them said ‘yes,’ they wanted Made in Maui — and when we could they would buy Grown on Maui, Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate,” Valkirs says. “We have a grid that shows how production will amp up over time.”

Chocolate lovers may join the Maui Ku’ia Club waitlist or sign up for the blog to see the progress of the factory. Maui Ku’ia Estate Club will allow members to pre-order chocolate while the factory is being constructed, have first access to rare limited edition grown as well as made in Maui chocolate, and be able to exclusively try chocolate made from other rare cacao farms around the world.

I’m dreaming longingly of a chocolate bar right now.

* Carla Tracy can be reached at carlatracy@mauinews.com.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Maui Ku’ia cacao and chocolate at a glance:

• The farm: Maui Ku’ia Estate Cacao is located in Lahaina on 50 acres of former sugarcane land. Twenty acres are planted so far with more to come.

• The cacao: Five to 10 percent of the total beans will come from Maui initially, with the majority of beans coming from single-source farms in Ecuador and wild cacao from the Amazon. The goal is for 100 percent to be Maui grown.

• Join the club: Maui Ku’ia Club offers a wait list for chocolate products. You may pre-order while construction continues on the factory and have first access to rare and limited edition chocolate from around the world.

• The factory: When completed, it will be the largest off-the-grid facility on island featuring a retail store, chocolate tasting area, chef’s table and pavilion for events. The location is Lahaina Business Park near Star Noodle.

• For more details: Visit www.maui chocolate.com.

Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao farm is located in Lahaina on the leeward side of the West Maui Mountains in the ahupua‘a, or land area, of Ku‘ia, on 50 acres of former sugarcane land leased from Kamehameha Schools. -- DAN O’DOHERTY photo

CEO and founder Dr. Gunars Valkirs harvests a cacao pod by hand. -- NAINOA MOORE photo

Cacao flowers are delicate and beautiful along with being difficult to pollinate. The end result is the delicious chocolate that will soon be available in Lahaina at the Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate Factory. -- BRAD PAULSON photo

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