Madre Chocolate: Being a Bean to Bar Company in Hawai’i

When one thinks of chocolate in Hawaii, what often comes to mind are popular chocolate confections; usually Hawaiian treats such as macadamia nuts, coconuts, pineapples and more covered in a rich thick layer of milk or dark chocolate. Though such treats are considered chocolate, it is typically the treat contained inside which is given greater attention, leading many to forget about the provenance of the actual chocolate itself. Of course, the cacao used in these particular confections tends to be bulk – inherently not having much of a history or story. Yet, the existence of these treats tends to overshadow the more endemic forms of chocolate in Hawaii. What sets the island chain apart from the many other places in the world that produce chocolate is that due to its geographic location, being within the belt of 20 degrees North and 20 degrees south of the equator (Presilla 2), Hawaii is able to farm and produce its own cacao. Inherently shortening the supply chain, this also allows for the production of very high quality Hawaiian chocolate products, which can be found nowhere else in the world. In the past few years, Hawaii chocolate makers have started to emerge, capitalizing on the availability of local Hawaiian cacao and the growing global/local demand for high quality chocolate, which arose both from the consumers understanding of the cacao supply chain and also the movement in France to raise the status of chocolate to a fine food (Martin). These two realities have reached consumers all over the world, including in Hawaii. By first exploring the history of cacao in Hawaii and looking at some of the advantages and disadvantages of cacao grown in such locale, we can garner a greater understanding and appreciation for what is means to be a bean to bar company, like Madre Chocolate, here in Hawaii.

Out of all fifty states, Hawaii is the only state in which cacao can farmed due to its latitudinal positioning; this also implies that Hawaii is the only state in which locally grown, single-origin and estate-grown chocolate can be produced (Engle, Star Advertiser). Although cacao was introduced in 1850 by the German physician William Hillebrand (Bittenbender, Cacao), cacao farming and production in Hawaii did not take off until the late 1900s, namely after the purchase of Hodge Farm in 1997 by Bob and Pam Cooper (Bittenbender, Cacao). Originally from North Carolina, the couple initially came to the islands as visitors on vacation. About thirty years later, Pam and Bob Cooper decided to settle and buy a farm in Kona, Hawaii (Engle, Star Advertiser), a cottage industry which would spark commercial cacao farming throughout Hawai’i. Located in Keauhou, the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory – the child of Pam and Bob Cooper – began humbly, producing chocolate from cocoa beans harvested on their 6-acre cacao tree farm (Cooper, SFGate). The 1400 cacao trees grew surprisingly well on their farm. In fact, they grew so well  that they encourage others to grow cacao as well, foreseeing both the economic and environmental advantages of Hawaiian cacao. But at the time, Hawaii lacked a market to sell fine, locally produced chocolate that could compete with imported, mass-produced chocolate which had already established itself in the market and in turn limiting local cacao’s prosperity in the islands. However, as national awareness arose about the unethical practices occurring in the cacao supply chain of many of the major chocolate companies- for example, the Cadbury scandal in Sao Tomé Principé that uncovered the company’s use of slave labor to produce it cacao beans (Higgs, 133-165) – consumers began to demand that company’s take more responsibility in regulating their supply chains. This exposition of the cacao supply chain, often fraught with moral violations, also led consumers to take a greater interest in simply understanding what this supply chain and also the process of cacao becoming chocolate looked like. Ultimately what resulted was a demand for higher quality chocolate that was socially aware and still delicious. Simultaneous with such was a worldwide movement beginning in France that aimed to cultivate chocolate and chocolate products as fine, sophisticated and complex products. This movement focused on consumer’s education of how to taste; it aimed to provide one with the skills to appreciate the plethora of flavors, which chocolate and other confections have to offer (William& Eber, 141-209). In turn, this created a market for chocolate makers across the globe to de-commodify chocolate by bringing it into a realm of a specialty products similar to that of wine or coffee. This paradigm shift in the conception of chocolate led to the proliferation of chocolate companies globally, including in Hawaii, dedicated to the production of single source, bean to bar creations aimed at the newly developed market of chocolate connoisseurs.

By the early 2000s small cacao farms began to establish themselves across the Hawaiian Islands. Agriculture researchers helped this process, dedicating much of their time to better understanding the types of cacao which can grow in the islands and the ways in which cacao farming can be optimized in Hawaii as to help boost the industry towards its lofty goal of attaining prominence similar to that of Kona for its coffee (Bittenbender). Their work has allowed farmers to identify 11 cacao species that they believe have the optimal traits for growing in the islands which will hopefully lead to higher quality beans but also more efficient farming (Gomes). As of 2010, H.C Skip Bittenbender, a professor at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii at Manoa estimates there to be about 30 small farms operating on about 100 acres of land. However, when put into perspective, comparing Hawaii’s cacao production to some of the largest commercial producers of cacao beans as in West Africa, because of its low accessibility, Hawaii cacao comes in at the most expensive in the world, currently selling at about $9 to $10 a pound compared to the more common rate for commodity cacao which comes in at about $3 per pound. This huge difference in cost is driven primarily by the costs of growing and processing cacao in the US; labor and electricity being the principal expenses which drive the costs of Hawaii produced chocolate up (Chocolopolis). Because of this of course, the chocolate which is produced in the islands is significantly more expensive than chocolate who’s cacao has been sourced in bulk in developing countries. However, compared to other high quality chocolate makers and chocolatiers in the country, the bars produced by Madre Chocolate are rather similar in price, making them just as affordable as any other bar marketed to chocolate connoisseurs. To understand more thoroughly the reasons for these increased costs, we can more closely examine what it takes for a company like Madre Chocolate to be a bean to bar company in Hawaii.

But first, what is a bean to bar company? Bean to bar chocolate implies the chocolate maker’s direct involvement in the chocolate production process. Put simply, the chocolate maker is engaged from the point of the cacao bean purchase – at the farm – through the chocolate production process, to the end product – chocolate (Voxlin). In Hawai’i, the company Madre Chocolate has committed itself to this concept since its inception in 2010. Founded by David Elliott and Nat Bletter (Chocoblog), Madre Chocolate has quickly established itself in both the local and national chocolate communities. The duo has approached chocolate in a very extraordinary way, allowing their personal backgrounds to largely influence the chocolate they produce. Nat Bletter, better known as the flavormeister (Madre Chocolate), has a Ph.D. from City University New York in ethnobotany. Bletter dedicated 15 years of his life to documenting a wide variety of food bearing and medicinal plants in Asia, as well as in South and Central America (Madre Chocolate). David Elliot, the production manager, brings his chocolate expertise, which he gleaned from his travels and residency in the epicenter of chocolate in Mexico, Oaxaca City to produce chocolate with a social mission that positively impacts cacao farmers and their communities. Together the two cultivate the state and nation’s appreciation for chocolate by producing single origin, organic, fair trade chocolate bars, which work to connect chocolate consumers with cacao farmers, in turn promoting the well-being of these farmers and their communities (Madre Chocolate). The video below offers more insight on their mission and how the pair goes about achieving such here in Honolulu, Hawaii.

As discussed earlier, one of the things that makes Hawaii chocolate makers so unique is the fact that they are able to source some portion of their beans locally, both promoting the local farming industry while also having the opportunity to work very closely with the farmers themselves to collaborate on ways in which the company and farmers can work together to produce the highest quality of chocolate; namely focusing on the fermentation and drying processes which have the greatest impact on the flavor and quality of the cacao.  Since the fermentation process of the beans has to occur within a couple weeks after picking the cacao, it becomes even more advantageous for chocolate makers such as Madre to have local access to such as they can be sure that the process happens in a timely fashion, guaranteeing higher quality chocolate. However, due to the high prices and low supply of local Hawaiian cacao, Madre chocolate does source a portion of its beans from South America. To keep the supply chain as short as possible and assure that the farmers are included in the process of the chocolate making, Madre Chocolate follows a direct trade protocol in which they get to know every farmer they buy cacao from and take personal responsibility to see for themselves that the conditions of the people and the ecology of the farm meet ethical and ecological standards; direct trade removes the middle man- one of fair trade’s biggest downfalls. Once Madre buys cacao beans from a farmer, a few weeks later they will be back on that farm to do a chocolate tasting allowing for collaboration with the farmers on how to improve the quality of the beans and the end chocolate product. By doing such, the pair sees through every step of the process, allowing them to produce truly sustainable and socially cognizant chocolate.

Back Camera
Nat Bletter and David Elliott planting cacao tree


Taking a closer look at their products, one of the most notable features of their chocolate is the design they choose to include on both their chocolate packaging and bar itself.

“The History of Chocolate in Our Label” Madre Chocolate

The duo has chosen to include the Maya hieroglyph for cacao, putting their own spin on it by including the image of an actual cacao bean, on every one of their products. They discuss its importance as a tool for more deeply understanding the struggle of researchers working to decipher these highly intricate and beautiful symbols that are the Mayan language. Being one of the first populations to truly integrate cacao into its culture, Mayan history is closely tied to chocolate history, and in turn their language – these symbols- are crucial to gaining a more holistic picture of cacao’s place throughout space and time. Recognizing this, Bletter and Elliot have remained loyal to the inclusion of this sign on their chocolate, hoping that it will inspire thought about “the long, beautiful, and complex history of chocolate” every time one enjoys their products.

Madre offers a wide variety of products ranging from Hawaii origin bars, Xocolatl bars, and various cacao products such as bean to bar chocolate making kits and roasted cacao nibs. The packaging on the bars is rather aesthetically pleasing but also extremely informative in terms of giving the consumer a sense of what they are about to buy or indulge in. Let’s look more closely at one bar in particular to see how Madre chocolate works to convey its mission to their consumers.

The Kona, Hawai’i Bar features a picture of the Hawaiian Islands, as well as the district in which such cacao was sourced, Kona. This offers the consumer a snapshot of where the cacao from this bar came from. Kokoleka, the word for chocolate in Hawaiian, is included on the bottom of the bar’s packaging, bringing back the idea of the bar’s Hawaiian roots and origin. On the back of the package a summary is provided to further educate the consumer on the provenance of this particular chocolate bar. The back reads:


Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 2.27.53 PM
70% Kona, Hawaii Chocolate Bar

Likao Kula Farm 70%, Holualoa, Kona, Big Island: Winner of the 2014 Big Island Chocolate Festival best bean-to-bar chocolate award. From the recent release of our newest bar and first one made with Kona cacao from Likao Kula farm where the rock star cacao grower Gini grows & ferments incredibly fruity & delicate cacao. The high altitude of this farm at 1600 ft makes it one of the highest in the world we know about, and this gives incredible creaminess to the chocolate. You can imagine the shivering cacao beans bundling up with extra cocoa butter insulation for the frigid winters of the Kona mountains. This bar has excellent gooseberry, marzipan, currant, peach, and Brazil nut notes to it.

The consumer now knows the specific farm and farmer who grew the cacao beans which are used in this particular chocolate bar. This is another way in which Madre Chocolate fosters a relationship between chocolate consumers and cacao farmers. Also, to help consumers have a more thorough experience of eating their chocolate, Madre includes which flavor notes one should look out for when tasting their chocolate. Just in the packaging, we see Madre Chocolates commitment to connecting the consumer with the farmer, cultivating a greater appreciation for the cacao, and also engendering the idea of chocolate as a fine food that should be consumed thoughtfully as say a fine wine or cheese would be. This particular Madre Chocolate bar, weighing in at about 1.5 ounces, comes in at $11. Compared to the average Hershey’s bar, that price seems a bit steep. However, going back to the mission of the Madre Chocolate company and the process which combines care, compassion, collaboration, fairness and quality, the price of such becomes much more reasonable if not simply understandable.


Madre Chocolate continues to go above and beyond, offering monthly chocolate tastings at their Chinatown and Kailua locations, tirelessly working to bring together the community around chocolate as a fine and deeply historical food, but also to raise awareness of the importance of direct trade and cacao farmer’s well-being. Hawaii has proven to be a one of a kind place to make chocolate and Madre Chocolate works hard to emanate that special opportunity for the state to establish itself in the world of chocolate through its mission of social awareness as a way to produce high quality, delicious chocolate.

Works Cited:

“About Us.” Madre Chocolate. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2016. <;.

Bittenbender, H.C Skip. “History of Hawaii Cacao.” Hawaii Cacao. Ecole Chocolat – Professional School of Chocolate Arts, 2012. Web. 1 May 2016. <;.

Cooper, Jeanne. “Chocolate Farms a Sweet Spot on Any Hawaii Itinerary.” SFGate. Hearst Communications, 30 Oct. 2009. Web. 1 May 2016. <;.

Discover a world of chocolate. “The Challenges of Making Chocolate in Hawaii: A Visit with Dr. Nat Bletter of Madre Chocolate.” Chocolopolis. N.p., 7 July 2014. Web. 1 May 2016. <;.

Engle, Erika. “Cooper Couple Grows Cacao, Sells Chocolate Far and Wide.” Star Advertiser [Honolulu] 16 May 2014, Business Premium: n. pag. Print.

Gomes, Andres. “Hoping for a Sweet Harvest.” The Honolulu Advertiser [Honolulu] 25 Jan. 2010: n. pag. Print.

Higgs, Catherine. “Cacao and Slavery.” Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. N.p.: n.p., 2012. 133-65. Print.

Presilla, Marciel. The New Taste of Chocolate. 2nd ed. Berkely: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print. A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes.

Ramsey, Dom. “A Visit To Madre Chocolate.” Chocoblog: the Chocolate Blog. N.p., 8 May 2014. Web. 1 May 2016. <;.

Voxlin, David. “Bean to Bar Chocolate – The Basics.” CRAVED: Curators of Craft Food. Craved, 16 Oct. 2015. Web. 1 May 2016. <;.

Williams, Pam, and Jim Beer. “To Market, To Market: Craftsmanship, Customer Education, and Flavor.” Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver: Wilmor, 2012. 141-209. Print.




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