Cacao History in Hawaii

Cacao History in Hawaii

Cacao History in Hawaii

Cacao, also known as cocoa, has a fascinating history in Hawaii that dates back centuries. The lush volcanic soil and ideal climate of the islands have provided the perfect conditions for cultivating this prized tropical fruit. From its introduction by early Polynesians to its modern-day significance in Hawaii's agriculture, the journey of cacao is rich with cultural, economic, and environmental influences.

Early Polynesian Influences

The story of cacao in Hawaii begins with the arrival of Polynesians, who settled on the islands over a thousand years ago. These skilled navigators brought with them various plants, including cacao, which they considered a valuable food source. The Polynesians recognized the importance of cacao and its potential for cultivation in the fertile Hawaiian soil.

Cacao, with its deliciously rich flavor and nutritional value, quickly became a staple in the diet of the early Polynesians. They discovered that the volcanic soil of Hawaii provided the perfect environment for cacao trees to thrive. The trees flourished, producing abundant cacao pods filled with the precious beans.

The Polynesians not only consumed cacao but also used it for ceremonial purposes. They believed that cacao had mystical properties and used it in rituals and offerings to their gods. This deep reverence for cacao is a testament to its significance in the Polynesian culture and its early establishment as a valued crop in Hawaii.

The Royal Connection

During the reign of King Kamehameha III in the early 19th century, cacao gained prominence in Hawaii. The king, who was known for his forward-thinking agricultural policies, saw the potential of cacao as a cash crop. He even established the first cacao plantation on the island of Oahu, marking a significant milestone in Hawaii's cacao history.

Under King Kamehameha III's leadership, cacao cultivation expanded across the islands. The king encouraged other farmers to grow cacao and provided them with the necessary resources and support. This royal endorsement of cacao propelled its commercialization and established it as an important agricultural industry in Hawaii.

The cacao plantations during this period not only produced cacao beans but also experimented with processing techniques to create different chocolate products. This innovation and experimentation laid the foundation for the development of Hawaii's unique chocolate industry.

Commercial Plantations and Challenges

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the establishment of numerous commercial cacao plantations across Hawaii. Large-scale cultivation of cacao was primarily concentrated on the islands of Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii (also known as the Big Island). These plantations faced various challenges, including diseases, labor shortages, and market fluctuations. Despite these difficulties, cacao production in Hawaii continued to flourish, contributing to the local economy.

The commercial cacao plantations in Hawaii employed a significant number of workers, both local and immigrant, to meet the growing demand for cacao beans. The plantations were labor-intensive, requiring skilled workers to tend to the cacao trees, harvest the pods, and process the beans.

However, the plantations also faced their share of challenges. One of the most significant obstacles was the outbreak of a fungal disease known as witches' broom in the 1950s. This devastating disease affected cacao trees, leading to a decline in production and the abandonment of many plantations.

Decline and Revival

Unfortunately, the decline of cacao in Hawaii followed the devastating impact of the witches' broom disease in the 1950s. This disease significantly reduced cacao production and led to the abandonment of many plantations. For several decades, cacao cultivation struggled to regain its former glory.

However, in the late 20th century, a resurgence of interest in cacao and the craft chocolate industry sparked a revival in Hawaii. Small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs began experimenting with different cacao varieties, processing techniques, and flavor profiles. This renewed passion for cacao led to the establishment of boutique chocolate makers and a renewed focus on the unique qualities of Hawaiian-grown cacao.

The revival of the cacao industry in Hawaii was driven by a growing demand for high-quality, artisanal chocolate. Consumers became more discerning and sought out unique flavor profiles and ethically sourced ingredients. Hawaiian cacao, with its rich history and distinct flavor characteristics, quickly gained recognition as a premium product in the global chocolate market.

Diverse Cacao Varieties

Hawaii is home to a diverse range of cacao varieties, each with its own distinct flavor characteristics. Some of the notable varieties grown in the islands include:

  1. Criollo: Known for its delicate flavor and aromatic notes, criollo cacao is highly prized by chocolate connoisseurs. The beans have a low bitterness and often exhibit fruity or nutty flavors, making them ideal for creating fine chocolates.

  2. Trinitario: A hybrid variety that combines the robustness of forastero with the delicate flavors of criollo, trinitario cacao is versatile and well-suited for chocolate production. These beans have a balanced flavor profile with hints of both fruitiness and bitterness.

  3. Nacional: Originating from Ecuador, nacional cacao has adapted well to the Hawaiian climate, producing beans with a rich, fruity flavor profile. The beans are often described as having floral and caramel notes, making them an excellent choice for creating complex and indulgent chocolates.

  4. Amelonado: Commonly found in West Africa, amelonado cacao has been successfully cultivated in Hawaii, offering a unique taste experience. These beans have a robust flavor with hints of earthiness and a slightly bitter undertone, making them well-suited for bolder chocolate creations.

The diverse range of cacao varieties in Hawaii allows chocolate makers to craft a wide array of flavors and textures, catering to different tastes and preferences.

Sustainable Agriculture and Conservation Efforts

As the importance of sustainable agriculture gained prominence, Hawaii's cacao industry embraced environmentally-friendly practices. Many farmers have embraced organic and fair-trade certifications, ensuring that their cacao is grown without harmful chemicals and workers receive fair wages.

Organic cacao farming in Hawaii involves the use of natural fertilizers, pest control methods, and environmentally-friendly cultivation techniques. This approach not only protects the health of the farmers and consumers but also preserves the biodiversity of the surrounding ecosystems.

Additionally, cacao cultivation has contributed to the conservation of Hawaii's native forests. Shade-grown cacao farms provide a habitat for endangered bird species and help maintain biodiversity. The cacao trees provide a canopy that protects the forest floor, preventing soil erosion and promoting the growth of other plants and wildlife.

By supporting Hawaiian cacao, consumers not only enjoy delicious chocolate but also contribute to the preservation of the islands' unique ecosystem. The sustainable farming practices employed by cacao farmers in Hawaii serve as a model for agricultural sustainability worldwide.

Tourism and Chocolate Experiences

Hawaii's cacao history has also become a fascinating draw for tourists. Visitors can immerse themselves in the world of chocolate through guided tours of cacao farms, chocolate tastings, and workshops on chocolate making. These experiences offer a deeper understanding of the cacao-growing process and the craft behind high-quality chocolate production.

Tourists have the opportunity to witness the entire journey of cacao, from the cultivation of the trees to the transformation of the beans into delectable chocolates. They can learn about the different cacao varieties, the intricacies of the fermentation and drying processes, and even try their hand at making their own chocolate creations.

These chocolate experiences not only educate and entertain tourists but also contribute to the local economy. The demand for chocolate-related tourism has spurred the growth of chocolate-themed establishments, such as chocolate cafes, chocolate boutiques, and chocolate-focused events, further enhancing the allure of Hawaii as a chocolate destination.


Cacao's journey through Hawaii's history is one of resilience, adaptation, and passion. From its Polynesian origins to the challenges faced by commercial plantations, and the subsequent revival of the craft chocolate industry, cacao has become deeply rooted in Hawaii's agricultural heritage. The diverse cacao varieties and sustainable farming practices have contributed to the islands' reputation as a producer of exceptional chocolate. Exploring the cacao history in Hawaii provides a glimpse into the cultural, economic, and environmental significance of this beloved tropical fruit.

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