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The History and Origin of Hawaiian Chocolate

In recent years, Hawaiian cacao and the rich, delicious chocolate it produces has been quietly stealing the specialty chocolate spotlight and captivating chocolate lovers worldwide. 

As a fairly new player in the commercial chocolate marketplace, Hawaii-grown cacao offers everyone from self-proclaimed foodies to adventurous epicures and the cacao curious new and artisanal chocolate products to try. But how did cacao come to be one of Hawaii’s latest and most delicious agricultural endeavors? It’s a story that starts nearly 5,000 years ago.

a hand holding an open cacao podAn open cacao pod filled with white, fruit-covered cacao beans

What is Cacao?

Before we jump back in time and trace chocolate’s journey to Hawaii, it’s essential to understand a few key terms. First, cacao is the term for raw, unprocessed chocolate. Cacao can refer to the tree from which it grows, the fruit’s pods, and seeds (beans). As one of the most antioxidant-rich superfoods, it’s no surprise that the botanical name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, translates to “Food of the Gods.” 

Chocolate is what we call processed cacao. To become decadent, crave-able, bean-to-bar chocolate, cacao beans must first undergo fermentation to convert the sugars in the sweet pulp of the fresh fruit beans into ethanol, and then to organic acids, which change the chemical composition of the bean and give it the chocolatey flavor we love. Once fermented and dried, cacao beans can be roasted, ground, and combined with sugar and cacao butter to become creamy dreamy chocolate. 

Kakawa to Cocoa, Xocolatl to Chocolate

Today you may see the words cacao and cocoa used interchangeably. While they do mean the same thing, the words can be spelled and used differently depending on the context. The words cacao and cocoa are derived from the ancient Olmec word kakawa (ka-KA-wa). The Olmec were the earliest known civilization in Mexico and likely the first humans to ferment, roast, and grind cocoa beans for food, drink, and medicinal use. 

Aztec. Man Carrying a Cacao Pod, 1440-1521. Volcanic stone, traces of red pigment, 14 1/4 x 7 x 7 1/2in. Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund, 40.16. Creative Commons-BY

The Olmec-descended Mayan civilization drank a beverage called xocolatl, which was made from ground cacao beans and water. The Aztecs also used cacao in a beverage they called cacahuatl or chocolatl. Over time these ancient words evolved into the terms we are familiar with today – cacao, cocoa, and chocolate. The cacao spelling evolved due to Spanish explorers while English speakers generally used the cocoa spelling. 

Today, you’re likely to see cocoa used to describe cacao that has been powdered and de-fatted for use in beverages and baking. Cacao powder is the same thing, except usually found in the health food markets. Likewise, cocoa butter and cacao butter refer to the same thing, the fat of the cacao bean that is rich in healthy stearic and oleic acid. 

Important Moments in Cacao History

Even though the first documented cacao tree didn’t arrive in Hawaii until the 1830s, cacao has a long and global history that is as intriguing as its taste! Here are a few significant historical milestones that led to the development of commercial and specialty chocolate industries as we know it today.

  • ~8,000 BCE: Humans first arrive in the Amazon river basin and discover cacao, likely fermenting the sweet pulp into alcoholic beverages, unlocking the flavor transformation of the cacao seeds through fermentation. 
  • 300 BCE to 1000 AD: The Mayan civilization rises, carrying forth many of the traditions of the ancient Olmecs before them, including the consumption of cacao and an unsweetened beverage made from cacao beans. Cacao is so valuable in the Mayan civilization it is used as currency and traded for food and clothing. 
  • 1200 – 1300 AD: The Maya begin to trade with the Aztecs and give them cacao with which the Aztecs make cacahuatl, meaning warm or bitter liquid.
  • 1400 – 1700 AD: Hernan Cortez brings cacao beans from voyages to the new world back to Spain. As the Spanish begin their conquest of South America, cacao and its food, beverage, and medicinal uses start to spread throughout the Spanish Colonies and Europe. The first chocolate house opens in London in 1657. 
  • 1700 -1850 AD: Drinking chocolate and chocolate houses expand worldwide and the traditional warming spices like chili, pepper, and cinnamon all but disappear from the recipe and are replaced with sugar. The Industrial Revolution brings innovation in chocolate machinery. The invention of hydraulic presses allows chocolatiers from Switzerland and Europe to create the first pressed chocolate bars. The first cacao tree is documented in Hawaii in 1830. 
  • 1850 – 1906 AD: Americans are introduced to chocolate sweets for the first time at Prince Albert’s Exhibition in London in 1851. Global names in commercial chocolate production, including Hershey, Toblerone, Cadbury, Ghiradelli, and Nestlé, begin commercial production of milk chocolate which reduces the amount of cacao needed to make chocolate by adding large amounts of milk powder and sugar. 
  • 1910 -1940s AD: Individually wrapped chocolates and new products enter the market. Godiva Chocolate company is founded, and chocolate is included in American soldiers’ rations during WWII.
  • 1980 – present: A new wave of specialty chocolate innovation begins. Scharffen Berger in Berkeley, CA becomes America’s first artisan chocolate maker and introduces the country to the concept of bean-to-bar chocolate in 1997. Much like wine and specialty coffee, the bean-to-bar renaissance reveals the true flavor and health benefits of cacao and it is recognized as a specialty food for its many distinctive tasting notes as well as terroir or the unique flavor of the growing region. Chocolate is one of few foods that is transformed by fermentation and roasting which build layers of unique flavors that are removed or hidden by additional ingredients in most industrially-produced chocolate.   

a man standing next to a tree with a cacao pod in hand. He is opening it with a machete.

Hawaiian Chocolate

While cacao is native to the Amazon, it is now found in humid, tropical climates worldwide. Hawaii is the only place in the United States that grows cacao and supports a commercial cacao agriculture industry. Just like the ancient Aztec and Maya, cacao has royal connections in Hawaii as well.  

In 1858 German physician and botanist Dr. William Hillebrand arrived in Hawaii and began serving the royal Hawaiian family as a doctor. During his employment, Hillebrand was also tasked with traveling around Asia and the East Indies to search for sources of labor for the budding plantation agriculture industry as well as medical treatments for leprosy and other plants and animals that could be useful in Hawaii. Cacao was one of the plants he returned to Hawaii with and grew on a small plot of land he leased from Queen Kalama. Hillebrand grew a wide variety of native and introduced plants and in 1888 he published the Flora of the Hawaiian Islands, a standard reference on Hawaiian plants. His garden is the present-day site of Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu. J.M. Lydgate, who our farm is named after was an apprentice of Hillebrand assisting him with plant collections and identification and visiting his cacao and other plantings on Oahu. 

a close up of cacao beans fermenting at Lydgate FarmsHands and cocoa beans

Since the 1850s, Hawaii has seen the rise, disappearance, and resurgence of many crops, including sugar cane, pineapple, coffee, and macadamia nuts. As sugar production declined in Hawaii throughout the 20th century and the few remaining mills came to a close in the 1990s, interest in cacao farming began to grow. In 1996, Dole Food Company planted 20 acres of cacao on the North Shore of Oahu, and small, independent cacao farms started to appear statewide. While social issues and various forms of child labor can be found in many chocolate origins, Hawaii is not one of them, having by far the best paid and well cared for workers in the global chocolate value chain.  


Worker molding Lydgate Chocolate bars

The Future of Chocolate and Lydgate Farms

The future of chocolate in Hawaii is bright. More and more farmers are looking for ways to cultivate cacao and develop flavors unique to where it is grown and develop chocolate and cacao products in house. Some legislation has been passed to help accelerate the growth of the cacao industry in Hawaii and help identify and eliminate obstacles. Today, Lydgate Farms is owned and operated by a fifth-generation Kauai family. Our farm is one of the small, independent cacao growers helping diversify Hawaii agriculture and foster the state’s bean-to-bar chocolate industry. Lydgate Farms has been recognized as producing one of the top 50 best cacao beans in the world at the Cocoa of Excellence Awards in Paris, France. 

Boy Sampling Fruit at Lydgate Farms

We’re passionate about changing the way the world thinks about and experiences chocolate because fine dark chocolate is the most delicious health food on the planet and a regenerative, sustainable crop paving the way forward for farmers in Hawaii and tropical regions around the world. 

We believe the future of agriculture in Hawaii lies in creating high-quality products from specialty crops, such as cacao, cultivated in sustainable ways that care for and protect the land. We use regenerative farming techniques and organic fertilizers to increase soil health and nurture the land. In Hawaiian, the phrase Malama’ Aina means to care for the land so it can sustain life for future generations. We are proud to continue our family’s legacy and support sustainability efforts through the experience of thoughtfully crafted chocolate, small-scale farming, and educational farm tours.