Kaua‘i’s Bean-to-bar Chocolatier

Koa Kahili, the chocolate man

Carefully peel back the thick foil enclosing a bar of Garden Island Chocolate. Immediately, the aroma blooms and enfolds you in a cloud of pure chocolate bliss. Gingerly break off a piece and put it in your mouth. The creamy chocolate compels you to slow down, pay attention and savor every silky bite.

“Our mission statement is to produce the best chocolate in the world,” says owner Koa Kahili, a slim father of two bewitched by cacao. He has been known to tuck his kids into bed before making chocolate late into the night.

It’s back to basics using the time-honored tradition of creating things with your hands, motivated by the sheer pleasure of doing so. In a tactile dance between body, mind and spirit, Kahili transforms bland cacao beans into gourmet confections.

Caco nibs are ground into a smooth liquid. Danå Lane photos

“Everything is done by hand,” says Kahili, the only bean-to-bar chocolatier on Kaua’i. After the pods are harvested the beans are fermented, dried, roasted and cracked. Kahili painstakingly hand-separates the chaff and puts the nibs into a granite grinder.

“I’m crazy I guess,” he admits. Clearly this is a labor of love.

His chocolate factory is nestled on 13 acres of organic farm-land on Kaua’i’s north shore. Rows of cacao trees await buyers fulfilling the dream of a sustainable agricultural crop throughout the island. Striking views of the

Namolokama mountain range frame the property, and the Hanalei River snakes along its border.

In a tribute to the first chocolate lovers, Kahili created the Mayan Spice bar. As a bite melts on my tongue, a warm taste of chai infused with all-spice – also grown on Kahili’s farm – fills my mouth. Then a perky spice hits from three kinds of ground chili pepper including cayenne.

It takes 10 seed pods to make one chocolate bar

“The Mayans say when you make the chocolate drink by shaking it, the foam feeds your spirit and the drink feeds your body,” says Kahili of the ancient beverage made with ground cacao, spices and chiles.

The Macadamia Nut Coconut bar is bursting with flakes of dried coconut and chunks of big fat macadamia nuts, harvested from Kahili’s farm. The smooth chocolate combined with the creamy macadamia nuts create a sublime bar.

There are two key elements in creating these fine artisan chocolates. Most name brands contain ten percent cacao, Kahili’s bars contain eighty percent, lending an intense chocolate flavor and no waxy residue.

The hemp seed and mint bar offers healthy protein

Of the eight varieties that Kahili grows (with the help of other island farmers) the creamy “Crillo is the most rare, expensive, and exclusive chocolate in the world,” he explains of the main varietal that contributes to a luscious mouth feel.

Averaging $10 a bar, I felt sticker shock when I first heard the price.

“People say, ‘Ten dollars for that?’ But they don’t know it’s all done by hand and it’s all local,” says Kahili who provides farmers a livable wage by paying them $4 from every bar. A noble gesture given that the chocolate industry is rife with unethical business practices.

“Nothing is cheap,” Kahili says. “If a good is cheap, the price has been paid by someone else … The reality is that a chocolate bar represents three days of labour for someone in another country,” says Carol Off in her book Bitter Chocolate. “One child in (the) Ivory Coast, whom I quote in the book, said, ‘When you eat a piece of chocolate, you are eating my body.'”

The many flavors of Garden Island Chocolate

“The big part is education – teaching people about what good chocolate is,” says Kahili who is opening an education center this summer. The facility will include chocolate tastings, chocolate-making classes and information about nutrition and super-foods such as farm-fresh açaí

Kahili says at least one doctor confessed that he “prescribes chocolate to my patients with arthritis, pulmonary concerns and people with heart attacks or heart risks” because “theobromine in chocolate allows the blood to flow through your heart easier. It’s also a muscle relaxant.”

Plant alkaloids in chocolate bind to receptors in our brains and increase dopamine, serotonin and endorphin levels. “I’ve had psychologists on our farm tour because they’ve read about the mood enhancing properties of chocolate,” says brother Jesse Schwartz.

Chocolate and sea salt? Sounds unusual, but it works. Dan Lane photos

Being a dedicated connoisseur of dark chocolate, I thought I knew the best – until I had Kahili’s. Almost a religious experience for me, these bars are my favorite and I look forward to savoring them as a weekly treat. Except, I’m afraid a week may be too long to wait!

Garden Island Chocolate, 634-6812
Farm Tours, Monday and Thursday 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. $55, keiki 12 and under free.For reservations call 346-8391.