Local Origins

Madre mia! One O’ahu-based company gives chocophiles the ultimate bean-to-bar experience.

Standing in a sublimely sunny opening of a shady cacao orchard cuddled by the lush landscape of Windward O’ahu’s majestic Waiahole Valley, an audible snap joins the melodic chirp of birds wafting through the remote, crisp air. It’s the sound of Nat Bletter, Madre Chocolate co-founder and flavormeister, cleanly breaking off a piece of perfectly tempered, 70-percent dark chocolate from his Organic Reppun Chocolate Bar for his cacao farm tour-goers to try. As nutty, deep chocolate notes erupt over each guest’s taste buds, Bletter explains that these flavorful bites originated from the very soil upon which they are standing.

Across Hawai’i, farms like the Reppun family’s diverse agricultural space, and chocolatiers like Madre Chocolate, have found themselves at the epicenter of a rapidly growing island cacao industry. With more bean-to-bar chocolate makers per capita than any other state, Hawai’i’s conversation surrounding those ethereal confections has become less about chocolate-dipped macadamia nuts produced on a mass scale with homogeneously blended cocoa, and more about a colorful range of globally renowned artisan chocolate exquisitely crafted from the islands’ bountiful cacao tree-bearing microclimates.

Bletter and his Madre counterpart, co-founder David Elliott, steep themselves in bean-to-bar glory, participating in every step of chocolate spawning with passion. Just as wine makers see a batch of grapes through to the finished bottle, this cocoa dream team is involved from the earliest agricultural phase to the completed, hand-wrapped bars. In just four short years of business, their direct-trade, vegan and soy-free goods have earned a remarkable 11 awards, garnering recognition on local, national and global platforms, including wins at the International Chocolate Awards.

An invaluable step along the way for this duo is sharing chocolate’s wildly flavorful story with anyone who fancies a taste.

Bletter expresses that the company works to “get chocolate away from being called ‘the candy bar’ and have people appreciate it like other great fermented foods, like wine and cheese and coffee, and realize that there’s this incredible range of flavors in there.”

Madre Chocolate whiskey and chocolate pairing. R Breit photo.

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At the shop's chocolate and beverage pairings, you'll encounter opportunities to expand flavor vocabularies by tasting high-quality chocolate alongside tequila, rum, beer and even kombucha (photo by Rachel Breit).

Through a plethora of tours and classes, the company fully submerges the sweet tooth in every velvety fold and crevice of chocolate making. Two charming storefronts in Kailua and Chinatown serve as home base, while Madre’s true footprint extends past its brick and mortar and into cacao farms sprinkled throughout the islands. Working together closely, chocolatiers and farmers open up these earthy patches for chocolate exploration, discovery and adventure.

After sampling an Organic Reppun at its origin, visitors of the seasonal farm tours learn how to pick a rainbow of ripe cacao pods right off the trees, and witness the beans fermenting on location—a step Bletter says immensely contributes to the final chocolate flavor. Then, to uncover the seemingly mystical transformation of cacao beans into melted sheets of deep brown sweetness, guests travel to the Kailua shop and factory space, where chocolate in its recognizable form begins to take shape through winnowing, grinding and tempering, among other artistic techniques.

By way of this bean-to-bar experience, guests connect firsthand with just what makes Hawaiian chocolate shine in a class of its own. Whereas the majority of chocolate makers live continents and oceans away from the tropical cacao farms their chocolate stems from, Hawai’i-based chocolatiers have unprecedented access to close-knit working relationships with local cacao farmers. Thus, they can collaborate at every level to fine-tune chocolaty flavors and bring out the complex terroir each region offers.

“Hawai’i is so unique in terms of being the only place in the U.S. where cacao grows, and you can see things made tree-to-bar. We really want to take advantage of that and teach people more about where chocolate comes from,” Bletter describes.

Supplementing the farm tours, Madre Chocolate’s classes run the gamut from educational workshops to fun, flirty encounters with cacao. Farm-friendly hiking boots give way to high heels and cocktail dresses at the shop’s chocolate and beverage pairings, chic opportunities to expand flavor vocabularies by tasting high-quality chocolate alongside tequila, rum, beer and even kombucha. Ideal for date night, the Chocolate and Whiskey Pairings introduce attendees to five distinct whiskeys paired eloquently with Madre’s expressive treats. Guests are illuminated as to how a smooth Bullet Rye 90 Proof whiskey, for instance, can complement the fruity, floral subtleties of a Big Island-sourced Earl Grey Tea chocolate bar.

While tasting away, chocolate enthusiasts find enchantment in a decadent array of cocoa-based products sprinkled throughout the two café-style shops. Indigenous Chocolate Soap and Indigo Elixirs Chocolate Lip Balm, made by local businesses utilizing Madre’s byproducts, as well as the store’s own cacao nibs, line the walls, revealing the true versatility of this fine food.

At every level of Madre’s offerings, customers benefit from the extensive knowledge both Elliott and Bletter hold in their craft. With a Ph.D. in ethnobotony, Bletter effortlessly shares his expertise with fellow “chocophiles”—one minute his eyes light up as he points out Jamaican lilikoi and hibiscus plants at the Chinatown locale’s courtyard garden; the next, he’s picking lemon basil leaves to offer as samples. All of these ingredients will undoubtedly find their way into a Madre bar at some point.

Meanwhile, Elliott’s background in pursuing rural development and environmental justice issues in South America, as well as his time spent living in the chocolate mecca known as Oaxaca City, Mexico, lend to the company’s mission to be socially and ecologically responsible in its practices, and to pay tribute to chocolate’s culturally rich history. One bold, spiced morsel of Chipotle Allspice bar transports samplers to chocolate’s Mesoamerican roots, while Traditional Oaxacan Mole-Making classes exemplify Madre’s celebration of its heritage.

Perhaps the ultimate showcase of these inspiring artisan bars is an upcoming Experience Hawaiian Cacao & Chocolate Boot Camp, poised for January 20 to 24. As an educational quest for chocolatiers and farmers, the second annual event welcomes hardcore chocolate-devotees who are eager to fully immerse themselves in the nitty-gritty bean-to-bar process. Boot campers get hands-on at an array of cacao orchards, learning the fundamentals from farmers and fermenters. They also soak up research and academic development centered on cacao in the state, along with direct input from Bletter and Elliot’s 10-plus years of living and breathing chocolate. Rewardingly, cacao’s whimsical qualities come to life, as moments spent savoring the underappreciated, lycheeesque pulp of the cacao fruit sprinkle this five-day, paradisiacal journey with magic.

Just as chocolate has become an extension of Bletter and Elliott, the experts invite guests to indulge in their delicious world of bean-to-bar delights for a rare adventure everyone can taste.

All photos unless stated otherwise courtesy Madre Chocolate.

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