Kauai Travel - The Steelgrass Chocolate Farm Tour
Steelgrass Farms Cacao Trees
Growing Chocolate on Kauai
On our annual visits to Kauai, we try to spend one day doing something touristy and unusual. On landing at the Kauai airport, I grab a handful of brochures that fill the racks in the baggage claim area and then later, make a decision about what to do. On our most recent visit, I picked up a brochure from Steelgrass Chocolate Farms, which offers a tour called "Chocolate From Branch to Bar." The tour runs three hours in the morning, $60 per person (in 2008,) reservations required.
I called the number listed on the brochure and a friendly Tony Lydgate answered. He took my reservation and offered to bring me a map with driving directions later in the day. True to his word, the map was waiting for us that evening at our hotel in Kapaa.
On the appointed day, we drove out to the farm, located in the Wailua Homesteads area above Kapaa. We easily found the farm - essentially Tony Lydgate's huge backyard - and parked behind his house.
Tony almost immediately walked over to meet us. It was raining that morning, but the downpour was brief and warm. Three other couples soon drove up, and the tour began.
Steelgrass Farms covers about 8 acres of land. Nearly every planting was brought in by the Lydgates and started as a seed or cutting. The result is impressive: a bamboo forest lines a babbling brook, vanilla bean orchids ramble, citrus and avocado trees hang heavy with fruit.
As we walked, Tony picked fruit from his trees for us to sample - blood orange, crunchy-sweet star fruit, creamy zutano avocado, starchy apple banana. He plucked leaves from the kaffir lime tree and rubbed them together beneath our noses so we could drink in the strong lime scent. It was, more than anything, a walk for the senses
Then there were the cacao trees. This, obviously Tony's passion, was where the story-telling became earnest and intense. It is Tony Lydgate's dream to grow chocolate for commercial purposes, in a co-operative sense. At the time of our visit, Tony estimated that in three years, he'd have enough trees and enough interest in co-operative chocolate farming to make it work.
Tony explained how the fruit grows, how it is harvested, and how it becomes chocolate as we know it. Sitting under a canopy in his garden, he opened a cacao pod and dug out some seeds. We passed them around for a taste. The seeds were bitter, but not unpleasant. Just not chocolate as we know it. We then began chocolate tasting in earnest.
We sampled about a dozen different chocolates from around the world. Some were chalky, some bitter, some smooth and sweet. We ranked them, and were mildly surprised that the most expensive chocolate were not necessarily our favorite. I liked the bitter chocolates best, but they had to be smooth. My top pick: Valrhona. My second favorite: Hershey's Special Dark.
Our tour ended with a peek into Tony Lydgate's vision of Kauai's cooperative cacao farming. Everyone on Kauai works two, sometimes three jobs. There was no reason, he said, that every family in Kauai couldn't grow a few cacao trees, harvest the fruit for the co-op, and get a check for their troubles. It would not be enough to pay the mortgage, but it would be a way for a family to supplement their incomes.
If you find yourself on Kauai in search of an unusual and low-key tour, consider giving Steelgrass Chocolate Farm a call. If the 8-acre garden doesn't amaze you, Tony Lydgate's vision for a chocolate cooperative in Kauai most certainly will inspire.
More About Chocolate Co-ops In Hawaii
Cacao is currently grown, harvested and made into commercial chocolate on the Big Island of Hawaii by the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory.
In 2008, Steelgrass Chocolate Farm in Kauai was the only cacao farm in Kauai open for public tours. At the time of our tour, It did not yet produce chocolate for commercial use. By 2013, there were at two other chocolate farms on Kauai open for public tours.
An article about Steelgrass Chocolate Farm by the Star Bulletin can be found at: http://starbulletin.com/2007/12/23/travel/tsutsumi.html