We started our North Shore farm tour at Helemano Plantation, which was kind of like a pineapple theme park. Derek Lanter, manager of Waialua coffee and cacao, pointed out the Dole pineapple plant across the street, but we were there to learn about the company’s more recent crops. In the ’90s, sugar was dying down, so they experimented with new crops. Lanter said, “This was a project to see if coffee could grow in this area, and what that product would be like.” Farms around the state failed because the market wasn’t in place yet, but Dole’s finding some success.
Waialua Estate is the diversified agriculture program for Dole, complete with 150 acres of coffee that require 20-40 people per day to harvest. Dole established Waialua in 1996 and started by handpicking coffee, but they decided the labor costs were too high, so they moved to a modified, mechanical blueberry picker with fiberglass hands that knock loose coffee cherries off the plants.
With this mechanized method, they aren’t able to restrict harvesting to ripe cherries. Instead, they harvest 50% ripe cherries, 35% overripe “raisins” and 15% unripe beans. Waialua grows Arabica typica coffee beans on red dirt soil, with trees donated from Kona. From 2002-2005, they abandoned crops, since coffee prices were at an all-time low. Now the price is at an all time high. 2010 involved a drought, but 2011 was good leading up to our visit.
We continued down the road, passing a sign that read, “Welcome to Waialua, home of the world’s best sugar,” though we weren’t in the area to peruse sucrose.
Waialua’s cacao grows year-round in an arid, windswept area near a river, which provides humidity. Initially they sent beans to Gary Guittard and his head of product development for analysis. After a month, the renowned San Francisco chocolatiers asked to see the farm in person. He apparently appreciated the high percentage of cocoa butter. Waialua’s located 10 degrees latitude out of the zone for normal cacao production, which causes the pods to pack on protection.
They bag dry pods and ship them to Guittard in San Francisco for exclusive production. Gary Guittard also sells cacao under the Guittard name. Lanter described Castle & Cooke owner David Murdock as Waialua’s “Padron.” His financial support for Dole gives them freedom (and time) to experiment. They currently have 20 acres of cacao, which yields 1000 pounds of production per acre, per year. Waialua grows 30 different varietals of cacao.
We transitioned to a tasting of chocolate in Lanter’s office, starting with 70% cacao, Waialua Estate extra dark chocolate, which appeared as a 10-gram bar.
Lanter and his wife also brewed coffee dark roast coffee via Hario, and a lighter roast via Chemex. It was the same coffee, same tree, two different processes, two different roasts.
We passed around a fresh-cut cacao pod, with sweet mucilage surrounding bitter seeds.
We each received a 2 oz. bar for the road…
…along with a box of chocolates from local chocolatier Philippe Padovani: espresso, mango, lilikoi and “lava rock,” featuring crunchy caramelized macadamia clusters.
Lanter shared a sheet of milk chocolate and broke off a square for each writer in our group.
It was interesting to tour Waialua Estate and contrast the more commercialized experience with my earlier visit to Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee, a family-run, Big Island operation that doesn’t have nearly as many resources, but does everything by hand. Rusty’s offered a more inspiring, personal vision for coffee production, but there was still plenty of educational value in visiting Waialua Estate.
Note: Oahu Visitors Bureau organized a six-day island tour, and my hosted visit to Waialua Estate was part of the itinerary.