University of Hawai‘i at Manoa
UH Seal The founding college of the University of Hawai‘i, established 1907 Site Search | Directory
Skip BreadcrumbHome >> Our College >> Impact Stories >> Story

Food of the Gods

By Office of Communication Services    Published on 11/01/2016 More stories >>

Dr. Bittenbender surveys the harvest of pods from his six test plots.

Dr. Bittenbender surveys the harvest of pods from his six test plots.

Money may not grow on trees, but something that many consider even better does: chocolate. At least the raw material of it, cacao (Theobroma cacao), which originates in plump, opulent, tropical-looking pods borne directly from the trunk of the slender, graceful tree. H.C. “Skip” Bittenbender is an expert on the tree and the final product derived from its fruit, and he speaks of both with knowledge and enthusiasm.

Dr. Bittenbender, a specialist in the department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, is trialing the varieties of cacao most suited to Hawai‘i’s many microclimates—he has trees in test plots in Waialua, Pearl City, Waimānalo, Maunawili, Kualoa, and Mānoa—in order to establish the best practices for propagation, cultivation, pest mitigation, harvest, and processing.

The trees mature relatively quickly, beginning to bear fruit within three to five years after planting. However, cacao’s conversion from bean to bar can be lengthy, a three- to four-month process requiring skill, wild yeasts, and a variety of specialized equipment.

Dr. Bittenbender shares cacao variety trial information at a field day in Waimanalo.

Dr. Bittenbender shares cacao variety trial information at a field day in Waimanalo.

Dr. Bittenbender gathers some 300 pounds of pods from his plots every three weeks in season. Then they are whacked open with a cleaver and the “mucilage,” the soft, juicy arils surrounding the seeds, extracted. It looks and tastes surprisingly like lychee, sweet and tangy, but this taste won’t be evident in the finished product. The outside of the pod is rolled over the mucilage to inoculate it with naturally occurring yeasts, after which the pulp and seeds are left to ferment in plastic bags in a fermentery—in Dr. Bittenbender’s case, a specially converted refrigerator that provides the specific temperatures and humidity required. Then the seeds are dried and held to cure for two months or more, before being roasted, cracked into nibs, winnowed, and ground and mixed with sugar in a conche for 48 hours.

His chocolates, which he shares but never sells, are in high demand amongst those in the know. But they’re really only a delightful by-product of his research in support of the Islands’ burgeoning population of cacao producers and artisanal chocolatiers. Look to see plenty more stands of these trees with the glossy green leaves and enticing burden of fruit as a new crop of cacao farmers and producers makes use of his delicious knowledge.