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