Visit Kauai to Tour, Taste Through One of America’s Only Working Chocolate Farms

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By Jessica Yadegaran
From The Mercury News

Kapa’a–In a quiet clearing on the lush, tropical fruit and chocolate plantation of Lydgate Farms, we take our first bite of tangy, mucilaginous cacao fruit. The creamy white pulp could have become an epic sour candy flavor had it not been overshadowed two millennia ago by its seed: the source of rich, decadent chocolate.

Here, on this 46-acre farm in eastern Kauai, between Sleeping Giant and Mount Wai’ale’ale, the fifth generation of the Lydgate family grows the cacao and turns it into award-winning, single-estate chocolate bars. The Paris-based Cocoa of Excellence Programme, which recognizes excellence in cacao farming and premium chocolate, has twice named Lydgate Farms to its list of 50 best chocolates, first in 2017 and again in 2021. Maui Ku’ia Estate, a cacao farm nestled in the mountains of West Maui, also made the list in 2021.

Such prestige usually goes to the Valrhonas of the world. But, Hawaii is joining their leagues. It is the only state where cacao grows fruitfully — and the industry is growing. In addition to Maui Ku’ia Estate, there are cacao farms on the Big Island, including Lavaloha and Honoka’a Chocolate Co., both in Hilo.

Here in Kauai, as you drive through the winding foothills leading to Lydgate Farms, you know you’re in for something special. The humid air is heavy with aromas of soursop, longan, apple bananas and more than two dozen other exotic fruits that thrive here. The farm is home to native Hawaiian taro and hibiscus, betelnut palms and more tropical flowering plants, including the prized vanilla orchid, than we can count.

For a food and travel writer who has been to Kauai three times, seeing chocolate trees and tasting what is made from them — yes, dreamy milk and dark chocolate bars but also tea, popsicles and brewing chocolate — was a rare lesson in tropical terroir. Despite the price tag of $345 for three people, the tour and tasting was a no-brainer for my family. We’d snorkel Napali next time.

A real, working chocolate farm is not glamorous. We arrive at reception, a cottage porch that doubles as Lydgate’s retail shop, and douse ourselves in bug spray before joining the group. Our guide, Melanie, has a cheerful presence and a chemist’s knowledge of chocolate, from the branch to the bar. She has us gather around a cacao tree, a wide-branching evergreen no more than 30 feet tall, and explains its origins in the Amazon and why Kauai’s tropical climate is a perfect match.

cacao trees
Lydgate Farms, on the eastern side of Kauai, is planted to 3,000 cacao trees. (Lydgate Farms/TNS)

The pods on this particular theobroma cacao vary in size and color, from yellow to maroon, and sprout from the branches and even the trunk, where they dangle like red chiles. Because pods do not ripen at the same time, harvesting is constant — every two weeks — to ensure each precious, one-pounder is plucked at its peak. Lydgate doesn’t have a facility to process the pods from its 3,000 trees, so they are sent to Manoa Chocolate on Oahu, where they are roasted and ground and returned to Lydgate.

The fermentation and drying — the major steps in developing the chemical compounds that yield chocolate’s fruity, floral, spice-laden flavors — happen here. Nothing is wasted, either. The staff turns the sweet-sour pulp into refreshing popsicles, perfect to consume after hiking across the farm, and the shells from the roasted cacao beans are turned into tea and brewing chocolate.

sour white flesh of the cacao bean
At Lydgate Farms, the sour white flesh of the cacao bean is turned into popsicles. The shells are turned into tea and brewing chocolate. And the seeds, of course, are roasted and turned into chocolate. (Lydgate Farms/TNS)

From there, we seek shelter under the shade of a vanilla bean tree, its vines blooming with long green tendrils. Vanilla is actually an orchid, Melanie explains, and as plants, they don’t even start producing pods until they are three years old. When they do bloom, they stay open for a very short time — just 10 to 12 hours — and must be pollinated by hand.

“It’s very labor intensive,” she says. “To grow, process, pollinate and ferment vanilla takes a year and a half.”

A bottle of imitation vanilla extract back home is devoid of this prized nectar. Rather, we learn, it is likely made from petroleum and lignin, a byproduct in the paper-making process. “Think of the smell of an old library book,” Melanie says.

We ponder this while walking deeper into the plantation, passing black bamboo and slender, red sealing-wax palms, and arrive in a clearing with benches and plastic chairs. We take our seats as Melanie passes out samples of just-harvested fruit from the farm. We taste starfruit, fleshy longan and inga, known as ice cream bean for its soft cloud of moist, creamy fruit.

Suddenly, another guide, Jake, produces a machete. As we nibble on the fiber-less, bright orange, impossibly sweet flesh of a Hayden mango, he begins hacking into a ripe cacao pod, gaining depth and cracking it open to reveal rows of white pulp-enrobed seeds that look like corn on the cob. Curious, I cracked open a seed with my teeth. The inside is bitter, and bright purple.

exotic fruits
There are 30 types of exotic fruits growing on the 46-acre Lydgate Farms. The tour includes samples of what’s in season. (Lydgate Farms/TNS)

The only thing that could top this wonderment would be eating a ridiculous amount of chocolate. And that’s exactly what happens next. Coincidentally, the day before our tour, we stopped by the farm for a free chocolate tasting. But the experience that comes with the tour is twice as long — meaning double the chocolate buzz — and includes side-by-side comparisons to larger, premium chocolate producers. It’s an eye-opening education.

We left paradise with more than $100 in high-quality chocolate, including a remarkable, 75 percent dark chocolate bar laced with Koloa Hawaiian Rum, and it’s already gone. But the memory of tasting that bright, candy-like pulp amid an enclave of chocolate trees — that remains.

a variety of chocolate
Lydgate Farms makes a variety of chocolate, including dark chocolate with Koloa bourbon and milk chocolate with coffee and cacao nibs. (Lydgate Farms/TNS)

If You Go

Lydgate Farms offers weekday tours, rain or shine, at 5730 Olohena Road, Kapa’a. Tours are three hours long and cost $95 for children 7 to 12 and $125 for adults, with tastings of honey, tropical fruits and chocolate included. The farm’s chocolate shop is open from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays and offers free chocolate samples, too. For more information, and to book a tour, visit

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