How a former biotech scientist built an oasis on dry land — and turned an unlikely crop into Maui’s most delicious new product.
Words by Devorah Lev-Tov
Photos courtesy Maui Ku'ia Estate
Many people have heard of the famous Hawaiian Kona coffee, but far fewer are aware of Hawaiian-grown cacao, the fruit whose seeds are used to make chocolate.
Most of the cacao grown in the world comes from a clutch of places within 10 degrees of the equator: Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, Peru and a few others. Hawaii is actually on the outer edge of the equatorial sweet spot.
People didn’t really start experimenting with growing cacao commercially in Hawaii — the only place in the U.S. where it is grown — until the 1990s, with Dole being one of the first growers in the state (they sell under the name Waialua Estate). Compared to Mexico’s storied chocolate history, which dates cacao growth to at least 1400 B.C., Hawaiian cacao is still in its infancy, with not much, if any, exported. But it’s growing rapidly: According to a 2020 Hawaii Cacao Survey, about 133 acres of cacao were harvested in 2019, yielding 32.8 tons of dry beans. That represents a 70% increase in Hawaiian production since 2014. (Comparatively, Ghana produced 771,000 tons in the 2019 to 2020 harvest, according to the International Cocoa Organization).
One company betting big on the island chain’s chocolate potential is Maui Ku’ia Estate. Founded by CEO and owner Dr. Gunars Valkirs and vice president of farm and factory operations Daniel O’Doherty, Ku’ia is one of a little more than a dozen chocolate producers in Hawaii, but it’s one of the only ones with its own on-site farm and factory.
When Valkirs moved to Maui in 2008 after selling the medical diagnostics company Biosite that he’d helped found, chocolate was far from his mind. “For five years, I was playing golf and kitesurfing and not working at all,” recalls Valkirs, whose home is on three acres in Kapalua. In 2010, he found himself volunteering a portion of his land to grow cacao trees. “The University of Hawaii at Manoa had an experimental field trial program, and Dan O’Doherty was a graduate student there at the time. He was running the program, so he came out to install the trees. There were 40 trees that I needed to grow and take care of, and Dan would come out every six months and take data.”
What started as a hobby soon morphed into a business. That original experimental crop was destroyed by strong winds, but Valkirs was hooked. Instead of giving up, he went all in with O’Doherty, who by that point had become a world-traveling cacao consultant, to find a better growing location. Valkirs leased 54 acres of fallow farmland in Lahaina, where sugar cane had once been grown (the last harvest was in 1999). Although that area came with challenges, thanks to O’Doherty’s global cacao-growing experience, the duo was able to successfully start planting cacao trees in 2015 after several years spent clearing the land.
“The challenge at the farm is literally the exposure to sunlight because we are on a west-facing slope in Lahaina, which is translated as ‘merciless sun,’” says O’Doherty. “I certainly was nervous early on, but I knew it could be done. And I was very clear with Gunars that this is totally uncharted territory. I had visited dry zones in Ecuador and Brazil, where it’s irrigated, but they’re typically more equatorial. I’m pretty certain ours is the driest and most exposed farm that exists in cacao.”
While there was inevitably some trial and error, O’Doherty and Valkirs planted a regenerative agroforest — woodland that replenishes what has been exploited to mimic natural forest ecosystems.
This provided shade with ground cover, nitrogen-fixing trees and a lot of organic matter to reduce erosion. They brought in water for irrigation from the nearby West Maui Mountains. Aerial photos of the farm look like an oasis on dry land. Without their efforts, this land would be barren.
On the plus side, the types of fungi that can grow on cacao in wet environments are not an issue in Lahaina (other Hawaiian cacao farms, for example in Hilo on the Big Island, must contend with these, like most cacao farms around the world). O’Doherty’s background in working with genetics and dealing with the USDA on in-kind trade permits him to legally bring in other cacao varieties and cultivate them, allowing Ku’ia to have a varied array of plants that are best suited to Maui’s climate.
Chocolate, which is made by harvesting seeds from the cacao fruit, fermenting them for several days, drying and roasting them, then grinding them, is similar to wine: It has a terroir, and seeds grown in different places impart a different flavor to the finished product. Ku’ia’s single-origin Maui estate-grown chocolate has notes of tropical fruits, along with a hint of red wine and lingering notes of cherry and other dark fruits.
“The commodity market, which drives everything, doesn’t penalize for bad quality, and it doesn’t reward for good quality,” says O’Doherty. But having its own farm and factory makes Ku’ia stand out in the craft bean-to-bar commercial chocolate world (which represents a small fraction of all the chocolate being made). Most of its competitors either only grow cacao or only make chocolate — not both.
And while most growers are breeding only for things like disease tolerance, fat content, and high yields, O’Doherty has the luxury of breeding for taste. “For such a high price for both the cacao and chocolate in Hawaii, it needs to be not just excellent, but unique.”
After the much-delayed harvest from the first seedlings actually produced enough fruit to turn into chocolate, Valkirs was faced with a choice. “I calculated that it would take a million dollars to develop 10 acres of cacao to maturity, and that million dollars would never be recovered if we were just selling cacao.” This meant that to make a profit, the company would need to make its own chocolate instead of selling cacao to other chocolate makers, which is what most cacao growers in other countries do. But given the operating costs of being on a U.S. island, that would have been impractical.
Faced with the choice of either shutting down the farm — a $5 million hobby was a bit too much to swallow — or going all in and building a factory, he chose the latter.
“I chose to invest more money and make one of the world’s best chocolates,” says Valkirs, who in addition to being the CEO is the general manager and head chocolate maker, working 70-hour weeks. He and his wife JoRene have committed to giving 100% of net profits back to the Maui community. Though the company is not profitable yet, projections indicate that it will be in 2023.
The factory — which is entirely off the grid and runs on its own solar power and Tesla batteries — was completed at the end of 2019, and according to Valkirs it was an $11 million investment. It currently runs at only about 20% capacity (around 176,000 pounds of chocolate a year), meaning there’s plenty of room for growth.
Ku’ia has approximately 7,000 cacao trees set across 20 acres, with a plan to expand to 60 acres. Right now, the cacao grown on the estate in Maui isn’t enough to supply all of the chocolate the factory makes — it only covers about 25% — so the rest is imported from a single-family estate in Costa Esmeraldas, Ecuador.
Aside from being sold directly to consumers online, the only place to get Ku’ia chocolate right now is in Hawaii. It’s for sale at a few select local markets and at the retail store and café that are attached to the factory and tasting pavilion. The chocolates are also given as amenities in several Maui luxury hotels, including Montage Kapalua Bay, and at popular tourist restaurants like Mama’s Fish House, which Valkirs says goes through 5,000 pieces of Ku’ia chocolate a week (one is given with every check).
While wholesale is not the main goal (the goal is two-thirds retail, one-third wholesale), Valkirs says these placements help pique people’s interest in the product. Right now, it’s all about getting on people’s radars. “I don’t have a distributor outside of Hawaii, and I don’t want one,” says Valkirs, who adds that wholesale distributors take too much of the profit. Instead, the plan is to continue to increase direct retail sales and level up the factory’s output. “If people taste the chocolate, they will buy the chocolate.”
As long as it can get into people’s mouths fast enough.