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And for some, that’s a spiritual experience.
Long before the Lonohana Chocolate Estate was a treasure trove of vintage Hawai’i-grown chocolate, owner Seneca Klassen understood the potential of chocolate – and the positive impressions it leaves on his tasters.
Back on the mainland, over a decade before Seneca would turn dried-up sugarcane fields into thriving cacao agricultural forests, he witnessed the power of chocolate in a small café that served simple chocolate drinks. A woman came in and ordered a concoction of dark chocolate and cocoa powder. While sipping it, she began to cry.
Her whole life, she had not been allowed to have sweets of any kind – especially chocolate – because of her strict mother. Her mother had recently passed away, so she decided to try this forbidden drink. In one action, she was both honoring her mother’s memory and defying her wishes.
Watching this woman enjoy chocolate while remembering her relationship with her mother, an experience they facilitated, was a sort of magic all its own – a magic he would bring to Lonohana.
Seneca grew up on the Central California coast in the Carmel and Big Sur area. His dad, a self-professed “Renaissance Man,” never wanted to be involved in just one thing. He wanted to touch everything – an inspiration that Seneca took to explore his curiosity.
One such curiosity was chocolate. During a transitional period in his life touring as a musician, Seneca realized he had no place that was “home” anymore. He wanted to set down roots. Some of his close friends were involved in brewing and winemaking – two terroir experiences with a touch of romance – and he wanted to learn more about the day-to-day of their work.
Just like that, he went from a traveling musician to a roaming gig of shadowing people. His networking brought him to a woman named Alice Medrich, a famous old-school confectioner, and her brother, Albert, who was a working chocolate-maker in West Berkeley.
On Saturdays, Seneca shadowed him while he roasted cacao, checking the roasting process and eating small bits of raw cacao from Guatemala, Ecuador, Ghana, and other origins, all with their difference flavors and nuances. Inspiration struck, and he was implored to seek out exotic cacao on his own – a move that would eventually lead him to Lonohana.
Seneca had rich adventures in chocolate tasting and production. He shared his stories over dinner with a friend who had just returned from a trip to Oaxaca, a place with a vibrant tradition of drinking chocolate. Together, they embarked on the café, Bittersweet, that would give Seneca the foundation of growing a small company and getting started in chocolate production.
Along the way, he met a man named Mark Green from the Grenada Chocolate Company. They had looked at the cacao industry in Grenada and realized they were exporting cheap commodity products from a tiny Caribbean nation. Instead, they decided to make finished products locally and sell them to travelers touring paradise.
In the world of chocolate, that was a revolutionary act. The entire industry is built on the tropics selling cheap products to the developed world. That’s where the money is. Taking it local was a mind-bending, revelatory experience. Seneca wanted to connect with people through the process of high-quality cocoa, but there was still plenty of work to be done.
Taking chocolate local was one thing, but getting the land and the infrastructure was another. He not only needed that local flavor, but he wanted somewhere he could raise his daughter. Thinking of O’ahu, everything came into focus.
Starting with some beans from Dole’s Farm on the North Shore, he had an inkling that the region had the capability to produce interesting cacao. With millions of visitors each year and a thriving local community, he realized it also had the market. In 2009, he found the current farm, but it would be four years before he released the fruits of his labor.
At the time, the landscape was all there was. They came in and razed the dried-up sugarcane fields to save them. Everything was taken down to the bare red earth to get a clean slate, then window trees in rough boxes were prepared to protect the cacao from the rugged winds of the island.
It’s a long and arduous process. Successional planting is necessary to generate agroforestry systems, including interim crops that balance the system while providing shade and shelter for the cacao. After years of cultivating the land, there’s a notable difference in the tranquility beneath the forest canopy. It’s a little warmer, a little more humid, providing perfect protection for the precious cacao.
Back then, he was a solo operation. In the early stages, he didn’t have the resources to hire staff. He was failing hard, making mistakes, and picking himself back up, learning from each misstep. Cacao harvesting is a labor-intensive process, mostly done by hand, and choosing the ripe pods at the moment they’re ripe. He had to have patience, despite wanting to rush through the harvest to make chocolate.
With the sensibility that it was an important and valuable kind of work to do, he knew that he had to forge onward. Success takes humility and being in tune with the land, which tells us what we need if we listen hard enough.
The equipment in the cacao grove reveals the painstaking process of fermenting and drying the beans, giving Lonohana chocolate its signature flavor. Filled with vintage equipment and the remnants of an old movie house with art deco images of the ocean and the workers from the salt ponds, everything about Lonohana’s cacao production feels like a labor of love.
Everything that happens on the farm affects the final flavor of the chocolate. The cacao and hybrids are developed from scratch to produce fine chocolate with fine flavor while also compensating workers for their labor and allowing them to live with honor and liberty. The focus is on creating something with long-term value, not short-term gains.
“I don’t need to know where this all ends. I don’t need to know all the stops along the way. I just need to know that when it feels right, people react to it really positively,” says Seneca. That’s what he experienced with the woman in the café, all of those little chocolate bars as stories that venture out into the world, each one just as important as the next. It comes straight from the soil and the spirit, the Aloha of Hawai’i, all in the form of chocolate.
For Seneca, knowing that he helped create it, helped to give someone that emotional experience when they eat Lonohana chocolate, the real magic.
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