A Chocoholic’s Dream: Puna Chocolate Company
The process of making chocolate is so deliciously fascinating that I initially began describing the steps early in this piece. However, when it was time to revise, I realized I was losing my story hook—chocolate.
Fellow fan of chocolate? If so, you will want to check out Puna Chocolate and taste some of their rich, fresh, and memorable chocolate.
True “chocoholics,” the owners know well the chocolate-happiness connection.
I recently spent a very happy time sampling Puna Chocolate’s wares in their co-space at 126 Keawe St. in Hilo.
The tasting included:
- Big Island: Kona coffee with crunchy Puna Cocoa Nibs
- Island Style: Roasted Puna macadamia nuts plus toasted coconut
- Leeward: Roasted cashews with lightly sprinkled black Hawaiian sea salt
- Volcano: Peppers and cinnamon are ground with Puna chocolate, then dusted with aleppo pepper flakes and Puna Cocoa Nibs
Reluctant for the fun to end, I also brought home Peanut Butter with Milk Chocolate and more Volcano, because I found that absolutely addictive.
Not only do they make bars of chocolate, but also have a line of “drinking chocolate:”
- Hawaij “Hav-eyej:” An Isreali and Yemeni flavor combo to stimulate the senses; best prepared in coconut milk.
- French Parisian: Whole cocoa beans (macerated into powder), organic cane sugar, cocoa powder, espresso
- Mahalo Cocoa: Whole cocoa beans (macerated into powder), organic cane sugar, cocoa powder, coconut creme, pineapple
- Rich Dark Chocolate: classic hot chocolate
They also carry tea and nibs.
Puna Chocolate is owned by Adam Potter, Benjamin Vanegtern and Teri Potter.
Teri operates a Puna Chocolate shop in Wauconda, Chicago, (any Black Panther fans will recognize that location).
Adam and Vanegtern own and work two cacao farms on the island, as well as manage others. The chocolate is available at a wide variety of locations, as well as online (Ben’s brother did the photography for the website, which is stunning).
Cacao, as I have covered in a previous piece, is natural agricultural fit for the Big Island and it is rapidly growing in popularity.
Potter shared a sentiment, though, that rang true with me:
“Chocolate and cacao agriculture have huge potential to put the Big Island on the map as a ‘Napa of Chocolate.’”
“That is not a good thing, in my eyes,” said Adam. “Napa was overrun by non-natives with millions of dollars to buy land and displace middle- and working-class families… an elite group can determine what quality is by selecting a process that creates high barriers to competition to family and small farmers cannot participate.”
“I would prefer the Big Island build a reputation of excellence based on innovation and family traditions for a truly tasty experience that is different… on every small farm… I love being able to make delicious chocolate that surprises everyone,” said Adam.
Such was the case, as I experienced, with Puna Chocolate’s products. The combinations were unusual, surprising and unforgettable. The next time I picked up a bar of a big-name brand, I was disappointed with how ordinary it seemed.
I asked Potter about how he, Vanegtern and his sister, Teri, learned about the chocolate-making process.
The first experimental bar was made by fermenting three pods in a Ziploc with some heat and ground with sugar in a coffee grinder. It was low-tech, but effective enough to excite them with its different, special flavor.
Vanegtern used his GI Bill from the Navy and switched his major to Tropical Plants and Soil Sciences at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where he focused on cacao cultivation. Sister Teri, Potter explained, is also a talented botanist and cook. Their group effort has produced delicious results.
The cacao trees, according to Adam, produce 30 to 50 football-sized pods throughout the year. The pods (which are stunning in varying earth tones) are carefully cracked open, and the seeds are fermented in a sugary pulp. Next, they are dried.
Puna Chocolate roasts its own beans, which they believe to be a very important step. Over-drying can ruin flavors and textures.
After roasting, the beans are ground with sugar, milk and vanilla. The last step is to temper, mold and package the chocolates.
Potter and Vanegstern are running two farm plots and managing six other orchards, so production is frequent. In fact, they have taken to naming their harvests by Halloween, Christmas, Valentines, Easter and Mother’s Day.
Credit is given to four hard-working employees in Hilo, as well as staff of The Makery, where they share space. Adam also emphasized that the business is a family affair, with three generations helping out.
The hardest part of all of this?
“Managing the enthusiasm that comes with amazing, life-changing passion for Hawai‘i and chocolate,” Adam shared. “We get as much done as we do because we partner with some amazing farmers, staff members and chocolate guides.”
This is gourmet chocolate, not inexpensive, but priced below similar “craft” market bars. Keep in mind, it also supports Hawai‘i agriculture and our local economy. The packaging is beautiful. If you can restrain yourself from eating it all, it makes a marvelous gift.