Business Monday: Give your Valentine the experience of a tree-to-chocolate tour at Lavaloha
February 12, 2024, 1:00 AM HST
It’s one thing to give your sweetie the gift of chocolate on Valentine’s Day, but why not show them how much heart and love goes into growing the cacao it comes from and how it’s made?
Enter Lavaloha, a 1,000-acre cacao and coffee farm nestled about 5 miles above Hilo, just a 10-minute drive up Aumau‘ulu Road from downtown, on the gentle slopes of Mauna Kea on the Big Island.
The farm has 10,000 cacao trees — of three different varieties — on 24 acres and 4,500 of them are producing pods. From the purple seeds inside bursting with antioxidants, it produces about 4,000 pounds of chocolate each year and invites guests to experience the entire process from tree to tasty treat.
The hour-long tour on a suped-up golf cart that can carry about 10 people takes you first through the orchard, stopping to crack open a pod to taste the beans in their natural form and the sweet, sticky cocoa mucilage surrounding them.
Along the way, your knowledgeable guide conveys all the inside information about the farm, from the time it was purchased in 2002 to the first three cacao pods gifted by a family friend who started it all. The farm started making chocolate in 2016.
Cacoa, native to the Amazon River basin, loves the rain, shade and low heat – the tropical vibes that Hilo provides in abundance. The farm never has to water its trees, and that’s a win-win. The pods are harvested every 2 to 3 weeks by hand and it takes 2 to 4 days to properly process the pods.
Before you get all bougie in the tasting lounge, you’ll get all warm and cozy with your sweetheart or loved ones in the fermentation and drying room, where temperatures reach up to 104 degrees. The dried beans smell like brownies when you crack them open, but you can’t eat them at this stage in the process.
Reaching the tasting room, tour-goers are treated to even more information about how the farm processes the dried and fermented beans into their chocolatey goodness in its certified kitchen. Before they become chocolate, the beans are roasted at 220 degrees for about 30 to 40 minutes to kill any bacteria and enhance the chocolate aroma.
Once it’s tempered, the chocolate is ready to taste and be transformed into the many other sweet treats Lavaloha makes and sells, most of which are sold at the farm’s gift shop. You can also find the mouth-watering confections at several local businesses around town and at the airports in Hilo, Kona and Honolulu.
Tour-goers get a chance to sample that 70% chocolate liquid mélange along with several other types of chocolate right out of the kitchen, including dark chocolate with sea salt, dark chocolate with orange zest oil, milk chocolate with Tahitian vanilla and the “flavor bomb” that is the farm’s milk chocolate with sea salt.
Before heading back to the gift shop and visitor center to buy some of the farm’s treats, such as the popular Hawaiian S’mores Bar and Mocha Latte Bar, to take home or eat on the spot, you also get a chance to see the coffee trees and the beautiful sunken garden nearby.
You also can take in the impressive view of Hilo below and see the farm’s resident nēnē and “thickens,” the thick chickens that wander about freely.
“The tour is something that you can do together,” said Lavaloha business manager Anuhea Lee. “It’s an experience you can do as a couple. It’s not just, you know, ‘I gave you this,’ which is awesome, but a lot of people do value experiences and being able to look back at things. You can get pictures from up here and then you can just have a day to spend together and appreciate each other.”
Taking the tour allows people to see not just chocolate but agriculture from a different light, which Lee said tremendously ups the value. You’re giving your loved one an experience and doing it with them, which is worth a lot more than a $4 bag of chocolates.
The farm sees between 15,000 and 16,000 people a year, most of which are visitors to the island. But more and more Big Island residents are finding the hidden gem that is Lavaloha and making the short trek up the mountain to check it out. The farm and its 14 employees encourage more kamaʻāina to come out for the full chocolate experience.
“I know there is sometimes a negative connotation when we do tourism, especially from the internal economy, but you’re not going to be able to see all of where you live if you kind of don’t act like a tourist,” Lee said.
The experience at Lavaloha is also a more affordable date than some others around the island.
The cost for a kamaʻāina tour is just $32 for adults or $42 for visitors, and if you want to bring the kids along it’s $12 for keiki 12 and younger. Kids 2 years old and younger, who probably won’t be tasting the chocolate and can sit on their parents’ laps, are free.
There are also discounts for active military and veterans as well as students.
“We give a little incentive to come on the tour and see what it’s all about because usually when people get up here, they take the tour and they’re like, ‘Wow. I learned so much!'” Lee said. “That’s exactly what we want. We want to get you up here, have a good time and learn.”
Tours are scheduled at several times throughout the day, with the earliest starting at 9:30 a.m. and the latest kicking off at 3:15 p.m. The farm is also open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday if you want to just stop by and pick up some chocolate.
If the tour isn’t for you but you still want a little bit more of an experience, the farm also offers a self-guided tasting tour.
There’s something about chocolate that it seems everyone loves.
According to the National Confectioners Association, 92% of Americans plan to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year with chocolate and candy and 94% of people in the United States say they would be excited to receive chocolate and candy as a gift from their sweetheart or loved ones.
“You get this, like, this energy boost. You feel almost warm, too, sometimes, depending on the flavor that’s in it,” said Lee, who is a chocolate lover herself and joked that there’s a reason she works at the farm.
That feeling comes from the many antioxidants in chocolate as well as the theobromine, which is similar to caffeine.
“So it gives you, like, a really nice boost,” Lee said. “It makes you feel really nice and awake, but it doesn’t give you that crash like caffeine does. So chocolate does make you feel certain ways without even knowing.”
And when it’s 50% to 80% Hawaiian chocolate, like what Lavaloha produces, you’re also getting all the nutrients from the cacao fruit in the final product. Filled with serotonin, it’s also a mood enhancer and antidepressant.
With so many different kinds of chocolate, you can also pretty much find something that anyone will love: “Not everything is like that,” Lee said.
Seeing how it’s made, from tree to chocolate bar, is a sweet experience that Lee said will not only impress and show your Valentine you care, but it’s one you both get to enjoy. Whether you’ve lived in Hilo or the Big Island your entire life or not, there are certain areas you just don’t get to see and they’re really exciting.
“Doing something new together is always, always a fun time,” Lee said, adding a tour at Lavaloha is an easy way to show your love, chocolate included. “You can just sit back and just enjoy when you take our tour and just be together and try chocolate.”