Why you should care
Because it’s coffee. And chocolate …
A rusting tractor plow sits in front of the warehouse building next to signs that say “Old Sugar Mill Shave Ice” and “Keep the Country Country!” It’s almost easy to miss the message we came for — a brown-and-yellow arrowed sign that reads in bold letters: “Waialua Coffee & Chocolate Mill Free Mini Tour.”
Up here just a half-hour from the famed North Shore of Oahu, this tucked-away treat is the type of outpost you wouldn’t find on Hawaii more than a decade ago. Even though the Aloha State has long grown coffee beans, it’s only since the mid-aughts that farmers have gotten serious about testing cacao … and in recent years, its chocolates have become some of the rarest in the world as a result. So if you’re feeling patriotic, got a sweet tooth and a hankering for caffeine, this is the only place to get both coffee and chocolate that are homegrown in the States.
The drive alone is worth the trip to Waialua Coffee. Winding west from Honolulu, you pass through much of the beauty the island has to offer. Beneath the Wai’anae Mountains, the old Sugar Mill once refined 20,000 tons of sugar over nearly a century of production. Now it’s a fascinating architectural site, and an assortment of oddities sits within its warehouse, including road signs and vintage posters.
The nibs feel chalky, like nuts, and eaten raw they are bitter, sugarless and full of antioxidants.
But you won’t get much time to view them — at least, not at first. That’s because you’ll be met by one of the mill’s living eccentricities, Bob McLeod. Red-faced, white-haired and as friendly as a mosquito, he is likely to approach you immediately, readily offering both a tour and his life story. “I bought a one-way ticket,” the lifetime-ago Florida grad says, “and I knew I would stay here.”
McLeod spins out back, to the cacao trees first. The trees take five years to produce the first time — then they grow beans indefinitely. The cacao pods soak in a white juice, which tastes like lychees and smells like vinegar. But the real treasure is inside: the beans. Some purple, some black. The nibs feel chalky, like nuts, and eaten raw they are bitter, sugarless and full of antioxidants. “They are really good for you,” McLeod says. After offering some samples, he turns around to the coffee branches, ripe with what the farmers call “cherries,” the red husks of coffee beans that are later stripped. Some of the beans are then doused in water for a smoother taste, while others are kept soaking in their own skin for darker roasts.
Farming lesson aside, the fun part comes when you return to the warehouse and get to taste test the fruits of their labor. Dark chocolate shavings melt instantly on your tongue, sweeter than you might expect. The toffee has a nice caramel twist. And there are also four peanut butters to try with macademia, coconut, banana and coffee flavors. Much of this chocolate is still unavailable on the mainland, so grab it while you can, as local chocolateurs and food giants like Dole Plantations try to crack the code on refineries and distributors. (Technically, you can also get American chocolate in Puerto Rico, a territory, not a state).
For many Americans, though, the free tour will be their first look at U.S. chocolate and coffee creation. “It’s just so informative,” said Wanda Bush, a Texan who had traveled through four Hawaii islands in the last week. Her husband, Larry, added cheerily: “This has been one of the best stops along the way.”
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