CHOCOLATE ON THE WINDWARD SIDE

Driving through Kailua one day I cut through what I thought was a side street behind the Kailua Square shopping center, but it turned into a parking lot. Unfazed, I headed toward the exit when a huge colorful mural of an island landscape caught my eye. Above the painted thatch hut was the Mānoa logo and two words that stopped me in my tracks and had me turning into the nearest parking spot: “Chocolate Hawaii.”

Manoa Chocolate
The colorful mural, inspired by artist Paul Gaugin’s Tahitian paintings, was envisioned by owner Dylan Butterbaugh and painted by his mother, local artist Jill Butterbaugh. The new tasting room and factory opened June 29.

Unsure what to expect, I walked through the glass doors into a scene that you’d find in a winery tasting room: Patrons seated along a row of stools on either side, listening attentively to attendants describe the qualities of the chocolate samples they were dispensing. Another attendant – call them chocolate sommeliers, if you please – noticed me standing at the entrance and came over, grinning at what must be the familiar sight of the starry-eyed, slack-jawed face of someone who’s just stumbled onto a hidden treasure.  

I told her I didn’t really have much time, just stopped in to check it out, and so she whizzed through a sampling of their cacao spritzer (soooo good – looking forward to when they start bottling or canning this), chocolate tea, and chocolate bars. I vowed to come back for a more leisurely experience and promptly signed up for one of their factory tours when I got home.  

Manoa Chocolate
You’ll sometimes find owner Dylan Butterbaugh conducting tours and tastings at his new factory and tasting room in Kailua.

Flash forward to the day of the tour: As I walked in, I’m immediately enveloped in the intoxicating, fudgy aroma of roasting cacao beans. A cheerful redhead, Taylor Emerson, asks if I’m here for the tour and invites me to wait a few minutes with about a dozen other folks. I take the opportunity to wander through the room and check out the array of merchandise, from branded T-shirts and coffee cups to bagged cacao nibs and chocolate tea. 

Emerson turns out to be our first tour guide and launches into a 25-minute presentation that covers the international history of cacao and the agricultural background of a crop that can only be grown in Hawaii of all the 50 states. That’s because Hawaii is the only one that sits within the equatorial belt – 20 degrees north or south – where cacao trees can successfully grow. While Mānoa sources as much of their beans from local farms as possible, demand has grown and so they directly trade with growers from around the world to make their small-batch chocolates. I won’t give away all of her presentation; suffice it to say you will learn enough to look askance at those mass-produced bars sitting next to the grocery store checkout.

Manoa Chocolate
Chocolate sommelier Taylor Emerson hands out cacao spritzer samples during a recent tour.

She then turns us over to our special factory tour guide that day – owner Dylan Butterbaugh, a Kailua boy who bootstrapped his local startup nine years ago using ingenious methods like MacGyvering a tricycle to power a winnowing device that removed cacao shells. He proudly walks us through the manufacturing areas of his new Manoa Chocolate facility and explains the steps of roasting, winnowing, grinding, molding and packaging his bean-to-bar craft chocolates.

Manoa Chocolate
On the tour, you might get to taste a freshly roasted cacao bean, still encased in its shell.

Then comes the part we’ve all been waiting for – the tasting! It’s actually my second time, so I know to drink the small cup of chocolate tea between tastings to cleanse my palate. The samples are tiny molded pyramids of chocolate from each of the varieties on hand that day, and we start with three dark chocolates featuring cacao from Hilo, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador. As Emerson describes the chocolates, she asks us what flavors we’re getting from each bar and I get nightmare flashbacks to wine tastings where I struggle to come up with something more insightful than say, “creamy” or “chocolate-y.” 

Manoa Chocolate
During the chocolate tasting, you’ll be given a small cup of chocolate tea to cleanse your palate between samples.

The next seven samples come in rapid succession: Hawaiian Island Milk Chocolate, Goat Milk, Ali’I Kula Lavender (with lavender from Maui), Breakfast Bar (crunchy with cacao nibs and Kona coffee beans), Ghost Pepper (that hot finish will get you), Hawaiian Sea Salt (from Molokai), and a specialty one, the Kō Hana Rum Bar (with nibs soaked in Kō Hana Distillers’ Agricole Rum). The last one is available in limited supplies only once or twice a year, when the Hawaii Island craft spirits manufacturer uses Mānoa cacao to infuse their Kokoleka chocolate and honey rum.

Manoa Chocolate
You get a 20% discount on your purchase of standard sized chocolate bars when you take the tour.

Since it’s a limited edition bar, I buy one to take home for a special occasion. For a regular bar to nibble on as an afternoon or evening snack, I pick the Costa Esemeraldas Ecuador (with 70% cacao from a single estate – a reclaimed cattle pasture in northern Ecuador, according to the website). The Manoa Chocolate bars are $10 to $12 each; buy in larger quantities and get a discount – the 6 bar gift box is $48 and the 10 bar gift sampler is $80. Can’t get enough of their chocolates? They also have a Mānoa Monthly subscription that includes one limited edition bar and two from the collection for $19.99 monthly. Note that to maintain the quality of the chocolate, they won’t ship to locations with temperatures of 90 degrees or hotter.

Manoa Chocolate
Mānoa Chocolate gelato, shown topped with cacao nibs, is available only in the Kailua tasting room.

Since the tour ends at about 12:30 p.m. and my appetite has been whetted by the samples, I give in and decide to get some gelato, which is supplied by Il Gelato. Of course, I get  Mānoa Chocolate since I’m told the flavor is available only here at the tasting room and top it with Mānoa cacao nibs. It’s an extremely satisfying end to the tour, despite spoiling my lunch. #dessertfirst

WHAT DO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

The 60-90 minute tours of Manoa Chocolate cost $15 and are offered daily Monday to Saturday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Reservations are required, and you register online on their website. I’ve seen kids in the tasting room, but the website indicates the tours are for adults and children 12 years and older. If you have a group with younger kids, though, you can call and ask to do a shorter version of the tour. And you can always walk in with your littles and ply them with gelato while you do a  free tasting at the bar.  

One other thing – parking outside the factory is a metered lot, as is the street parking. If you park in the lot, you’ll want to bring about $2.00 in quarters (25 cents for every 20 minutes) to cover the time you’re in the tour and then purchasing chocolate, gelato or merchandise. 

Mānoa Chocolate Hawaii
333 Uluniu St Suite 203
Kailua, HI 96734
Ph: 808-262-6789
www.manoachocolate.com

Check out another review of this tour on our sister site, Roaming Hawaii!