Pineapples and palm trees take a backseat to one of the newer agricultural attractions in Lahaina — the Ku’ia Estate chocolate factory and cacao farm. At Ku’ia Estate, tour guests experience a behind-the-scenes peek at a rare farm-to-bar chocolatier (they grow their own cacao pods right on Maui) while enjoying chocolate from the largest chocolate factory in Hawaii.
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We toured the Ku’ia Estate cacao farm and sat in on a factory chocolate tasting. Keep reading to find out what it was like, and what we thought about the experience.
WHAT WE ENJOYED
- A rare look at a production cacao farm within the U.S.
- Tasting presentation with Ku’ia Estate’s founder, giving us an inside look at the story behind building the chocolate brand
- Ku’ia Estate Chocolate’s commitment to supporting both the community (all net proceeds benefit local non-profits) and sustainability — while crafting some of the world’s best-tasting chocolate
GOOD TO KNOW
- Prepare to encounter a few bugs on the farm tour — it’s a tropical climate, after all
- The van ride to the cacao farm gets bumpy, so sit up front if you’re prone to motion sickness
- Guests must be able to climb a flight of stairs to reach the treehouse hale on the farm tour
About Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate
Maui Ku’ia Estate Cacao Farm and Factory is a relatively new player in the chocolate industry. The company was established in 2013 and planted its first cacao trees in 2015 and 2016. The factory itself was completed only recently, in late 2019.
And in just a few short years, the chocolatier has already gained industry recognition for its outstanding chocolate, winning the 2021 Cocoa of Excellence Gold Award and the 2022 Good Food Award.
A mission-driven chocolate company
Dr. Gunars Valkirs, a retired biotech engineer, founded the farm and factory with the goal of using sustainable practices to grow the best chocolate — then use those profits to support the Maui community. All net profits fund their charitable organization that supports local nonprofits.
A sustainable cacao farm
The farm itself is located in the West Maui mountains on land leased from Kamehameha Schools. The Ku’ia Estate factory is located two miles from the farm, in Lahaina.
Growing cacao on Maui wasn’t without its challenges. First, the hot and dry West Maui climate didn’t offer the ideal conditions for cacao farming. Also, the land had been depleted of nutrients from 100 years of sugarcane farming.
To address this, the team at Maui Ku’ia Estate amended the soil and planted an agroforest to create the ideal conditions for growing cacao. They also diverted water from the West Maui mountains to support the necessary irrigation. In addition to producing high-quality chocolate, Maui Ku’ia Estate is committed to sustainability, with their factory being 100% solar powered and the second largest off-grid commercial facility in Maui.
Guided Ku’ia Cacao Farm tour and tasting highlights
Editorial note: Our tour was part of a private event that essentially combined two different tours: the Guided Cacao Farm Tour and Maui Chocolate Tasting at the Ku’ia Factory Pavilion. Your experience may differ somewhat, depending on which tour you choose.
Our group met at the Lahaina factory at the start of our tour. Parking can be found behind the building, in a covered parking lot.
Before boarding the tour van, our guide sprayed our shoes with a disinfectant to avoid tracking harmful pathogens or bacteria onto the farm, which is only a few miles away from the factory. During the drive, our guide gave us background on the company’s founder, its mission, how the idea for Ku’ia Estate Chocolate was born, and how they created the farm.
Guided Cacao Farm Tour
We drove primarily on paved roads, but when we reached the farm gate we continued along a bumpy dirt road. Once we reached the grove, we hopped out of the van in front of the cacao field. Our guide led us down the rows, explaining how Ku’ia Estates devised the planting structure. Essentially, they created an agricultural forest to create the perfect microclimate for growing chocolate in the dry West Maui mountains.
We were given an up-close view of the cacao grove and pods growing on the tree trunks. Part of the tour included a demonstration of how a cacao pod is harvested. The group ambled through the grove and learned about both the challenges and success of farming cacao on Maui.
After touring the cacao grove and hearing about the farming process, we walked up a flight of wooden stairs to the “treehouse” hale. (Technically, it wasn’t built in a tree, but it felt like a treehouse since we were surrounded by a forest.)
The 360-degree views were stunning. On one side of the open-air hale, we could see the ocean. On the other side of the hale, the West Maui mountains loomed.
We sat at barstool tables while our guide handed out cacao seeds for us to taste.
After we enjoyed the cacao seeds, we had our first chance to taste chocolate from the Ku’ia factory. I lost count of how many bars we received, but I personally snacked on at least four different types. (According to the Ku’ia Chocolate website, farm tour participants receive a tasting sample of nine bars.)
I had my fill of chocolate on the farm tour, and our group still had the factory tasting to look forward to.
Chocolate tasting at the Ku’ia Factory Pavilion
After our sojourn at the cacao farm, our tour group loaded back into the van and headed back to the factory for the next part of our tour — the eagerly awaited chocolate tasting and talk with Ku’ia Chocolate’s founder and CEO, Dr. Valkirs.
We rode back to the Lahaina factory in the tour van, and we settled in at the factory’s second story open air rooftop pavilion. That’s where we found Dr. Valkirs, clad in a casual Hawaiian shirt and shorts. After a brief introduction, we dove right into our guided tasting.
Dr. Valkirs offered our group wine pairings with the chocolate (typically an additional fee) while he led us through the intricacies and background of each chocolate bar’s flavor profile. By the end of the tour, I had consumed at least ten bars of Ku’ia estate’s decadent chocolate.
I have to say that I’ve been on several chocolate factory tours, and I’ve tasted chocolate from around the world (with some of my favorite being Belgian chocolate while traveling around Europe). In my opinion, Ku’ia Estate chocolate ranks right up there among the most renowned chocolates in the world. And the particularly extraordinary thing? Ku’ia Estate has been making chocolate for only a few years. I can only imagine how far they’ll get in the years to come.
What to know before you take a tour
We experienced both the cacao farm tour and guided factory tasting, and this our advice if you’re planning to visit Ku’ia Estate:
- You don’t have to take a tour to visit the Ku’ia Estate factory. They have a retail store and cafe that’s open throughout the day. The upstairs pavilion is also open as a chocolate bar, where you can purchase chocolate and wine pairings. After 5 p.m. the upstairs pavilion is 21 and up only.
- Eat a little something before you start your tour, but don’t show up right after a huge, heavy meal. The chocolate bars look small, but they’re deceptively rich and filling.
- The drive to the cacao farm isn’t far, but once you get on farm grounds the ride gets bumpy. If you’re particularly prone to motion sickness, it may be safer to sit near the front of the tour van.
- Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, or put on bug repellent before visiting the cacao farm — especially if you’re a bug magnet like I am. I wore a sleeveless dress and walked out of the cacao grove with four or five bug bites.
Final thoughts on the Ku’ia Estates cacao farm and chocolate tasting on Maui
The verdict: I highly recommend taking a tour with Maui Ku’ia Estate chocolate. If you have any interest in the agricultural side of chocolate making, definitely book the cacao farm tour. If you aren’t the outdoorsy sort, the guided factory tasting will probably be more suited to your taste.
And don’t forget — with every tour you book and piece of chocolate you purchase, you’re supporting the Maui community through the company’s nonprofit giving foundation. Eating chocolate to help others? I’ll take another piece.
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