A Cacao Tree Grows on Hahajima
One impact the specialty/craft chocolate industry has had has been to widen the range where cacao is grown commercially.
As I can attest from personal experience, it is hard to understate the transformative impact that cacao and chocolate can have on someone’s life. People fall in love with this special plant and the things that can be made from the pods and seeds it produces – and pursue a new life path based on this love.
We hear a lot of about (and from) chocolate makers who fall prey to chocolate’s siren call, but we hear less often from (and about) people whose fascination is piqued about the agronomic challenges of trying to get cacao to grow in places where it has never been grown before – commercially. There are cacao trees in the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx (and in the UK and in Pennsylvania) but they serve a research need and are not productive agriculturally.
So it was interesting to revisit an article (linked to below under More Reading) published almost a year ago about Tokyo Cacao.
Tokyo Cacao a new vertically-integrated, micro-batch farm-to-bar (I am not a fan of the phrase ‘soil-to-bar’ as a differentiating marketing term as I am not convinced it is an “entirely new provenance” as TC’s development officer, Shin Hiraoka, opines in the article) chocolate company in Japan harvesting pods from over 500 trees it is growing on the island of Hahajima, and making chocolate from those beans.
- The history of cacao origins is not well understood by many people in cocoa and chocolate, and even less well understood by the general public, who is most often focused on the origin of the manufacturer (“Belgium”), not the origin of the cocoa.
- I was in Hawaii in 2005 to participate in the Hawaii Cacao conference. There I learned that attempts to grow cocoa commercially in Hawaii date back well over 100 years and it has only been in the past two decades that it has become profitable, given the high land, labor and other costs have meant that agricultural crops important to the history of the islands – including sugar cane and pineapple – have largely left for other places in the world with lower cost bases.
As with many such stories, it all began with a trip to a cacao farm, in this case in Ghana. I am not going to cut and paste from the article. It’s not a long read and it contains some important cultural and market context that snipping bits from may unfairly represent what the author has to say. So I encourage everyone to click through and read the article (and then come back here and leave a comment).
In closing, there is a quote I do want to pull from the article because I see it as an acknowledgment of how many small makers portray their efforts, “We have prioritized romance over business sense,” says Hiraoka. “Growing cacao in Japan was the dream.”
I wrote a bit about Japanese chocolate culture in an article posted in the waning weeks of January 2020. I went to Japan to cover the press event for Ruby Chocolate introductions ahead of Valentine’s Day 2020. I had the chance to visit three bean-to-bar companies (Minimal, Green Bean-to-Bar, and Theobroma) as well as visit a number of retail outlets from convenience stores to major department stores. The article provides some additional context to the story about Tokyo Cacao so, while it is a much longer read, it’s worthwhile complement.
Photo credit: The Tokyo Cacao team, taken by the author, Jeana Cadby, from the linked article.
Trivia: In case you missed the reference in the post title, it’s to the 1945 movie A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (which I have watched), and is based on the 1943 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, written by Betty Smith.
Have some thoughts about the future of Japanese cocoa or some other unusual origin? Let us know in the comments!