Waupun alumnus grows cacao in Hawaii to make chocolate

April 22, 2017 GMT

What started out as a hobby – growing cacao – has turned into a way of life for Ben VanEgtern and his business partner Adam Potter. They run Puna Chocolate Company, featuring products made from cacao they grow in Hawaii.

“We made chocolate for ourselves, friends and family,” VanEgtern said.

Named for the region where they grow cacao trees on Hawaii’s Big Island, Puna Chocolate Company planted its first cacao orchard in 2013 and now offers its chocolate online and sells their products at farmers markets in Illinois, and at chocolate shows and festivals in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Denver and Burlington, Wisconsin.

VanEgtern grew up on a dairy farm and was active in the FFA before he graduated from Waupun High School in 2001.

After high school VanEgtern served in the U.S. Navy for four years, stationed in San Diego, with stopovers in Hawaii. After the navy, he got a job with JT Packard, which occasionally sent him back to Hawaii.

“I kept falling in love with it more and more,” VanEgtern said.

Eventually VanEgtern found property on the Big Island. He said Hawaii features a diverse range of climate groups and zones, and the Big Island has tropical, arid, temperate and polar climates.

“It is the most northern place where you can grow cacao before you get out of the tropical zone,” VanEgtern said.

Puna Chocolate Company focuses its mission on producing chocolate and leading tropical conservation. VanEgtern said the original intention when purchasing the land was to keep it as virgin rainforest.

He said cacao pods must be harvested when they are ripe.

“Once you pick it, that is how it stays,” VanEgtern said.

The pods are carefully opened and the beans removed. The beans are fermented, dried and roasted. Then the beans are ground with cane sugar and flavors before being tempered and poured into bars.

“The better the fermentation, the better the chocolate,” VanEgtern said.

VanEgtern said they brainstorm different flavor profiles to try seasonally, with a spring seasonal bar that uses maple syrup from Wisconsin. Other bars use macadamia nuts, cashews and coconuts grown in Hawaii.

“Last year was our first year doing retail,” VanEgtern said.

He opted to further his education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He began studying environmental engineering, but switched to tropical plants and soil sciences. Puna Chocolate Company also offers services to help others plant cacao orchards.

“A lot of people who own property don’t know what to do with it, “VanEgtern said.

VanEgtern visited his alma mater, Waupun High School, during National Agriculture Week, and spoke to students about his life since graduation, from his military service, an internship in Uganda working with graduate students on pest management for the coffee plant, earning his degree in agriculture and his business.

Puna Chocolate Company now owns more than 60 acres and works to propagate the best cacao trees. They do their processing in Hawaii and in Chicago. The work employs three people full time -- with help from family.

VanEgtern said their chocolate can get to market as fast as two weeks after harvesting.