From Branch To Bar

Steelgrass Farm’s chocolate tour shows the sweet side of East Kauai

By: Marty Wentzel

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Tony Lydgate leads a tour group
through the cacao plants.
Is chocolate a health food? Tony Lydgate thinks so, and by the end of his tour through Steelgrass Farm, I had to agree. Starting with a lesson in diversified agriculture, the East Kauai attraction culminates in a chocolate tasting that clearly elevated our group’s energy level, not to mention our mood. Located above the town of Kapaa, Steelgrass Farm welcomes clients twice weekly to an outing called Chocolate From Branch to Bar, with appeal to lovers of tropical trees, flowers, fruits and the luscious amber ambrosia concocted from cacao.

When Lydgate bought the eight-acre nursery eight years ago, it was overrun by invasive species. Now it’s a completely organic property with a spectacular range of plants. He named the farm Steelgrass, a nickname for bamboo, which not only looks pretty but comes in handy as a building material. “Most of what you see was brought here as a seed or a cutting between 1998 and 2003,” said Lydgate. “We selected which species to plant based on our desire to have varieties that provide food, or that are indigenous, decorative or medicinal, or useful in crafts or construction.”

In a way, Lydgate is following in the footsteps of his grandfather Mortimer Lydgate, who came to Kauai in the 1860s with a keen interest in agriculture, and for whom the island’s Lydgate Park is named.

“At one time the island was covered with pineapple and sugarcane,” Lydgate told our group. “Now the question is, what can we call our sustainable crops?”

For Lydgate, one answer lies in cacao. Along with 20 species of bamboo and an alphabet of island agriculture from African tulips to zingiberaceae (ginger), his property features a nursery of cacao trees. Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. where cacao grows, he added.

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Chocolate tasting is part of
the Steelgrass Farm tour.
“Our goal is to start a chocolate industry on Kauai, which sits within the northern boundary of the range for cacao cultivation,” Lydgate said. Inspired by the success of the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory on the Big Island currently the only growers, producers and processors of all-Hawaiian chocolate Lydgate is spearheading an effort to plant cacao seedlings on the island. The trees grow year-round, he said, and once mature they produce fruit for 50 years.

“We have planted 1,500 new cacao trees on Kauai in the past year, and our goal is to have 3,000,” said Lydgate.

While Steelgrass doesn’t yet make its own chocolate, Lydgate promised to achieve that goal within five years.

“The Big Island group can’t keep up with demand,” he noted. “Bob and Pam Cooper, who run the Kona farm, have been very generous in sharing their knowledge with me. Their product sells like crazy, so I know there’s an economic market for Hawaiian chocolate.”

During the first half of the tour on the grounds, Lydgate demonstrated his vast knowledge of plants while sharing tastes of starfruit and aromas of lime and allspice leaves. Once at the cacao nursery, he opened up a ripe pod and encouraged us to taste its fruit, at once rich, bitter and citrus-flavored. Next, seated around a table in an airy mosquito-proof tent, we nibbled samples of fermented dried beans the raw material of chocolate which Lydgate called “one of the most powerful of health foods.”

The fun really started during the blind tasting of nine types of single-estate dark chocolate bars. We wrote down our personal responses to each little morsel we savored, getting creative with such adjectives as smoky, spicy and metallic.

“The human mouth has very individual tastes, which results in some really lively conversations around this table,” said Lydgate.

After we sampled all nine, he told us the names, derivations and prices of each, including international producers like Scharffen Berger, Guittard, Dagoba, Valrhona and Amedei.

When it comes to chocolate, Lydgate has clearly done his homework, answering everyone’s questions in an entertaining fashion and posing a few of his own.

“Why do you think you feel so good after eating it?” asked Lydgate. “Chocolate has chemicals which are similar to caffeine, increasing the flow of endorphins and resulting in a slightly stimulating effect.”

He went on to say that chocolate is higher in antioxidants than any other food, right up there with prunes. Given the choice, I know which health food I’d choose to snack on.


Steelgrass Farm
P.O. Box 68 Kapaa, HI 96746

The two- to three-hour tour is offered Monday and Wednesday starting at 9 a.m. It appeals to anyone interested in agriculture, particularly those with a sweet tooth. It’s not recommended for clients unable to walk or stand for long periods.

Rate: $60 per person, free for children ages 12 and under.
Commission: 25 percent