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
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
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
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.
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
Commission: 25 percent