Maui Business

Farm-to-Bar Maui Kuʻia Estate Chocolate Wins Gold

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Lahaina’s farm-to-bar chocolate maker has brought home a win from what is described as “the most prestigious awards contest in the cacao industry.” Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate was named a “Producer of Excellence” and given the Gold Award in the Asia-Pacific Region in the International 2021 Cocoa of Excellence Awards, announced virtually from Rome, Italy, on Dec. 16, 2021.

Dr. Gunars Valkirs in the MKEC Retail Store after the awards certificate was delivered. He said “We are thrilled to be able to represent and support these high standards of quality on a national and international level, and to let the world know that we grow some incredible cacao in Lahaina, Maui.” PC: courtesy

MKEC was also named a Winner of a 2022 Good Food Award, in the dark chocolate category on Jan. 14, 2022.

MKEC is the only company ever to win a Cocoa of Excellence Award and a Good Food Award for dark chocolate and the cacao used to make it, according to a company announcement. Maui Ku‘ia Estate 70% Dark Chocolate and its Lahaina-grown cacao were the winning entries for both contests.

The Cocoa of Excellence Awards are the standard of excellence for cacao producers; recognizing quality, expertise and exceptional flavors, while preserving cacao diversity around the world. For the 2021 Edition, MKEC’s chocolate was judged against 231 other samples from 53 different origins.

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All producers sent dried cacao samples to France, where they were then processed into liquor and 66% cacao dark chocolate was made from each of the top 50 finalists by a single chocolate maker. 

In the Asia-Pacific region, there were 13 finalists; eight were awarded Golds and the other five Silver or Bronze awards. One other producer from the US/Hawai‘i won an award: Lydgate Farms from Kaua‘i won a Silver.

“These awards validate what we have known all along: that we can produce world-class chocolate from farm to bar,” said MKEC founder and head chocolate maker Dr. Gunars Valkirs. “I could not be more proud of our chocolate company and our amazing team. I wish to thank everyone, especially our vice president of farm and factory operations Daniel O’Doherty for his expertise in guiding us for many years; and our cacao farmers, David McPherson and Palani Wright, for their relentless dedication during the development of the farm to where it is today.”

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The Good Food Foundation named Maui Ku‘ia Estate Dark Chocolate, 2020 Harvest, a 2022 winner in the dark chocolate category. An in-person award ceremony has been rescheduled for March 4 in San Francisco. MKEC was previously named one of 351 Finalists out of nearly 2,000 entries nationwide, representing 42 states.

Another Finalist from Maui is Pauwela Beverage Company (in the Beverage category); other Hawai‘i Finalists are: Big Island Coffee Roasters (Confections); Slow Island Food & Beverage Co. (Elixirs); Akaka Falls Farm (Honey and Preserves); Big Island Bees (Honey); ‘Ulu Mana (Snacks).

Now in its 12th year, the acclaimed Good Food Awards recognize food that is “tasty, authentic and responsible,” meeting high standards for social and environmental responsibility, along with craftsmanship and flavor. Winners are named in 18 categories ranging from charcuterie to chocolate. The chocolate category recognizes “those bean-to-bar makers who are leading the way, creating truly quality bars in every sense,” according to the Foundation.

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“To be recognized at this level by these two organizations, so early in our chocolate-making career, is an incredible honor,” Valkirs says. “We are thrilled to be able to represent and support these high standards of quality on a national and international level, and to let the world know that we grow some incredible cacao in Lahaina, Maui.”

MKEC’s mission is backed by its Chocolate Kuleana—a promise to give back 100% of net profits to Maui nonprofit organizations. And as part of the Chocolate Laulima Program, shoppers can designate a favorite partner charity while purchasing items, giving 40% of the sale back to the chosen nonprofit.

Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate is located at 78 Ulupono St. in Lahaina. Hours are 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., seven days a week.

Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate Inc. (MKEC) is a farm-to-bar chocolate factory based on Maui, and the largest chocolate factory in Hawai‘i. MKEC was founded in 2015 by former biotech entrepreneur and full-time West Maui resident Dr. Gunars Valkirs, with the goal of growing and making some of the world’s finest chocolate right here on Maui and then returning 100% of the net profit in cooperation with its wholesale corporate partners to Maui’s charities and nonprofit community. Cacao trees need a tropical environment to thrive, making Hawai‘i the only state in the U.S. where cacao can be grown outside of a greenhouse. The company crafts Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate from cacao grown locally on its 50-acre farm, and Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate from cacao sourced from a single-origin family farm in Ecuador and in the rainforests of Amazonian Brazil. MKEC’s retail store offers a viewing window into the factory, and the 2,000-sq.-ft. open-air Pavilion upstairs offers chocolate tastings and provides 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean and Mauna Kahalawai, including a peek back up the hillside to where the Maui cacao was grown and harvested. PC: courtesy

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