Chocolate making has definitely been the most rewarding and fun job we ever had; starting with the smell of freshly roasted cocoa beans all the way to the peculiar flavor of each origin.
In our small “Bean to Bar” movement, it would seem it all starts with the cocoa bean, and it does. But what is it that makes each origin so different from one another? The diversity of the terroir definitely explains much of it, but the farmers are the ones that really give life and purpose to this amazing fruit!
This is what we learned in our most recent visit to Peru where cacao producers have high standards and where resources are used the best possible way. This is the place where everything comes together, our purpose becomes clearer, and a sustainable economy is possible.
But this wasn’t the case about nine years ago. According to Chipe, one of the dedicated proud farmers who toured us around the farm (second right side picture), no one in the area wanted to plant cacao trees due to the incredibly low prices paid per kilo. Even though they planted other fruits such as mangoes and plantains, this still was a huge waste of the land! And the reason lies in the more than optimal conditions of this soil to produce the fine Criollo cacao variety, which is very difficult to grow due to its susceptibility to disease.
What happens is that this region is located in the northeast side of Peru, right between the coast and the Andean mountains. This land is extremely dry, but on the other side of the mountains is the Amazon rainforest. The Pacific and Amazon currents collide causing the necessary rain to filter down the mountains to the cacao plantations.It was so beautiful to see the contrast of the arid landscaping to the green of the cacao trees as we approached the edge of the hills.
Upon arrival we met with the nicest cacao farmers who proudly showed us the surroundings. They own their own farms, most of which they also call their home, with an average size of half to one acre.
To support the growth of their business, the cooperative we work with made it their mission to assist and educate local farmers in the production of high quality cacao, ensure fair compensation, and make it accessible for chocolate makers such as ourselves. What a great initiative!
For Peru, this not only meant a significant growth in the cacao industry, but also the development of incredibly high standards for their cacao. Not only is the Criollo variety the only one acceptable as Tito said, but the main goal is to obtain the highest white beans possible (aka Porcelana).
When touring the warehouse back in town, Eduardo, our co-op’s rep, explained how a selection of beans in a particular batch is analyzed to adjust fermentation and the drying processes to come up with the most delicious cocoa flavors. First, a handful of beans are cut in half in a guillotine. White/porcelana beans are extremely rare in the world, but still one of the Peruvian varieties we got to taste has approximately a 60% content. This method of analysis determines the white bean percentage of a particular batch and if the beans have been fermented correctly.
It all becomes clearer when a small batch is actually turned into liquor and a proper tasting is conducted. Then, based on the flavor profiles it can be determined if the fermentation technique is yielding the best flavors, or if it should be adjusted. As beans are so different depending in their growing condition, one fermentation technique does not necessarily apply to all. The results of the analysis go back directly to the farmers who are given specific instructions on how to go about their process.
It was very exciting to see the huge difference that this made to the farmers, who look happy and talk very proudly of their cacao plantations. Compared to nine years ago, they are being paid approximately 10 times more per kilo. Additionally, at the end of the year, the cooperative distributes any excess funds. We could actually see at the farm how the previous fermentation space, which was just a small shack, had been re-built into a brick building with its own fermentation room. Another friendly farmer we spoke with, Julian, also said they are getting ready to build an additional area for drying the beans with the premiums that they are expecting to receive this year.
We came back to San Diego with our bags full of new knowledge and perspective plus two cacao pods that we were able to sneak in to share with our team. This amazing trip is a reminder of how many hands and how much effort and commitment made it possible for us to receive our precious cocoa bean bags.