A cacao adventure in Costa Rica
Not many people argue when I say that I have the best job in the world, and my latest adventure to Costa Rica brings even more weight to this claim!
As you may know, JACEK started a bean-to-bar collection in 2015 (read why), and the goal of this is to take it a step further than sourcing ethically (which of course we do, and should be a minimum standard for doing business in my opinion!), and doing our best to ensure that there is joy on the farms. I imagine JACEK getting to a stage where we have a relationship with many of the farmers that we are buying from, and being fully engaged at each point in our supply chain. This will take years, but we are making a start…
An opportunity came up for me to visit Costa Rica to learn about what was happening in cacao farming there, and of course I jumped on this. My husband Tim, as well as Geoff & Joanne Linden (from Credo Coffee) decided to make the trek to central America to see what we could find out about Costa Rican cacao & coffee in five short (but meticulously planned thanks to Tim & Joanne!) days.
We flew into Liberia, and we nearly turned back into the plane instead of proceeding onto the tarmac as it was insanely hot (43 C), and we got accustomed pretty quickly as it got even hotter while we drove north east, to Upala, which is one of the cacao growing regions in Costa Rica.
The next morning, we met with Mr. Juan Pablo Buchert, who is the Owner & Founder of Nahua Chocolate, a bean-to-bar producer, chocolatier and cacao distributor. In the first thirty minutes of meeting Juan Pablo, I was blown away by his knowledge of cacao, agriculture and business. Juan Pablo shared a lot of the history of cacao in Costa Rica, and how cacao farms were largely wiped out in the country in the late 70’s due to diseases, including Moniliophthora Roreiri (or known as Monilia) that damaged the crops. Juan Pablo’s passion for cacao, his commitment to creating environmental sustainability, and his desire to make a positive social impact make him a true champion for the re-emerging cacao industry in the country.
There was so much knowledge gained in spending a day with Juan Pablo! I’ll share a few of the highlights as this post would be a novel if I tried to capture everything!
Juan Pablo first took us to a cacao farm that had been passed down through generations, but was largely left unkempt as there may have been a lack of farming knowledge transfer, or the farmers decided to focus on other crops. This experience was so that we could understand the difference between a farm that was not being taken care of, and ones that were.
Although this farm is still very beautiful in appearance with all of the greenery, you will see that there aren’t many pods on the Theobroma Cacao (chocolate tree), and the trees aren’t shaped optimally like a wine glass, which provides the best amount of light and shade for productive growth.
This is an example of a diseased pod that should have been removed a long time ago, as it may potentially harm the tree and neighboring pods.
After the first farm visit, we went to the fermentation centre, which was set up by Juan Pablo and his team. Part of the social impact program by Nahua Chocolate is to guarantee the purchase of the fresh cacao from farmers, and they have developed a system where Nahua will pick fresh beans up from farmers on a rotating 2 week schedule. The reason that this is important is a) Nahua can control the fermentation at their centre as this is a specialized process, and b) not all farmers have the capacity to get their beans to the centre within 12 hours of harvest.
The Nahua Chocolate fermentation centre, Upala
The inside of this relatively new fermentation centre looks similar to a greenhouse.
These tiered boxes is where the magic of fermentation begins. The fresh beans that arrive from the farmers are covered in a sweet white pulp, and they are dumped into the top box. The beans move down a tier every day, each day the pulp fermenting the beans for the development of flavour. This process takes 5-6 days.
This is genius! The fronts on the fermentation boxes lift, so that the beans can be moved to a lower tier with a shovel and little effort. Thanks gravity- you’re awesome!
These cacao beans are two tiers down, so still have remnants of the white pulp. The beans were sticky to the touch at this stage.
Juan Pablo and his team periodically slice the beans using a sharp knife to check on the fermentation. The veins and colour of this bean shows very good fermentation.
The beans are moved into the second to last box and covered for their last fermentation day. There is a sixth box at the bottom of the tiered system in the event that the beans need one more day to achieve the desired flavour.
The beans are then transferred to a drying table, which is perforated for optimal drying. Over the course of the week while the beans are drying, helpers rotate them by hand to ensure that they are drying consistently. In addition to the rotation, the helpers will remove any debris (rocks, branches etc…) that may have made their way from the farm.
Close up of the dried beans that are ready to be bagged.
Bags that are used for the dried cacao beans.
At this point, you are probably wondering- what is the different between cacao (pronounced: ka-kow) and cocoa. Simply put, ‘cacao’ is the raw bean which is the seed of the pod from the Theobroma cacao tree, and it becomes ‘cocoa’ once the bean has been roasted and/or processed.
From there, the bagged beans are sent to Nahua’s warehouse in San Jose, and are ready to be shipped to bean-to-bar customers around the world (like us!).
After the fermentation centre, we went to visit two family owned farms. Most cacao farms in Costa Rica are small, approx. 1 to 1.5 hectares, so can be managed by a single family.
Meet Christian. He is a second generation cacao farmer, who manages a beautiful plantation with the help of his 18 year old son. His trees are over 40 years old, and are perfectly shaped (like a wine glass). He is standing in this photo next to his favorite tree.
Unlike some of the newer farms, Christian’s trees are not in a linear pattern, but he knows them all very well, and can tell you about each tree’s yield, he knows when to prune each of them etc…
Christian’s farm is picturesque, with a river flowing on its borders.
The flowers on the cacao tree are clustered on a ‘floral pillow’, and it flowers all year long. The floral pillow remains at the same spot on the tree, and what’s interesting is that there is always a combination of flowers, small pods and mature pods at the same time. What really blew my mind was the length of time it takes a pod to mature! It takes 5-8 months from blossom to ripe fruit, and only 3 of every 1,000 flowers are pollinated, fertilized and reach full maturity. To put this into perspective, it takes the cacao beans from one pod (remember, up to 8 months of growing time) to make one single JACEK chocolate bar from the artisan bar line (42 grams)! The tree only produces 20-40 pods per year.
We learned a lot about the Theobroma Cacao, and one of the things that I found fascinating was that although the cacao trees are hermaphrodic, the majority cannot fertilize themselves. Generally, the tree must be placed next to a compatible tree for fertilization. However this is not a rule; there are instances where trees are self-compatible, meaning that the tree will successfully grow pods on it’s own in isolation, per the tree above (next to Christian’s house, which I loved as it is JACEK blue!)
Christian has been making chocolate outdoors as well to enjoy the literal fruit of his labour. He roasts the beans, and manually grinds them to create a paste.
After an amazing time learning about cacao farming, and deepening my appreciation for what goes into growing ‘chocolate’, we headed for another amazing adventure (referring mostly to the roads!) to another farm.
Meet Edwin, another Upala farmer who oozes joy and complete passion for cacao farming. He is holding a cacao pod for us to enjoy as we start the tour. The inside of the pod contains a white mucilage (or pulp) which surrounds the beans. At this stage, you don’t eat the bean (I did and now understand why it’s not recommended!), you just pop the bean into your mouth and let the sweet and tangy pulp melt in your mouth. It tastes very similar to mango, and what’s interesting is that they all taste slightly different, depending on the variety of Theobroma cacao the pod was from (most trees are hybrids of the grand varieties).
Edwin’s farm is only 4 years old, and is producing very well. As you can see, the branches and trunk are a lot smaller than the mature trees on Christian’s farm, but the trees that were planted in a linear fashion are producing beautifully coloured cacao pods.
Edwin grafting a non-compatible cacao tree to make it compatible!
I was already super impressed with the beauty and the complexity of the cacao tree, but I was blown away again when Edwin walked us through the grafting of trees. As mentioned above, the tree generally needs a companion for fertilization, but not all trees are compatible with each other. Farmers get to know their trees very well, and get to know which are compatible. In instances where trees are not-compatible, Edwin will cut a branch from a tree that he knows to be compatible, and graft it onto the non-compatible one. What essentially happens is that the new graft will use the existing root system for nutrients, but the tree will take on the new properties of the grafted tree to make it compatible. Once the graft has taken, the majority of the non-compatible tree will be cut, and the root system will then serve the new compatible tree. Nature is amazing!
Edwin’s Theobroma Cacao Nursery.
A pineapple plantation.
Edwin’s farm overlooks a pineapple plantation, which is what you are more likely to see while driving in the Costa Rican countryside. Sadly, what has happened since the devastation of cacao trees in the 70’s is that a lot of cacao farms were purchased by large corporations and transformed into pineapple plantations. This is fine in the short-term, but I learned it has some pretty terrible consequences in the long term for the environment, and therefore the community. Unlike the cacao crop, the pineapple crop is very hard on the soil, robbing it of nutrients over time. Juan Pablo is championing cacao for the Costa Rican environment as this is critical to the long-term sustainability of the soil, and the communities that it supports. The pineapple plantation pictured above is next to Edwin’s farm, which also used to be a pineapple plantation before he purchased it, and reworked the land to ensure long term sustainability on his section.
Us (Tim & Jacqueline Jacek, Geoff & Joanne Linden) with Edwin.
This is Juan Pablo’s trunk after our visit with Edwin. It’s amazing that the ingredients for his chocolates grow on the same (or neighboring) farms. He managed to get fresh ginger from the soil, green peppercorns from the vine, plantains from a tree (for his dinner, not for the chocolate!) and some cocoa pods for display in his boutique. #jealous
I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to meet Juan Pablo, and some Costa Rican farmers who are working so hard everyday to grow beautiful cacao for us to enjoy. I feel a massive sense of pride that we can buy direct from them (working on an order right now!), and I know that in growing my business, I have the opportunity to help others grow theirs to the benefit of all of our communities with the ultimate goal of spreading joy.