,Very early in my chocolate making career I began to realise that the quality of my chocolate is completely tied to the quality of the cacao I am using. It became very clear the few times my chocolate would smell of sweaty socks or stale cardboard or even worse for me, a spoonful of mouldy dirt.
I became much better at identifying problems in the cacao I was buying and wanted to avoid anything that would taste bad. I learned to inspect each bag of cacao every time a farmer sold it to me, often rejecting the cacao because of some damage or off flavour.
These inspection sessions began to include some suggestions and helpful tips. When farmers had success I was able to pay them a premium for their excellent work. Getting a better price encouraged them to begin innovation. I also noticed that most cacao farmers didn't have any idea of what good chocolate would taste like (of course as kid growing up in the USA I didn't either). So, I started asking them to taste chocolate with me. For many, this was the first time they were tasting the work of their own hands.
I could taste the difference from one batch of chocolate to the other and so could some of my customers. Once in awhile someone would proclaim that the last batch was better, or this one is more fruity, or some type of observation. We were doing the same thing each time, but the cacao made each chocolate different. Since we were using about 15 different family farms in the area but not changing our chocolate making recipe, the real quality difference must be due to the farmers..
I wanted to make sure to keep each chocolate batch organised, so I began to put the names of the farmers on the bars. After about a year, I had a collection of several batches from several different farms. Some of these chocolates sold faster than others, so when I needed more from a farmer I would order cacao and the farmer would get paid more for the better chocolate. Customers would ask for a farm by name and some of them even became friends with the farmers. How cool was that!
The style of curing the beans and the specifics of the trees and land were making some cacao more valuable than others. But the value wasn't being created by me as a chocolate maker. My chocolate was getting better, much better, but the methods and tools of the factory weren't changing. Only the quality of the cacao was changing.
So why is Caribeans Chocolate so go and keep getting better? It is because the cacao producers are beginning to learn what farming practices produce fine flavour and what practices are damaging the cacao. There are some pretty famous chocolate makers out there these days and the movement for artisan chocolate is creating more artistic and natural ways of making chocolate. But if you ask them, they are, everyone of them, dependent on the work of the nameless farmers who grow and prepare the cacao for export.
I have learned a great deal about how to make chocolate, but one thing is for sure. without a cacao farmer who knows how to prepare the beans and cultivates a high quality cacao, I am completely unable to make good chocolate.
Next time you enjoy that fancy $10 artisan chocolate bar, remember the true person responsible for the flavour and aroma was the cacao producer. They should be the most famous names in the world of chocolate! So give credit where credit is due. Come to Caribeans and taste our single estate 72% chocolate bars and you will connect with the real artist in the chocolate world. The farmers.
Try a Google search looking for popular chocolate travel destinations and you will find some of the best chocolate factories in the world. Of course, the first countries on the list are Switzerland and Belgium. One result even yielded Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Many of us foodies travel to exotic destinations for special food. I for one, love to go to Wisconsin for all the artisan cheese stands (not to mention my wife of 21 years is from Madison). One thing special about the roadside cheese stand in Wisconsin is that the dairy cows are happily grazing nearby. I doubt the area would be known for great cheese if the dairy had been shipped in from Chiapas, Mexico or Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica where I currently live and make artisan tree-to-bar chocolate.
Chocolate as we know it today, is a baby of the industrial revolution. Raw products are shipped from exotic (formally colonized) parts of the world and refined into a magical substance called chocolate. Cacao farmers seldom even dreamed of making their own chocolate and some of them had never even tasted the "fruit of the gods".
Over the last 10 years or so, a movement has been quietly growing where creative do-it-yourselfers have learned how to make chocolate that is beginning to rival the top European chocolates. This little movement has made it possible for a micro-batch of chocolate to taste as good (in my opinion better) as any mass produced chocolate.
About six years ago Caribeans started playing with the locally grown cacao. After some time and lots of challenges, we have done it! The major difference is we are also cacao producers. So now for travelers who want to experience an authentic chocolate, there is a place a lot like that roadside cheese factory.
If you love chocolate and you love to travel, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica is your new destination!
Check out our 3rd Annual Puerto Viejo Chocolate Festival.
I recently traveled to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic to attend a conference provided by Direct Cacao.
When I first learned of the conference I jumped at the chance to attend. It was over my budget to make the trip but I really had to be part of something that can be so good for cacao producers and for the future of chocolate.
I was disappointed to hear the conference was paired down from three days of workshops to one day of lectures from the members of the organization. This was due to a lack of response to the three day conference. I was able to attend nevertheless.
Direct Cacao wishes to create a certification that would allow chocolate makers to certify their cacao is "directly sourced". They also want the cacao to be certified fine flavor cacao (it would seem they want to certify fine flavor as well).
What is fine flavor?
There is a clear difference in the chocolates that have won awards recently and the average chocolate bar. The chocolate we tasted from fine Dominican cacao was clearly much more fruity and flowery and very complex. However the average cacao producer finds that flavor sour and bitter. Many of these cacao farmers prefer the sweeter and less intense flavors of (bulk) cacao. Even in our own local awards it is cacao that has less flavor intensity that wins the popular vote.
The cacao that makes award winning chocolate is normally more acidic in fruit flavor and can have floral aromas and flavor. However the chocolate that often sells the best is much more simple on the palette.
While it is true that eventually fine flavor cacao will gain much higher prices, for a cacao producer this is a moving target which will be nearly impossible to hit with the blindfold of economic realities covering his eyes.
The same is true here in Puerto Viejo. The cacao that makes award winning chocolate is normally more acidic in fruit flavor and can have floral aromas and flavor. However the chocolate that often sells the best is much more simple on the palette. The simple cacao blends well with nearly every spice and is easy to use as a base for inclusions. Farmers who have this type of cacao should be able to benefit from direct trade as well, no?
I hope the Direct Cacao Organization will recognize this and stop vilifying the simpler flavor chocolate which many cacao farmers already have and like. It is good to encourage excellent practices. It is good to encourage the growth of fine cacao.
If the point of Direct Cacao is to make a farmer direct relationship better for farmers (which in my opinion should be the only reason), does it have to exclude cacao that the farmers want to work with and some chocolate makers want to use?
If chocolate makers want the award winning cacao they will need to pay the farmers about three times the current price of cacao in the market. Even that may not make it sustainable for a modern farmer. Since the farmer would need to change the genetics in his trees (a costly project which will last five years without production) they should offer three to five years of advance income while the farmers wait for the newly grafted trees on their farm to produce.
The average chocolate maker for the future is even smaller that these micro producers of fine chocolate. I as a chocolate maker of course would love to be the winner of an international chocolate award. However it would seem to do that as a cacao producer will take a long time. Besides, who knows what cacao is going to be winning in five years.
My original hope in going to this conference was to meet the leaders in Direct Cacao sourcing cacao directly and fairly is one of my biggest passions.
After going to the Dominica Republic. where Christopher Columbus is buried. I feel there is a long way to go to truly enable cacao growers to thrive as they should.
Cacao was as valuable as gold in the beginning after all.
But it seems to me the only way true change will really happen when cacao growers discover chocolate. And so it will be around the world.
It's all about supply and demand. First rule of business right? or was that "location, location, location"?
When we set out to make chocolate we didn't know we were going to be creating a successful business. Weird right? Ever since our first batch of chocolate 5 years ago, we have been keeping up with demand for our product.
Since day one, we have experienced more and more pressure to produce more and more chocolate. Each stage along the way we have sniffed out bottlenecks in the production process so that we can keep up with demand. We have invented and imagined more ways to roast, winnow, refine and temper the chocolate. Along the way keeping everything very low tech and “entry level”.
Every week someone asked if we can produce for export and “opportunities” are abundant. Lately we are saying "no" more often to customers who want larger volumes of chocolate. Each time I explain that we have a several types of accounts. Here we have an account in US Dollars, Colones, and we have a happiness account. The happiness account tends to get withdrawn when we go for increased in the other two accounts. We are limited by our ability to produce and our willingness to "go big".
Often we have felt that we are raising a dragon and always in danger of been eaten by our own creation. The goal has been to tame the dragon without being eaten. So when we think about the dragon getting bigger and having more teeth, you can see the problem. Yet... we still love the process had still haven't been bit by the dragon. So going a little bit bigger isn't so scary.
One of the steps in the chocolate factory is tempering. We have created an effective hand tempering method which has served us for 5 years. But the time is arriving to reinvest in clearing the next bottleneck. Very soon we will be in the market for a tempering machine. This machine will help by also cleanly depositing the chocolate in our molds for better conservation of chocolate. We will have better chocolate and less waste of chocolate and time washing molds.
If you have been looking for a way to bless us financially, a great way is to help us raise the $ for this new machine. Our target is $15,000 and we are already half way there.
Email us if you are interested in helping. Of course chocolate gifts will come your way as a thank you for helping us out!
Caribeans Chocolate has attended the Northwest Chocolate Festival held in Seattle, WA for the last two years.
Each time we have learned valuable lessons for our growth as artisan chocolate makers.
The number one benefit is to become part of a community of colleagues where creativity and excellence in chocolate making is fostered. Every artist can benefit from a "showing" in this way. It helps us understand our art in the context of the greater community. For us at Caribeans it helps us understand how we are unique and how we are similar to other artisan chocolate makers. We get to taste other chocolate maker's work and they get to taste ours.
Another great benefit to attending a chocolate festival like the Northwest Chocolate Festival is the educational seminars. So many great teachers sharing what they have learned, and sharing their story helps us to see into the future a little bit.
If you make chocolate or produce cacao, I would definitely look for an artisan chocolate festival to attend. You will not regret it.
Type in "Chocolate Destinations" in any search engine and you will find the top chocolate destinations in the world are found well outside the tropical zones in which theobroma cacao can produce.
Here at Caribeans we believe the top chocolate destinations in the world will be changing in the coming years. What? You say. That's right! You see, the missing piece for the current leaders in the chocolate travel game is the cacao forest and farming aspect.
Chocolate travellers are only getting half the experience if they go to one of the current top ten destinations for chocolate. Imagine if the top wine destinations only included the wine makers and never the vineyards where the grapes are produced. I doubt Napa Valley could have happened if there were no vineyards in the valley and they only made wine from grapes imported from all over the world.
Did you know that places like Costa Rica have the best makings of a true chocolate destination? Costa Rica has many high quality cacao farms and now due to the micro-batch movement in chocolate has a few high quality chocolate factories. Some, like ours, are built right in the same cacao forest where the origin products are never exported or even leave the property before they are turned into high quality chocolate.
To me, a big fan of chocolate and of travel, there is no other true chocolate destination.
Chocolate Forest guests here are treated to a very special tasting of chocolates produced from extreme single sources. For many this experience is the first time they have really tasted chocolate.
Our tasting chocolates are produced with only two ingredients. 72% cocoa nibs and 28% organic certified sugar. Making chocolate without adding cocoa butter produces a chocolate that is stronger tasting than chocolate made with additional cocoa butter.
There lies the rub. Should we make chocolate that says 72% cocoa on the label but has flavor equal to 80% or more? Is a chocolate tasting really accurate if additional elements that change texture and mouth feel are being added? Our camp feels that absolutely no added fats or emulsifiers should be added. If the cacao quality is being judged for its flavor notes additional fats added will mask the natural characteristic and mouth feel. Others feel that adding cocoa butter is ok and actually a requirement for chocolate to have the buttery mouth feel.
It is our belief that tasters should be able to experience all the range of flavors possible in chocolate based on the origin. This puts the best measurement on the work of the cacao producer and will be the only way to truly identify fine flavor notes and mouth feel that exist from farm to farm.
To us, the additional cocoa butter and fats are like fortifying wine with additional alcohol: something that would never be allowed in the wine tasting world. So...tasters can decide for themselves.
However, taster beware...most chocolate has additional cocoa butter fats included in the % of cocoa mass. The full flavor and mouth feel is masked and the health value is lower. How can you tell? Read the ingredients list. If you see cocoa and cocoa butter you have your answer. If there are more that two ingredients it is not a "tasting" chocolate. And that is our two cents on that!
This year we held the first annual Puerto Viejo Chocolate Festival! Caribeans along with several other key chocolate makers and chocolatiers set the foundation for what will be a major Costa Rica event in the coming years!
One goal we have as a company is to increase awareness amongst cacao producers of the value they can add to their cacao if it is fermented and dried on location at the farm. Many have told me that getting consistent cacao quality is impossible if the farmers are fermenting and drying at the farm. I tried at first to blend all of these different farm origins to make one consistent bar.
Know what...they were right. It is very difficult to make the chocolate taste the same from such a dynamic produce. Grapes have their terrior, coffee has its regions, tobacco for fine cigars is classified by flavor derived from its origin. So why not celebrate all of the differences from farm to farm?
For the last year we have been doing just that. Our chocolate is one of the only chocolates made from farm to farm in small batches. And this year cacao producers could compete head to head with their cacao being made into chocolate.
Six producers selected their best work and submitted 5 kilos of cacao to our chocolate maker. Each chocolate was made using strict standards. Same roast, same sugar and same conching time in the melangeur. Once the chocolates were finished we held a community wide blind tasting. The community selected the chocolate with the most cocoa flavor but with less bitterness and acidity.
At the end of the PVCF we anounced the winner! Pascal from the Cocles area won the 2012 Cacao Producer of the Year Award. Congratulations Xocotal!
Have you ever been to a fine cigar store? If you have you probably stepped into the humidor and asked the sales agent what type of cigar might fit your needs. Once in the humidor you are in another world completely. The temperature is regulated and the humidity is controlled. The aroma is that of fine tobacco. Cigars await their one and only chance to be lit in this perfect environment for their needs.
Even if you don't smoke cigars, there is something special about walking into their world and seeing the wrappers and boxes and imagining the hands that rolled them. Of course this environment was born out of a need to maintain the quality of the cigars. but it has become much, much more.
We don't make cigars but we have the same need to protect our chocolate. It is from this need to create a special world just for chocolate, that is born the “choclador.”
choclador (chok-la-dōr) n. 1. temperature and humidity controlled environment designed for long term storage of fine, gourmet chocolate. 2. slang spanglish term for a person who eats chocolate professionally LOL
Chocolate should be stored at temperatures around 53°-63° F and should be kept at low humidity. Our chocolate is born in Puerto Viejo, Limon, Costa Rica. The environment here in the Caribbean is perfect for cacao but terrible for chocolate.
Caribeans is currently opening a chocolate lounge near our farm and factory. Since the natural environment is like Mars to chocolate. Our chocolate lounge will have the only walk-in choclador in the world (that we know of). Visitors to the Caribeans Chocolate Lounge will be able to have the same special moment where they are alone in a world where chocolate loves to be!
Caribeans Chocolate Lounge opening soon at Om Yoga!
Chocolate Diaries from the Caribeans Bean-To-Bar chocolate maker..