How to Make a Chocolate Bar

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Photo by Anthony Tieuli

In Tapachula, Mexico, the morning was hot, and the air was already heavy with car exhaust. I sat in a small hotel room reviewing the four appointments I had that day with cacao growers in the area. My first meeting would be with Hector, who oversees a mid-sized farm situated to the North. Hector was in town on business, and I thought it best to meet with him before heading out to his farm sight unseen. In my experience, you can tell a lot about a given farm's cacao just by meeting the grower.

This was my second trip to Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. I was determined to find a source for high-quality, organic cacao on this visit. But even finding such a source wouldn't be enough. I also needed to find a producer who was willing and able to meet our strict requirements for bean traceability, flavor profile, and fermentation practices.

Locating this kind of producer in this region would certainly prove a challenge. While the area is home to some of the oldest and most prized cacao varietals in the world, Chiapan farmers have been plagued by recent difficulties. Several years ago, a hurricane struck the area, devastating cacao forests with wind and flooding. The hurricane also brought a more insidious enemy, a fungus that damages cacao pods. Known as Monilia, the fungus affects ripe, healthy pods, rendering them useless for cacao production. In some parts of the country, Monilia has ruined as much as 90 percent of the crop.

After nearly three days of meeting with producers and visiting farms, I began to question whether I would ever find cacao for Taza Chocolate here.

Along with Monilia, other blights like Black Pod Rot have driven many cacao farmers here towards other crops like mango and banana. And wild price fluctuations in the commodity market have meant that some years it was cheaper not to farm at all. As a result, some of the older farms that were once highly productive have either been abandoned for years at a time, or converted to other cash crops.

I'm in charge of sourcing cacao for Taza Chocolate. At Taza, we incentivize the production of high quality cacao by paying growers a premium above Fair Trade Organic (FTO) prices for beans. The ability to trace the origin of a given sack of cacao back to the grower who harvested the pods is an integral step in maintaining and promoting quality. We use a sourcing model, which we call Direct Trade, to help in fostering this transparency from farmer to producer (and customer). You can read more about the specifics of our Direct Trade program on our website.

After nearly three days of meeting with producers and visiting farms, I began to question whether I would ever find cacao for Taza Chocolate here. In my hotel room, I sat down on the bed and ran through all of my sourcing objectives. Quality, flavor, organic certification. Transparency, flexibility, fair work practices. Then my mind wandered to the obstacles ahead of me. Blight, insufficient supply, poor fermentation, complicated shipping logistics. I fell asleep worrying that my trip would be fruitless.

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Image Courtesy of Taza Chocolate

One of the biggest challenges we encounter when sourcing cacao is encouraging farmers to abide by our stringent post-harvest processing standards. After the pods are cut from the trees, they are cracked open to reveal a sweet, white pulp that surrounds the seeds. This pulp, often called baba, contains the sugar that fuels the fermentation of the cacao. Of all the steps from bean to bar, it is the fermentation process and subsequent drying that have the most profound effect on flavor development. Many producers rush this process and end up converting great beans into mediocre ones in an effort eliminate the added labor and complexity.

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Alex Whitmore is a co-founder of Taza Chocolate.

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