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.
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.
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.
At Taza, we prefer a slow and steady fermentation, one that should take between 6 and 8 days, depending on environmental factors. The fermentation must be uniform--that is, all beans should be fermented evenly, instead of having some over- and some under-fermented. The beans should be sun-dried on wooden screens--not concrete and not plastic--until they reach a moisture level of no more than seven percent. We recognize that this level of detail adds considerable work for the farmer. That's why we incentivize quality-focused measures with higher-than-FTO prices. Not only do we end up with better beans, the farmers end up with greater profits, and we're able to create the kind of long-term relationship that is such an important part of our business. The extra work is worth it for all the parties involved.
After nearly of a week of meetings with producers--some promising, most not--I began to focus my efforts on three farms in northern Soconusco, a region in the southern tip of Chiapas. Much of the tree stock there is old growth Criollo, a rare and prized varietal. Cacao Criollo is somewhat lighter in color, and possesses a distinct and delicate flavor that varies depending on where it is grown. Finally, I began to see farms with significant investments in fermentation infrastructure, and the desire to work with Taza towards making further improvements. While I wasn't able to find a farm with enough production to supply Taza year round, I did lay groundwork for the purchase of enough cacao to craft a special edition chocolate bar. Chiapas is home to some of the world's oldest and rarest varietals of cacao. Only 17 sacks of cacao sourced from small family farms were available for this special edition bar. This chocolate is fragrant with notes of brown butter and walnuts.