In a small village on the shore of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, I recently purchased a pound of cacao beans from a local vendor. They cost 15 quetzales. At a fine chocolatier in the touristy sector of town, I bought another pound for 50 quetzales.
The cheaper beans were a woody color and a little soft. They had a flavor of alcohol, then notes of red wine, and then an intense dill flavor filled my mouth. The more expensive beans snapped open much more crisply and were a lovely lavender color inside. They had brighter acidity and notes of white wine mingled with ripe banana.
The more expensive beans were clearly better, enough to justify the price difference for me. But what does it take to produce brightness instead of flatness, crispness instead of softness? What’s the difference between producing fine and commodity cacao, and is it worth it for producers?
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Samples of cacao from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Credit: Zach Latimore
Choosing a Cacao Variety
Quality cacao starts with quality genetics. The International Cocoa Organization states that, in general, fine cacao is produced from Criollo or Trinitario variety trees, while bulk commodity cacao comes from Forastero, although it also recognizes exceptions to this rule.
For farmers, the choice of variety is based on local climate and environment, as well as production costs and the final market. There’s no point a producer investing in a variety that requires expensive fertilizers, additional labor, and new infrastructure if there’s no demand for that kind of bean.
Francisco Pérez is the store leader of Choco Museo in Antigua, Guatemala. He tells me Trinitario beans can fetch a high price, but that growing them in the northern cacao-growing regions of the country is too unpredictable to provide a reliable income for farmers. But, he says, Forastero trees thrive in that area.
Francisco tells me that “cacao is a good investment as long as you have the appropriate climate and what the tree needs.” Plants that are well-suited to their environment are more likely to produce a higher yield and better quality pods, both of which can bring a higher and more stable income for farmers.
Cacao pods on the tree. Credit: Miguel Regalado
Producing fine cacao requires a significantly larger investment than producing commodity grade cacao. This includes increased labor, processing time, and attention to detail, as well as different infrastructure.
Commercial cacao is sold by weight and, as long as it meets minimum requirements, its quality isn’t considered. Therefore, farmers have an incentive to maximize yield over quality. This type of cacao is often fermented and dried as quickly as possible, and little, if any, sorting of defective beans is undertaken.
Commercial cacao producers may spend years working on genetic improvement to increase yield or defend against diseases. Fine cacao farmers, however, focus any genetic selection almost entirely on flavor. This leaves fine cacao more vulnerable to diseases, including the destructive fungi black pod and witches’ broom. An outbreak of either could lead to a massive loss of profit.
Fine cacao farmers often grow several varieties of cacao rather than one standardized crop. This makes harvesting a risky business. Under-ripe pods haven’t developed their full flavor, while over-ripe ones may have started to germinate. Both make subpar cacao for fine chocolate. So, it’s crucial for farmers to monitor their trees carefully, harvest wisely, and employ skilled workers who recognize the differences among cacao varieties. And those things cost money.
Cacao pods. Credit: Miguel Regalado
Investment in Careful Processing
For fine cacao, the post-harvest process is critical. Rogerio Kamei is the owner of Mestiço Chocolates and a producer at Fazenda Bonança in Bahia, Brazil. He says that flavor development depends mainly on the post-harvesting procedures – ripeness, fermentation, drying, and storage. “But the main difference is really the fermentation,” he says.
Rogerio tells me that fine cacao needs “proper, adapted, controlled fermentation.” This means harvesting pods at peak ripeness and discarding defective ones, monitoring temperature and oxygen during fermentation, using dedicated fermenting boxes and slow drying times, and then storing the cacao properly. All of these factors affect the development of flavor and profile.
While many commercial cacao producers use the same boxes for fermenting and drying, in fine cacao production, different boxes are used for each process. Using the same box can cause flavor disruption, or what Rogerio calls “aroma contamination.” Because commercial chocolate is aimed at producing a homogenized, consistent profile, it isn’t important that the individual nuances of each lot are kept, but in fine chocolate this is key.
Cacao beans drying. Credit: Miguel Regalado
Finding a Market
Selling cacao is the final step after processing but the market should be the first step that a producer considers.
While growing rapidly, the market for fine cacao remains small in comparison to commodity cacao. In a report presented at the 2016 World Cocoa Conference, the fine chocolate market was evaluated as less than 1% of overall chocolate sales.
Emily Stone is the owner of premium cacao bean wholesaler Uncommon Cacao. “The greatest risk at the moment is finding buyers, because the market for specialty cacao is very crowded and buyers of this type of bean tend to still be very small,” she says.
But she sees growth and an increasing awareness of fine chocolate. “I think it is affecting consumer perceptions of chocolate in a positive direction, although this is happening slowly,” she says. “We are seeing bulk chocolate manufacturers use premiumization tactics to retain customers even if their products are not fine or premium chocolate. For example, I just saw a bag of M&Ms in the supermarket labeled as 50% cacao.”
Chocolate samples with different amounts of cacao content at Choco Museo, Antigua. Credit: Zach Latimore
Laura Bechard is the supply chain coordinator at Equal Exchange, which aims to build long-term trade partnerships that are economically just and environmentally sound in the cacao industry. She points out that there are no defined quality standards in the industry. This makes it hard for producers to qualify their cacao as fine grade and set themselves apart from commodity grade using fine cacao language as a marketing technique.
Laura encourages producers to find a market by working through a cooperative if possible. She says that this also brings benefits such as access to credit, technical support, and assistance with certification such as Fair Trade and organic, which bring their own premiums.
Traditional cacao processing machinery on display at Choco Museo. Credit: Zach Latimore
So, Is Producing Fine Cacao Worth It?
If a farmer is already growing cacao, the transition to fine-quality production doesn’t necessarily have to be prohibitively expensive. And if they can secure a market, it may be a good business choice. Some chocolate manufacturers are willing to work with producers to make the shift to higher-quality production. But there are still risks involved.
Alyssa Jade McDonald is a producer and chocolate maker at Blyss Chocolate. She tells me that Blyss pays producers the true cost of their work, accounting for the increased production costs associated with fine cacao as well as costs like plant nursery care and healthcare for farmers. But she also says that the wider industry often lacks transparency and truth on farm-gate prices.
Prices paid to farmers are often self-reported, self-defined, and scattered, and it is difficult for consumers and professionals alike to determine if compensation actually reaches the producer.
Alyssa says that “without the actual cost of the cacao being fairly paid for, there is no incentive for farmers to maintain cacao (as opposed to other cash crops), nor is there incentive for the next generation to take over the land and contracts.”
Rogerio says that “for the financial side, I think [fine cacao] brings more stability, but I can’t ensure a much more profitable business. At the end of the day, it brings more cash but it is a lot more work as well.”
A cacao tree. Credit: Miguel Regalado
So why do producers choose to farm and process fine cacao? Emily says that she loves the appreciation that comes from producing quality cacao. She also enjoys the connections she makes in the industry.
“I love working in the fine cacao business for many reasons, but mostly because I love working directly with the farmers and helping them become connected to global markets that truly value and appreciate their work,” she says.
Rogerio says that one of the best things about working in the fine cacao business is the excitement of producing unique cacao and “the sense of achievement in an otherwise indifferent industry.”
Green cacao pods on a tree. Credit: Miguel Regalado
There are undoubtedly increased risks for producers choosing fine cacao over commercial grade. But there also seem to be growing opportunities and intrinsic rewards that come with producing a high-quality product. As I roasted my fine cacao from Lake Atitlan and shared it with a friend, the extra investment seemed worth it for the delicious flavor and unique experience.
But for farmers, there are serious risks involved in switching to fine cacao, including potential financial ruin if a crop fails or the market isn’t receptive. It’s important that every producer consider their own circumstances and make the choice for themselves.
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Written by Zach Latimore. Interviews with Rogerio Kamei and Emily Stone conducted by Max Haydon.
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