Origin Report: Cahabón, Guatemala

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Off the beaten path, in the Oana Itzam Mountains of Guatemala, works a group of 43 smallholder cacao farmers that have taken the specialty cacao industry by quality storm. This association is ADIOESMAC, also known as Cahabón, for the name of the nearest town, 20 kilometers away.

When you arrive at the centralized fermentation and processing center for ADIOESMAC, you feel like you’re on the crest of a mountain, as the road runs along the mountain ridgeline. Off to the right and left, down the mountainside, cacao farms have been planted, and when farmers harvest their beans, they walk them uphill and along the road to reach the centralized facility. Their facility is built on land that was originally designated as a cacao drying platform back in the early 2000’s, when Scharffen Berger Chocolate, with the help of an archaeologist, discovered the group’s high-quality cacao. After the association’s first export to Scharffen Berger, the company was acquired by Hershey’s and never returned to buy more cacao.

Farmers have put incredible hard work into their farms and facility over the past several years after Cacao Verapaz opened up international markets again for the group. First, each farmer maintains his or her own plot of cacao – which on average is about 1 hectare per farmer. As part of best agricultural practices, many of these farmers planted their trees 1.5 meters apart, instead of 1 meter apart, because they’re planted on such steep grades. The distance between the trees allows farmers to better prune and mulch their trees, something they’ve learned by experience.

The association has established a clonal garden close to the fermentary. The farmers have identified ten specific varietals as “super” clones – a selection of local trees that have high productivity, disease resistance, and local adaptation. They are creating the clonal garden to allow farmers to graft these types of cacaos onto their farms, leading to more resilient trees with higher cacao yields. Cacao Verapaz will be working with the association to evaluate sensory quality and flavor profiles of these selected clones.

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Interestingly, the most common genetic varietal in the area is a UF clone – this is a cacao that yields larger than average “potato-sized” beans, with a count of about 60 beans per 100 grams (Uncommon Cacao’s average is 85 beans per 100 grams).  Farmers have been dedicated to maintaining these trees because they love the flavor of the chocolate it produces, which they consume daily as a drink, and because the trees show high yields and disease resilience.

Cacao Verapaz, Uncommon Cacao in Guatemala, buys all of the ADIOESMAC cacao that meets our physical and sensorial evaluation standards. These UF beans are instrumental in meeting those standards. We look for a fermentation rate of above 75%, humidity level below 7.5%, zero internal mold, and no debris, cracked beans, or external mold. In addition, we depend on ADIOESMAC to yield a cocoa, chocolate cookie flavor – a flavor that’s pretty unique for Guatemalan cacao.

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We were fortunate to visit the ADIOESMAC facility last month, during peak harvest, to see how the farms are looking and how processing is going. We saw that farmers have been maintaining their plots very carefully – there is very little presence of monilia or black pod. This is partially due to the carefully selected genetics, and mostly due to farmers’ careful attention to their plots, meticulously pruning their trees and managing shade. Cacao Verapaz has hired a quality manager within the ADIOESMAC association, who is responsible for overseeing the best agricultural practices at the farm level and the fermentation and drying processes at the facility. This manager works closely with the Cacao Verapaz quality manager, Roy Fraatz, to ensure consistent quality and accurate traceability for all cacao produced by the association.

This was essential this year in particular due to the late harvest. There were unusually heavy rains for much longer than is typically seen at this time of year. As a result, a lot of Central American and the Caribbean have been seeing more disease – mostly fungus – that commonly are caused by heavy rain. This has been a huge concern for farmers in the Uncommon Cacao network. With the help and encouragement of the Cacao Verapaz team, and the association quality manager, farmers were able to manage their farms and yields have been as expected. The first sample we tried from ADIOESMAC this harvest season was just as expected – 60 beans per 100 grams, 76% well fermented beans, and a cocoa, chocolate cookie flavor.


Maya Mountain Cacao -- Farmer Spotlight -- The Cho Family

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Name: Francisco Cho, Wife: Leonarda Cho

Age: 67

Children: 10 (7 boys, 3 girls). One of his sons, Crispino, 23, helps full time on the farm. Another son is in high school, other sons have jobs in the Belize army and come home on their leave to help their Mom and Dad.

Village: San Antonio (Indigenous Mopan Maya culture)

Years in MMC’s Organic Producer Network: 6

Cacao: “I got good support from my children. I feel good. Cacao is my future. I will stick on that. I will not stop clean that cacao—steady until I dead.”

On a peak cacao season harvest day, Francisco Cho, his wife Leonarda and their 23-year-old son Crispino wake up at 5:30am, before the sun has risen to prepare for a long harvest day in their family cacao field.  After feeding the animals and preparing a quick breakfast of tortillas and packing a lunch of bean soup, they are on their way to the farm to harvest cacao. At 6:30 when they set out, the sun is up and the way is lit, a thirty-minute trek down a narrow dirt path called a picado that winds down the hill behind their home in San Antonio village into the verdant secondary rainforest of southern Belize.

Upon reaching the farm, the family gets to work, Cho and Crispino pulling ripe pods from the tree into piles were Leonarda cracks them open with club and pulls the fresh seeds into buckets. The harvest can take all day, and the work is tiring. After the harvest, the men haul the buckets of cacao back to their home, the same 30-minute walk they took in the morning, this time laden with hundreds of pounds of cacao.  They must reach back in time to make Maya Mountain Cacao’s collection time. By 2pm they know the MMC truck is already rolling through the village, purchasing cacao from neighboring farmers. When the MMC team weighs the Cho’s cacao, loads it up and takes their leave, Cho and his family will have cash in hand as payment for their fresh cacao beans.

Compared to his other crops, Cho says his cacao field is the closest to him home, a short walk compared to his other rice and corn plantations, or milpas, that are planted more then 5 miles away.

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Today, Maya Mountain Cacao staff has come to his house to inform him ahead of time of the opening date of the cacao-buying season, a standard visit for all farmers in MMC’s organic producer network.  “It’s happy news you bring,” Cho tells the buyer from MMC. “I am happy you’re buying, I will sell it to you.”

Cho has a choice of who to sell cacao to, but to him, stability trumps the newer companies that come and go, offering a flashy price. “They come from nowhere with a high price but then they go away fast, too---you can’t find them again. That’s why I stay with Maya Mountain.”

Cho is determined to keep going, even though he says he often feels his age. “I got good support from my children. I feel good. Cacao is my future. I will stick on that,” he says. “I will not stop clean that cacao—steady until I dead.”

Origin Report: Tumaco, Colombia

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Cacao has a long, complicated history in Colombia. Much like other cacao producing countries in Central and South America, indigenous populations used to harvest cacao found in the rainforests and process it into drinking chocolate. It was used for spiritual purposes as well as for enjoyment at home.



While in most parts of Colombia, cacao wasn’t grown as an agricultural commodity for a long time, it did start gaining traction in the 1940s and 1950s. The government of Colombia incentivized farmers to start growing cacao of a specific hybrid varietal and distributed seeds and saplings to farmers.

The region of Tumaco, in the southern pacific part of the country, was no exception.

Farmers started planting the hybridized cacao – mostly CCN51 and ICS95 on their farms, having been promised by the government a market for their cacao. Typically, farmers would harvest their own cacao, ferment it for two to three days in sacks, dry it in the sun, and sell it at a nationally set price to the government, or Casa Lukker, the only other buyer.

Throughout the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, this was the norm in most cacao growing regions in the country, including Tumaco.


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In the 1990s and early 2000s, people from other parts of Colombia starting coming to Tumaco to plant coca farms. It was easy to transport illicit substances via the river systems and out to sea in Tumaco. Local Tumaqueños didn’t appreciate the danger this brought to their communities; a high level of insecurity came with trafficking and guerrilla groups as a result.

Meanwhile, the Colombian government put a concerted effort into ending coca farming and encouraging cacao and oil palm farming instead. Throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s, more attention was paid to cacao farming again, and Tumaqueñan cacao farmers started organizing to learn more about cacao production and processing.

One farmer in particular, Gustavo Mindineros, was part of a young group of university-educated cacao farmers who were interested in understanding more about cacao. They were members of community groups formulated by the government to spearhead conservation projects in the Tumaco region. Recognizing that cacao is a native species to Colombia, and recognizing further that cacao grows well with other crops and among the natural native forest, these young farmers began to teach themselves about cacao genetics, production, and processing.

After years of studying cacao, including traveling to Ecuador to learn from fellow cacao farmers and partnering with the University of Nariño, these young farmers started the first cacao associations in Tumaco: Cortepaz, Corpoteva, and Bajo Mira.

These three associations have been doing research with the University to identify native cacao genetics found in the region. The farmers knew their ancestors had grown cacao and used it for spiritual and dietary purposes, and have been searching to find the genetic makeup of those cacaos. After years of study, they’ve now narrowed down nine genetic varietals that they believe are the native cacaos of that region, and are maintaining a clonal garden to eventually farm seedlings to distribute widely to more farmers in their networks.



The resurgence of interest in cacao has been encouraging for the communities in which they work. The cooperatives are providing seedlings of different cacao genetics for farmers to graft onto their existing hybrid trees, enabling farmers who have struggled for a long time with disease to combat those ailments and start harvesting more cacao from their plots. It has also given these farmers an alternate market. With improved processing, these three associations are able to sell their cacao to Cacao Hunters, Uncommon Cacao’s partner in Colombia. As Cacao Hunters sells this cacao, the farmers are reenergized to continue to graft trees and care for their plots.

We are excited to see this growth and resurgence of native genetic cacaos, not only because the cacao coming out of Cortepaz, Corpoteva, and Bajo Mira are delicious and chocolatey, but also because it represents more stable economic growth and security in the Tumaco region.

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Maya Mountain Cacao -- Chocoa

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The new year has begun, and new beans have just arrived in Europe.

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We are so excited to share Maya Mountain Cacao’s organic certified Belize cacao with you. These award-winning, Heirloom Cacao beans are produced by over 400 Q’eqchi’ Maya families in collaboration with Uncommon Cacao’s origin team in Belize.

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Come find us at Chocoa to learn more! Our founder and CEO, Emily Stone, will be moderating a panel at the conference on de-commoditization of cacao. You can also find her at the Women in Chocolate event and the Chocolate Makers’ Forum.

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This is a great time of year to be evaluating potential new origins.

Ask us for samples of our luscious Guatemala and Belize cacaos now!

Origin Report: Polochic, Guatemala

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It takes about six hours to reach the Polochic Valley of Guatemala from Guatemala City, if you’re lucky. The journey starts on a series of highways, which recently have been obstructed by road blocks sometimes causing 5-hour delays. The paved roads lead to dirt roads, snaking through the highlands of northern Guatemala, into Alta Verapaz. In the last few hours of the drive, solid half hour spans between evidence of community settlements – small groups of thatched house roofs where indigenous Q’eqchi Maya families have settled for years, living off the fruits of the land earned through hard, exposed farm work

Arriving at the Polochic Valley, in southeastern Alta Verapaz, new visitors are greeted with surprising heat. The valley is known for its fantastically hot micro climate – ideal for achieving consistent and high fermentation rates, even for the relatively small volumes of cacao that the farmers here produce, which historically has been used for ceremonial offerings and until 2016 was reserved for home-use in traditional cacao beverages.

Though they are new to the international export of cacao, farmer families in the Polochic Valley are experienced in commercialization of other crops. In 2003, farmers here organized into an association: The Association of Organic Producers for Integrated Development of the Polochic, or APODIP. After founding, they began producing and exporting organic certified coffee to buyers in New Zealand and Europe, and then added honey to their portfolio. In 2016, working closely with Cacao Verapaz (Uncommon Cacao’s Guatemala branch), they quickly picked up the art of collecting, fermenting, drying and sorting cacao. They built a fermentation house with four large cascading wooden boxes, completely surrounding by transparent plastic walls and ceilings. The effect is greenhouse-like and the space maintains consistently high temperatures even through nights when ambient temperatures drop.

The beans not only benefit from uniquely hot fermentation conditions; there is also something about the genetics. Though they haven’t yet been scientifically studied, the cacao pods in this region tend to be smaller, yellow pods and the beans are also on the smaller side.

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Together, the small bean size and particularly hot environment surrounding the fermentation facility have resulted in a deeply fermented cacao. The flavor is deliciously chocolatey and nutty, with an intrinsic sweetness. Don’t take our word for it -- the proof is the chocolate bar! Palette de Bine and Fresco Chocolate each have their own fantastic renditions -- Palette de Bine’s was internationally recognized with a Silver International Chocolate Award in 2017.

The APODIP cacao farmers span 35 small communities across the Polochic Valley. With their dispersed settlements, they collectively support and manage the protection of the neighboring forest reserve – La Reserva de Biosfera Sierra de las Minas – 2,400 square kilometers crossing between 150 and 3,000 meters in altitude. The Reserva, has jade and marble mineral deposits, and is source of 63 rivers. People in this area also believe that there are mystical creatures in the mountains called Chol-quink that are half-man, half-animal.

Wknd Chocolate Podcast: Emily Stone, Uncommon Cacao

Podcast

Episode 19: Emily Stone CEO Of Uncommon Cacao, Supply Chain Specialist, Entrepreneur, Activist

Emily Stone has positioned herself as a leader and innovator in the cacao supply chain by linking the craft / premium chocolate industry with an ever-growing portfolio of smallholder farmer partners in 6 Latin American and Caribbean countries, including indigenous communities in Belize and Guatemala. She's navigated organic certification models, antiquated commodity structures, and built a team of empowered changemakers, all of this in favor of direct relationships, sustainable agroforestry landscapes, and centralized fermentation for high-quality fine flavor cacao. 

Eight years after co-founding Maya Mountain Cacao in 2010 (of which Uncommon Cocoa Group is the umbrella), Uncommon Cacao now connects more than 4,000+ direct relationships at origin with 150 chocolate companies across the world who import their certified organic dried cocoa beans to make single origin chocolates and confections. 

 

Find the original article here: http://wkndchocolate.com/podcast/

2016 Transparency Report

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After months of careful preparation we are pleased to share our 2016 Transparency Report with you. This is our fifth annual report and covers Uncommon Cacao’s work across the five countries where we sourced unique, delicious cacaos in 2016.

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Chocolate makers are the core drivers of a bold vision for a better supply chain that creates new, lasting opportunities for cacao producers and their communities. Together with all of you, we’re creating a revolutionary model that allows farmers to live lives of dignity and prosperity.

 

Check out our full transparency report here: