Welcome to Guatemala & the cacao farms!
Guatemala Chocolate week was a blast. It was also my first opportunity to meet cacao farmers and step into the jungles and hillsides where cacao is grown. Our group comprised of makers and researchers from Denver, Victoria BC, Arkansas and Mumbai, India and the rain had just begun.
Our first stop was at Chivite. We arrived by braving level 4 and 5 rapids down the Cahabón river. We had been told on the way that we were only going to wave at our association in passing and it was not the right time for us to stop in. As we passed under the bridge that represents this community's dedication to cacao farming, Roy changed the plan and we made a quick stop.
We were quietly welcomed into their warehouse and meeting space to speak briefly with the leaders of the association. They only spoke Q’eqchi, the indigenous language of the Maya, but we had Roy to translate for us. The president and leaders of the association expressed their gratitude to us for making the trip while also pointing to the importance of growing our business together as it provides a steady stream on income for their community. They depend on our relationship, and were proud to have us there. They had never welcomed such a diverse group of people from India, Canada, Brazil, and the States into their village all at once before. We all felt how special this community, their cacao and connection to us was. It hummed through the air. After a quick tour of their recently upgraded fermentation and drying facilities for organic and conventional cacao, and popping a few semi-dry beans into our mouths for a taste test, we were back on the river navigating the swollen rapids.
Once we wrapped up the rafting, we were back on the road climbing up into the mountains to have lunch with the association in Cahabón, ADIOESMAC. The drive continued to amaze and before the rain started up again, we reached our destination. The whole village was buzzing with excitement and we were ushered into their central meeting room, which we later learned also housed the fermentary.
Our arrival meant the decorative Marimba was out and playing it was a grandfather, father and son trio to welcome us. Again, there was a shared joy in our arrival and for us to get to spend time with the community. The president, Sebastian Tiul Yaxcal, along with his wife welcomed us and gave us a quick rundown of their cacao production within the community and how it continues to grow.
Roy was translating for us again, and after introductions were made for us to the key leaders running their association, we sat down and enjoyed Kak-iq. Kak-iq is the ceremonial food of the Alta Verapaz region, and each local community has their own nuanced variances. With Adioesmac, it was a hearty turkey soup spiced with annatto peppers and served with fresh tortilla and tamal.
We each had overflowing bowl the ceremonial Kak-iq with tamal, fresh tortillas and roasted veggies to spare. Once our bellies were full, it was time to visit their clonal nursery.
At this point, I was foggy from the really yummy food and didn’t realized that the mountains we had climbed to arrive here, also meant that we would be climbing down the slopes to visit the cacao trees.
Alberto Sotz, manager of the association shared with us the special history their village -- how they were the first association in the region to export centrally fermented cacao to U.S. bean-to-bar makers. We got to see where the association has continued to plant more cacao every year with support from the Ministry of Agriculture and various NGOs. The biggest dream that this community continued to express to us was that they want their children to starting to take over cacao production and continue developing the region for cacao.
It was a magical first day spent with Chivite and Cahabon associations and we all had a lot to think about for how the future of the specialty market can provide for these businesses and their families. I got to taste baba in the field for the first time, and see what farmers deal with everyday. We headed to the Oasis hotel tired and full. It was a hugely rewarding day with a lot to unpack, and promise of more days just like it to come.
We woke up to an easier start the next day as we explored Lanquin with a visit to Semuc Champey, and then headed off to Finca Chimelb. We spent most of the day driving around and continuing to soak in the non-stop vistas of mountain ridges and valley that continue everywhere you go. The terrain changes depending on altitude and proximity to natural resources. The ornamental plant market is a primary export for Guatemala. The vegetation is dense and diverse. My eyes felt like they were in a state of constant feast and I recognized that all the greenwalls I had been navigating through the downtown offices of San Francisco offices were largely inspired by the natural scenery in Guatemala. At Chimelb we first met the farm manager Carlos and then got to get our hands into to their fermentation process.
Finca Chimelb is a high productivity farm so their fermentation room felt like a self-sustaining over regardless of how much cacao was currently undergoing fermentation. Roy and the lead fermentation manager, Ricardo.
After intros and a tour of the processing facilities, we sat down to a wonderful farm to table meal. Even the lemons that made the lemonade were grown on the property. My favorite dish was made from the fish caught in the Chimelb lake. It was the best meal I’d had since arriving.
After lunch, we were back in the pickups driving around the property and soaking it all in. The national tree of Guatemala is the Ceiba and got to see one. They are larger than life in their scale and majesty. Overall, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d arrived in the cacao equivalent of a vineyard. Finca Chimelb is owned by the Torrebiarte family and has 4,500 hectares, 2,200 of which are protected natural land. The farm is rigorously planted and maintained to preserve the thousands of different strains of cacao which they cultivate. There was a period of time where they planted CCN-51 for it productivity, of course, but realized there is no demand for that cacao in the specialty market, so they switched to planting more CATIE varieties.
The day came to a close at Finca Chimelb right as the rain started again and we returned to Lanquin looking forward to finally getting a taste of all the cacaos we’d been visiting at Cacao Verapaz.
We started early on saturday and headed back to Coban where Cacao Verapaz located. For those of you who don’t know, Cacao Verapaz is our on the ground arms of Uncommon that sources, manages and supports our cacao producers in Guatemala. The hard work or Roy, Teddy, Sylvia and rest of the team work throughout the year meeting with our associations and finding new sources of cacao. Any of the Guatemalan beans that you love, have passed in and out of the doors here. Roy runs his quality control lab and we, as a team, approve and reject lots as we work to maintain a grade A supply chain.
Teddy welcomed us and then handed the floor over to Roy who walked us through his quality analysis process. It all starts with a cut test of 100 beans. You are looking for mold, infestation and fermentation quality. Any of the beans that do not look well fermented and clean, are pulled aside and then you can calculate the percent of beans that have defects. Cacao can be tricky to analyze as there are often natural color variances in the different strains of cacao, but over time it get easier to identify the problem areas and beans, especially as you build a working knowledge the beans from the region as Roy has done in the last four years of working with Cacao Verapaz.
Then we peeled and blended raw beans to asses the flavor through the FCCI protocol, and then the final step was the liquor tasting. Stasi introduced everyone to the liquor grading sheet we use company-wide and then invited us all to taste and grade the beans. (Also, yes you read that right, we taste liquors and calibrate our palates across countries as a company.) Since the sheet and grading scale were new to virtually everyone, we were not expected to generate a quantitative result for this tasting. Qualitative notes would work well as we really just wanted to taste and talk about the different beans and compare them. Tasting Chivite next to ADIOESMAC really is a night and day experience going from punchy and bright like pineapple to nutty and rich. For the Lachua liquors, we tasted each association on its own, as this origin is made from a blend of beans from three associations (ASODIRP, ASOSELNOR, Kat’balpom). Two of our four makers on the trip are Lachua fans, so that was our most rigorous discussion, that quickly delved into how the blends are made and where the associations differ. It was all thoroughly whetting my palate for our final association visit to ASODIRP in Lachua the next day.
After near palate exhaustion from continuing to taste, compare, and discuss cocoa liquors, it was time to celebrate Roy’s upcoming birthday at Casa Acuña, and Italian restaurant with Guatemalan flair and headed to Chisec. That night we all sat down to discuss the details of ethical trade and what we were learning on the road.
Stasi started us off with context of where the idea of ethical trading came from (Quaker anti-slavery sentiments) and how it evolved into Fair Trade. Where Fair Trade fails in cocoa, and where the industry needs to go for sustainable growth and engagement. Unfortunately, our talk was cut abruptly short by the eruption of Volcan de Feugo and our attention both got more concentrated on how we can use business, and our love of chocolate as a tool to support the cacao growing communities and also more disparate at the same time as we struggled to understand the violence that came out of seemingly nowhere with this eruption.
The group started to buzz again as we brought out attention back to cacao, and a group broke of to continue cutting beans with Stasi, while I continued a conversation about the marketing campaign craft chocolate needs to organize to gain widespread consumer support.
That night my dreams were crazy. I had been through what felt like so many lands and many many different communities all committed to cacao farming and dependent on our relationships with them for a better future. The impact report and stories I had been cramming into my head finally started to seep into me.
It was transformative, and the next morning was our last together as a full group heading to Lachua. When we got there we split off into two groups, and then later into three.
Our first order of business was to hop into boats and navigate the river Icoblay and learn about the river culture of Laguna Lachua. As we sailed on the smooth river, the jungle felt like it was getting deeper the longer we passed on it. I got to see another Ceiba tree, but we were a quiet group this morning as news of the continued eruption and missing people reached us. We were safe and hundreds of miles away, but our hearts were with the community near the mountain as was everyone who we were meeting.
I was starting to get antsy to get back into the cacao again, and before I knew it, we were there. Farmer Angel led us off the boats and into his parcel of land. With the rainy season in full swing, the last of the harvests had happened so there were only a few pods left on tree. When we came to a clearing, Angel sat down and invited us to talk to him about why he continues to struggle as a cacao farmer.
Lachua was our first origin from Guatemala, and we exported cacao from ASODIRP before Cacao Verapaz was incorporated, so this farmer was referencing his last four years of work and the process he underwent for organic certification. Toward the end of the conversation, Angel was bringing back up the same points the farmers at ADIOESMAC had made where they hoped their children would be able to go study and bring knowledge back to their communities and continue farming cacao.
When we made it back to the gathering area, there was Kak-iq waiting for us! Carlos Caal, president of Lachua addressed us all and thanked us for being there before inviting us to tuck in. After lunch, we took a quick tour of the ASODIRP fermentation and drying facility. Our group had asked to see a turn in fermentation which we got to see here. They had the box lined with banana leaves and prepped for the transfer which they did with shovels making sure to properly intermix cacao that had been on the outside of the box for the first phase, now moved inward where the heat reaches its maximum temperature. I learned that turning the cacao every two days is a crucial step that introduces oxygen into the bacteria and yeast cultures that are actively creating lactic and acetic acids that kill and expand the beans when done right.
After the turn was finished, we quickly wrapped up and said our goodbyes. From this point we split into my group who were returning to Coban and then Guatemala city first, a second group who were spending more days in Lachua learning about the other associations and making a documentary and a third group who headed to Belize to visit Maya Mountain.
Those of us who were first to leave, couldn’t help but feel anxious as the eruptions had continued, but we all made it out safely and more deeply connected to the beautiful and intriguing country of Guatemala. When I left I knew I understood our purpose better. Uncommon is here, and I am here with the it to build authentic, long-term relationships across the supply chain to create stability and success for all. The work may seem glamorous but its rooted in hard work that goes on every day through our whole system. It extends from our farmers all the way to our chocolate makers.
We are here to facilitate high quality cacao and impactful relationships through the medium of business, and I got a real taste of the ups and downs that go into that mission. Business is the strongest foundation we have to create lasting change through the new structures of specialty and craft chocolate, and we couldn’t do it without every person doing their part to elevate chocolate and be invested in farmer visibility from store to bean.
If you want to know my favorite beans and stories from the trip (because of course this is a shortened version), reach out! I hope we can bring you with us in our next trip.