Cahabón: A testimonial from Cocoa Rustica

"I first heard about Cahabón cacao from Emily and Anjuli at Uncommon Cacao. I was intrigued by the fact that the beans were twice the size of most any conventional cacao on the market. At the same time, I was given a taste of the chocolate made from them by Anjuli and felt it would be quite unique to turn them into Cocoa Rustica, my 100% cacao drinking and cooking chocolate. The people I chose to transform my Cahabón beans into Cocoa Rustica are Adam and Dustin from Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate, some of the best chocolatiers in the business. I ordered a 120 lb sack from Uncommon Cacao and commissioned a batch. At first, they were not sure if these beans would measure up to their demanding standards,  but as Adam told me, they were very pleased with the results. There is no bitterness to this bean, even with no added sweeteners or flavorings! This makes it a great cacao base to add more flavors to. For my part, I've been experimenting with cooking with it, expanding far beyond the usual Mexican moles to include pasta and barbecue sauces, East Indian and Southeast Asian curries, and even hot sauce(!). The hot sauce is truly formidable. We already know and love Guatemala, most especially the Maya indigenous culture there, and given our experience with Cahabón cacao we've decided to make a pilgrimage to the Cahabón association on our trip to Guatemala next fall. We look forward to seeing where this extraordinary cacao comes from and meeting the people who grow it. We thank Emily and Anjuli for pointing us toward this amazing cacao. Cahabón is right up there with our Madagascar, which is always exceptional!"

Repost: The abandoned farms behind the global coffee craze


“A lot of farms are being abandoned,” says Sonia Vásquez, an organic coffee grower on the slopes of San José in southwest Honduras. “A lot of people are migrating — many can no longer make ends meet.”

Like many agricultural commodities, the coffee market is prone to “boom and bust” cycles in which high prices trigger the planting of more trees and better management, resulting in improved production. In the case of coffee, the cycles are accentuated as it is not an annual crop and once a tree is planted it will continue producing although yields and quality tend to drop. But when the trees first mature — up to four years after planting — the new output can weigh on prices. And those lower prices can then lead to poorer-quality beans and less output.

Read the full LA times article here:

A light overview of heavy metals - a cadmium story.

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Follow this article on Medium here:

There’s been a lot of talk in the chocolate industry lately about Cadmium. Most of this has been sparked by the European Union’s regulations on Cadmium in cocoa beans, as well as California’s Proposition 65.

We set out to unscramble some of the confusion that’s been circulating about whether cadmium in chocolate is actually a risk, as well as what the Prop 65 regulations are actually asking manufacturers to do.

There is a lot we don’t know, but here are some things we know for sure:

  • Cadmium and Lead can be found, naturally occurring, in cocoa beans and cocoa bean shells. This study published on the FCCI website shows the relationship (or lack thereof) between cadmium levels in soil, fresh cacao, and fermented and dried beans.

  • The EU has limited the amount of Cadmium that can be found in chocolate products. These new limits officially came into effect on January 1st, 2019.

  • California’s Prop 65 has limited the levels of Cadmium that can be present in a chocolate product that does not carry a Prop 65 notice, with the aim to protect consumers

  • California is likely to set more detailed limits for chocolate similar to the EU after the As You Sow settlement in 2018

  • Overall, if you compare the cadmium content of even the higher content cocoa beans, the amount found in cocoa and chocolate is significantly lower than in other foods we consume on a daily basis, like shellfish and bread products made from wheat. One would have to consume a very significant amount of chocolate in order for it to pose a risk to their health.

In the EU, regulations have been put in place as of January 1, 2019. Products that are found not to comply with food safety regulations will be denied access to European markets. Because cadmium can be found in cocoa beans, there are strict regulations being applied to cocoa-derived products (i.e. chocolate). These chocolate limits are being translated to cocoa limits by importers, who are now rejecting cocoa beans that register above the translated thresholds. Here is a chart with a summary of the official EU limits for chocolate products, and the ensuing limits for cocoa importers:


These regulations are setting precedents for cocoa producers and chocolate makers alike, not only for sales and import to Europe, but also for the US. We have seen some of our suppliers, who sell to Europe as well as to us in the United States, get their own beans tested for cadmium before attempting to ship to Europe, for fear that the container shipments will be sent back.

Now, onto Prop 65.

California has a long history of consumer protection, specifically related to heavy metals in foods. California’s Proposition 65 is a law that passed in 1986 that states a product must carry warning labels if it contains any hazardous or toxic chemicals, specifically carcinogenic materials. There is a list of chemicals such as heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic) that have a safe harbor limit to determine if the product needs to be labeled. CA Prop 65’s label warning is not just for heavy metals; there are other chemicals that are also on this list - pesticides, BPA, and color additives, to name a few. CA Prop 65 is enforced by the California Attorney General’s office, which means companies can be targeted through lawsuits accusing them of failing to properly label their products that carry any of these chemicals.

Under CA Prop 65, Cadmium levels for the NSRL (No Significant Risk Levels) for cadmium is .05 micrograms per day and the MADL (Maximum Allowable Dose Levels) is 4.1 micrograms per day. Here is the link for the safe harbor levels:

New regulations set in 2018 added confusion to Prop 65 limits and requirements. Historically, Prop 65 warnings were merely required to notify consumers if a chemical capable of causing cancer or reproductive harm might be present. New regulations as of August 2018 require that any products needing a warning must now identify the specific chemical that may be present in a product. The regulatory changes shift responsibility for warnings further upstream in the supply chain, giving manufacturers the primary responsibility for providing Prop 65 warnings. Manufacturers can either affix warning labels to their products, or provide written notice to retailers that a product requires a warning, provide the warning materials, and obtain confirmation retailers received the notice. This can be either on the product itself, or a notice at the point of sale.

A lawsuit was filed by the advocacy group As You Sow in 2015 against Mars, Hershey, and See’s claiming that carcinogenic heavy metals were added to the cocoa through processing, that the levels were beyond what is naturally occurring in soil, and these companies failed to label their products appropriately. All companies denied that metals could have been added during processing, and emphasized the levels found in soil are minute and inconsequential.

In 2018, this lawsuit reached a settlement, with parties including Barry Callebaut (USA), Blommer Chocolate Co., Cargill, Inc., Guittard Chocolate Co., The Hershey Company, Lindt & Sprungli (North America), Mars Incorporated, Mondelez Global LLC, and Nestle USA, Inc., that requires a joint study to determine the main sources of cadmium in chocolate products. The hope is that research, and a comprehensive report, will establish clear guidelines for producing and consuming chocolate products. We expect the limits to be placed will likely look similar to those of the EU.

Since we don’t yet have the “official” report from the experts, we’ll share here some of the general research available to date for heavy metals in cocoa beans.

For the most part, there is agreement that cacao trees take up cadmium from the soil. A study conducted in Peru and Venezuela found correlation between pH and Zinc in soils and ultimate cadmium uptake in the cacao trees and beans. More acidic soils can cause greater availability of Cadmium for trees to uptake. Zinc deficiency in soils can increase Cadmium uptake in cacao trees.

Tree roots absorb the metal, which finds its way into leaves and cocoa pods. Usually, more cadmium is found in soil where there is or has been more volcanic activity. This is why Peru, for example, has been so hard hit with cadmium levels in cacao in certain regions. Forest Finance has been exploring which trees may be more vulnerable to cadmium uptake than others. There is some evidence that younger trees uptake more cadmium, certain clones may be more vulnerable, and the root stock for some grafted clones may also have this issue.

As it stands, there is no concrete evidence that some cocoa varieties uptake more cadmium than others. There also is no evidence that cadmium can be removed during processing. There are some experiments being done in fermentation, adding specific bacteria in an attempt to remove cadmium from cocoa beans. It remains to be seen whether these are viable options.

Until such time that we know more about what can be done at the farm and producer level, and until the report from the As You Sow settlement is released, the best we can do is educate ourselves about the testing methods, and potential risks, for cadmium content in cocoa beans and chocolate.

The Chocolate Alchemist has written extensively about the pitfalls of current testing methodologies. Testing, for the most part, is done using an ICP-MS scan. These are quick scans that compare multiple metals at once, using each as a reference point for the other. As a result, the range of accuracy is quite large - i.e. it might give a result of 0.2 micrograms / gram, but the actual content could be as much as 1.4 micrograms / gram because of the potential range of deviation in this particular testing method. Potential interference in the lab (reagent residue building up) could lead to significant variance.

At Uncommon Cacao, we run metals testing on all of our beans at least every 2 years. We also test for pathogens in every single shipment and fat content every 3 years (in case new genetics have been propagated on farms).

Here is an example of how Uncommon Cacao tests for cadmium. We sent 500 grams of whole, unroasted beans from our partners at ABOCFA in Ghana to Anresco laboratories. We test beans, rather than liquor or chocolate, since that is what we supply, and captures the widest possible risk. We don’t necessarily know what our customers will do with the beans, so we like to cover all our bases. We received a result of <0.05 ppm (parts per million) for Cadmium. This translates to 0.05 milligrams per kilogram, or 0.05 micrograms per gram. Let’s be generous and say that one person might consume about 30 grams of chocolate per day. In this scenario, there would be .15 micrograms of cadmium per serving - which falls below both the MADL, and just higher than the NSRL levels stated above.

The way any actor in the chocolate supply chain bears responsibility for compliance with these regulations will vary based on the products we are selling, as well as who we are ultimately accountable to. While Uncommon Cacao is not technically required to test our cacao, we know how important the results are for chocolate makers. We are always happy to provide our results with chocolate makers and with suppliers, to share intel. However, Anresco does use the ICP-MS scan method, and cocoa beans are not the final product on the shelf technically subject to compliance. Testing final products is really the only way to be sure it is in compliance.

Even when a bean has higher cadmium content than the EU or Prop 65 allow, there are ways to alter a final product to enable compliance with chocolate limits. Using the beans for a milk chocolate, or blending multiple origins are both viable options.

As a supply chain partner, we are committed not only to our customers - by providing any and all information - but also to our suppliers. While we do not currently import beans with cadmium levels higher than 0.8 ppm (the suggested limit by the EU for whole beans), we don’t want to punish an origin by rejecting lots for something they don’t have control over (i.e. the level of cadmium in their soil). Our hope is that we can all work together, communicate well, and find solutions for all members of our supply chain as research and regulations in this space continue to evolve.

Post script: If any of the information in this post stands out to you as incorrect or confusing, we welcome all feedback and corrections! Please contact us at


Meet CocoTerra, an All-In-One Craft Chocolate Machine for the Home


CocoTerra is planning to introduce a new countertop craft chocolate maker that compresses chocolate-making from a process that normally requires a handful of different machines and a good half a day into a couple hour exercise on a single appliance.

The device is the brainchild of Nate Saal, a former networking technology executive who first started working on creating a home chocolate making appliance over five years ago. In that time, the company has filed for patents (they have been issued one in Japan) and have been working with noted product design firm Ammunition (previous clients include Ember and Cafe-X) to finalize the product.

I asked Saal who he thought was the target audience for his chocolate making appliance, and he thought there were a couple types: First are those who already make chocolate at home the old-fashioned way but who could use the CocoTerra to experiment with new recipes and and to make chocolate must faster than the traditional method. Second are those who know nothing about making chocolate but would be use a machine like the CocoTerra who automates the process and makes it more approachable.

I think it’s this second audience that represents the biggest opportunity. After all, while chocolate is universally loved, it’s something hardly anyone makes at home because the process is just too complicated and time-consuming. If the CocoTerra can make the process of creating craft chocolate as easy as, say, making bread or ice cream, there might be a fairly big opportunity down the road.

Pretty interesting development for all of our home craft chocolate makers out there!

Explore and try samples (by the pound) of any of our beans online by clicking the button below

This female cacao farmer has revolutionized the chocolate landscape


Take a look at the fantastic blog article, Chocolate Noise, wrote about our partner Minni Forman, managing director of Maya Mountain Cacao.

The Highlights:

Minni was raised in a rural village in southern Belize but earned her bachelor’s in journalism in the U.S. After graduation, she managed urban farm collectives in Detroit for five years before moving back to Belize. She lives with off the grid on her family’s subsistence farm, working to create a self-sustaining farm-to-table food supply model for herself and her family!

I am deeply interested in farming and creating sustainable and fair agricultural systems. As it happens, cacao, which is the key ingredient in chocolate, is an agricultural product that has severe issues with how it is conventionally sourced and traded. Working in cacao/chocolate has opened my eyes to many sobering realities but also gives me hope as I work alongside my colleagues at Uncommon Cacao and partner with farmers and chocolate makers to undo historic oppressive systems in the supply chain little by little, every day.

Because cacao takes a lot of manual labor to grow and process, and is a crop predominantly cultivated in regions colonized by European countries where historically, it was extracted unethically using slave labor, cacao beans and chocolate are still undervalued in global markets and consumers have come to see chocolate as something cheap and widely accessible. Many of those systems of post-colonialism and slavery are still in place today. Farm gate prices for cacao are based on historic exploitive systems. If everyone were to be paid fairly across the cacao supply chain, prices would disallow chocolate from being readily available for very low prices at gas stations, drug stores and grocery stores across the globe.

I am very fortunate to be able to work for Uncommon Cacao, a company with a steadfast mission of trading cacao transparently and publishing all pricing along the supply chain from farm gate prices to sales prices, fostering connection between farmers and chocolate makers and thus challenging these historical exploitive systems in the chocolate industry.

Read the full article here:

What does Uncommon Cacao do?

by Emily Stone

For the long form version of this article on Medium please click the link below:

Historically when I’m asked this question, the first thing that comes to mind is “We’re an intermediary.” But then I don’t say that. I say “We’re a supply chain company.” I find myself avoiding the words that would accurately place Uncommon Cacao in the supply chain -- in the middle -- because of the stigma associated with being a middle(wo)man. But today, I’m proud to declare our place in the supply chain as middlewomen, as the link, and the intermediary.

Here’s a truth about the relationship between specialty cacao producers and craft chocolate: most craft chocolate makers are not bringing in one or more full containers of cacao from each origin they use, and most specialty cacao producers find it challenging to ship in anything but full containers. This presents a clear potential problem: how does craft chocolate get access to the cacao they need, when they need it, in the volumes they need - sometimes as little as one or two sacks? And how do specialty cacao producers achieve stability and sustainability for their businesses while accessing this important, but highly segmented market?

Without an intermediary in the middle, what happens here? Origins air-freight to makers, sometimes to various makers around the world, using valuable time and resources that could be spent improving quality and simply running stable businesses that bring in the cacao needed and pay farmers fairly and on time. Makers pay exorbitant shipping rates to receive the beans, and may or may not decide to use those beans (or pay for them beans to be air-freighted) again.

As Minni, director at Maya Mountain Cacao, one of Uncommon’s origins, shares: “Between facilitating communications among a network of 400+ small farmers, managing a full-time operations team, spearheading agroforestry research projects and processing cacao to top quality, I don't have the time or resources to manage details for all of Maya Mountain Cacao's often complex global sales and logistics, which range from orders of a few sacks to many tons and involve a diverse portfolio of chocolate makers.” The need for the middlewoman is clear.

We’ve also seen makers “collectively” bring in a full container, but in this case one maker typically registers as the importer of record (and thus signs up for all the risks if a container encounters any problems during shipping or import), pays for the container, collects money from the rest of the makers, and then has to organize the logistics for the container to be distributed among the group. Oftentimes, makers will do this once, then the headache of having done it (and the lack of cash flow caused by paying for all the cacao outright) prevents them from buying this way again.

Uncommon Cacao connects the dots between small farmers and small chocolate makers, weaving the relationships together and match-making volumes, flavor profiles, and pricing to create stability and success for all in the supply chain. As Minni notes, “What makes our model workable for chocolate makers, staff, and farmers, is that each link along our supply chain takes full responsibility for key roles, weaving a net of interdependence that truly sets us apart.”

We closely plan our supply and demand each year based on the best projections we can develop for what beans which makers will want and when. We make a commitment at the beginning of the year to all origins for a certain number of containers to be shipped at a certain price point. We do this even if we don’t know where some (or even most) of the cacao is going to end up yet. We rigorously test all cacao to meet our quality and flavor standards before we bring it in -- and if the cacao passes, and it’s within the volume we set at the beginning of the year, the origin can count it as sold.

By making these commitments, we are effectively de-risking the supply chain for both cacao producers and chocolate makers. Our goal is always to be purchasing at least the same amount from each origin every year, and ideally to be growing that volume.

In the same way that producers and small specialty cacao origins are at real risk from instability in the market, small chocolate makers are as well. Makers keep their teams and operations as efficient as possible to reduce overhead costs and seek to build sustainable businesses. The role of Uncommon Cacao is key for them, too -- we often hear from makers that they consider us their in-house sourcing team, even though we are technically a separate company.

In addition to the stability of supply that we offer for chocolate makers, Uncommon Cacao plays a key role for our customers by selling cacao through both spot and forward purchase, offering financing terms to makers, handling shipping logistics from our warehouses in the U.S. and Europe to their factories, and creating both our own and custom-tailored impact reporting and marketing material for makers to promote their use of these incredible beans.

In the context of the massive, dehumanized commodity market, the Transparent Trade model Uncommon offers garners the values that makers seek to embody through a “direct” relationship, without creating instability for producers on the back end or cash flow problems further downstream. So far, Uncommon Cacao is still the only intermediary in the market willing to invest in and openly share all of our pricing, margin, and social and environmental impact information with all of our customers. We believe in this approach so strongly, that it’s written into our foundation as our Company Guarantee: “We promise to provide you any information you want to know about our supply chain.”

Working with an intermediary like Uncommon Cacao that uses verifiable and published “Transparent Trade” practices, and actively sharing information with your chocolate consumers about your supply chain, allows craft chocolate to embark on an ambitious and honest path to building real value over the long-term for cacao farmers globally, creating a bright future ahead for fine flavor cacao and obsessively good chocolate.

Meet the Arhuacos -- One Great Idea | To Transform the Cacao Industry

Want to learn more about the Arhuacos people, the stewards of our latest cacao out of Colombia? Watch this incredible short video produced by Acumen about Cacao de Colombia & the Arhuacos community in their efforts to transform the cacao industry. We’re thrilled to partner with these incredible change makers and offer you beans from this origin. We invite you to learn more about their incredible story.

Quality Control & Evaluation in Cacao

Let’s talk about “Quality” in the cacao industry, which, as it stands now, is an amorphous topic. In any widespread premium food or beverage industry, it’s virtually unheard of not to have common quality standards regulating the grade and evaluation of the product. Wine, beer and coffee all have defined criteria and standards, which help everyone from suppliers to end consumers understand and appreciate the quality of their products.

At the end of the day, cacao producers are growing and processing their cacao for others, not for themselves. The vast majority of chocolate makers are not in control of processing their own beans at origin; they can only control their chocolate making process. Each party needs the other to truly perfect their craft, and without industry standards and a common language around quality the possibility of problems in the supply chain increases.

While we at Uncommon Cacao have internally set standards for the work we do, we have yet to see agreed-upon industry standards take hold, even as more cacao steadily streams into market for ultra premium and craft chocolate makers.

Since Uncommon Cacao represents a “gatekeeper” so to speak in our industry, we hold ourselves highly accountable to the evaluations we conduct and have studied various methods for quality evaluation. We actively incorporate the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Industry (FCCI) bean quality protocol and the TCHO/USAID/Equal Exchange liquor evaluation protocols into the steps outlined below. However, the lack of a shared set of standards in our industry on quality and flavor evaluations is an enormous gap. Therefore, we’d like to discuss!

The protocols and standards we use internally apply to:

  • Physical evaluation of raw beans at origin and in pre-ship and landed container samples

  • Tasting cacao (sensory evaluation) in liquor format (100% cacao mass) in the early stages of each harvest to evaluate flavor impact of fermentation protocols and make protocol changes if needed

  • Sensory evaluation of cacao liquor from individual fermentation batches to approve for blending into container lots (in the case of Cacao Verapaz)

  • Sensory evaluation of liquor from pre-shipment samples of cacao

  • Sensory evaluation of liquor from landed samples of cacao to match to the pre-shipment liquor flavor profile

  • Sensory evaluation of liquor to vet and approve of new suppliers.

Consistency is the backbone of quality, and thus is the most important factor to measure and ensure -- alongside optimization of flavor driven by quality from the farm, fermentation, drying, storage and logistics. Climate, agricultural production cycles, and other factors outside of human control can affect the flavor profile and quality of cacao from harvest to harvest, but using best practices in sensory evaluation can still help cacao producers and chocolate makers get the most consistent flavor possible from their beans. Tasting cacao liquor from the same producer using standard sensory evaluation protocols across multiple harvests, and evaluating lots from a single harvest, is the best approach to ensure as much consistency as possible.

The challenge, however, is that our method is not necessarily the same method that others use across the industry. To date, there are no standard protocols or criteria for evaluating quality and flavor. We don’t have a Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) for cacao. As an industry we have come to expect certain practices in the processing of specialty cacao, such as centralized fermentation and careful drying, but we lack a common language and approach to evaluate the actual outcomes of these practices.

The degree of nuance required to effectively evaluate each origin takes a long time to nail down. For example, we’ve worked with Guatemalan beans long enough to know that the purple color inherent in the beans from some regions does not mean they will taste under fermented. In fact, a well-fermented tasting Guatemalan bean may still have a purple hue. Physical evaluation of cut tests will not tell us all the information we need, which means we must taste liquor to determine whether the beans are actually “good” or not. We seek to match the physical evaluation results with the flavor profiles in liquor, so we can best train producers on fermentation protocols and visual inspections of beans during post-harvest, determine the optimal overall fermentation rate at which this specific bean tastes its best, and ultimately consistently produce the flavor chocolate makers expect and love.

Confounding the situation further, we’ve found different variables, which would seemingly label one outcome as poor quality and another outcome as good quality, can actually both produce fantastic sensory results. And, while what primarily matters to most chocolate makers is flavor, sensory standards can vary greatly from person to person because at the moment all flavor evaluations in cacao are essentially subjective. This is one reason we love the TCHO tasting form: it includes both an objective “intensity” grade and a subjective “quality” grade. Over time, our team has become calibrated in understanding how an intensity grade in bitterness or acidity registers for others on the team in terms of quality. We hold bi-monthly sensory evaluation calibrations with our teams in Belize, Guatemala and the U.S. to keep our palates fresh and calibrated.

Outside of industry professionals, we’re also starting to see that end customers are building a knowledge and preference for the different flavor profiles expressed through high quality cacao. Only through tight control over quality and flavor evaluation of beans can consistency be maintained, so that chocolate makers and end consumers alike can continue to rely on their favorite origins for specific flavor characteristics.

Uncommon Cacao recently took a first attempt at differentiating quality in our supply chain by describing the quality of our cacao as pertaining to one of two buckets, either “Ultra premium” or “Premium.” Ultra premium beans achieve a highly consistent flavor profile across harvests, and we will reject fermentation lots that do not strictly match the target flavor profile. Ultra premium beans are always centrally fermented, are held to a strict physical evaluation standard, and are hand-sorted at origin to ensure peak cleanliness. Premium beans, on the other hand, have a bit more “wiggle room.” While we still test all pre-shipment and landed containers with both physical and sensory protocols to evaluate flavor profile and quality, these beans are not necessarily centrally fermented. They are not hand-sorted. Less financial investment has been expended in the processing of the beans, and thus they are more competitively priced. It is simply more expensive to produce ultra premium beans than premium.

We are still only scratching the surface when it comes to an in-depth look at the full spectrum of quality that exists across cacao globally. We’d like to see this collaborative understanding grow so the entire supply chain is clear on what makes quality cacao. In our supply chain, we know that it’s the people behind the beans, and behind the bar, that make quality cacao and chocolate happen. We are highly supportive of the ongoing efforts in the industry that are seeking to create international standards for cacao quality and flavor evaluation.  We believe it is only through this collaboration that cacao producers, supply chain actors, and makers can produce and have access to the highest quality cacao available to make the best chocolate that keeps consumers coming back for more.