Cacao Sourcing

beans drying in Ecuador

Cacao sourcing is THE most important part of the chocolate making process.   The only way to make exceptional chocolate is to start with exceptional beans!  This is one of the reasons we source our chocolate directly, and travel to farms to meet the farmers and fully understand harvest and post-harvest practices at origin.

On this page we give you a (relatively) quick overview of how we source.  For more detail about some of the topics we cover on this page, like bean fermentation and drying, please check out our Fine Cacao page.

The Journey Begins

infecting cacao trees in Peru
William, one of the farmers who provide cacao for our Ucayali beans, showing Monica one of his fields of cacao trees.

On our sourcing trips we consider many different factors.  One of the most basic is the genetics of the beans.  Although genetics is only one of many factors influencing the final flavor of the beans (and we would argue it’s one of the least important), it’s a good place to start.

Beyond that we need to understand how farmers are cultivating and caring for their trees.  We want to make sure they’re being planted in ways that promote the health of the trees and also the long-term health of the land.  It’s also important that farmers identify their best producing fine-flavor trees and graft clippings of those trees onto new root stock.  This increases the chances the new trees will produce lots of fine-flavor fruit, increasing the amount they can earn from each harvest.  It also ensures the best tasting beans are the ones that are being propagated.

It’s also important that trees are properly pruned.  Doing this not only increases the amount of fruit they produce, but also makes it much easier and faster to harvest it.  Ease of harvesting is important for fine-flavor cacao, since getting the beans from the field to the fermentation boxes quickly is crucial to properly controlling the fermentation process.

The Importance of Post-Harvest

checking fermentation boxes in the Dominican Republic
Checking fermentation boxes at Zorzal Cacao.

Beyond harvesting things get a bit more complicated, since how each farmer deals with the post-harvest process is different.  Most farmers don’t do their own fermentation and drying since they have very small holdings (and therefore can’t achieve the volume of beans needed to ferment properly), don’t have their own fermentation boxes, and also don’t have the technical knowledge required to ferment in a way that results in good flavors.  Since fermentation and drying are (arguably) the two most critical factors when it comes to flavor development in single origin cacao, it’s important we understand, and to a certain extent have some influence over, how these processes are being done.

Some of the farmers we work with send their beans to a central location which ferments and dries them.  But, occasionally we find farmers who have enough land to ferment and dry on their own, and who have also built their own fermentation and drying facilities.  The factors we need to consider are different in each case.

turning cacao beans in Ecuador
Tom helping to move fermenting cacao beans to a new box at Costa Esmeraldas cacao. They ferment and dry all of their own cacao.

If the farmer has their own fermentation and drying facility, and is using their own beans, things are simplest.  In this case the farmer has a good idea of the genetics of the beans, has control over when the beans are harvested, and controls how they’re fermented and dried.     The money we pay for the cacao goes to directly to them.  In these cases we visit the farms and speak directly with the farmer about every aspect of their cacao propagation, harvest and post-harvest process, including labor practices on the farm.

However, if the beans are coming from many different small farmers and being brought to a centralized location for fermentation and drying there’s much more to consider from a quality control standpoint.  Not only do we need to work closely with the farmer, or organization, responsible for the post-harvest processing, but we need to know where the beans are coming from and visit those farmers as well.

It’s All About Quality

transporting cacao beans in Nicaragua
The unfermented beans for our El Carmen chocolate are transported on local buses! Here the beans are being offloaded from the roof.

We also need to understand the quality control measures put in place for each farmer supplying cacao – for example, once cacao pods are harvested they need to be opened and the beans put into fermentation boxes that same day.  Since transportation can be unreliable arrangements must be made to transport harvested beans from the farms to the fermentation boxes – in each case the method is different and can be very difficult.  For example, in Nicaragua they place the beans on top of local buses, making a special stop to offload them at the fermentation facility.

When a farmer or organization is doing all the fermenting and drying at a central location they need to purchase the wet cacao beans, known as baba, from each farmer.  For this they pay what’s referred to as a “farm gate” price, and it’s usually paid per pound.  We work closely with each post-harvest facility to ensure the farm gate price they’re paying is a fair one, and above the price farmers would receive by simply selling it locally.  As with everything involving cacao there’s more to this story, as cacao which is sold locally is very different than cacao sold for fine-flavor chocolate – it’s usually dried but not fermented.  One benefit of selling wet cacao to a fine-flavor post-harvest facility is that the farmer avoids the time and expensive of needing to dry their cacao.

Relationships Matter

San Juan chivite cacao farmers
Monica and Tom with the farmers of San Juan Chivite

By knowing our farmers and being so closely involved with the harvest and post-harvest processes we’re also able to have a certain level of control over the beans we receive, and how those beans are fermented and dried.  One good example of this is our Asochivite beans from the village of San Juan Chivite in Guatemala.  When we first met the farmers they needed a better fermentation and drying facility, so we helped fund construction of a new, larger one.  This allowed them to bring more farmers into the association, which is good because they’re able to command a premium price for a larger volume of cacao.  But… more farms meant greater genetic diversity in the beans, which affects flavor.  Because of the different genetics they also changed their fermentation and drying protocols, further impacting flavor.  But, because we’re so closely involved with them they do a special harvest just for us from the original ten farms, and use the original fermentation and drying protocol, since it results in the flavors we love.

The Genetics Mess

tom with cacao seedlings
Tom with young cacao trees in Peru

Different regions of South and Central America have cacao with different genetics.  Although genetics has a big impact on flavor unfortunately cacao genetics is a muddy, confusing mess.  Terms like “Criollo” and “Forastero”  are thrown around without much, if any, understanding of what they actually mean.  And, we’re not exaggerating when we say it’s confusing – so much so that we’re not even going to attempt to unravel it here.  We’re creating a different page to make sense of the terms, meanings and history of cacao genetics, and once it’s ready we’ll link to it here.  But for now, the important thing to know from a sourcing standpoint is that there is no chocolate on the market that’s made with a genetically “pure” cacao.  In any region where cacao is grown there are a variety of different genetics present, so each harvest contains a random sample of those genetics.  The best way to control flavor is to limit the geographic area from which the cacao is being harvested – the smaller the area the less genetic diversity (in most cases).  Less diversity in genetics translates to more consistent flavor and also allows for better results in the post harvest process – since different types of beans require different fermentation protocols, fewer genetics allows for protocols that can be more tailored to the beans that are present.  So, for each of our Signature Line origins where beans are sourced from multiple farms we identify a small subset of those farms from which our beans are sourced.  The exceptions are our Almendra Blanca beans and Esmeraldas beans, which both come from single farms which are planted with only a few, consciously selected genetic types.

Fair Compensation

examining the books at Boyaca
Monica examining the books at Impulsa Bacao (Boyaca)

Farmers deserve a fair price for all the work that’s put into growing, maintaining, harvesting and, in some cases, fermenting and drying fine flavor cacao of exceptional quality.  It’s important to note a “fair” price is not necessarily a “Fair Trade” price.  Fair Trade is a certification that locks in the price paid for one ton of cacao, and that price is sometimes not much higher than the commodity price.  We wrote a detailed explanation of Fair Trade and how it compares to what we do, which is Direct Trade, and   you can find that article here.  Long story short, we negotiate our prices directly with the farmers and producers from whom we purchase it, and those prices generally range from two to four times to the commodity price, which is currently only $1700 per ton (as we’re writing this).  To give you an idea of how artificially and unsustainably low that is, the commodity price was higher in 2008!   Of course, the price fluctuates from year to year, but it’s rarely been above $2250, and even then not for long.  By contrast we pay between $6000 and $9000 for the majority of the cacao we purchase.  This prices are reflective of the actual costs of growing cacao, and helps support a sustainable supply chain where farmers are adequately and fairly compensated.

The Takeaway

As you can see there are many different factors to be considered when sourcing fine flavor cacao.  With so many different aspects of the process affecting flavor it’s important for us to have direct relationships with our farmers, and understand exactly what’s happening at origin.   By working so closely with all our farmers and post-harvest facilities we’re able to ensure the cacao we receive is of consistently high quality, and is obtained in an ethical and fair manner.  Tasting is believing, so now’s the time to try the flavorful results of our meticulous sourcing by visiting our online shop!

monica with a cacao pod in Ecuador
Monica with a ripe cacao pod in Ecuador.