The Chocolate Life

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Dear Chocolate Lifers,

I have been wondering what kind of activities are supposed to take place when chocolate makers visit farmers. I know of tours that visit plantations and seems like almost all bean to bar chocolatiers 'work with growers' and come back with smiling pictures.

While it is clear that meeting the growers, learning about their environment and practices and hopefully take actions to improve their standard of living are important, I am curious of the specific cacao processing input that they could recieve from a buyer.

I have recently been surprised to learn about the widespread existence of cacao plantations in my local Colombia, covering about 80% of the countries departments. In some cases there have been newer plantations where illegal crops are replaced with cacao. I visited some members of the Colombian Cacao Federation and they mentioned how tricky it was to change their practices when bulk buyers would purchase anything, at any state for the same price. 

I wondered if some of the more experienced members could pitch in:

What has been your experience when visiting plantations for the first time?

How open were the growers to receive input from you? How easy is it to identify the varieties and the quality of their cacao production while in the visit?

How do chocolate makers learn the best practices for post-crop treatment of the beans? In the case of fermentation, is it possible to transmit a proper way of doing it as it relates to their local conditions?

Any input is appreciated, as always. 

All the best,

Tags: growers, plantations, visits

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I can only speak from my experiences in the Dominican Republic and chocolate makers and companies are rarely buying the bean directly from the farmer.  I know of people who do work with the farm cooperatives and visit the location where fermentation and drying happen.  They may visit some farms.  I do not know if specific batches of beans are identified with specific farms at the cooperatives.  From what I have seen, they are not unless specifically sourced for a specific client.   I have seen the Rizek website and they are probably labeling beans with the farm from where the harvest comes from for the premium beans.  Most of what is grown is not fermented and sold in the bulk market and/or used for butter and cake.   I recently visited a chocolatier in Maryland who has their own cacao farm in the DR and they use their own beans in their shop.  Unless you are going to directly buy from a farmer who will harvest, ferment and dry properly, and export licenses are obtained, you will probably find it difficult to identify your beans to a specific farm. 

Actually, a great deal of the commercially available beans have remarkably great traceability.  Some origins are obviously much, much better than others, but the traceability systems, in general, are better than you might expect.

Felipe - I've found that, generally speaking,  unless the farmer has specifically asked me for something, my presence can often be perceived as an intrusion.  When the tall white guy shows up, telling you to do something different than you've done for generations, there's almost always a skepticism.  Often times a farmer doesn't realize he has a problem.  Almost always he has no idea what his beans are used for, so how could he know what quality is?  And they're often quite proud of their heritage and what they do - which is great.  But it can make asking them to do something different difficult - even if it will dramatically improve their yield, reduce their disease, etc.

In the event someone has helped him understand quality, there's often conflicting information - ie i may tell him to do one thing (because that results in the outcome im' interested in), whereas someone else may tell him not to do that (because they want a different outcome). 

The most effective way, imo, is to build a relationship that's mutually beneficial, and be overt about what you're asking them to do and why, showing them the results of both the good and the bad so they understand.

Thank you Sebastian. 

I guess a critical step in improving quality would be to get growers to actually taste chocolate made from different quality beans. I guess cooperatives would be able to learn small batch chocolate making to not only learn the differences themselves but also to educate growers and buyers into what fine cacao tastes like in a finished product. 

Are there any resources you would recommend to be better prepared technically when meeting growers/cooperatives? The Beckett book has limited information on fermenting and Genetic Diversity of Cacao by Bartley seems to focus on the plants and not post-crop activities. 

Also, have been to Colombia? What was your impression of the practices in the farms or cooperatives you visited? I am yet to get a clear picture of the state of the cacao industry in the different regions and specially how suitable it is for producing fine flavor beans. 



Of course.  I'd say, generally speaking, post harvest practices vary wildly almost everywhere, and there's a very, very low level of understanding on most farmers part of what good agricultural practices are, and the importance of good post harvest practices are and how they translate to the final product (or even what the final product is, which is a shame!).  In every origin, you'll find extremes - those who know it very well, and those who don't - Columbia is no different than others in this regard.

The DR has moved largely to a wet bean buying model over the last 5 years - which has been a bit transformational for the farmer.  It's much less labor for them, reduces the risk of theft, and speeds up their cash flow cycles.  Most origins aren't sufficiently coordinated to do this on a large scale, and the more we see co-ops rise, the more this will change.  The co-op fermentation approach should, under the right guidance, lead to increased consistency, reduced defects (you'd hate to have highly consistent defects - which is what some origins have), which in turn should lead to a sustainable business model if the profits are applied thoughtfully for the future - one problem is many farmers don't think much about the future as they're so very focused on meeting their immediate needs.  The more tools we can provide to prepare for the future, the better, and this includes not only training around GAP's and quality, but soil nutrition, planting materials, education, health care, IPM, etc.

I'm unclear on what you're question is or what your goal is - if you're looking for a book to read to teach you how to do this, i don't think you're going to find one.  If you're looking to create an organization that follows through to commercial sales, I'd urge you to contract or partner with someone who has some experience here vs trying to go it alone.


Thank you for your input, it is full of insights as always. It is interesting to hear of the DR's move to a wet bean buying model. I heard something similar from the Cacao Federation in Colombia looking to get more control over the post-crop practices. 

I have found the Minifie book has some more in-depth information on post-crop and harvesting. I also found this presentation covering some GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) in Cacao. 

Let me give you some background info: I am looking to make the best chocolate in Colombia.  I have been working with Esmeralda, Atacames beans and some Santander ones as a source but I am getting closer to farmers by meeting relatives of them in Bogotá. It is incredibly exciting when I visit a caprentry shop and the guy helping me says: My family has been planting cacao in the Meta regions for generations!

As I move forward I want to be better prepared to make an educated assesment as to the bean and post crop practices.

I am lucky to have an established company in the software business which lets me pursue chocolate without a strong commercial focus but most of my attention is centered on learning and moving forward with better chocolate production. A quest for great taste is a good guide.

Well, the problem with 'the best chocolate' is that everyone believes they already have it 8-)  it's a nebulous definition.  Columbian beans can be absolutely wonderful.  Think about what flavor profile you want; have a target in mind, and then work to custom taylor your beans to that profile.   I would urge you to identify a partner to work with that has the ability to source a large amount of beans at a given time (ie more than a single family with 20 trees) as fermentation quantities are important.  Start to play around with various fermentation protocols and drying methods and roast conditions until you find a flavor you're after.  I would not simply identify a family, and ask them for beans, as you'll end up getting a highly variable result - if you liked it this time, you better really like it because you probably won't ever get it again.

From what I understand, the cooperatives pay the same price the family run businesses pay for cacao   There is a RD$500 difference paid for fermented and not fermented.  If  I remember right, it comes to US$800 per ton.  The advantage to joining a cooperative comes with the technical assistance, getting organically certified, availability of loans, and 10% goes into projects within communities of their members.  This is the "fair trade" cacao which accounts for about 25% produced.  How much is fermented, I do not know.  Many of the medium sized farmers have the same relationship with the bigger family run business.  They probably have the sustainability certifications.  The cooperatives have the fermentation boxes; more and more is being brought in wet from the fields.  I will see how the pricing for the wet cacao is calculated this summer.

Thomas, thank you for sharing you experience.

It seems like the cooperatives have a lot of control over the bean choices as well as fermenting and drying. With clear guidelines and a monetary incentive for better practices there may be enough motivation to provide fine beans at a farm or cooperative level.


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