Most people head to Ecuador to see the Galapagos, the Amazon, to climb mountains, or perhaps to the coast. But one of Ecuador’s unexplored and most fascinating areas to visit are Ecuador’s cacao growing regions-which include the Amazon and the coastal lowlands both in the north, central, and south parts of the country. We are just a few days back from another tour of one of Ecuador¬īs prime cacao growing regions.
Before heading off, we spent day one in the workshop going over chocolate tempering basics, making bar molds and all the little details you need to know to get the bars to come out right, among many other things.
Accompanied by clients and now friends Dana Brewster and Mark Del Vecchio of Millcreek Cacao Roasters, we headed for an unexplored route. Heading south out of Quito for a little over an hour, we took a right and headed through the town of Pujili. I had been there just the week before, so though the turn off is unmarked on the main highway, it was easy enough to find. Pujili is a major market town and is a spectacle to see in and of itself-as you can see from last week’s posting. The scenery once you start the ascent into the highlands is spectacular, and we were fortunate enough to have a very clear day where you could see the Cotopaxi Volcano across the valley as well as the backside of the Corazon Volcano.
It is not at all clear where to head once you get through Pujili, so I made at least a half a dozen inquiries, stopping every five to ten miles, before I was sure I wouldn’t mistakenly turn off and head us in the wrong direction. The road heads, up, up and up into the highlands far above treeline. At one point there is the turnoff for another fantastic part of Ecuador well worth a visit-the Laguna Quilotoa, an emerald-green crater lake high in the mountains, but it was too far off the path to go, so we continued into the highlands.
The scenery in this part of the country is breathtaking. The day was gorgeous, some clouds in the sky, but the Cotopaxi Volcano, far across the valleys below us, stared back at us at what seemed like eye-level, we were so high up. Later, with Cotopaxi no longer in view among the rolling hills, mountain grasslands stretched out before us. As the road continued on this high mountain plateau, then began a mild descent into new, smaller valleys, the scenery continued to impress. High rock formations, steep, rolling hills with a patchwork of green and gold crops, and small towns were visible. Finally, the road began to descend.
It was impossible to tell where we were headed, though I knew it was becoming greener and greener as is typical once you leave the highlands and head down. The road was filled with hairpin turns, and it was obvious that the vegetation was changing, but you couldn’t see much. After a good hour of downhill descent, the clouds parted and we were in Ecuador’s lush, tropical lowlands. We were in a narrow valley with narrow roads, steep green slopes on either side. After another good hour of winding descent, we found ourselves passing through towns such as Siete Rios and California, headed for La Man√°. Finally, after asking several times how much further La Man√° was (always getting a vague response such as “Soon,” or “just a few more minutes,”) we arrived in the open, nearly flat coastal lowlands, that are also some of Ecuador’s prime cacao growing areas.
We arrived mid-afternoon, set out for lunch in Quevedo, then headed back to the farm for the preparation and tasting of some basic cacao liquors. We ¬†hand-roasted beans in a clay pot first, peeling them by hand, then ground them in a lab grinder.
The following morning started with fresh fruit, coffee, and home baked bread, then out to check out the plantation, talk about and see difference between CCN-51 and Nacional varieties, and learn about the farm.
We set out before lunch to go check out several traders patios as well, see different quality beans, and learn more about how the cacao trade operates.
Here’s a shot of beans still in mucilage being fermented in plastic crates.
Talking to traders and others in the industry, it rapidly becomes apparent that there are not a whole lot of strict standards regarding grading beans for export. One of my contacts claimed “Sometimes I have an export shipment of beans and I call the Agriculture Ministry, and tell them I need the shipment to be graded. They say ‘we don’t have time to come out, what would you like me to put on it?’.” So basically, it’s easy to just get the rubber stamp you want as an exporter, step right up, pick a stamp, any stamp, just tell us which one you’d like!!! The brokers for beans just see them as another commodity, they don’t care where they came from or whether they’re good or bad, they’re just beans. All the more reason to come and buy from the farm, if you really want to know what it is you’re buying.
After years of contemplating and examining what exactly is “local,”¬† specifically in relation to chocolate, I came to realize there is a big paradox going on here. As well, I have concluded that people who really and truly consider themselves hardcore “locavores”¬† in countries that are more than 20 degrees north or south of the equator wouldn’t eat chocolate at all. But they do, and that’s why this matters, at least a little bit! If you truly insisted on being a locavore, say, eating foods that originated from only within a 100 mile radius from your home,¬† then you’d have to give up a lot. In fact, many of us¬† might evens starve as many urban areas in the US are far larger than the agricultural space within a 100 mile radius around them can support. That aside, let’s continue with the matter at hand.
Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion, through my analysis of the issues regarding “locally”-made chocolate, that if you’re not local, it¬† does not help sell chocolate in the US. That’s why we closed up Aequare. I do think¬† that if we had had a store in the US, a mere geographical presence, a physical location, to sell from and to tell our story from, it would have helped our sales tremendously and may be made our story viable. But putting up a website these days, doing some marketing, and getting favorable blog reviews is just not enough. If you don’t have a massive marketing budget, most websites are akin to a billboard in the desert-hardly anyone can see it, let alone find it-and if they do, they’re¬† most likely to just keep on driving by.
It really comes down to this; do you want to spend your money on a product that is helping with local employment, contributing to economic activity in your backyard/neighborhood/town? Or, in the model we were trying to implement, would you rather support the “local” economy in a developing country, where the need for increased economic activity, livelihoods, and incomes is probably far greater than in your own backyard? The latter is just not compelling enough of a story for the average consumer.
Specifically, our aim was to produce chocolate in the country of origin, thereby helping create economic activity¬† in the local economy, while at the same time also contributing to economic activity in the country of sale…We wanted to add value in the country of origin-one of the major issues facing developing countries like Ecuador is that while resource rich, most of those resources, in the form of commodities, are shipped out of the country before being processed, and thus most of the added value is added in the developed world. Making this complicated concept clear to our customers¬†eluded us and probably completed eluded most consumers, and simply never got through.
The average consumer has a much easier time and is much more willing to immediately buy into the “Fair Trade” “Organic” or “RF Alliance” label immediately, rather than the whole idea of direct trade, “value added”¬† in the country of origin (a way too academic idea, I think, for most consumers, and one that requires too much explanation), which was the Aequare story. Another big problem is that unfortunately, I think many consumers in the US and Europe, for whatever reasons, associate FT or Organic or RF Alliance with premium quality, which is not the case at all, and the products are sometimese even inferior in taste and quality to conventionally grown products.
Is it better to by a chocolate product produced in the US, with chocolate made most likely made from either a US or European-based multinational, who buys beans on the international commodities market and then ships them to whatever country for processing? BTW, I have seen “Swiss” labeled chocolates, sold by Albert Uster, now being made in South Korea! And where was the chocolate processed? It is just this distorted, crazy movement of materials from one place to another that we were trying to avoid.
Another issue regarding local, and in our case, “single origin” as in only from Ecuador, and for that matter, only from some specific farms in Ecuador, is that there is little to no regulation (at least that I know of, please advise if I’m mistaken) about calling your chocolate product “single origin.” So you might have a bar with 70%, 60%, or even less beans from a single origin being mixed with beans from other parts of the world, and not even know it. Who controls this? Who regulates? It’s basically up to the manufacturer to prove where the beans in their “single origin” chocolate are coming from…if they can.
I think the best anyone can do, especially when it comes to chocolate, is to try and source as much of their materials for their final products (including packaging and services such as advertising, marketing, copywriting, etc) from nearby sources. But with the Internet, it’s hard to say if all this effort for local somehow has lost a great deal of meaning…
Friday morning I headed over to another part of town to visit a chocolate maker I had found out about through a contact of mine. It may sound surprising it took me four years to find out about this guy, but I guess I didn’t bother to pick up that cheap bar of chocolate in the supermarket and pick up the phone and dial the number on the package. So I heard about him just recently. Not that there are many businesses here that would invite you on over for a look-see, especially in the chocolate business here, where most people are trying to jealously guard their secrets.
I really enjoyed speaking with the owner, because unlike many people here, he recognized the value of Nacional cocoa and the problems with so many people wanting to grow CCN-51 beans. He also stated the unfortunate truth “To compete in Ecuador you really have to make a bad product.” That is, a product that is cheap and of mediocre or inferior quality. It’s not because people don’t want better-if they knew there was “better” they might want it-if they could afford it. It’s because to sell something here and sell it well, the two main factors are price and quantity-low price, big quantity. That’s what almost, if not all, of what people are thinking about, overtly or not, when they go to purchase something.
The place has been in business over 100 years, and looking at the machinery this was obviously true. The only thing he’d let me take picture of was the winnower, built by “National Equipment” from the US, back who knows when…early 20th century or late 19th century? Anyway, from a few numbers he tossed out, this winnower could probably winnow 500-600 pounds of beans per hour.
Additionally, in another part of the shop (it was basically two rooms) he had a 250 kg conch, two old french mill refiners, a dosing machine for filling molds, and a mixing machine where the cocoa liquor and sugar are combined before being milled and conched. He doesn’t have nearly as much capacity as the winnower-maybe 1 ton a month of total production, everything done almost completely by hand, no holding tanks, very basic. He did have some fairly good chocolate, but the lack of basic hygiene and professional operating standards was evident. The mill refiner had chocolate accumulated on it from what looked like decades.¬† I wouldn’t rush to have him process beans for me, but it is an available option, and a curious place to visit if you’re in Quito and you’d like to see it.