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It is not only important to understand that there are several grades of cacao within cacao producing countries; these grades are often based on national standards set by government, industry, or a combination of the two. Even more important is the distinction between fine grade and bulk cacao. Depending on the source consulted, “fine or flavor” cacao accounts for as much as 20% of the world’s production, down to as low as 10% to 5%. Herein we’ll refer to “fine or flavor” cacao as fine grade cacao. Nonetheless, what’s important here is to know that Ecuador is the world’s largest producer of fine grade cacao. But what exactly is it?

In general terms, fine grade-also known as fine aroma cacao-is top quality cacao used in fine chocolates such as those used in pastry shops, restaurants, and other upper-tier establishments. Fine grade cacao is also used by many artisan chocolate makers around the world, from small bean-two-bar operations, to mid-size  and larger industrial manufacturers such as Valhrona, Guittard, Barry Calllebaut and others. Sometimes it is used alone to produce a high-end product, while other times it is mixed with bulk grade beans to add marketing cachet or to improve on a mediocre product. The world commodity market generally distinguishes fine or flavor cacao beans as those coming from criollo or trinitario cacao tree varieties, as well as Ecuador’s Nacional variety. CCN-51, a hybrid that is increasingly cultivated in Ecuador, can make a good chocolate but is not always considered fine grade.

But is there a strict scientific definition for fine grade cacao? Between 2001 and 2006, the ICCO, or international Cocoa Organization, undertook a study of the chemical, physical and organoleptic parameters to establish the difference between fine and bulk cacao. The study took place in Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Bago, and Venezuela. The study was released in August 2007. The objective of the study was to find universally acceptable parameters to differentiate between fine/flavor and bulk cacao.

Prior to the study, the definition of finer flavor cacao was controversial as no universally accepted criterion existed to classify fine flavor cacao. And measurement of the criteria used (genetic origin of plant material, chemical characteristics of beans, color of beans and nibs, degree of fermentation, drying), do not objectively reflect the cacao quality.

The study’s results were mixed; it added to the knowledge that can be used to distinguish between fine or flavor and bulk cacao, but some of the criteria used were inconclusive in helping distinguish between the two types of cacao. One important observation gain from the study is that the color of the beans is a poor indicator as a parameter for discriminating between fine and bulk cacao. As well, the fermentation index, polyphenol content, and other parameters were seriously influenced by fermentation, and thus are basically useless for distinguishing fine or flavor from bulk cocoa. The world commodities market has to continue to rely on inaccurate and incomplete information for defining fine grade cacao as strict, easily measurable criteria have not been established. For the discerning chocolate maker, having a trustworthy source and a direct relationship with a cacao grower or cooperative is increasingly important.

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´s 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.

QuevedoJune 18, 2011

QuevedoJune 20, 2011-8

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.

QuevedoJune 19, 2011-6

QuevedoJune 19, 2011-5

QuevedoJune 19, 2011-4

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.

QuevedoJune 19, 2011

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 Maná. Finally, after asking several times how much further La Maná 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.

QuevedoJune 20, 2011-8

QuevedoJune 20, 2011-7

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.

QuevedoJune 20, 2011-4

QuevedoJune 20, 2011-9

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.

QuevedoJune 20, 2011-10

QuevedoJune 20, 2011-11

Here’s a shot of beans still in mucilage being fermented in plastic crates.

QuevedoJune 20, 2011-12

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.

Winnower 4

Winnower 1

Winnower 2

Winnower 3

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.

Doing some reading today about the highly lauded Marañón chocolate coming out of Peru. Or more specifically, the beans are coming out of Peru and the chocolate is being made in Switzerland. As pointed out on, it sounds like the beans are actually Nacional beans, of the variety originally native to Ecuador, but growing in a remote area of Peru.

Here is a video of Chocolatier Julian Rose of Moonstruck Chocolates discussing the chocolate covered cocoa beans he’s making with the chocolate. He says “these wonderful cocoa beans will be covered in its own chocolate, so this is very unique in the world. I don’t think it’s ever been done and it will be done with the best beans that have been on the market in the last 150 years.”

I’m not sure when this video was recorded, but it’s been over two years, that is as far back as 2009, when I began to make my own chocolate covered cocoa beans, made with chocolate from the very same beans. Unfortunately, as any regular reader of this blog is aware, I stopped selling my products in the US sometime over a year ago. However, for those of you lucky enough to be in Ecuador, the chocolate coated cocoa beans are available here. While our beans do not hold the claim to fame of being pure Nacional beans from original rootstock, they are Nacional variety beans grown in the Guayas River basin of Ecuador–which also makes them true Arriba beans. Arriba has been a frequently abused marketing term rendered nearly meaningless by its application to nearly every chocolate coming out of Ecuador, thus the emphasis.

It´s a good thing when someone can get first mover advantage because they have the marketing budget and clout to get the product known, even though someone may be doing or has been doing very much the same thing long before a “known” product gets to market. While I haven’t tasted this chocolate, I would be delighted to see someone do a tasting comparing some of the pure Nacional chocolate coming out of Ecuador that we use with this new chocolate.

I’m also always surprised to hear the observation that Nacional beans give a floral flavor to the chocolate. Of all the chocolates I’ve tasted coming out of Ecuador, and I mean chocolates made in Ecuador of pure Ecuadorian beans (which, by the way, are either made from pure Nacional beans, or a mix of CCN–51 and Nacional beans, or in the worst case pure CCN–51 beans, and not an “origin” chocolate whose percentage of actual Nacional beans is totally unknown and may even be on the low end of the scale), floral is not a word I would use to describe the flavor. Some might beg to differ, as Nacional beans have often been described as such.  As to this new chocolate, they also use the word “nutty” to describe the flavor, which is a descriptor I would use for chocolates made with Ecuador’s CCN–51 hybrid, but not Nacional.

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Welcome to Destination Ecuador!

Welcome to Destination Ecuador! My family and I have been living in Ecuador for the last four and a half years. We’ve dealt with the worst kinds of red-tape, searched out or ended up making hard-to-find ingredients ourselves, imported equipment for making chocolate confections, learned the import-export business...Continue >>


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