I wish I could tell you I was too busy making chocolate and other stuff to write…but no, that’s not it. I wish I could tell you I haven’t had the typical complications many a small business owner faces, many of which, I have discovered in my conversations with others, are simply par for the course, the normal, everyday winds of adversity. Nonetheless, all has not been awry, we’ve actually also been on vacation in California, back in my hometown of Solana Beach.
While there, we did a bunch of fun stuff with the kids, like Legoland, Seaworld, trips to the beach, many afternoons in the pool, among other things…while I also dealt with PR problems, meeting brokers, packaging and labeling design, equipment needs, and other fun business stuff you don’t usually here about here on my blog. But I’ll spare the details for later…
I’m now back in Ecuador, and we’re ramping up production for the fall. This week we’ve been especially enjoying playing with the new panning machine-it’s a Kitchenaid drum attachment for panning. I’ll post more about it later because I have to go back and add some more chocolate to the cocoa beans we’re working on for export. But for now, I can say we must have the near perfect environment for doing it because even the first batch of almonds turned out perfect!
In a previous post, I discussed the definition of “Arriba” chocolate and beans-while there’s no legal definition, Arriba can be used to denominate either beans of the Nacional variety from the “Arriba” or upriver area of the Guayas River Basin in the lowlands of southwestern Ecuador, or chocolate made from those beans. So is Arriba a chocolate or a type of bean? It can be both, depending on with whom you are speaking. Growers may call their beans Arriba variety, and chocolate manufacturers may call their finished chocolate Arriba. Many beans in Ecuador are labeled “Arriba” when they may not actually be, due to the blending of different bean varieties which is a common practice in Ecuador. You are probably asking, ok, why does this matter?
The loss of the Arriba flavor profile is happening right now. This is due to the bastardization of the chocolate being produced under the Arriba name, as well as widespread abuse by marketers of the name Arriba. The loss of the Arriba flavor profile would mean increasing homogeneity of fine chocolate, and all chocolates for that matter. The Arriba flavor is an important one, recognized for its unique floral aroma, deep chocolate flavor, and lack of bitterness.
The Nacional bean, from which Arriba chocolate originates, is decreasing in production, while production of the more popular CCN-51 variety is increasing. Due to the Nacional variety’s higher vulnerability to disease, particularly Monilla and Witch’s Broom, either of which can severely affect or even destroy an entire cocoa plantation, the cultivation of the Nacional variety of bean is decreasing in Ecuador. The CCN-51 variety is being planted more frequently due to its disease resistance and higher yields, at least double that of the Nacional variety on a per hectare basis.
The CCN-51 variety does not have the same flavor profile as Nacional beans, and while a very good quality chocolate can be made from CCN-51, it requires different fermentation and post-harvest treatment from Nacional beans. However, CCN-51 and Nacional beans are often mixed together either pre or post-fermentation. This common practice in Ecuador debases both the value and flavor of the resulting chocolate. This practice is a major, ongoing controversy in the Ecuadorian chocolate industry.
Growers do not have any financial incentive to separate beans post-harvest, nor to ferment and treat them differently. Nor do most buyers of beans have any incentive to distinguish between Arriba, Nacional, or CCN-51, as most chocolate lovers have had little, if any information, about the industry practices discussed here, and are unaware of these issues until just recently. Furthermore, there is no recognition such as a denomination of origin for the Arriba bean. Thus, beans from the north coast, the Amazon, and other parts of Ecuador not recognized for the Arriba flavor are nonetheless frequently labeled Arriba, as well as the chocolates made from these beans, for marketing purposes.
Fortunately, ANECACAO and other governmental and non-governmental organizations are, through education, training, and publications, encouraging both small and large producers of cacao to practice and maintain separation of CCN-51 variety and Nacional variety beans. However, these efforts are not enough. Because most commodity brokers, local buyers of beans (aka “patios” in Ecuador-local cacao merchants who buy from local farms, then consolidate large amounts of cacao for brokers, commodity houses, and large muli-nationals such as ADM or Kraft) of cacao in Ecuador’s cocoa growing regions, and cacao traders do not pay a premium for Nacional beans, mixing is still a frequent and common occurrence. The current lack of transparency and standards in Ecuador make preventing the mixing of bean varieties difficult, if not impossible, to stop.
A recently implemented practice by some farms and cacao buyers in Ecuador is helping to preserve the Arriba profile. Some farms are growing only the Nacional variety of bean and selling it as such-though, because of the absence of a price premium, these beans may be ultimately mixed with CCN-51. Other farms grow only CCN-51 and clearly label it as such. Finally, some buyer’s patios and even commodity houses (namely-Transmar) have recently begun to buy beans “en baba”, or freshly harvested and unfermented, or even in the pod, allowing them to know the variety of the bean and control the fermentation process. A newspaper piece was recently done on this practice and is discussed here.
With this knowledge, what can you do to support Arriba chocolate? First, buy chocolate labeled Arriba only if the manufacturer can provide traceability of both the bean variety used in the chocolate and geographical origin for the beans used in that chocolate. For example, a chocolate labeled “Esmeraldas” from Ecuador or “Manabí” from Ecuador is not an Arriba chocolate. Ask your favorite Ecuadorian chocolate companies, or those selling Ecuadorian single origin chocolates if they are aware of the use of CCN-51 beans in the what is commonly labeled Nacional or Arriba chocolate. Now that you know the distinctions, use your wallet to vote for the support of Arriba beans and chocolate. Ultimately, the establishment of a denomination of origin for Arriba beans and chocolates would benefit growers in Ecuador by granting them a premium price for their beans, help chocolate makers by allowing them to certify the origin and quality of their beans, and increase choice and traceability of the final product for consumers.
Chocolate with Provenance Gaining Importance http://is.gd/1eOF9
Very excited about launching Aequare to the food media next week in NY at FoodFete! http://is.gd/1f1Mu
Aequare Chocolates gets frequent inquiries as to why we’re not organic. It’s not because we don’t want to be, or don’t support organic. It’s because we simply can’t, for all practical purposes, be organic.
First off, all organic chocolate actually produced here in country is shipped abroad and almost none of it is for sale here. It’s shipped abroad directly by its producers because there is a market for it abroad. Consumers in North America and Europe, as well as many other places, have the disposable income that allows them the choice and provides them the ability to choose between organic or conventional products. Here in Ecuador, personal income levels are not high enough and consumption patterns are not adapted to supporting organic products.
Were the local manufacturers of organic chocolate to try and sell organic chocolate here, they’d probably go broke. Most consumers would not see the value in paying a higher price for an organic product. It would have no additional recognized value in the local market and simply would not sell for a higher price. Organic producers would be forced to compete on price alone, and they would lose money.
Since we don’t actually make our own chocolate, and don’t have the volume needed to have someone process organic beans into chocolate for us locally, we can’t make organic chocolate here. We have approached two of the companies that do make certified organic chocolate about purchasing organic couverture from them. One is a large contract manufacturer and simply can’t sell us what organic chocolate they produce because the production is for another company’s product that is shipped abroad. The other offered to sell us couverture, but at a price that was so high it would be impossible to make money from.
Our main supplier of chocolate, who is also the grower of the beans, uses minimal amounts of pesticides and fertilizers on the cacao plantations he manages. This is the case for most cacao growers in Ecuador; the majority of beans come from small landowners who usually can’t even afford pesticides or fertilizers, and cacao is basically a gathering activity from plants that are growing in a semi-wild state on their properties. To become certified organic is a lengthy, costly and complicated process that the majority of growers probably can’t afford. In no way do we mean to belittle the value of organic; but the certification process can be more exclusive than inclusive.
You can already see why we can’t make organic bars, and for many of the same reasons, organic confections. We can’t even get the most important component, the organic chocolate, to start with.
Beyond the chocolate, which is difficult enough to obtain, many other organic ingredients are simply not available in Ecuador. Let’s start with sugar. The local manufacturers or organic chocolate temporarily import their organic sugar from abroad. Temporary importation is a very complex, bureaucratic, and costly process. Temporary importation allows the user of the product to avoid paying duties on it by guaranteeing the product is going to be shipped out of the country again within a certain time frame. Since it’s only coming into the country as an input for a specific product that is destined for export, no duties are levied on it. This also means that it’s not for sale on the open market.
Organic dairy products are non-existent in Ecuador. While for practical purposes many dairy products could be considered “organic” because of the non-industrialized nature of most of the dairy industry here, that’s obviously not good enough for consumers in industrialized countries looking for an official seal of approval. So getting organic cream and butter in Ecuador with an internationally recognized organic seal?…forget it.
Then there are other items that go into our products, such as fruit purees, citrus zests, and essential oils, most of which are sourced locally but very few of which are organic, with the exception of the lemongrass oil from Fundación Chankuap used to flavor our lemongrass bars.
So due to costs, volume constraints, regulations, and lack of availability of organic ingredients, it’s difficult if not impossible to do organic confections here in Ecuador. Finally, making 100% organic chocolate, as well as confections, is not compatible with our direct trade efforts. But more on direct trade in a later post.