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Traceability for cacao beans is an increasingly important issue for artisanal chocolate producers. Being able to trace our beans from the tree to the bar provides a number of benefits. Along with the basic issue of knowing your source, traceability also provides important assurances about taste, quality, and production values.
On the aspect of taste, one of the issues that we continually face is Ecuador is the blending of Nacional with CCN-51 and other cacao varieties. Local growers may have multiple types of cacao growing in the same area and they have little incentive to keep the varieties separate throughout the fermentation and drying process. Buyers also tend to blend the cacao together as it continues its journey to market, clouding the overall flavor profile of the beans for the end buying.
By increasing transparency and deepening relationships with individual and cooperative growers associations, some of this separation and flavor blending can be reduced through heightened traceability for each cacao pod coming to market. This would help reduce the ongoing bastardization of the chocolate being produced under the Arriba name. Given the different pH values for the different cacao varieties and the effect that can have on the bitterness of the final product, this is extremely important to deliver consistent flavor to client palates.
Traceability goes beyond flavor – it has a significant impact on quality. In Ecuador, the systems for standardization of grading of cacao are not as rigorous as in other regions. This can cloud where and what type of cacao is being bought, and given the significant differences that exist in fermentation and drying practices throughout the country this is a serious concern.
Producing top quality chocolate requires top quality cacao, or at the very least a consistent quality of cacao. It’s hard to build a reputation with an inconsistent product, which of course ties back to the consistency of the cacao that you buy. Improving the traceability of cacao in Ecuador and elsewhere adds value to the pods by helping buyers know more predictably what they are bringing home.
Last but not least, traceability heavily influences production values. I’ve written before about the situation in Ecuador with regard to the difficulty of organic certification and the number of beans being labeled as Arriba that simply aren’t. Improving the ability of consumers to trace cacao pods back to their original growers can remove some of the ambiguity about growing practices and product labels. It would also cut down on the ability of graders to stamp cacao as a particular grade or source when it is clearly not what it’s label shows.
Artisanal chocolate producers and those with a love for fine chocolates have a vested interest in improving traceability. Traceability helps with flavor profiles, chocolate quality, and production value for pods. Though it isn’t always easy in local markets, working to improve traceability will have a long-term positive effect on the cacao industry.