Importing Cocoa Beans

My first ever post on The Chocolate Life was a naive call for small-scale farmers to send me their beans. Little did I know that one of the biggest hurdles to starting a “from the bean” chocolate business is obtaining high quality, well-fermented cocoa beans! And collaboration is the best way to a successful importation process.

The difficulty of obtaining high quality beans can actually be considered both good and bad.

Why is it good?

There is a definite shortage of good cocoa beans in the world. Chloe Doutre-Roussel writes in her book, The Chocolate Connoisseur: For Everyone With a Passion for Chocolate, the following:

An estimated 15% of world production:

Good beans (e.g. Crillo/Trinitario hybrid of Trinitario) + good fermentation = good chocolate

Good beans + bad fermentation = bad chocolate

An estimated 85% of world production:

Poor beans (e.g. Forastero) + good fermentation = poor chocolate

Poor beans + bad fermentation = terrible chocolate!

Our friends at Arete reminded us that while we are joining a very welcoming community, not everyone can! Cocoa beans are a scarcity and it’s actually a benefit to the industry that it’s difficult to obtain them.

Why is it bad?

Well, we want to be using good beans, so of course, we’d prefer this process was easier. Plus, in the spirit of Slow Food, we’d love it if delicious chocolate were accessible to everyone. That said, we’re always up for a challenge!

So, how do “from the bean” makers obtain cocoa beans?

There are two options. We can obtain them directly from the source or indirectly.

Obtaining beans indirectly

Obtaining beans indirectly is much easier. This would mean buying beans that someone else has already imported. We’ve done that by stopping by the Grand Central Market in LA, a few small markets in San Francisco, purchasing a bag of beans from Dandelion, and samplers from Chocolate Alchemy. Even our purchase from Piper of Siriana Cacao was an indirect buy, since we did not work directly with the farmers/co-ops/international producers in country.

Another way of purchasing beans indirectly is through one of the many members of the Cocoa Merchants’ Association of America, among other suppliers.

The pros are that this is faster, easier, and often cheaper than buying directly from a cocoa producer. Additionally, it is possible to buy in small quantities (less than 100 lbs at a time).

The cons, on the other hand, are that this way does not build a relationship with the producers and can hide many of the issues related to supply chain that are important to me and many other small-scale chocolate makers. Additionally, this limits the selection of beans to those that someone else is already working with.

Obtaining beans directly

Obtaining beans directly from the source is considerably more difficult, as it requires international trade, minimum orders, and often a direct relationship with the cocoa producers. At the moment, as far as I’m aware, there are two ways to obtain directly: hire a broker to facilitate the sale and shipping process, or take care of that process ourselves. According to our friend Dan at Tabal, hiring a broker is a good idea if the total sale comes out to more than $2,000. (Wow, the most we’ve spent on beans so far was about $25 for 2 kilos from Dandelion!) You can find a list of brokers here.

Alternatively, there are two ways to follow through on the process without a broker: ship beans by a mail carrier like DHL or FedEx, or ship the beans in a shipping container by boat. A colleague on The Chocolate Life, Juan Pablo Buchert of Nahua Chocolate, helped explain to us what a cost structure of shipping beans with a mail carrier would look like:

You can receive the beans at you home, or shop, at an extra cost that is charged by the freight forwarder (FedEx, DHL). They can deal with the customs clearance as well. For example this is the cost structure for a 250 kg (550lb) shipment that we recently sent from Costa Rica to Chicago and delivered to a chocolate shop there:

Air Shipment……………………  $437,50

Charges at origin………………  $386,50 (Customs, pallets confection, pick up)

Charges at destination………… $  297,50  (Doc Handover & Delivery)

Total Shipping…………………….  $1.121,50    ($4.49/kg or  $2.04/lb)

The incoterm selected was DAP – Delivered at Place-  (Not FOB or CIF). Some clients decide to deal with customs clearance themselves and save the Charges at Destination, in this example $297.50. Obviously, this is an example of a large shipment for a home based chocolatier.

Smaller quantities (up to 50 lbs at a time) come in at 2.5 lbs for $22, including shipping, charges at origin, and charges at destination, then it goes up from there.

This also required an FDA-certified facility, USDA registration for the import, a copy of the invoice, and a phyto-sanitary certificate issued at origin.

What should we do about it?

Good question. The difficulty of importing beans prevents many small batch makers from establishing a relationship with the cocoa producers and controlling our supply chain. Facilitating the process involves many moving pieces: international law, trading regulations, and an incredible amount of support both for the farmers (to get their beans from the farm to a shipping port) and for the chocolate-makers (to organize a payment agreement for a shared shipping container).

For that reason, we’ve begun conversations with organizations like Yellow Seed, which seeks to fill the gap between chocolate-makers and cocoa producers. We’ve talked with chocolate-makers like David at Letterpress Chocolate, Eli and Tracey at Bisou, and David and Leslie at Arete, among others about sharing costs to charter a container to California.

This is a service that could revolutionize the small batch industry, so we’re looking forward to continuing the conversation and learning about available options. If you have ideas or suggestions, please leave your thoughts below in the comments. We’re certainly open to learning more!

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16 thoughts on “Importing Cocoa Beans

  1. Love your blog!
    Indead sourcing good beans is important in what we do.
    The cost, and even more so, the time associated with sourcing those yourself from the farm is a factor to be calculated in the final cost calculation.
    And it is still no guarantee on what you end up receiving as we learned ourselves.
    I consider working with a broker is partly an insurance policy.
    All the best from a fellow start up in canada.

  2. Glad to read about all the efforts that you have already undertaken to import original cacao beans, a task I plan to undertake shortly for my artisan ‘beans-to-bar’ facilities in India. I see it as a daunting task especially after bureaucratic processes at customs at both the ends, and the costs involved in it – and our desire to make the quality cacao affordable to low income Indian customers.

    For any enterprise to be successful it must be useful yet affordable to the consumers.

    http://www.chocolateworld.co

  3. Hello,
    Its good some of these articles are coming out so that the platform can be created for discussions like this one.

    Well, i agree with the broker issue but also I believe that the broker may not be interested in the sustainability of the chain as the lovers and makers of chocolate are.

    This is where my role comes in. Conservation Alliance is an organization based in Ghana and is in touch with 30,000 farmers in the sub-region producing sustainable (Rainforest Alliance/UTZ/Fairtrade) and traceable cocoa. These farmers are fringing forest reserves in Ghana and produce cocoa in the best sustainable manner.

    It will be a very good partnership if these farmers are linked up to manufacturers like you to source cocoa from these farmers also also assisting them to sustain production.

    We could discuss this further if your email me at vawotwe-pratt@conservealliance.org

    Thanks and hope to hear from you guys soon.

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  9. Hello friends, as a fine cacao producer and small sized chocolate maker, I always tried to find a way to provide small quantities of quality beans under $7-8/lb to chocolate makers. For one year I have been sending quality beans under an agreement I signed between Nahua (Costa Rica) and DHL + USPS. This works only for the continental US.

    – Beans are sent from Costa Rica
    -Transit time ranges from 8-10 for days the east coast to 12-14 days for the west coast.
    – DHL picks the cargo as a normal courier, delivers to a DHL consolidation warehouse in New Jersey
    – Bags are handed to USPS for ground delivery.
    – But, I cannot pack more than 10 lb per bag, as is a requisite from USPS to deliver under this agreement.
    – Therefore, if the order is for more than 10 lb, we have to send it packed in more than one bag.
    – Easy to track on the internet.
    – Easy to pay using PayPal

    Cacao Beans
    LB Total $/lb
    1 $14 14.0
    2 $23 11.5
    3 $28 9.3
    4 $32 8.0
    5 $39 7.8
    6 $44 7.3
    7 $50 7.1
    8 $55 6.9
    9 $60 6.7
    10 $67 6.7

    Best Regards

  10. Please send me info on your bean sourcing. I’d also like to hear from Juan Pablo Buchert about his offerings. I’ve just started making chocolate but am looking to start a business around it in the near future.

  11. Me and a friend are looking to bring over to the US good cocoa beans grown in Tanzania, he is in charge of the whole operation over there. Is there a way to get in touch with a large network of chocolate makers and see about creating a supply agreement?

  12. Me and a friend are looking to bring good quality cocoa beans grown in Tanzania to the USA, is there a way to reach out to a big % of the small chocolate makers and perhaps create a supply chain?

  13. Hello there. I represent a company called esaica; we produce and trade with fine & flavour Venezuelan cocoa beans (criollo-hybrids, trinitarios, natural fermentation, sun dried)
    My advise for all you guys is that you should buy together and hire a container e.g: 15K or 20K kilograms.
    We can give you good price. Please visit http://www.esaica.com

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