Cacao farming on Oahu

While on Oahu, Richard and I visited two and a half farms growing cacao. Why the half? Let me explain…

The first farm we visited was Kahuku Farms, on the North Shore. Dr. Nat of Madre recommended we stop by here. Kahuku provides farm tours or, as they call them, smoothie tours. We rode around on a wheeled bench, pulled by a trailer through the rows of beautiful crops in the demonstration portion of the farm and received a delicious homemade smoothie made from the ingredients we had seen just moments before. Our tour guide is married to Kylie, a fourth generation Kahuku farmer and has taken on the education part of the business. We learned a lot about the history of the farm and their attempts to share such fresh and delicious vegetables with the local population. Hawaiian food traditionally includes a lot of meat, but the Kahuku food truck serves only vegetarian foods made from their farm’s produce. Surprisingly to the farming family (but not to us Californian hippies), it’s a huge hit!

Kahuku Farms

Kahuku Farms

By calling ahead and telling our tour guide about our chocolate interest, we were able to take a detour on the tour to visit the cacao plants. We even got to pull a pod off the tree and demonstrate (and eat) the pulp to the rest of our tour group. What a special experience! Learn more about Kahuku farms here.

cocoa pods

cocoa pods

Richard and a cocoa pod

Richard and a cocoa pod

Landen and an open cocoa pod

Landen and an open cocoa pod

raw cocoa bean

raw cocoa bean

Our next farm visit was to the Waialua Estate, a subsidiary of Dole. This is our “half farm,” since we visited their large factory but didn’t quite get out to the farmland. We were led on a brief tour of the process of making both chocolate and coffee. Waialua Estate also partners with Guittard, our neighbor in the Bay Area, throughout its chocolate-making process. Waialua Estate was the first place we saw another step of the chocolate process. These trays house cocoa beans as they are drying after fermentation.

Drying cocoa beans at Waialua Estate

Drying cocoa beans at Waialua Estate

Our final visit was the most authentic and intimate. Richard and I met up with Seneca Klassen of Lonohana: Hawaiian Estate Chocolate in Haleiwa on our last morning on Oahu. We jumped in his truck and drove up to his 14-acre farm in the hills above town. The sun was warm and the red dirt squished between my toes as we traipsed through his rows upon rows of cacao trees.

Lonohana - young cacao trees

Lonohana – young cacao trees

Seneca’s mission is clear:

Lonohana Estate Chocolate is located on the island of O‘ahu, Hawaii and is the result of two families’ dream to create a vertically integrated chocolate company here in the United States. By controlling the entire product cycle, starting with our own Hawaii-grown cacao all the way through crafting small batches of world-class chocolate bars in Honolulu, we hope to share where this beloved food comes from, how it is grown and made.

He is creating the first tree-to-bar chocolate operation in Hawaii. He spends many days on the farm, weeding, harvesting, planting shade trees or windbreaks, and keeping up his fledgling farm of cacao. The rest of his days are spent in his factory in Honolulu, where he manages all of the post-production – fermenting and drying – as well as the full bean-to-bar chocolate-making process that we do at home. His supply is so limited that he sells chocolate with a subscription method – sending out bars to subscribers at regular intervals like a CSA (Consumer-supported agriculture). His personal history is closely interwoven with the bean-to-bar movement in the San Francisco Bay Area, as he is one of the co-founders of Bittersweet Cafe in Oakland. Read more about Seneca, his family, and the Lonohana story here.

cacao pods and beans at Lonohana

cacao pods and beans at Lonohana

Seneca spent time to break open a few cacao pods to show us the differences among them, both in appearance and in flavor. His knowledge of the genetics and how they affect the future of the plant and therefore the beans and their eventual chocolate is incredible. He seemed grateful for the visit of some chocolate-makers looking for an education on the intricacies of farming. This is an angle many chocolate-makers never have the privilege to see. And we are extremely thankful for his openness and willingness to teach us about his work and learnings!

Cocoa bean quality

How do we know the quality of cocoa beans when they show up in one of those giant burlap bags? How can we tell they’ll be tasty once we’ve put them through the intensive processes that result in a chocolate bar?

We did some research and asked some friends, but we’re always learning, so don’t take this post as the be all end all of cocoa bean evaluation. The best way to learn to evaluate beans is to travel to cacao-producing countries and learn from the makers and farmers themselves.

In a nutshell, here’s what we’ve learned so far: it takes all the senses and some background research to determine high quality cocoa beans.

Let’s start with the basics… what are we looking for in a batch of cocoa beans?

  • Well fermented – not too much, not too little
  • Well preserved – as few bugs as possible
  • Well bred – good genetics (read more about genetics in this post)

This is all in addition to the circumstances on the farm where the beans came from, including working conditions, wages for farmers, pesticides, farming practices, etc.

The question is, then, how do we know the beans are good enough to import in larger quantities and potentially serve as the source of one of our chocolate bars? The process looks different depending on how big the chocolate-maker is. Check out this description by the ICCO about checking the quality of cocoa beans. Without a panel of tasters or any fancy instruments, here’s how we do it:

1. Look at the bean

Beans have a wide variety of appearances, depending on how they are processed at the farm. Here are some pictures of drastically different beans from our visit to John Nanci’s warehouse in Oregon. Can you tell the difference?

Jamaican beans

Jamaican beans

Papua New Guinea Beans

Papua New Guinea Beans

Side note: in Papua New Guinea (PNG), because the weather is so wet and humid, some farmers dry their beans in a smoker, leaving them with a smokey flavor that I’m pretty excited to taste! Check out what Dandelion did with some PNG beans here.

When looking at the beans, we’re looking for mold, if they appear to be washed, if they’re very dirty, if there are a lot of doubles or broken shells or buggy beans, etc. This is similar to what we look for when sorting beans. Our sample looks pretty good – nothing terrible stands out.

whole raw cocoa beans

whole raw cocoa beans

2. Taste the beans

Keeping in mind that these are raw beans and have been subjected to the messy process of fermentation, drying, shipping across borders, and could harbor some potential diseases… but we taste most raw beans anyway. As I’ve mentioned before, this is not my favorite part. Richard’s much better than I am at picking out the flavor notes in raw beans. However, we both picked up the same flavors here: a very mild start, slightly earthy or woodsy hints, and then very little bitterness on the back end. The good news? These beans are definitely not acidic or putrid. The bad news? They may result in a boring chocolate, since we didn’t sense any specific strong flavors.

We’ve heard that the taste in our mouth after we’ve finished a raw bean – in other words, the aftertaste – shows the flavor notes that could appear in a chocolate bar made from those beans. Try it out!

3. Perform a cut test

This is a particularly fancy part of checking bean quality and provides a numerical score to bean quality. High end bean-to-bar chocolate makers use what’s called a guillotine to slice at least 100 beans (typically 300) in half, lengthwise, thus opening up each one so the inside is visible. Given that I don’t own one of these expensive devices, I manually sliced 100 beans and laid them out on a cutting board.

cut test

cut test

Now, we’re looking for a few different results on the inside of these beans. This chart by the Cocoa and Coffee Industry Board of Trinidad and Tobago shows many of the potential options very clearly! The summary: we’re looking for a) fully fermented beans, b) slatey beans, c) partially slatey beans, d) purple beans, e) over-fermented beans, f) moldy beans, g) germinated beans, h) infested or insect-damaged beans, or i) flat or shriveled beans.

As far as I can tell, these are either all fully fermented or over-fermented. There were no slatey, partially slatey, purple, moldy, germinated, infested, or flat beans in this sample.

There are additional tests and measures to determine if cocoa beans will be good for high quality chocolate. That said, with our experience level, we’ll stick to these methods, but we’ll continue to share what we learn as we go!

So far, we’re doing pretty well with these particular beans! We’ll have to make them into some chocolate and see how they turn out!

Chocolate-struck at FCIA Weekend Activities

We started the year off right with some serious chocolate schmoozing!

This past weekend, San Francisco hosted the FCIA Winter Event, the Good Food Awards and the Winter Fancy Food Show. Quick congratulations to the following chocolate companies for their big wins in the Good Food Awards:

While we did not attend any of the official events this weekend, we were present at two more intimate gatherings of chocolate makers. We feel very fortunate to be friends of Dandelion and were able to attend both an informal chocolate-makers’ meet-up on Friday night, hosted at Four Barrel Coffee, and the post-FCIA brunch Sunday morning.

At the Friday night event, I arrived a little late, but in plenty of time to hear some great tidbits from the experts. It was packed with people sitting high on bags of coffee, on the floor, and anywhere there was space. When someone asked how to work with cocoa farmers, I was excited to hear some of the panelists expand on my favorite topic! Greg from Dandelion talked about wanting the farmers to be as excited about their product as he is, and expecting to not just buy something but to also build something together. Jesse, sourcer of Cacao Vivo talked about the importance of transparency, direct trade, and feedback. In the meantime, Hugo Hermelink, a cocoa farmer from Costa Rica, spoke up about the financial troubles of running a cacao operation. I met many of the Dandelion staff members, people from Raaka, indi, and Videri, among others.

Chocolate-maker meet-up at Four Barrel

Chocolate-maker meet-up at Four Barrel

Sunday morning, with an even larger group, I was almost starstruck (chocolate-struck?) at the names of people in the room. Some had written books or articles I have poured over. Others make amazing chocolate or source beans from ethically responsible co-ops or connect chocolate-makers to beans or educate the public about the bean-to-bar industry. It was amazing to meet Steve De Vries of De Vries Chocolate, Sunita of The Chocolate Garage, Jose of Mindo Chocolate in Ecuador/Michigan and his cacao farmer friend of an Ecuadorian co-op, Clay Gordon of The Chocolate Life (see posts on our previous phone interview on “living the chocolate life” and on making chocolate at home), Brian of Northwest Chocolate Festival, Adam and Matthew of Mutari Hot Chocolate (locals in Santa Cruz!), as well as many many others.

We also got to connect with old friends – Dave and Corey of Letterpress Chocolate, Eli of Bisou, Greg of Dandelion, and Brian of Endorfin, among others. Check out Dandelion’s picture of the event in their Valencia Cafe.

It was such an adventure to learn from these experts and hear suggestions for our own chocolate activities. We’re looking forward to trying a few new experiments in the near future. Keep an eye out for more fun in the world of Root Chocolate!

A chocolate shortage?

There has been a lot of news recently regarding the world chocolate shortage. Some sources are stating that there will be a 1 million MT deficit in chocolate by 2020. The ICCO denies that projection, adding that this year actually showed a 40,000 MT surplus of chocolate.

A few factors certainly could contribute to a shortage of chocolate overall in the world. Note the emphasis on overall. If we’re to take the chocolate shortage claims seriously, we must include all the factors that could contribute. According to All Day, those factors could include:

  • Environmental factors: frosty pod and dry weather in West Africa
  • Health & political factors: shutting borders between Liberia & Guinea with the Ivory Coast due to Ebola
  • Local economic factors: farmers choosing rubber instead of cacao, and farmers are aging but the younger generation has not indicated its interest in continuing to farm cacao
  • Global economic factors: increased demand in China & India: by 29%
  • Global demand factors: consumers are interested in darker chocolate, which has a higher cacao percentage

As a result of the increase in demand and decrease in supply, there are a few consequences that also could contribute to a reduction of chocolate in our lives:

  • Prices: prices would go up (basic economics), making chocolate less accessible to the general population
  • GMOs: Chocolate companies are working on synthetic cacao trees, which would be more resistant to disease but less complex in their taste
  • Chocolate substitutes: Chocolate makers may begin filling their products with more nuts, fruits, etc. rather than providing straight chocolate

Now let’s take a step back and think about how that affects bean-to-bar makers who engage in direct trade or fair trade with the farmers who produce the cacao…

The bottom line is: very little!

Harriet Lamb, CEO of Fair Trade International, writes her solution to this potential shortage in The Guardian:

To prevent a chocolate shortage, farmers need to earn a better income now… This is the critical next leap that the chocolate sector needs to make. We need to pay farmers more for their cocoa today if we want to keep them farming for tomorrow. Our very chocolate depends on it.

In other words, small batch chocolate-makers like Askinosie and SpagNvola are already working in this way and will be less affected by a potential shortage. It’s the large chocolate companies that produce chocolate in bulk who need to learn from their bean-to-bar peers. In fact, those with branch-to-bar strategies are even more convincing. If the chocolate-makers absorb a higher percentage of the cost, then farmers will be better paid and more highly incentivized to produce the best cacao they can.

There are a few caveats. This policy could end up increasing the cost of chocolate to the consumer. If so, it could lose one of the principles of Slow Food: though it would be fair to the farmer, it would not necessarily be accessible to the average consumer. Additionally, as long as the new consumers in China and India could pay for it, this policy would not quite address the increase in demand. That said, most of the bean-to-bar market already focuses on higher-end consumers, providing a higher quality product at a higher price point than mainstream chocolate bars.

So, should the conscientious bean-to-bar chocolate-maker worry about a chocolate shortage? Our answer: just a little bit. And at the same time, take advantage of this new opportunity to share the practices that could alleviate a shortage in the future and simultaneously support the farmers!

To read more about the potential chocolate shortage, see the articles below:

Chocolate Labels, Part 2

“Organic”

“Local”

“Single Origin”

“Fair Trade”

“Rainforest Alliance”

“UTZ”

“Direct Trade”

What do these all mean and which ones should you pay attention to when you’re choosing your chocolate? Good question! Some relate to labor practices, others relate to the environmental circumstances surrounding the farming.

If you’re just joining us, check out Chocolate Labels, Part 1, where we discuss Organic, Local, and Single Origin labels. You can also take a look at previous posts, here at Root Chocolate, where we cover what happens before the cocoa beans are ready to be made into chocolate: we’ve discussed where cacao farmers fit into the picture, the complications of importing cocoa beans, the benefits of slowing down our interaction with food, and the importance of supply chain, and the relevance of genetics.

Now let’s talk about the external certifications that can factor into your decisions around chocolate purchases and consumption. I’m not going to claim that one certification is better than another or that any one of these means your chocolate is sustainably produced and sourced, but let’s go into what each of them mean.

Fair Trade

This label certifies that the farmers and workers involved in creating the product are fairly compensated for their work and have favorable working conditions. The specifics of this definition differ across agencies and can, like organic certification, entail costly and time-intensive processes to adhere to. That said, the theory behind fair trade is a positive one.

For chocolate, fair trade mandates a minimum price for cocoa beans and includes components of community development and direct trade. The first chocolate bar to have the label, “fair trade” was Green & Black’s Maya Gold in 1994.

To read more about fair trade chocolate, check out the sites below:

Rainforest Alliance

“The Rainforest Alliance works to conserve biodiversity and improve livelihoods by promoting and evaluating the implementation of the most globally respected sustainability standards in a variety of fields.” The Rainforst Alliance certifications confirm that particular products are farmed and produced in a way that protects rainforest environments. Again, the cost of obtaining and maintaining this certification can be high for small farmers, but Rainforest Alliance is working to provide mutual benefit to the rainforests and the farmers.

Their work with cacao has involved supporting farmer communities by training them to conserve natural resources, protecting land and waterways by teaching farmers practices that conserve their land and plants while also productively harvesting cacao, and finally improving incomes by connecting farmers to markets that are willing to pay higher prices for certified chocolate.

To learn more, visit these sites:

UTZ

UTZ certification is specific to coffee, cocoa, and tea and was started in the late 1990s. UTZ-certified coffee, cocoa, and tea follow a set of guidelines that take a big-picture view of social, environmental, and economic issues. The Codes of Conduct require better farming methods, better working conditions, better care for nature, and better care for future generations. As a result, UTZ certification pushes toward better crops, better income, better environment, and a better life.

To learn more, check out these sites:

Direct Trade

The simplest definition of direct trade is when a chocolate-maker buys cocoa beans directly from a cacao farmer. Some say this method is the most fair and sustainable – better than fair trade certification (which costs the farmers money). However, it does not necessarily account for the environment or the complications that arise from importing beans directly from cacao farmers. Some recent articles from Yes Magazine and Relevant Magazine go into more depth on the subject of direct trade for cocoa beans.

In January of 2012, a group of chocolate-makers, cacao farmers, and chocolate industry gurus visited Honduran Island, Guanaja, and founded the membership-only group, Direct Cacao, which is dedicated to giving “a voice to chocolate makers, chocolatiers, independent tasters and other in the chocolate industry working with and supporting directly sourced fine cacao, and to the cacao growers supplying the cacao.”

For more information on some of the chocolate makers who use direct trade, check out the links below:


As you can tell, there are many labels and many options. Make your own informed decision about what makes you feel connected to the root of your chocolate and other food!

For more articles on these and other labels that could affect your consumer chocolate choices, check out the links below:

Chocolate Labels, Part 1

“Organic”

“Local”

“Single Origin”

“Fair Trade”

“Rainforest Alliance”

“UTZ”

“Direct Trade”

What do these all mean and which ones should you pay attention to when you’re choosing your chocolate? Good question! Some relate to labor practices, others relate to the environmental circumstances surrounding the farming.

Here at Root Chocolate, we’ve discussed where cacao farmers fit into the picture, the complications of importing cocoa beans, the benefits of slowing down our interaction with food, and the importance of supply chain, and the relevance of genetics. Now let’s talk about the external certifications that can factor into your decisions around chocolate purchases and consumption.

I’m not going to claim that one certification is better than another or that any one of these means your chocolate is sustainably produced and sourced, but let’s go into what each of them mean.

Organic

“The organic standards describe the specific requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled USDA organic. Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” Read more about the definition on the National Organic Program page of the USDA.

There are quite a few regulations involved in obtaining and maintaining this certification, including fees, inspections, and a waiting period, among others. The processes can be onerous for very small family farms, which is where most fine chocolate is grown. That said, many small farms refrain from using expensive pesticides and are considered “de facto” organic, even if they do not have official certification.

Learn more about organic chocolate and organic processes here:

Local

Eating local chocolate is a difficult concept for those of us who do not live within 20 degrees of the equator. Cocoa beans traditionally come from tropical places close to the equator. The only US state that naturally produces cacao is Hawaii. For chocolate to truly be local, its beans must grow in the same place as the chocolate production, which would all be the same place as the consumer taking that delicious bite of chocolate. You can find truly local chocolate at a few places, including the following:

Alternatively, you can buy chocolate from local chocolate-makers, even though the cocoa beans may come from halfway around the world. For example, if you live in Portland, Oregon, buy local chocolate from Cocanu, Woodblock, Treehouse Chocolate, Pitch Dark, or Mana Chocolate.

Single Origin

Single origin chocolate is another label that you may find on your favorite chocolate bar. This means that the cocoa beans that constitute the bar you’re eating all come from the same country. They may even come from the same region or co-op or farm, but those parts are not guaranteed. Remember that the genetics vary even within the same cocoa pod? Well, there’s also wide variety among beans from a single country, not to mention region.

Valhrona made this concept popular more than two decades ago. The trend is still going strong! In fact, one of our favorite chocolate-makers, Dandelion, makes purely single origin bars. The logic behind single origin bars comes from the concept of terrior, borrowed from the wine industry. Beans take on a flavor based on the environment in which they grew, fermented, and dried.

Learn more about single origin chocolate here:

Look for Chocolate Labels, Part 2, coming out later this week, where we’ll go into depth about Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, and Direct Trade!

Where do cacao farmers fit in?

Most chocolate consumers don’t consider where their chocolate is coming from. Those of you reading this blog are already ahead of your peers, because you’re educating yourself about the process, about what it takes to bring those tasty bars of chocolate to your tongue.

Even then, the majority of what I’ve covered so far involves the processing end of chocolate, once it’s considered cocoa. However, there’s a whole world of chocolate that occurs before the beans are hard and dry. That’s the world of the cacao farmers. I’ve discussed the importance of knowing the supply chain of your food, and the concept of slow food. It’s also important to consider the individuals who plant the cacao trees, cut down the cacao pods, and open them up to ferment and dry the cacao beans.

Recently, a video of a cacao farmer tasting chocolate for the first time went viral. The video was produced by Dutch news outlet, Metropolis. NPR covers the story focusing on the divide between producers and consumers. Metropolis also covered the other end of the story: what Dutch chocolate consumers feel and know about the plant their chocolate came from.

A few chocolate-makers are already paying close attention to the farmers, incorporating them into their decision-making process, and ensuring that their voices are included at the table of the chocolate industry. For example, SPAGnVOLA in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is a vertically integrated chocolate business. They own their own farm in the Dominican Republic and control every part of chocolate production, from branch to bar. I highly recommend taking a look at their single estate system and impressive impact strategy. Eric Reid, CEO and Founder, explains his strategy on a visit to Nigeria here.

Additionally, Askinosie Chocolate in Springfield, Missouri, provides one of my favorite models for a chocolate company. They practice direct trade (something we’d love to do here at Root Chocolate). They also incorporate the farmers they work with in their financial decisions with a strategy they call “a stake in the outcome,” and provide community development support through “a product of change.” Shawn Askinosie also operates Chocolate University, teaching local kids the ins and outs of chocolate and leads trips to Tanzania to share the chocolate journey with those who produce the chocolate in the first place. Shawn gave a commencement address to Missouri State University in December 2011 that still gives me chills.

We’d love to meet these exemplary leaders in the chocolate industry some day! Both Eric Reid and Shawn Askinosie consider the well-being of the cacao farmers just as important as the rest of the chocolate-making process. And frankly, chocolate wouldn’t happen without them, so we agree!

In a recent conversation with Yellow Seed about importing cocoa beans as a network of chocolate makers, an interesting idea came up. What if, just like we chocolate-makers choose which farmers or co-ops to source our beans from, the farmers themselves have the chance to decide which chocolate-makers to sell their beans to? In other words, why not provide some agency to the farmers in the process?

In this world of international trade, inequality, and scarcity, I’m still working out how to best incorporate the interests and voices of the cacao farmers into the chocolate we produce. Thankfully, there are leaders in the industry like SPANgVOLA and Askinosie. If you have additional ideas, please feel free to comment below!