Cacao in the Guatemalan Heartlands

It was both a pleasure and a privilege to meet with Emily Stone, a pioneer in the cocoa industry and founder of American-based cocoa bean brokers Uncommon Cacao. During our travels through Guatemala, we were lucky enough to join Emily and her team at Cacao Verapaz – one of the majority-farmer-owned subsidiaries of Uncommon Cacao – for two days during their aptly named ‘Guatemala Chocolate Week’. We were also lucky enough to find (possibly) the world’s largest cacao pod!!

Surely a contender for the world’s largest cacao pod?

After a truly epic storm of biblical proportions the night before, there followed one hilariously bumpy tuk tuk ride, down through the lush jungle surroundings of Semuc Champey, along dirt tracks no vehicle should have been able to pass; to Finca Chimelb, one of the largest and most technically advanced cacao farms in Guatemala.

We spend the morning with the owner of Finca Chimelb, his wife and team, learning the meticulous step-by-step process right from optimal soil preparation, agroforestry  and clone creation to fermentation, drying, sorting and packing. All overseen by the strict quality control processes they have put in place, ensuring only the finest Guatemalan cacao beans actually leave their farm gates to chocolate makers.

Chilling with the owner of Finca Chimelb

Finca Chimelb are infectiously passionate about what they do, and only too keen to show us all round; making it known how incredibly grateful they are to be working with Emily and Uncommon, in order to supply the best cacao that they can to the market. But this achievement is not without its challenges; they are proud to be paying the second highest salary to their farmers in all of Central America, second only to Costa Rica, and 40% more than the average Guatemalan wage. When they pay their workers more than Chile, Colombia, Mexico, this means they must charge their customers more; as a result, it is hard to strike a balance of being fair to their farmers and a competitive producer in the market. They don’t turn as much profit from the cocoa as they would like, and so grow other crops across the farm to provide additional income streams that become profitable at different times including; coffee, cardamom, banana and rubber trees, the latter also providing a fantastic perimeter fence around their farm, and acting as shade trees to protect the cacao.

Each farmer is so proud of their work and eager to share their experiences with us
Fresh cardamom growing along the forest floor

Such a variety of different crops makes them a perfect example of an agroforestry farm, this blend of agriculture and forestry management results in successful soil maintenance, replenishing its nutrient levels in as natural a way as possible. To support optimal soil health they record nutrient levels in samples of soil DNA, recreate the beneficial ones in a lab and blend into the soil, essentially creating a natural fertiliser. To combat nutrient loss from rain, they use bacteria to help the roots absorb more nutrients, and that, combined with a consistently high water table as a result of good annual rainfall, means the trees can put down solid roots and there is no need to truck in water for irrigation from afar.

But now what to plant in the nutrient rich, well drained, and shaded soil? In addition to their market leading agroforestry farming models, Finca Chimelb also produce a wide variety of cacao clones; cloning some local plants and also creating hybrids with some ‘catia’ varieties from Costa Rica, resulting in a hefty portion of their cacao crop being a Trinitario ‘mixito’ or blend. They have even propagated cacao strains that are self-pollinators. The latter, although exciting, is saddening and, for me at least, a real wake up call to the intertwined plight of pollinators and farmers in crop production, as the owner of Finca Chimelb explains ‘…the wasp [midge] does not fly to pollinate from one plant to the other any more, so we must plant self-pollinating…’.

Self-pollinating plants become more important with the reduction of natural pollinators

Harvest is also meticulously controlled; sometimes the seeds are left to rest in string bags up on the hills, where some of the excess liquid can run off and be collected overnight, before the seeds are transferred to the pallets. They have found this technique best at ensuring the cacao drains as effectively as possible, thus ensuring the optimal fermentation rate. Then, as soon as the beans come down and have been left on the pallets to drain overnight, they are transferred to wooden boxes first thing in the morning to take advantage of the heat of the day. To maximise heat retention the ceiling of the fermentation ‘shed’ is kept very low and is made of plastic, with little air flow inside, all boxes of cacao are covered with jute bags and banana leaves (stems chopped off and white side down so the yeast of the leaves can help the bacteria thrive, thus adding to the musty heat inside the shed- mmm, delicious!).

Draining the cacao in string bags
Banana leaves are added on top of the cacao to speed fermentation

The fermentation boxes have been designed in a particular way to simplify processing; rather than having to move the cacao all the way down a line of boxes, they have been designed with removable slats so top beans can be pushed straight to the bottom of the next box, with the bottom beans of the first box scooped over the top. Once it’s time to turn the beans again they can be transferred back to the first box, using the same process in reverse. To prevent transfer or undesirable odours, palo blanco and San Juan wood is used for the fermentation boxes, given the wood has little smell or sap that could interfere with the subtle and delicate notes of the cacao.

Cut tests are performed frequently throughout the fermentation process, to check the fermentation status, here they are looking for; fissures to ensure acetic acid is really penetrating throughout the beans, a change in colour – especially in the juice from the cacao while it is fermenting – changing from purple to brown as fermentation goes on, here the bean often begins turning brown as well. The third thing they look for during fermentation is that the little ‘radical’ or embryo within the cacao bean has died’ bad news for the bean, but good news for chocolate lovers. If a cut test has revealed all the above, then cacao will be at around 70% fermentation and time to pull out of the box.

Cut tests are an essential part of good quality control processses

After around six to seven days – once the cacao has reached around 75% overall fermentation rate – the fermentation process is done and the cacao is packed onto drying racks, made of the same type of wood as the boxes are, wood that grows on the farm. At FC they have found that drying is an incredible part of developing the flavour and the aroma of the beans, and have become very focused in particular on slow drying the cacao down to 7.2% humidity, a process lasting around five days that helps reduce acidity and astringency in the beans. The cacao is spread in a layer of 5cm, allowing for it to dry slowly but consistently, beans are raked every 30 minutes to prevent any kind of mold from growing.

The ideal humidity reading for cacao at Finca Chimelb is 7.2%

As soon as the cacao has dried enough it is transferred to the packing facility. Here they look for any beans that are stuck together or broken, and any other stray or foreign objects that shouldn’t be there – basically anything that isn’t a cacao bean. And you’d be surprised the amount of unusual objects chocolate makers have found in sacks of beans delivered to them from different suppliers over the years; including stones, rusty nails, nuts, bolts, twigs, a prosthetic limb and a machete. Understandably, Finca Chimelb are very keen to not add to this list!

The finest beans will then be selected to become ‘grade A’ beans, with the rest become grade B. Once all selected and separated, they are put in a controlled area to make sure that there is no change to the humidity levels in the beans, and from here they are carried up to the warehouse. The amazing thing about Finca Chimelb is that each stage of each process is held in equally high regard and treated with as much meticulous care as the other. And it doesn’t just end there, every single lot of beans that comes out of the warehouse is reassessed with every single sack having a cut test done; 100 beans per load for each line, so if there are five sacks then the assessor will pick 20 beans from each sack.

Sacks of cacao ready to leave the warehouse
Sacks of cacao ready to leave the warehouse

Product is then taken to market in several tonnes in a big truck, and strict quality control processes continue from warehouse to buyer. They are very proud of their control and traceability checks, and it’s clear they know and appreciate how important it is for their customers to have ‘clean’, well processed, sustainable, flavourful beans. Each bag from each of the loads is tracked all the way through the whole process, and it starts right back to the beginning from which field, even which row of trees, right down to the tree itself that the beans are from. So if there is a problem they can trace it back.

As a result, 80% is export or quality cacao, with the remainder being sold into the local market, ensuring they can diversify their offering and supply the local community with the sacred cacao many still use in their traditional drinks, recipes and spiritual ceremonies.

Guatemalan cacao drinking cups

And this reminder of the spiritual connection many Guatemalans still have with cacao is the perfect closure to an amazing day on Finca Chimelb; after exploring the farm, and sharing their joy of success with their fine flavour cacao being exported around the world, we are invited to take part in a Mayan blessing and consume some of that sacred cacao drink, produced directly there on the farm as they invite us to share a traditional Guatemalan family lunch with them where all the produce they cook has been grown or reared on the farm, consumed in the shade of their rubber trees, against the backdrop of a sprawling, healthy and much-loved cacao forest.

Mayan ceremony
Mayan farmers preparing the feast to share with us

Photos (unless otherwise stated) courtesy of my ever supportive partner Sam, without whom I would be photographically lost.

Author: ellecoco

A buckaneering chocolatier, fuelled by chocolate, powered by adventure...

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