Latest Followers:

Jonathan Steiner The Chocolate Club HK Keith Ayoob Jason Mancillas beth campbell Ernesto Bugarin Pantua Jr. Preston Stewart Kim Kingston LUV Ice Cream Steven Appleton chocolatesage Clay Gordon Thomas Forbes Michael Nickel Giuseppe Di Chiano albertdifonzo 888 ikkedus vivaciouslyvictoria tk20 highlandproductfinder Amber Stoby ben-picton laur705


Chocoa 2017 Prologue

By Clay Gordon, 2017-02-20
Chocoa 2017 Prologue

I am getting ready to head to the airport tomorrow afternoon to travel to Amsterdam for Cocoa 2017.

I am going to be moderating both days of the Chocolate Makers Forum, so part of my preparation is thinking about the program and what my I want to achieve. Last week I had a conversation about the Chocolate Makers Forum program with Caroline Lubbers, one of Chocoa’s main organizers. Some of that discussion was about the wording of the program description and some of it was what the goals of a session might be. We also talked about the speaker list and how the Forum would be moderated.

It took some persuasion (not a whole lot, really, but some) to convince the organizers to let me moderate the entire program.

I don’t know how other people approach their duties as a moderator, but I definitely believe that my roles as a moderator are more than just introducing the speakers and making sure that things move along and stay on time.

My reasons for wanting to moderate the entire program include providing continuity and connection. By being an active participant in each session I can, by interjecting observations and questions, provide a through-line for the entire program. This is especially valuable, at least in my experience, when attendees miss a session for one reason or another, because I can help bridge gaps.

In past program where I have not been the moderator I routinely ask to go last. When that is allowed, almost I never prepare remarks in advance, or if I do, I only fill up half the time. What I do is listen to what has been said and then seek to summarize what I think are the key points as brought up by the other speakers.

As the moderator of the Chocolate Makers’ Forum at Cocoa next week on thing I want to do is get people to think about diversity in a slightly different way by suggesting that all kinds of monocultures, not just agricultural monocultures, are bad ideas.

Examples of possible monocultures in chocolate include monocultures of ideas, production pathways, and even types of chocolate. 

One of the strengths of Chocoa is that it encourages diversity of ideas and does so, in part, by involving actors from every facet of cocoa and chocolate, from farmers to small makers to industrial giants, from banks to brokers to scientists and researchers and sustainability experts to logistics companies and the companies that provide equipment to makers of all sizes. And it does so in the atmosphere of openness and collaboration that has been one of the hallmarks of the extended cocoa and chocolate family (sometimes I find it difficult to use ‘chocolate industry’ in this context, because it’s so much more).

I am looking forward to Chocoa next week and seeing many of you there.

:: Clay

Buying Chocolate to gift for Valentine’s Day - or any other

Valentine’s Day is one of the most popular occasions for gifting chocolate. And, yet, many people pay surprising little attention to what they buy. If it’s in a red, heart-shaped box, and it costs more than $20 it has to be good, right?

Maybe not? Where did you get that box and how much thought did you put into purchasing it? Was it a last minute purchase from a drug store on your way to dinner – because it slipped your mind? If so, it’s not likely to deliver the message or impact you want.

Chocolate is known for its ability to forge strong emotional connections and memories and the best way to gift chocolate, for Valentine’s Day or any other day, is to recognize that and work with it. A nice two-piece box that you thought about can say a lot more than the boxed assortment you picked up in a chain store - even if it’s a chocolate chain store.

Buying chocolate for someone you know

The key point to remember is that the gift is about them, it’s not about you. Never buy something you know the recipient does not like.

Buying a boxed assortment says that you punted on thinking; the choice was more about convenience or quantity or price, not quality. When you walk into the store, go to the case (no case? you are not in the right store), and tell the person behind the counter that you’re buying chocolate for a gift - and that the recipient really likes the following flavors. Then ask what they have that matches what you know the recipient likes. If there are five that might work and the choice is either a four-piece box or a nine-piece box, go for four.

Take your time deciding which four and remember the reasons why you chose the ones you did. Then, when you present the box, tell the story about buying it … being presented with so many options and having to make choices and then connecting your reasons for purchasing with something you know, like, or admire about the person … or connect it to a shared experience.

Or maybe the person you’re gifting to is really adventurous when it comes to eating. A selection that is composed of unusual flavors (which you might not like) could be a big hit as it would acknowledge their desire to explore new flavor combinations.

What you’re doing by selecting a gift this way is showing that you thought about the process and the person who the gift is for - while also revealing what it is about the recipient that either attracts you or that you admire, and you’re looking to establish, or reinforce, a strong emotional connection.

That four-piece box selected with care will get you many more props than a larger boxed assortment – even from the same store — unless, of course, you know that the recipient is a fan of a particular brand of boxed assortment chocolates from childhood. Then by all means gift one of those. What’s important is that the gift reflects your understanding of what the recipient likes and values.

Buying chocolate for someone you don’t know

This advice is mostly for selecting chocolate for someone you’d like to get to know better, and it’s basically the inverse of the advice for buying for someone else.

Approach the case and ask the person behind the counter if they have flavors that are what you like, or that you have a special connection with – maybe something from childhood. Select those and be prepared to tell stories about what the pieces mean to you: why you selected them. By sharing the stories behind the chocolate you tell the recipient a lot about yourself. Hopefully in a way that is totally endearing. This is what you want.

For example, growing up in Southern California, we would gift my mother a box of See’s Victoria English Toffee – a childhood favorite of hers from growing up in LA in the 1920s and 1930s – on Christmas Eve. If I were gifting chocolate to someone I wanted to get to know better I would definitely include a piece of toffee covered in dark chocolate and sprinkled with roasted almond pieces and tell a story about the ceremony around gifting the box, my mother unwrapping it, and then sharing the box around so everyone got a piece.

Still don’t know what to gift?

If the gift is for someone you are romantically involved with (or want to declare those intentions) - you simply cannot go wrong by selecting nicely decorated heart-shaped pieces with a filling flavored with passionfruit. Two - one for each of you. And you’ll find that a nice rosé or Prosecco is a tasty pairing.

A great technique when you’re gifting for a boss or other colleague is to go into the store and ask the person behind the case what the most popular items are - what sells best is also often the freshest. You can ask them their favorites, as well, and I sometimes ask to be pointed out a selection that they think represents the best work they do. Pick an unusual flavor - something you might never buy on your own but that is really popular. You could even buy one for yourself (packed separately) and then suggest you both eat the piece at the same time and figure out whether you like it or not.

And in closing ...

Whatever you do, make it fun. If it involves chocolate and you are not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Nature vs Nurture in Cocoa

By Clay Gordon, 2017-01-14
Nature vs Nurture in Cocoa

There is a lot of discussion and interest on this point: what are the contributions of genetics, terroir, and post-harvest processing when it comes to the flavor of cocoa (and how chocolate gets its taste).

Let’s conduct a thought experiment to examine the complexity of looking for answers.

Imagine that you have the ability to plant grafted seedlings from the same mother tree on 1Ha of land in two very different locations - different altitudes, different soils, different rain and wind patterns, different slopes so even the pattern of the sun is different. These differences related to place are what we think of as terroir.

We would imagine - and would expect based on our experience with other crops - that the fresh cocoa beans, and maybe event the fresh pulp, would taste different. The genetics of the tree are modified by the terroir.

However, we don’t eat fresh cocoa beans as a general rule. They are fermented. In order to test the relative contributions of genetics, terroir, and post-harvest processing we need to control for all of the variables.

Going back to the above scenario with exactly the same genetics planted in two different places.

If the post-harvest practices between the two places are different - the resulting beans will taste different. And even if the post-harvest practices are substantially the same, differences in the presence and relative dominance of yeast and bacteria strains play a part in flavor development. What’s the more important contributing factor here? Genetics? Terroir (and this includes microbiology, not just factors we can see and taste and experience physically)? Fermentation? Drying?

To find out, it is necessary to be able to control fermentation and drying precisely enough to be able to understand their influences. And this means applying science, rigorously.

Based on my experience working with Ingemann in Nicaragua and with Zoi Paplexandratou on my project down in Mexico, it is possible to take the same genetics and terroir and generate very different flavors consistently. You can see this in the Friis-Holm double turn and triple-turn Chunos. The same variety and the same overall length of fermentation, the primary difference is that one pile gets turned twice and another gets turned three times. Ingemann has expanded on this concept and now markets Chunos (i.e., the same genetics) with six different flavor profiles. The differences are created by differences in fermentation protocols, which are in turn driven by an understanding of the microbiology and chemistry underlying what’s going on. And, our understanding of fermentation is much better developed than drying.

And this is before we event start talking about other confounding factors, one of which is the presence of other varieties of cacao within pollination range - now known to be 3km. If the varieties close to one of the two areas are different from the varieties in the other, then there is the possibility that differences in pollination could be a part of the difference in flavor. Is that genetics? Terroir? What? Another confounding factor is the introduction of tailored cultures. (BTW, everything that Ingemann is doing in production is done with naturally-present yeasts and bacteria not the introduction of cultures.)

In some places, “pre-fermentation” techniques are implemented. One such technique is resting pods between harvesting and opening. In other places, “pre-drying” techniques are implemented. One such technique is to put the beans in sacks after fermentation is complete and letting them sit in the sacks overnight. IMO this is another fermentation step, not a drying step because there is little to no moisture loss in the beans and temperatures in the center of the bag may still be elevated.

In my mind, it’s impossible to say reliably that beans of the same genetics grown in different places will have the same basic flavor profile ... unless the basic microbiology and post-harvest protocols are substantially the same. The same genetics, planted in different places, subject to different post-harvest processes should have recognizable differences in flavors (that will result in chocolate with different flavors even when processed substantially the same way).

I am working on a project proposal for #CacaoMEX in Central America right now (ahoritita!) and one sub-project is to run an in-situ test with the same variety (grafted monoculture) in different locations to increase our understanding of the nature/nurture question as it applies to cocoa.

Posted in: CacaoMEX | 0 comments

Project Grijalva - 2016 Report

By Clay Gordon, 2016-12-04
Project Grijalva - 2016 Report

Back in April, I wrote a blog post about a project in Mexico I started working on: Cacao Grijalva. I won't go into much background here - that's covered in the post and I encourage you to read that before continuing.

I returned from Villahermosa a couple of days ago and I this is an update of the work we did in 2016.

The work of the project involved:

  • Contributing to the formal Denominacion de Origen for Cacao Grijalva.
  • Working with dozens of producers, from small farmers through beneficiadores to the UNPC, the cocoa producers union representing 10 co-ops and over half the small farmers in Tabasco.
  • Working with research and educational institutes, from the national agricultural research station (INIFAP) to the National University in Tabasco (UJAT) and local technical institutes in Sierra, Villahermosa, and Comalcalco.
  • Coordinating with federal, state, and local government agencies.
  • Searching for endemic cacao varieties and cacao varieties in production.
  • Selecting candidates to develop improved fermentation protocols.
  • Developing those protocols, and document and disseminate them.
  • Organizing a contest for the best cacao in Tabasco.
  • Promoting our work in Tabasco within Tabasco.
  • Promoting our work internationally to grow awareness of, and interest in buying and using, cocoa from Grijalva.


The first thing I had to do, in the process of writing the initial proposal, was to assemble a team to do the work. In fact, this was the first step, as I needed their assistance to produce a budget and schedule. To keep the budget within a reasonable range, the team I gathered was small (a total of five, including me):

  • Zoi Papalexandratou (Brussels, Belgium). I first met Zoi while working with Ingemann in Nicaragua. Besides earning one of the few PhDs in cacao fermentation in the world, Zoi probably has more experience in "technified" fermentation in production in the world, outside - maybe - of multinationals. Zoi is in charge of all the scientific and technical aspects of the project.
  • Elisa Montiel (Puebla, Mexico). Elisa sources cocoa and vanilla for Maison Bonnat in over 50 countries around the world. That experience, coupled with her knowledge of Mexican cocoa through her work in Chiapas, and being a native, provides the team with a unique perspective on local and international markets and quality. Elisa is in charge of locating and documenting endemic cocoas and is the project's liaison with chocolate makers internationally.
  • Alejandro Campos (Comalcalco, Mexico). Alejandro and his wife Ana Parizot own Hacienda La Luz, a working cacao farm and chocolate tourism destination in Comalcalco as well as Wolter Chocolates, a working chocolate factory on the Hacienda since 1958. Alejandro and Ana have been active in local, state, and federal governments for decades and originally proposed the Festival del Chocolate. Alejandro, who is also the president of the Consejo Regulador del Cacao Grijalva (the group in charge of figuring out how to implement the Denominacion de Origen and with enforcing its use)  is the project's liaison with the farmers, producers, and government agencies (and chefs - we eat very well).
  • Oscar Romero (Puebla, Mexico). Oscar owns Pixtlan, an award-winning branding and promotions agency in Puebla. His team has created the logo for CacaoMEX, produced several videos for the project, taken thousands of photos, and developed the CacaoMEX web site and other aspects of the project's Internet presence.
  • Clay Gordon (New York, USA). I provide overall project management and guidance for the project. I develop the project proposals and budgets as well as produce and present progress reports to the government agencies funding the project - SEDAFOP (the Ministry of Agriculture) and SDET (the Ministry of Development, Economics, and Tourism) - and work on marketing and promotions.

The above team has strong and overlapping professional and personal networks that can be called upon to provide services and give advice as needed.

The need for a CacaoMEX brand arose out of the desire to provide a symbol that would provide farmers, producers, buyers, and consumers with additional trust in the cocoa being produced and exported by the project. This additional layer of trust is especially valuable while the rules for implementing the Denominacion are being developed, a process that is estimated will take two years, if not longer.

Denominacion de Origen Cacao Grijalva

Mexico has over a dozen denominacions, but only two that are active and successful: mezcal and tequila.

There are very few denominations for cocoa in the world - arguably two: Chuao and Arriba. Both of these suffer from two very real problems from a commercialization perspective: 1) the definitions are not adequate; and 2) they are not well enforced. Thus, the meaning (and value) of the terms are diluted. The reason that only 2 of the 14 denominations in Mexico are successful is that in the other 12 have poorly-defined implementation rules, making it extremely difficult for producers to register their products.

Mindful of past failures, IMPI and the Consejo Regulador del Cacao Grijalva are working hard to ensure that this does not happen to Cacao Grijalva. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of politics involved.

First off is the fact that cacao is grown in only four of the thirty-one states (plus a federal district) in Mexico. While important culturally, Mexico is a net importer of cocoa (producing only about one-third of its needs), making it less important to the country overall than other products.

Next is the name of the denomination itself: Grijalva. The Rio Grijalva originates in Chiapas and flows through Tabasco, joining the Rio Usumacinta before adding its water to the Caribbean. Put bluntly, the governments and people of Tabascao and Chiapas are not on the friendliest terms. Our project, and the push to create the DO itself, are overseen by the government of Tabasco. Chiapas has not (yet) agreed to support the work financially or politically.

Now that the NOMs (the political framework) have been announced it is up to the Consejo to figure out how to implement them. But there is one twist - cacaos can only be included in the denomination if they are in federal register of approved varieties. This makes a lot of sense, and it is the technical/legal underpinning for ensuring that Tequila can only be made with Weber Blue agave. The Mezcal denomination allows for the use of many other varieties of agave, but each and every one must be in the approved register. This will also be the case for the DO for cocoa. Only approved varieties will be able to use the Grijalva DO. Problem is, at the moment there is only one! INIFAP is working to register another 15-20 in 2017 and the CacaoMEX team will be recommending other varieties we find in production for adding to the registry in 2018.

We also supplied technical input to IMPI with respect to grading standards and possible naming structures. Recognizing the economic importance of cacao lavado (the unfermented, washed cocoa that forms the bulk of what is produced in Tabasco) our recommendations to IMPI included lavado as one of the classifications within the DO. As a part of the naming structure, we also recommended that the technified fermentation protocols we are developing be incorporated as a further sign of quality, on top of the grading standards themselves.

There is a huge amount of work to be done over the course of the next couple if years, and I am excited about the thought of contributing to the process for what will probably the first meaningful, enforceable, DO in cocoa.

Concurso Premios Grijalva

Holding a contest for the best cacao in Tabasco was a key conceptual part of the project from the very beginning. It provided a reason and a framework for all of the other work of the project: improving - and recognizing - quality cocoa and producers (farmers and beneficiadores).

We used the guidelines created for the Cocoa of Excellence Awards as the basis for the project and established several web presences (including one here on TheChocolateLife) to promote the contest as well as mentioning to every farmer, beneficiado, and anyone and everyone else we visited on our visits down there. Unfortunately, the late start to the project meant that the cocoa we collected was not from the main harvest, and this undoubtedly affected the quality of the cocoa.

Nonetheless, we collected a dozen samples in September to be judged (the minimum number we hoped to collect). The contributors were mostly beneficiadores, which was to be expected because of their greater resources. Nonetheless we had five samples from three smaller producers, which included two samples from an independent farmer. Four of the entries were from producers with whom we have been working on preliminary fermentation protocols.

Bean samples were sent to Seguine Cacao Services (Ed Seguine, the same lab that produces samples for the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund and the Cocoa of Excellence) for processing into liquor and chocolate for judging.

The judging itself was held on the last day of Festival, mostly because some of the judges were coming from the US and did not even arrive in Villahermosa until Saturday. If there is one aspect of the contest I would change is the timing of the judging. We were literally compiling the results an hour before the winners were to be announced, at the closing ceremony for the Festival.

We were lucky to have a great panel of judges for the initial Concurso:

  • Maria Salvadora Jiménez from Daarnhouwer – a specialty brokerage firm located in Holland.
  • Sophie Vandebecken of Caméleon – an award-winning confectioner in Mexico.
  • Gaby Ruiz of Gourmet MX – widely considered to be one of the top chefs in one of the top restaurants in Villahermosa (and all of Mexico).
  • Christopher Curtin of Éclat Chocolate - perhaps most notorious for working with chefs Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain on the Good and Evil bar and with over a dozen years' experience classical training in Europe.
  • Stéphane Bonnat – who should need no introduction in this forum.
  • Zoi Papalexandratou
  • Elisa Montiel

Alejandro and I oversaw the logistics of the judging process, so we did not judge.

In the end, the jury selected three winners, the first two from beneficiadores – Industrias Serranas and Le Crema de Cacao. Third place was awarded to Hacienda Jésus Maria (Vicente Gutiérrez Cacep) and well–known farmer and chocolate maker. Fourth place (and out of the awards) was awarded to the small independent producer.

The Concurso was a success at most levels, though there were some glass-half-full responses from people who wanted to know why more small farmers were not represented. We certainly worked hard to get small farmers to enter, but many were not interested in a first-year contest. We hope to attract more in 2017.

The Concurso is having its desired effect: the overall winner (Industrias Serranas) realized that even though they won this year, that did not mean anything for next year. Alberto Andrade, the owner, plans to show the certificate to all the farmers from whom he buys to let them know that winning this Concurso is just a beginning and that they must work to continuously improve quality if they are going to place in future Concursos. This is the attitude and spirit the award is meant to engender.

The prize for winning the Concurso this year is to shepherd the winners to the Mexican national organizing committee for the Cocoa of Excellence Awards for 2017.

Marketing, Promotion, Education, and Chocolate Tourism

One lesson I learned from my visits to Peru for the Salon del Cacao y Chocolate in 2013–2015 is that there is little use in growing the quantity and quality of cocoa in production if there is no work being done to find buyers for that cocoa at the same time. That is part of the thinking behind bringing international guests from the US and Europe (Maria, Christopher, and Stéphane). A major project goal is to increase international awareness and interest in the cocoa the project is working on - as well as the pride Tabasqueños feel about their cocoa and how international markets see them.

CacaoMEX shared a stand at The Big Chocolate Show in New Work with Wolter Chocolates, made two presentations about the project at the Origin Chocolate event in Amsterdam, and was on the conference program at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris. That conference program was led by CacaoMEX team member Elisa Welti, and featured Stéphane Bonnat, who produced chocolate bars from a bag of beans supplied by one of the producers who submitted an entry into the Concurs (but did not win).

The conference at the Salon in Paris was standing room only and attendees got to the taste the first bar of chocolate produced from beans from project cocoa. This chocolate was met with overwhelming interest and the team has fielded requests from many top chocolate makers in France and elsewhere in Europe and the US for beans when they become available. CacaoMEX will be working with small producers and beneficiados to supply this cocoa in the upcoming harvest, using fermentation protocols developed by the team.

During Festival, the CacaoMEX team helped organize a series of talks on cacao fino and the project. These talks could be attended by anyone attending the Festival, not just farmers and cocoa professionals. Topics ranged from fermentation to the place and importance of biodiversity in cacao agriculture to international markets, to a free-ranging talk by Mr Bonnat. Making the work output of the project available is an important part of the project and we will be publishing PDF versions of the presentations as well as videos over the course of the upcoming weeks and months.

Finally, we organized a full-day excursion for our international invited guests to visit the INIFAP research station in Huimangillo, Tabasco, cacao farmers, and to have a lunch with local staple foods. Joining us was Pepe Nieves, ex-minister of Tourism for Tabasco and a current cacao farmer. Of course, we ran long at INIFAP so we did not get to visit all the cacao farmers we wanted to, but the director of cacao research at INIFAP conducted a tasting of some of the varieties they are working on getting into production.

Two of the varieties, known only as 14 and 33 at the moment, hold a great deal of promise as they are examples of the holy trinity of cacao:

  • They are highly productive varieties.
  • They are highly disease resistant varieties - particularly monilia which has cut production in Tabasco by 50% over the past decade, and mancha negra (black pod).
  • The show great promise as cacao fino varieties according to Mr Bonnat, who participated in the tasting.

INIFAP is looking at putting both of those varieties into production into 2017 (and making sure they are in the federal register for the purposes of the Denominacion de Origen), and CacaoMEX will be working with INIFAP to create a program to propagate twigs for grafting in two different nurseries in Tabasco. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of these twigs will be given to INIFAP to help fund ongoing research.

Lunch on Monday was held on the veranda of Hacienda la Luz, and featured fresh corn tortillas, cochinita pibil, potato puree with chorizo, seasoned arroz (rice), mole poblano w/ shredded chicken, rajas (peppers) con crema, and garnishes. To drink were pozol (finely ground corn meal with cocoa powder in water, unsweetened), horchata, and jamaica (hibiscus tea). Typically, an unsweetened pozol is consumed with candied fruits, which in this case included candied royal lemon and black papaya. Though we also had meals in two of the top restaurants in Villahermosa, this meal of comida tipica y criolla on the veranda of an old hacienda, was, hands down, the standout meal of the entire trip.

On Tuesday, we were lucky enough to persuade Pepe to host a tour of Parque Museo La Venta, the most important Olmec museum in the region, for our guests, followed up by a tour through the local market for lunch. The CacaoMEX team spent the time meeting in a conference room at the hotel, going over business prior to having a final meeting with the Minister of Development, Economics, and Tourism to close the books on 2016 and start the planning for 2017 before Zoi, Elisa, and I - departed.

In Conclusion

We accomplished a lot, but as in many projects, what we did manage to achieve only revealed how much more work there is to do in the years ahead. In 2017 the CacaoMEX team will:

  • Continue to work developing fermentation protocols.
  • Conduct another Concurso.
  • Engage with more farmers to process cocoa that can be sold to the chocolate makers who have expressed interest.
  • Work to support the Denominacion.
  • Work with INIFAP to get at least two new interesting new cacaos into production (you will be able to support those efforts through a crowdfunding campaign we are contemplating).
  • Work to expand the mini-forum at Festival into a much larger regional technical/academic meeting.
  • Continue to promote the work at international festivals.
  • Engage with international professionals to get them to come down to Tabasco during Festival (which, unfortunately for people from the US, happens over the course of the Thanksgiving weekend – which is why we're looking at working with the Tourism ministry to create special family-oriented tourism packages; I had a great Thanksgiving celebration on this trip).
  • And ... start to expand our work outside of Mexico. Already we have been approached to take the framework we developed for Tabasco and adapt it to work in three different countries in Central and South America.

And finally ...

Between now and Christmas I will be creating a series of photo albums with images from all of our trips. I will link to them in the comments section of this post. If you have any questions about the project please do not hesitate to ask them in the comments section and I will be happy to reply.

:: Clay

Posted in: CacaoMEX | 2 comments

Frontiers of Science in Cacao Symposium

By Clay Gordon, 2016-06-05
Frontiers of Science in Cacao Symposium

The 30th anniversary of the cacao lab at Penn State’s College of Agriculture was honored during last week’s Frontiers in Science and Technology for Cacao Quality, Productivity and Sustainability symposium.

The sold-out program attracted over 150 attendees from around the world, and consisted of nine sessions and 45+ presentations over five days, not including poster presentations, break-out sessions, breaks, and meals over four days. Presentation topics ranged from Effects of Microclimatic Variables on the Symptoms Onset of Moniliophthora Roreri, Causal Agent of Moniliophthora Pod Rot in Cacao through Genomic Approaches for Understanding and Exploiting Natural Variation in Genetic Resistance to Climate Variation to Cocoa Diversity and Quality in Southern Mexico.

I have to admit that much of the science presented challenged my understanding at many levels. First, I am not fully versed in the vocabulary of genomics and comprehending many of the genome graphics takes a lot of concentration. While my understanding is clearer today, it’s a lot like learning any new language, and it takes regular contact and use to become fluent.

There was a special presentation on Monday evening for those who arrived early. Professor Mathew Restall and Associate Professor Amara Solari (Penn State’s experts in Maya history and art) showed the film Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods and after provided insight from a Mayanist perspective into how the film compressed history and conflated Aztec and Maya cultures, blurring important distinctions between the two, and what that means to our understanding of the uses of cacao in the two cultures. For me, this combination of history and culture, provided a foundation for thinking about the science that was going to be presented over the course of the next three days.

Things got off to a great start late Tuesday morning with a tour of the Cacao Molecular Biology lab run by Drs Mark Guiltinan and Siela Maximova. Presentations of some of the current work going on was given by students in the lab. This was followed by a visit to the greenhouses where cacao trees are grown for research purposes. This was followed by a session on the history of the lab and a presentation by the founder of the lab.

Things started early on Wednesday morning with the start of the main sessions and presentations. It’s impossible to go into detail about any of them but highlights for me connected the science to culture, history, and archaeology.

Juan Carlos Motamayor spent a lot of time during his talk (Leveraging the Cacao Genome to Identify Candidate Genes Regulating Key Traits) discussing compatibility, or the ability, or lack thereof, of a tree to fertilize itself.

I had not thought about this before, but it turns out that self-compatibility is a trait that could have influenced which varieties of cacao were traded from their home on the eastern slopes of the Andes over the mountains to coastal areas before heading northward to Mesoamerica. It makes a lot of sense to transport material that can fertilize itself. Thus the South American ancestors to criollos were likely the ones selected to make the journey while auto-incompatible varieties would not have been transported.

This idea was echoed in the next session by Hugo Francisco Chavez Ayala, of the Sierra Technical Institute in Teapa, Tabasco, MX. Hugo (who coincidentally is actively involved in the Grijalva project I am working on in Tabasco), pointed out, based on his research, that cacao in Mesoamerica was most likely traded up the Pacific coast rather then across the Caribbean coast from the mouths of the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers because of the comparative difficulty of logistics due to geography.

One of the factors that could have driven the trade was the stimulant chemicals present in the cacao; there are no plants with stimulants such as caffeine and theobromine native to Mesoamerica. Hugo pointed out a likely vector for the spread of monilia in Tabasco (which only started making its presence felt a decade ago) - migrant workers from Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and elsewhere taking trains to find work in the US. It is possible to trace the spread from along railway lines where workers would have transported the moniliophthora spores on their clothes.

Hugo also showed my favorite single image of the symposium, one where he overlaid important archaeological sites over Motamayor’s 2008 map showing the ten different cacao varieties and their division into the two major structure groups. It brought the point home in a way that Motamayor’s map, on its own, had not.

It was a great pleasure, during the symposium, to meet for the first time people whose names I have known through reading their research papers. Perhaps more profoundly, the symposium brought into clear focus the dedication of professionals around the world committed to understanding cacao and who are working to help ensure that it continues to exist, in abundance, for future generations.

As a writer, I know that it is very important to recognize and acknowledge my sources, and this past week I learned that this community of research scientists is one that I owe a debt that is impossible to calculate. In many respects, everything I do - and have done over the past fifteen-plus years - is dependent, on some level, on the hard work of people I met at the symposium and their colleagues around the world.

I want to extend my thanks and acknowledge their invaluable work. I am humbled to be included as a member of this community and look forward to working on current and future challenges.

Living La Vida Cocoa in Mexico

By Clay Gordon, 2016-04-22
Living La Vida Cocoa in Mexico

Mexico occupies a special place in both the genetic and socio–cultural histories of chocolate. Despite that importance, very little is known about Mexican cacao because very little of it leaves Mexico.

Two states, Tabasco and Chiapas, produce the majority of cocoa in Mexico, with Tabasco producing about 18,000MT (dry) and Chiapas another 4,500MT annually. (There are small amounts in Oaxaca and Veracruz.) Of this roughly 22,5000MT, it is estimated that less than 100MT is exported each year.

The reasons for this are complex, but one large contributing factor is that cocoa processors in Mexico are required to buy up the local harvest before they can import from other countries. What this does is create a situation where the farmers have guaranteed buyers for 100% of their production, irrespective of quality. As a result, the price the farmer can charge for unfermented and washed cocoa in the domestic market fluctuates around US$5.00/kg - a significant premium to the current world market price for fermented cocoa, and three times the farm gate price in most places in West Africa.

Well-fermented cocoa easily commands $7/kg on the domestic Mexican market and specialty cocoas (criollos, some ancient and some new) can fetch prices of up to $11/kg. So it’s easy to see why export volumes are low.

Last November, I had the good fortune to be invited down to Villahermosa in Tabasco, Mexico, to participate in the annual Festival del Chocolate. Despite being relatively young (less than ten years), the festival attracted more than 200,000 visitors over the course of its five day run in 2015.

While there I also visited Rancho La Joya (the source of the infamous ‘carmelo’ cacao), as well as other farms - small and large; a big new post–harvest processing facility; and a small chocolate factory.

What I saw was cacao – even at La Joya – was being fermented and dried under less than optimum conditions. Based on my experience with the Academia de Cacao in Nicaragua, I knew that scientific methods could be applied, and fermentation and drying protocols developed, based on the specific genetics being grown and the microbiology of the fermentation pile – the yeasts and bacteria (lacto- and aceto-) – endemic to the region. 

I also learned that the government of Tabasco had invested a lot of money in a public/private partnership to expand production of high–quality varietals. I discovered that the partnership hadn’t put a great deal of thought into how they were going to sell the cocoa they were gearing up to produce. They just assumed white beans == criollo == international buyers at high prices. In part based on one legendary transaction.

This is loosely analogous to what happened over the last decade in Perú, where USAID and NGOs, working with the Perúvian government, had done a good job of growing supply without really thinking about demand: Tabasco was set to increase production of quality varietals without really thinking about how to market that cocoa internationally (or price it). Eventually, this led to major elements of the programming for the Salon del Cacao y Chocolate — bringing down international visitors to get a deep dive in Peruvian culture, meet growers, and, hopefully, buy a lot of cacao. 

In addition to the Festival del Chocolate in November, there is another Festival hosted in Tabasco mid-Spring; Feria Tabasco. Dating back to 1786 and held every year since the early 1950s, in recent years the attendance at Feria has surpassed 2,000,000 visitors (with over 1000 vendors and exhibitors) over the course of eleven days.

While in Tabasco last November I conceived a project that combines my experiences in Peru with my work with Ingemann in Nicaragua. Encouraged by my hosts, we presented those ideas to the Ministries of Agriculture and Economics as well as to the head of the public/private partnership. Encouraged by the unofficial response, I collaborated with three partners – two in Mexico and one in Europe – to write a project plan that was submitted to the Tabasco government in early January.

In broad strokes, the idea was to create a competition to search for the best cacao in Tabasco and to use the competition as the platform to gather together a project team that would work with selected farms (the first year between 10 and 20). The team would perform genetic and microbiological analysis and work to develop optimum baseline post–harvest protocols to ensure that the cacao was being fermented and dried respectfully.

The project and competition would be formally announced during Feria (which runs from April 28th through May 8th this year) in order to gain maximum attention from within and outside of Mexico.

The competition would be judged, and prizes awarded, at the 2016 Festival del Chocolate in late–November. As at the Salon on Perú, chocolate professionals and members of the press from all over the world would be invited down to Villahermosa to judge, to celebrate Tabasqueño food and culture, to become steeped in the long and proud tradition of cacao in Tabasco, and to have the opportunity to be among the first buyers of the cacao being produced.

After nearly six months of work and waiting, I am happy to announce that the project is starting, with me as the project lead/coordinator. I am flying down to Villahermosa on April 28th for Feria to meet with the project team, members of various ministries of the Tabasco government, and many of the farms and farmers we want to work with.

For me, personally and professionally, this project represents a watershed period in my life and career in chocolate. It’s a project I conceived and that I get to lead. There is a focus on quality while also building export markets. The project stretches from the farm to the factory to the mouth. I get to work with a group of extremely talented and dedicated people and there is the chance that the project could make valuable contributions to our understanding of the genetics of cacao in Mexico. I am also very excited that the project team will also be working with the Mexican federal government to help identify the technical parameters for a formal protected denomination of origin (PDO) for Mexican cocoa.

it also means that I will be doing a lot of traveling to Mexico over the course of the next six months — at least. I will be posting on to keep people in the loop, and the project has secured the domain name which will become the hub for promoting the project’s work and progress (there’s nothing there now and won’t be until after I return from this first trip). 

I hope that you will follow the project and that you will consider visiting Tabasco in the future – for Feria, for Festival, for the food, and of course, the cacao and chocolate.

[Edited on 4/23 to fix typos and grammar and to improve clarity.]

The Great Forastero vs Criollo Debate

By Clay Gordon, 2008-11-04

Originally published Nov 4, 2008 — There is an unquestioned assumption many chocophiles make: because Criollo beans make better (and more expensive) chocolate, doesn't it make the most sense to replace all those "inferior" Forastero and hybrid-Trinitario trees with Criollos? Wouldn't everyone - including the farmers - be better off?

Well, no, actually. And here's why.

Chocolates made with properly fermented and dried (proper fermentation and drying are key to full flavor development) Forastero/Trintario beans taste different from those made with Criollos. Not worse. Just different. To really generalize here, the flavors in chocolate made from Criollos are milder and more delicate, while the flavors in chocolate made with Forastero/Trinitarios are more robust. You may prefer one over the other, but that is a matter of personal taste and not an absolute judgment.

For even the most knowledgeable chocophile, the goal should be to learn to appreciate all the different flavors of chocolate and not to resort to the unthinking snobbery that runs roughshod over the wine world. There is nothing inherently "bad" about the grapes used to make Merlots. They are just grapes. There is nothing inherently "better" about the grapes used to make Pinot Noirs. Nevertheless, a single movie (Sideways) changed the drinking habits of millions worldwide by making it unfashionable, almost overnight, to admit to even liking Merlot let alone drinking it. In the same vein, milk chocolate is not "bad" because it contains milk and dark chocolate does not have to have 70% cocoa content in order to be "good." Yet many people are ashamed to admit they like to eat milk chocolate and won't touch dark chocolate unless it is 70% or more.

One of the great (not just my opinion) dark chocolates in the world produced in the past five years is a 68% bar from Felchlin (their Cru Sauvage) made with beans harvested from Bolivian feral trees (trees that were planted hundreds of years ago that are now "wild") that are genetically Forasteros but that have flavor characteristics associated with Criollos. The chocolate snob, unrepentantly and wrongly fixated on the number 70% and "Criollo" would not deign to stoop so low as to eat a bar with "only" 68% cocoa and made with "only" Forastero beans because it did not meet his or her "standards." In this case, they are arbitrarily cutting themselves off from one of the great chocolate experiences in recent memory. But, as I say to my kids when they turn up their noses at something I really like to eat, "Okay. I guess that means more for me." I don't have any problem with that.

Now that we've dispelled the myth that chocolate made with Criollos is somehow "naturally better" than chocolate made with Forastero/Trinitario beans, the next step is to take a look at what it might mean for a farmer to make the switch.

Perhaps the best example of wrong-o-nomics is the Chuao co-op in Venezuela, a source of very high quality cocoa beans that has for years been hoisted as a poster child to the benefits to farmers of planting Criollos. For close to a decade now, the Amedei company has been paying far above market price for the beans they source from Chuao (reportedly about $9000/tonne as opposed to between $2000-$3000/tonne on the commodities market). The trees planted in Chuao yield on the order of 180kg per hectare (ha; a hectare is 2.54 acres; kg, kilogram - about 2.2 pounds) of dried beans, or about 155 pounds per acre.

In modern industrialized plantations in, for example, Southeast Asia, that grow high-yielding hybrid varieties, yields of up to 3000kg of dried beans per hectare are not unusual. In Western Africa, yields of up to 1500kg/ha are not uncommon as long as the farm is managed "sustainably" (e.g., there are agricultural inputs - synthetic or natural - to replace the nutrients from the soil that leave the farm in the beans).

This disparity in yield gives us the following economic equation:

Chuao: 100ha @ 180kg/ha @ $9/kg = $162,000 gross income/100ha
Southeast Asia: 100ha @ 3000kg/ha @$2/kg = $600,000 gross income/100ha
Western Africa: 100ha @ 1500kg/ha @ $2/kg = $300,000 gross income/100ha

Thus, even though Amedei pays roughly 3 to 4.5 times the market price, the return to the farmer is as little as twenty-five per cent of what could be made if the farmer planted different varieties (i.e., forastero hybrids) of cacao. You can bet that Vietnam - which grew itself into the third-largest coffee exporter in the world from nowhere in twenty years - will be planting high-yielding strains in its attempt to quickly become one of the largest cocoa producers in the world. It can't get there by planting Criollos.

There is another reason not to go down the path of promoting the planting of Criollos at the expense of planting Forastero/Trinitarios. Criollos are products of hundreds if not thousands of years of breeding and inbreeding. Because of this they represent a comparatively narrow gene pool. In addition to being low-yielding and finicky, Criollos are much more vulnerable to diseases and pests, and as we've seen time and again, planting monocultures on a grand scale increases vulnerability in a number of different area. Therefore, betting on the future of chocolate by reducing the genetic diversity of cacao is a very, very bad idea.

One of the things that people cannot truly appreciate until they walk into a cacao farm is the incredible variety of shapes and colors of the pods; bright yellows, greens, oranges to shame anything grown in Florida, reds that would make a fire engine envious, and scarlets worthy of royal attire. The cacao tree provides the genetic template, so all of the pods on the tree are the same basic variety as the tree even though the pods may look very different. However if a flower is fertilized several times with pollen from different sources (and this is a very common occurrence), multiple hybrids will co-exist within the same pod, sort of like fraternal twins or triplets in utero. When the seeds from these pods are scattered by small animals or birds and grow to maturity, new hybrids appear. This process occurs naturally and it this genetic diversity that needs to be preserved and nurtured and that will lead to varieties of cacao that are resistant to the most damaging of diseases - and - that taste good, too.

The key to improving the lives of farmers is not to get them to replace what they are currently growing with low(er)-yielding varieties that require more care and are more susceptible to disease - because the loss in yield doesn't come even close to matching the increase in price. Instead, the key to improving the lives of farmers is to teach them how to manage their trees and farms to reduce losses from diseases and pests and to ferment and dry properly. This will increase their income even if they continue to grow exactly the same cacao they've always been growing, on exactly the same amount of land. By placing on emphasis on quality, and not just quantity, no matter what beans a farmer has, those beans will make better-tasting chocolate so the farmer can charge more for them.

Me? I am an EOCL - Equal Opportunity Chocolate Lover. As long as its good, I'll eat it.

Rain Forest Musings

By Clay Gordon, 2008-06-18

Context: These are journal entries I made as a guest at the Kapawi eco-lodge in 2005. Kapawi is located on the Kapawari River which feeds into the Rio Pastaza which is in turn a major tributary of the Amazon. Southeastern Ecuador. Miles and miles and miles from any roads. The only ways in and out are via canoe on the river or small plane.

More Context: These were written just a day or so after taking part in a shamanic ritual in Quito that involved consuming ayahuasca which put me in a very interestingly receptive state of mind and influenced my taking of the following photo, which is iconic of my tramping through the rain forest:

1) The Achuar [the local Indians] can walk through the forest silently. Even along a path I cannot help but make some noise. I concentrate on maneuvering quietly, carefully placing my feet, avoiding brushing against plants. Soon I am striding confidently and what I think is quietly through the forest. Exactly at these moments, when I feel I have attained some mastery, my foot catches on a vine or root and I stumble, trying to catch my balance and not fall. And I realize (for the umpteenth time today) that I am not a master of the forest; it is saying to me, 'If you are to be my friend there is much, much, more for you to learn.'

2) In the forest on the hike today, Sarah asked, 'If a tree falls in the rain forest and there is no one around to hear it, is there any sound?' And it occurs to me that that that viewpoint puts man at the center of the universe. I am not the only creature in the forest that can hear. I can walk through the forest and make no visible impression. The forest was here long before I arrived and will be here long after I leave. I alone cannot bend the forest to my will. I can destroy the forest but I cannot bend it to my will. If I am to be here in the forest and flourish I must become a part of the forest and listen to what it has to tell me. There is room in this world for both of us - the forest and I - but only if I, with humility, allow the forest to be my guide.

3) On our hike today, Felipe [our naturalist guide] pointed out the interconnectedness of the trees and vines in the rain forest. High above us, often hard to see, vines connect the trees together helping them to stand up. When one of the trees falls it takes down with it many of the other trees it is connected with, leaving a 'light gap' in the forest. On the forest floor lies a scattering of seeds many of which can lay dormant for decades or more, waiting patiently for enough light to grow. A tree falling, pulling others down around it to create the light gap, gives these seeds their opportunity to flourish. However there is no way to predict from what has fallen what will grow to take its place. During our lives, we are all connected. Directly in many cases, but often in ways unknown to us. When we fall, we cannot control what grows in the 'light gap' we leave behind. The seeds that we have planted during our lives will grow ... but which ones and how their lives will proceed we have no influence over.

Posted in: Travelblogs | 3 comments
 / 9