Project Grijalva - 2016 Report

user image 2016-12-04
By: Clay Gordon
Posted in: CacaoMEX
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


04/30/17 14:25:35 @kimmcpherson:

Thank you for this article and the link to cacaoMEX! 

I am living in mexico and wanting to source quality beans, I am now more informed! 

Clay Gordon
12/11/16 09:52:07 @clay:

I posted a gallery of pod photos . It's the first in a series of galleries with images from the project.