Jeff Stern

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Ecuadorian Nacional Cacao Pod

A few months ago I read a compelling dissertation by Cristian Melo on the loss of Ecuador's fine flavor cacao and the plight of Ecuador's tens of thousands of small farmers. It inspired to me to act, in some small way, to help small farmers and make delicious chocolate. As well, my fortuitous meeting with Dana Brewster and Mark DelVecchio of Millcreek Cacao Roasters , based in Salt Lake City, Utah, has created the opportunity for a powerful synergy linking Ecuadorian cacao producers directly with Millcreek Cacao Roasters. Taking advantage of my presence in Ecuador and close contact with the cacao trade here, the idea to buy beans directly from farmers and make chocolate with Millcreek Cacao Roasters was born.

I realized immediately we already had a direct trade supply chain for Ecuadorian chocolate all assembled-now we just need to get it operating. Ecuador has long been known as the world's largest producer of fine aroma cacao, which is a superior cacao with distinct flavor attributes not found in your average Hershey's, Mars, or other mass-market chocolate bar. We are working directly with cacao growers in Ecuador to bring this special flavor to you. was my other source of inspiration. After seeing the success of Madre Chocolate's efforts, I decided we'd do something similar. We've opted for a direct trade model, where we buy cacao from Ecuadorian cacao growers' associations, ship it straight to Millcreek Cacao Roasters, and have it made into chocolate there. We'vechosenthis model over buying Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, or other "official" certification programs for a number of reasons. We won't get into the reasons here, but if you're really interested, a good place to start is by reading the aforementioned dissertation . We'll continue to address this issue in other posts soon.

We've established contacts with several growers' associations that produce some of Ecuador's best Nacional cacao beans, and the logistics are all sorted out. We'll be telling the stories of each of the farmers' associations with our bars.Shortly, we'll be presenting our proposal on for you to look at. In the meanwhile, we'd appreciate it if you'd share this exciting project with your friends and associates. Help us help small farmers and save Ecuadorian heritage cacao while bringing the fine flavors of Ecuador to you!

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As I have discussed in previous posts, a truly valid definition of the Arriba Nacional term when applied to Ecuadorian cacao, or simply the Arriba name, includes Nacional beans sourced in parts of the Province of Guayas, the Province of Los Ros and a small fraction of the Province of Bolvar. Ecuador historically produced fine flavor cacao from many other areas which were all Nacional beans but marketed under distinct names, including Bahia-from the area around Bahia de Caraquez, not to be confused with Bahia, Brazil; Balao from Southern Guayas and the coastal areas of Azuay and Caar; and Cacao Machala from the Southernmost part of the country.

Erroneously, around 2006 Ecuador's Institute of Intellectual Protection (Instituto Ecuatoriano de Propiedad Intelectual, IEPI in Spanish), which is responsible for trademarks and other intellectual property rights, published and approved an "Arriba" Protected Denomination of Origin that is restricted to (or rather, erroneously, covers all) beans of the Nacional variety. In effect, this means that any chocolate made from Nacional beans grown anywhere in Ecuador can be called Arriba-which is a major deviation from the original historical definition of the term.

"Arriba" has now come into use by chocolate manufacturers both inside and outside Ecuador, and has largely lost its significance; an ironic parallel given that the "Arriba" flavor has also become increasingly diluted, ambiguous, and unknown due to historical factors including the loss of pure Nacional trees, genetic erosion, the introduction and mixing of CCN-51 and Nacional beans, and numerous other factors. As far as I know, there is little to no enforcement of this PDO by any agency or authority.

Other factors contributing to the historical Arriba flavor profile have also been lost in the shrouds of history;one interesting example is the origin and type of the wood used for fermentation boxes, which is said to contribute to the final chocolate flavor. Anecdotally, there is supposed mention in original historical documents written in French found in Vinces, Ecuador (a.k.a. "Little Paris" during Ecuador's cacao boom in the early part of the 20th century due to the number of french inhabitants and wealth found there), that the wood comes from Ecuador's highlands-but no one has been able to determine what kind of wood was used that helped contribute to the original Arriba flavor (conversation with Cristian Melo, Sep 2011).

Renewing and restoring the original "Arriba" bean and its flavor profile to its former glory is a herculean task, and while efforts are under way, they are still only in their infancy. Unfortunately, the major players who have the power and money to push the movement forward are not doing a lot. And the minor players are more often than not opting for ambiguity over transparency, both in their marketing and sourcing, which ultimately benefits no one. I see the issue as one similar to "peak oil." Will we run out of the oil we need to develop the technologies to maintain and enhance our standard of living before those technologies are here? Will we build them while we have the oil to do so? Or will we simply conduct business as usual until the oil is almost gone, then struggle for a solution? It's the same with the Arriba Nacional flavor profile, as well as the Nacional variety of cacao in Ecuador. Will it disappear before adequate efforts are made to save it, or will industry, government, and the private sector act now, before it's too late, to keep Arriba Nacional and Nacional beans on the map?

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Life Between Cacao Harvests

By Jeff Stern, 2011-08-01

In Ecuador, cocoa harvesting takes place two times per year. Harvests runs between February and April, and then again begin again between August and October. This dual harvest system means that cocoa plantations are often busy, as are chocolate makers. However, there are still seasons of the year when the cacao farms are between harvests and things are a bit slower. This naturally begs the question of what to do in the off season for chocolate?

One of the things we always recommend to visitors in the off season for chocolate is touring chocolate grower facilities. Though there isn't the buzz and hustle of harvest, growers and guides have more time to show you behind-the-scenes elements of cocoa production and the business of being a grower. Since planters are less focused on getting their cacao pods harvested, they can focus on being good hosts to visitors. This means more time for visiting multiple farms, seeing traders' patios and meeting cacao traders, and tasting and observing different cacaos.

Both the area around Quito and the coastal cacao growing areas are worth visiting in the middle season between April and August. It's a cooler time of year in Ecuador, which can be a welcome relief for anyone suffering through a North Hemisphere's summer heat. Driving some of Ecuador's famous cacao routes or trekking to remote farms is easier without the humidity and baking heat, though it's rarely truly cold despite this season being Ecuador's winter equivalent. If you do come to visit Ecuador for a cacao tour, it's worthwhile to visit the areas around Quevedo and El Empalme several hours southwest of Quito, the Amazon, and/or the Esmeraldas region. It all depends on your time and budget!

Another element of life between harvests is focusing on the newer details of chocolate production, fresh contracts, and items for the workshop. Visitors to Quito will want to stop in and taste the chocolates we've been making all month, as well as get a chance to see in the workshop before we close to visitors in August in anticipation of the harvest and harvest trade fair events.

Keeping up with local demand is also a part of life between harvests. Near the end of the April to August break, Ecuadorian schools have their graduations and end-of-year ceremonies. This means nice family dinners out with fine chocolate desserts, coffee and chocolate chat dates for friends, and special chocolate gifts for the freshly graduated. In the October to February break, you have the chocolate holiday of Christmas, followed by the games and festivities of Valentine's Day and Ecuadorian Carnival. We see a lot of chocolates leave the shop in these off seasons, together with their happy new owners.

All in all, while the cacao harvests in Ecuador are a dominant part of the chocolate life here, they are not the only part of the chocolate cycle to enjoy. Even the off seasons have something to offer visitors and chocolate lovers here in Ecuador!

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"Fine or Flavor" Cacao versus Bulk Cacao

By Jeff Stern, 2011-07-25
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Just got the schedule for the Salon de Chocolate, which is held now for the third year and sponsored by the Franco-Ecuadorian Chamber of Commerce. I was invited to participate as I was last year, but had to decline since we are too busy. Also, just was not convinced that spending a couple of hundred dollars (since it's not really an invitation but a paid chance to participate), with a "successful" turnout of maybe 700 people, would be good for business. Unfortunately, there's just not that much local interest in chocolate here and while the networking opportunities might be good, well, they're not that good.

I did see that Martin Christy will be giving a tasting, and a few other names in the cocoa (but not really chocolate) industry will be presenting. So it's more of a mix of some academic type presentations and I don't know what else. I'll try and make a stab at running over there but I can't promise. I'm also not a big fan of one of the presenters chocolates, and not a big believer in another. As well, last year there was another large Chocolate Expo in Guayaquil, and from my contacts in the industry it was not too much of a success. So I'll continue to just keep my head down for now and keep doing what I'm doing.

As I've alluded to but not made exceptionally clear in my comments and few postings here, one of the issues with local chocolate production here that only slightly irks me is the fact that there is one company who produces chocolate for a large number of brands coming out of here. I have no issue with the company that produces; they are good people and just acting as a contract manufacturer. None of these brands have a lot of recognition worldwide, and some have more recognition than others. But the bottom line is, almost all of them are produced in the same factory, with no transparency being provided by the companies that own the brands as to what kind of beans they are using or any of the other interesting stuff that interests serious chocolatiers. I'm not sure either if the company producing all this chocolate even does anything special for any of these different brands; they could all be sourced from virtually any type of bean, with the exception of those with FT and/or organic labels. Other than that, there may be no real distinction among the chocolate with the exception of the wrapper that labels it!

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Ecuador's Super Cacao

By Jeff Stern, 2011-03-28

One of the interesting programs going on here involves what growers and organizations are calling "super cacao." Turns out that on most if not all cocoa farms, there always happens to be a few trees that have superior yields and greater disease resistance than all the rest.

At first, I had no idea what people were talking about-shortly thereafter, I realized that I knew the two North American landowners who were actually pioneering this effort. They began by identifying and then collecting (I'm not sure if it's one or the other or both-but either way) seeds or grafting material from the most productive, disease-resistant trees from growers around the country. They made sure the material they collected was from Nacional variety plants, not CCN-51. They then went and propagated and planted several hectares from this "super cacao" material, and have had yields far above average, way over CCN-51, which already yields 3-4x what Nacional plants can yield per hectare.

I later learned that a local NGO, Conservacion y Desarrollo, is also closely involved with this effort, working with thousands of farmers throughout Ecuador in an effort to identify and propagate seedlings from the highest yielding plants, to help farmers increase their yields.

If you wish to know more, check out some of the videos here or contact me directly.

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Ecuadorian Chocolate-What You Need To Know

By Jeff Stern, 2009-07-10
Arriba ChocolateIn a previous post, I discussed the definition of "Arriba" chocolate and beans-while there's no legal definition, Arriba can be used to denominate either beans of the Nacional variety from the "Arriba" or upriver area of the Guayas River Basin in the lowlands of southwestern Ecuador, or chocolate made from those beans. So is Arriba a chocolate or a type of bean? It can be both, depending on with whom you are speaking. Growers may call their beans Arriba variety, and chocolate manufacturers may call their finished chocolate Arriba. Many beans in Ecuador are labeled "Arriba" when they may not actually be, due to the blending of different bean varieties which is a common practice in Ecuador. You are probably asking, ok, why does this matter?The loss of the Arriba flavor profile is happening right now. This is due to the bastardization of the chocolate being produced under the Arriba name, as well as widespread abuse by marketers of the name Arriba. The loss of the Arriba flavor profile would mean increasing homogeneity of fine chocolate, and all chocolates for that matter. The Arriba flavor is an important one, recognized for its unique floral aroma, deep chocolate flavor, and lack of bitterness.Arriba Vs. CCN-51The Nacional bean, from which Arriba chocolate originates, is decreasing in production, while production of the more popular CCN-51 variety is increasing. Due to the Nacional variety's higher vulnerability to disease, particularly Monilla and Witch's Broom, either of which can severely affect or even destroy an entire cocoa plantation, the cultivation of the Nacional variety of bean is decreasing in Ecuador. The CCN-51 variety is being planted more frequently due to its disease resistance and higher yields, at least double that of the Nacional variety on a per hectare basis.The CCN-51 variety does not have the same flavor profile as Nacional beans, and while a very good quality chocolate can be made from CCN-51, it requires different fermentation and post-harvest treatment from Nacional beans. However, CCN-51 and Nacional beans are often mixed together either pre or post-fermentation. This common practice in Ecuador debases both the value and flavor of the resulting chocolate. This practice is a major, ongoing controversy in the Ecuadorian chocolate industry.Growers do not have any financial incentive to separate beans post-harvest, nor to ferment and treat them differently. Nor do most buyers of beans have any incentive to distinguish between Arriba, Nacional, or CCN-51, as most chocolate lovers have had little, if any information, about the industry practices discussed here, and are unaware of these issues until just recently. Furthermore, there is no recognition such as a denomination of origin for the Arriba bean. Thus, beans from the north coast, the Amazon, and other parts of Ecuador not recognized for the Arriba flavor are nonetheless frequently labeled Arriba, as well as the chocolates made from these beans, for marketing purposes.Support for Nacional and Arriba BeansFortunately, ANECACAO and other governmental and non-governmental organizations are, through education, training, and publications, encouraging both small and large producers of cacao to practice and maintain separation of CCN-51 variety and Nacional variety beans. However, these efforts are not enough. Because most commodity brokers, local buyers of beans (aka "patios" in Ecuador-local cacao merchants who buy from local farms, then consolidate large amounts of cacao for brokers, commodity houses, and large muli-nationals such as ADM or Kraft) of cacao in Ecuador's cocoa growing regions, and cacao traders do not pay a premium for Nacional beans, mixing is still a frequent and common occurrence. The current lack of transparency and standards in Ecuador make preventing the mixing of bean varieties difficult, if not impossible, to stop.A recently implemented practice by some farms and cacao buyers in Ecuador is helping to preserve the Arriba profile. Some farms are growing only the Nacional variety of bean and selling it as such-though, because of the absence of a price premium, these beans may be ultimately mixed with CCN-51. Other farms grow only CCN-51 and clearly label it as such. Finally, some buyer's patios and even commodity houses (namely-Transmar) have recently begun to buy beans "en baba", or freshly harvested and unfermented, or even in the pod, allowing them to know the variety of the bean and control the fermentation process. A newspaper piece was recently done on this practice and is discussed here.With this knowledge, what can you do to support Arriba chocolate? First, buy chocolate labeled Arriba only if the manufacturer can provide traceability of both the bean variety used in the chocolate and geographical origin for the beans used in that chocolate. For example, a chocolate labeled "Esmeraldas" from Ecuador or "Manab" from Ecuador is not an Arriba chocolate. Ask your favorite Ecuadorian chocolate companies, or those selling Ecuadorian single origin chocolates if they are aware of the use of CCN-51 beans in the what is commonly labeled Nacional or Arriba chocolate. Now that you know the distinctions, use your wallet to vote for the support of Arriba beans and chocolate. Ultimately, the establishment of a denomination of origin for Arriba beans and chocolates would benefit growers in Ecuador by granting them a premium price for their beans, help chocolate makers by allowing them to certify the origin and quality of their beans, and increase choice and traceability of the final product for consumers.
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Why Isn't Aequare Chocolates Organic?

By Jeff Stern, 2009-07-06
Aequare Chocolates gets frequent inquiries as to why we're not organic. It's not because we don't want to be, or don't support organic. It's because we simply can't, for all practical purposes, be organic.Organic Chocolate For Bars And Organic CouvertureFirst off, all organic chocolate actually produced here in country is shipped abroad and almost none of it is for sale here. It's shipped abroad directly by its producers because there is a market for it abroad. Consumers in North America and Europe, as well as many other places, have the disposable income that allows them the choice and provides them the ability to choose between organic or conventional products. Here in Ecuador, personal income levels are not high enough and consumption patterns are not adapted to supporting organic products.Were the local manufacturers of organic chocolate to try and sell organic chocolate here, they'd probably go broke. Most consumers would not see the value in paying a higher price for an organic product. It would have no additional recognized value in the local market and simply would not sell for a higher price. Organic producers would be forced to compete on price alone, and they would lose money.Since we don't actually make our own chocolate, and don't have the volume needed to have someone process organic beans into chocolate for us locally, we can't make organic chocolate here. We have approached two of the companies that do make certified organic chocolate about purchasing organic couverture from them. One is a large contract manufacturer and simply can't sell us what organic chocolate they produce because the production is for another company's product that is shipped abroad. The other offered to sell us couverture, but at a price that was so high it would be impossible to make money from.Our main supplier of chocolate, who is also the grower of the beans, uses minimal amounts of pesticides and fertilizers on the cacao plantations he manages. We have visited his plantation and received written descriptions of his pesticide and fertilizer use plans. Much of the cocoa grown in Ecuador exists in a semi-wild, untended state and is not cared for. To become certified organic is a lengthy, costly and complicated process that the majority of growers probably can't afford. In no way do we mean to belittle the value of organic; but the certification process can be more exclusive than inclusive.What About Confections With Organic Ingredients?You can already see why we can't make organic bars, and for many of the same reasons, organic confections. We can't even get the most important component, the organic chocolate, to start with.Beyond the chocolate, which is difficult enough to obtain, many other organic ingredients are simply not available in Ecuador. Let's start with sugar. The local manufacturers or organic chocolate temporarily import their organic sugar from abroad. Temporary importation is a very complex, bureaucratic, and costly process. Temporary importation allows the user of the product to avoid paying duties on it by guaranteeing the product is going to be shipped out of the country again within a certain time frame. Since it's only coming into the country as an input for a specific product that is destined for export, no duties are levied on it. This also means that it's not for sale on the open market.Organic dairy products are non-existent in Ecuador. While for practical purposes many dairy products could be considered "organic" because of the non-industrialized nature of most of the dairy industry here, that's obviously not good enough for consumers in industrialized countries looking for an official seal of approval. So getting organic cream and butter in Ecuador with an internationally recognized organic seal?...forget it.Then there are other items that go into our products, such as fruit purees, citrus zests, and essential oils, most of which are sourced locally but very few of which are organic, with the exception of the lemongrass oil from Fundacin Chankuap used to flavor our lemongrass bars.So due to costs, volume constraints, regulations, and lack of availability of organic ingredients, it's difficult if not impossible to do organic confections here in Ecuador. Finally, making 100% organic chocolate, as well as confections, is not compatible with our direct trade efforts. But more on direct trade in a later post.
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