Jeff Stern

Ecuadorian Chocolate-What You Need To Know

user image 2009-07-10
By: Jeff Stern
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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.