Chocolate Maker's Journal
Our Guatemalan Beans Have Finally Arrived
Posted on 3/16/2009 by John Scharffenberger
We're excited to say that some very intriguing beans from Guatemala have finally arrived. We'd never thought about Guatemala as a source for cacao until a bag of fat, pale cacao beans landed on Brad Kintzer's desk a few years ago. (Brad is one of our chocolate makers.) I saw them sitting on his desk and noticed that they were much bigger and rounder than the beans we've been seeing. I bit into a bean and was surprised by how mild it was. Usually the beans that we get from new cacao growers are extremely bitter because they are under fermented.
When I found out where the beans came from, they became even more interesting. An NGO that helps struggling regions build sustainable ventures had sent us the beans from Cahabón in Guatemala. We decided we had to make the trek there and see who was growing these beans.
Cahabón lies in the Alto Verapase mountain chain, which meant a long and bumpy ride on a dirt road. We followed the Cahabón River past the town of Lanquin and headed up into a cloud forest to find a whole village turned out to greet us. The people in the Cooperative that grew the beans were from an indigenous tribe of Kekchi Maya. It was pretty astonishing to climb out of the dusty pickup while a large crowd of people stared at us curiously. Most of them followed as we were ushered into a one-room lodge made of logs and mud, and those who couldn't fit inside the lodge crowded around the doors and windows to peer in. A big cauldron of a fantastically spicy turkey soup was carried in and ladled into bowls for us. I drank my soup and started to recover from the long pick-up truck ride.
Most of the farmers spoke only Kekchi Mayan, so everything we said was translated to Spanish and then translated into their language. We handed out small bars of our chocolate; I watched as the wrapped bars were tucked into pockets, despite the heat. It made me wonder if they had ever eaten refined chocolate. I opened a small square and ate it and then asked them to try it. Although they consume chocolate in drinks, as their culture has for thousands of years, these cacao farmers had never eaten a piece of smooth, refined chocolate. From the smiles on their faces I could tell that they loved it. One by one they dug the chocolate squares out of their pockets and ate them.
Eventually, we got around to talking about their fantastic cacao. When I asked how much they sold it for, they replied with an astonishingly low figure: less than half the world price at the time for low-quality cacao. We decided to work with the Cooperative, drew up a contract, and made a pact to buy their beans at the rate we pay for highly flavored cacao – more than 4x the price they were expecting – giving the money directly to the Cooperative so none of the profits went to a cacao broker.
It has been extremely gratifying to work with these people directly, to give them a fair price for a great product and to see where the money goes. Much of the money pays for school for the children of the Cooperative's members. We now get emails from some of their teenagers who have access to computers and even an occasional call from a mobile phone. The extra income from their cacao will allow these people to plant more cacao trees in some of the deforested lands on their ridge. We are also beginning a project with them to plant indigenous mahogany trees as an overstory for their cacao, which we hope will provide additional income for future generations.
While we haven't made chocolate from these beans just yet, we are planning to do so very shortly. Below are some images from our trip.
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