Good chocolate starts with a good genetic variety of cacao beans. But the post-harvest process is where producers can get the best out of their beans and have the most influence on their final product. As part of the Connecting Central America project, which is primarily financed by the European Union (EU) and coordinated by the Secretariat for Economic Integration of Central America (SIECA), CBI helps participants fine-tune this process and we advise them on new tools and techniques. Rios de Agua Viva, a cooperative in Nicaragua, explains how implementing these changes has helped them sell their cacao beans to high-end clients and benefit the farmers they work with.

Make it or break it

Cacao is how experts refer to the raw bean used to make the cocoa products we know and love. But before raw cacao beans can be turned into mouth-watering chocolate bars, they must go through 3 deceptively simple steps: fermenting, drying and roasting. However, small differences in temperature, humidity and duration of each stage can produce a noticeable difference in the final product. Jörn Berger, CBI’s cacao and chocolate consultant in Central America, explains why it is so important that companies understand these processes and learn to fine-tune them. “Farmers in Central America already have a great genetic base to work with,” he says. “But the post-harvest process can either destroy it or bring out the best of it. To get the most refined flavour expression possible, you need to be curious and understand what the bean needs. We train participants to ask themselves questions like, ‘How will changes to the protocol affect the flavour?’ And, ‘What flavours are premium chocolate brands looking for?’” Like the post-harvest steps, these questions can seem simple at first, but taking the time to study their protocols and make changes can be a big investment for companies – one that has already paid off for several participants.

To get the most refined flavour expression possible, you need to be curious and understand what the bean needs

Jörn Berger, CBI’s cacao and chocolate consultant in Central America

One such participant is Rios de Agua Viva, a cooperative in Nicaragua that buys cacao beans from 500 small-scale farmers. Luis Alexander González is part of the management team, and he explains that their approach used to be one-size-fits-all. He says: “Every 15 days, we buy fresh cacao pods from the farmers and take them back to our gathering centre, where we ferment and dry them in bulk. We have been doing this for 14 years and, until recently, we only followed the one post-harvest protocol our local client asked for. It was a common one in the industry, but it did not bring out the best in our organic cacao beans.”

Small changes pay off

In 2018, Rios de Agua Viva joined the EU, SIECA and CBI’s Connecting Central America project. Luis Alexander recounts how he and his colleagues learned about different protocols, sensorial evaluation and clients’ wishes.

The first step was a consultation and workshops with CBI’s experts. We learned to sample cacao liquors and understand how the post-harvest process brought out the different flavours we were tasting. Then, CBI took us to trade fairs to meet with potential clients. Buyers explained what they are looking for and how they want the beans to be fermented or roasted. We realised that if we started to do things differently, premium brands were willing to buy our product. This led to the final step, which was implementing changes in protocol and infrastructure at our centre.

Luis Alexander González, Manager of a cooperative in Nicaragua

Luis Alexander says the cooperative now offers potential buyers up to six different samples – each one based on a different post-harvest protocol. “Based on CBI’s recommendation, we have shifted to using fermentation boxes, which allow us to have more control over the outcome. We are also in the process of creating a tasting laboratory, with our own tasting panel.”

Rios de Agua Viva is already experiencing the benefits of these investments. “Because of these changes, our first export was to a premium French chocolate brand. Not only is this a great achievement, but it is also encouraging for the farmers we work with. They see that changing the way things are done benefits them, so they are more willing to participate in other improvement projects.”

A level playing field

Jörn highlights the importance of CBI’s coaching in these areas. “Central America offers cacao beans with excellent genetics that deserve to be treated in the best way possible,” he says. “When producers understand how to do this, it puts them on a level playing field with the best chocolate makers in the world. In such a competitive market, it is important for them to be able to discuss cacao quality, quantity and prices, so that they are not in a weak position. Having the right tools and skills means they can produce higher quality products, while also understanding more clearly what they have to offer high-end clients, at prices that benefit the farmers they work with and their families.”

If you would like to see the staff at Rios de Agua Viva in action, why not take a Virtual Farm Tour?

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For more information about what the participating companies are achieving, visit the Connecting Central America Facebook Community. Are you a European importer interested in products from Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras? Contact us for more information or to meet with the suppliers in this project who are being trained to export to Europe.

The European Union (EU) primarily finances the ‘Connecting Central America’ project. The Secretariat for Economic Integration of Central America (SIECA) coordinates it. This project is part of the Central American Regional Economic Integration (INTEC) project.

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