Nicaragua: A Land of Flavour Diversity
With a yearly production of around 10,000 tonnes, cacao is small beer in the Nicaraguan economy. Especially compared to coffee of which the country produces some 140,000 tonnes per year. Though small in size, the cacao industry has grown steadily and is expected to have a yearly production of over 25,000 tonnes in 2026. Still not much, considering the world’s annual production is 4 million tonnes. Which makes Nicaraguan cacao all the more special!
The country has different climatic zones and micro-climates, and there are multiple genetic cacao varieties. An estimated 95% of the cacao in Nicaragua is grown by smallholder farmers, most of whom are organised in about 50 cacao cooperatives in the country. Some cacao coops can boast of excellent post-harvesting skills; they can really play with fermentation and drying protocols to bring out the best flavours in the cacao.
Nicaraguan cacao qualities are predominantly fruity – from melon and peaches to berries and citrus, fresh or dried. Other qualities lean more towards nutty and spicy flavours, and again there is a wide variety of nuts and spices to be sensed in different qualities. Some cacao quality are heavy in chocolaty or coffee notes; others have remarkable tannins.
El Castillo : Where Pirates of the Caribbean Meet Superior Cacao Cultivation
Coordinates: 11°00’59.2″N 84°23’57.0″W
Nicaragua – El Castillo – Río San Juan
The peaceful little village of El Castillo is set on the Rio San Juan, made up of colourful wooden buildings which sit on stilts above the fast-flowing river and powerful rapids. An impressive 17th-century fortress dominates the town, strategically located on a sharp curve in the river, raised above the town on a grassy hill with magnificent views over the white water and jungle canopy downstream. This charming village has neither roads nor cars and is therefore not accessible by land. Most locals can’t drive a car, but nearly all of them can drive a panga.
The lovely town has a colourful history; there are tales of the real pirates of the Caribbean passing through on their way to loot the treasures of Granada Nicaragua, British invaders attempting to conquer Central America (Castillo is reputedly the place where the famous English Captain Nelson lost his eye), the village playing a role in the California gold rush and its story continues to this day with talks of transatlantic canals…
Today El Castillo is undoubtedly one of Nicaragua’s most picturesque towns and is a great base from which to explore the river and Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Agriculture is the principal economic activity, with their cacao cultivation emerging as an international example of quality, fineness and aroma.
Local Hero ‘Don Alfonso’
Alfonso Tapia – or ‘Don Alfonso’ as his friends know him – is president of COODEPROSA (Cooperativa de Desarrollo Multisectorial Productivo del San Juan), a cacao co-op that supports 34 small farmers (including 10 women) in the municipality of El Castillo, Río San Juan, Nicaragua.
When Don Alfonso & his fellow farmers dedicated themselves to the production of cacao, they realized pretty quickly that they lacked knowledge about good cacao cultivation and proper quality control.
Luckily Don Alfonso and the other co-op farmers were able to join MOCCA, a five-year initiative (2019-2024) funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), implemented by Lutern World Relief, and with training from fermentation expert ZOTO..
Thanks to the unremitting efforts of Don Alfonso’s, they received coaching and practices to improve their profitability and productivity, to strengthen their knowledge of good agricultural practices, to upgrade the quality of their beans, and to get in touch with buyers of specialty cacao.
COODEPROSA is a wonderful co-op with good governance -they do what they say and say what they do. Don Alfonso is a charismatic president who coaches a motivated and efficient team. He is not only a sweet Instigator and a strong motivator; he also supports the postharvest maestro ‘Chaparro’ and his team throughout the whole processing (plantation, harvesting, post-harvesting, marketing) to ensure that all crucial steps in flavour development go off without a hitch.
Cacao: Unlocking Flavour in the Post-Harvest Process
When talking about cacao flavour development, 30% is dependent on good genetics and 70% on meticulously controlled post-harvest processing. A producer’s work extends far beyond planting and growing cacao, e.g. harvesting, fermenting, drying, ageing…
E.g. during fermentation, biochemical reactions cause a decrease in bitterness and astringency and give rise to the precursors of chocolate flavour and aroma. A properly controlled fermentation will result in positive flavour developments such as fruity, floral, nutty and spicy.
The drying stage, on the other hand, reduces moisture, and the subsequent oxidation phase -which begins during fermentation- completes the maturing process of the aroma and flavour compound.
We’re talking about long, complex procedures and painstaking attention to detail. All these steps demand time, attention, and skill. Do them poorly, and you will find quality begins to fall. But do them well, and you have a recipe for exceptional fine cacao.
From Nicaragua with Love
The training quickly paid off. Don Alfonso’s COODEPROSA developed a flavour profile that is now part of a web platform showcase of high-quality cacao that gives buyers a resource to locate the types of cacao they want.
COODEPROSA was able to commercialize its first specialty cacao in 2018, using the Cacao Flavour Map with respective fermentation protocols. Today, the Belgian cacao importer Silva Cacao brings these beans to exclusive European chocolate makers.
It didn’t take long before famous and award-winning chocolate makers started working with these beans and before bars of “Castillo” hit the European market! There is even a chocolate bar called “Don Alfsono” made by renowned chocolate maker Mikkel Friis-Holm Ottosen.
Who wouldn’t fall in love with these beautiful beans with a fantastic chocolate palette, a nice touch of yellow fruit, sweet notes of honey and pleasant hints of dates and liquorice….
The international products and prizes from national cacao competitions have increased the international recognition of the cacao produced in El Castillero, and now more chocolate companies in Europe are interested in buying from the cooperative.
Team Work Makes the Dream Work
When Alfonso dedicated himself to the production of cacao a few years ago, he never imagined that very soon he would run a co-op specialized in post-harvesting techniques. Let alone that a prize-winning European-made bar would come from his own cooperative, bearing his own name…
Fantastic chocolate is, of course, always the result of inspiring collaborations and contributions from local heroes, from people in the field and supportive professionals behind the scenes, from passionate researchers and cacao connoisseurs, from enthusiastic researchers, and devoted teachers…
KUDO’s, Credits & Inspiration