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A New Cacao Bean Origin: Ecuador

Taza Cocoa Sourcing Manager Jesse Last shares reflections about his spring trip to our newest origin: Ecuador.

In 2007, Taza Chocolate sourced its first lot of organic cacao from La Red Guaconejo, a farmer cooperative in the Dominican Republic. The same year, the Peace Corps assigned a recruit named Kate Cavallin to the organization. While La Red Guaconejo formed several years before she arrived and would persevere  for several years after she left, Kate imparted invaluable stability to the cooperative - and to Taza's supply chain - during her time in the country.

Ten years later, Taza's Product Development Team hatched an idea for a delicious new chocolate product. (Now available! Check out our newly launched Dark Bark!) Our current origin partners deliver outstanding cacao, but none of the beans have the deep brownie flavor profile required to make our newest treat taste just right. We need a new origin, and soon! My first step is to sit down with colleagues to develop criteria around flavor, volume, and price. Based on this, I narrow down the 30+ cacao-producing countries across the globe and select a few targets, most in South America. Finally, I am ready to reach out to my network of cacao contacts.

Kate Cavallin at La Red Guaconejo, 2011.
Kate Cavallin at La Red Guaconejo, 2011.

Kate Cavallin is one of my first calls. Today, she lives in Ecuador managing one of the country's largest cacao exporters, AgroArriba. Brought on by the commodity firm ECOM in 2011, Kate has since built AgroArriba from the ground up. The majority of the company's exports are bulk cacao, but Kate has never forgotten Taza. When I reach out, she and Pam Schreier, Kate's right-hand and the company's Regional Sustainability Manager, identify an association of farmers in Ecuador's northwest as growing the cacao bean we need.

Several weeks later, Pam and I are driving from AgroArriba's cacao plant to the San Gregorio Farmer's Association. As promised, Kate and Pam's cacao bean was just what we were after and beat out a half dozen other cacao samples with Taza's Tasting Panel. With everything looking good from afar, it is time for an in-person visit and the accompanying conversations around quality, price and transparency that lie at the core of a Direct Trade relationship.  

After an 8 hour drive, Pam and I arrive in the community of Balsalito, a small pueblo located in the buffer zone of the Mache Chindul Ecological Reserve. The first half of our visit with San Gregorio is spent on farms meeting producers. Dolores Chenche, Jose Muñoz and Carmela Juz show us their land and their cacao trees, most of them podless as farmers await the next harvest. While short, these visits represent a first step towards building a relationship with the Association, and I make sure to share our Mexicano Discs with the producers I meet. During my next visit, I'll bring along chocolate made from their beans.

Kate Cavallin and Pam Schrier with an AgroArriba colleague, 2017.
Kate Cavallin and Pam Schrier with an AgroArriba colleague, 2017.

The second half our our time is spent at the fermentation and drying facilities with Alba Montenegro, San Gregorio's day-to-day administrator and a young cacao producer herself. Alba describes how the Association keeps the organic and non-organic cacao separate at all times, although in reality, nearly all of the organization's 160 members are organic in practice if not certification. Alba also describes the five-day fermentation protocol, a relatively short process that reflects the genetics of the region's cacao. Unlike the higher-yielding CCN-51 variety, this cacao needs less time to bring out its fine flavors.

When Pam and I pile back into the pickup, I know what works needs to be done. Over the next several months, additional farmers must be certified organic, the Association needs more boxes to process all the cacao, and the fermentation protocol requires several adjustments to meet Taza's demanding standards. Nonetheless, with Pam and Kate overseeing these improvements, I'm not worried. I know everything will be in place when I visit San Gregorio again this summer, just as it was with La Red Guaconejo a decade ago in the Dominican Republic.

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