It all starts with the beans.
Taza could not make the seriously good, unmistakably bold chocolate we make without the men and women responsible for collecting, fermenting and drying cacao beans. During his #sourcingseason travels, our Director of Cocoa Sourcing Jesse Last carved out time to talk with each of our partners in depth, to shine a light on their exceptional work.
Up first, PISA’s Aline Etlicher reveals the good, the bad and the ugly of cacao fermentation and drying to Jesse, including the moments that feel like “washing your hands only to dry them in dirt.”
Aline Etlicher joined PISA leading up to its launch in 2014. Originally from France, she worked for nonprofits in Haiti and the Dominican Republic before deciding on sustainable business as her path to support farmer livelihoods. When Aline heard that Gilbert Gonzales, the VP of Haitian exporter REBO, and Max Edouard Vieux, the company’s Coffee Buying Manager in Haiti’s north, were building a specialty cacao subsidiary, she came knocking. Initially, she managed cacao quality for the company and developed PISA’s processing capacity. Over time, Aline trained her replacement, a local woman named Fenise who had previously bought coffee with Max. In the following interview, Aline shares her and Fenise’s reflections on the difficult, rewarding work of cacao fermentation and drying.
JL: What do you enjoy most about your work at PISA?
AE: Fermenting the cacao! When we began, we measured the temperature of the cacao in the fermentation boxes constantly. Everything was mechanical. But after four years, we are comfortable enough with the process that we can play with the parameters. For example, Fenise says, “By looking at the color of the fermenting beans, I know they need an extra day. Fermentation is beautiful - the color, the smell, the heat.”
JL: And what about processing cacao is most challenging?
AE: Managing the weather is the hardest part, especially the drying phase. We had 22 days of rain in a row last November, but we could not stop buying the cacao beans from the farmers. We needed to build trust with them and show up to prove that “we are still here.” We lost a lot of volume to mold during this period.
JL: What are you doing to prevent this from happening in the future?
AE: We are building more drying tunnels. They are bigger to create more space, but Hurricane Maria knocked one down, so we are revising the structural integrity to make a sturdier version.
JL: What scares you most in this job?
AE: We are not afraid! We think about maintaining quality and complying with our quality standards, but we have no reason to be afraid. It can be frustrating though. Like when the weather is so bad that we cannot dry the cacao that we spent days carefully fermenting. Fenise uses a Haitian expression, “It is like washing your hands only to dry them in dirt.”
JL: How do you and Fenise keep your team motivated in the face of these challenges?
AE: Fenise says it best, “I am not lazy, so they are not lazy. They follow me. My devotion keeps my team working hard. My devotion and my jokes. I tell the team of men I supervise that they must treat the cacao the same way they treat their wives - with care and constant attention.”
JL: Fenise sounds like an outstanding manager -
AE: She’s really good at it, amazing really. This last harvest, we had almost 50 men in two shifts processing the cacao. They listen to her because she’s tough. She’s tough. And she’s from the area too. So she know how everything works.
JL: What impact do you think PISA has had in this community?
AE: We’ve changed the cocoa value chain by introducing more competition in the region. The price paid to farmers has increased because of us and the value we add with quality fermentation. And, we work directly with producers, not with the middlemen. PISA has also created jobs. Fenise says that, “We have seen the community change because we’ve employed people to build our facility, and now they work here year around. The hope is that we maintain this good growth and create more jobs.”