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Sourcing Season: Taza Chocolate & The Holy Grail Cacao Bean

Cacao Sourcing Director, Jesse Last, departing snowy Michigan for Sourcing Season
Cacao Sourcing Director, Jesse Last, departing snowy Michigan for his first stop during #sourcingseason
Part I: A Test of Faith
by Jesse Last

​In early 2017, Taza's product development team came to me with a challenge. They'd been working on a delicious new product, but none of our existing cacao beans had the taste profile they needed. Whereas our Dominican and Haitian cacao beans are bright and fruity and our Ecuadorian one floral and nutty, my colleagues needed a rich and fudgy flavor.

In addition to the flavor, the cacao would have to be - as always - organic certified, consistently available, and delivered by a partner who shared Taza's Direct Trade commitment to doing business in a way that is "seriously good and fair for all." These criteria seemed formidable, but after nearly four years sourcing cacao, I knew the ropes...

The hubris! Over the next year, I learned that of the world's cacao production, only .5% is certified organic, and of this volume, the majority is grown in the Dominican Republic and Peru. While tasty, the cacao samples I tried from these countries - as well as from Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica and Indonesia - lacked the fudgy flavor my colleagues sought.

As we entered Somerville's dog days of summer, doubt crept over me. Did this bean, this Holy Grail of Cacao, even exist? What was I missing? Where else could I look? I'd scoured South America, Central America, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire In West Africa grew cacao with a delicious brownie flavor, but I hesitated to consider the countries based on reported labor abuses and deforestation. I questioned whether Taza would be able to find a partner in the region that met our Direct Trade standards and shared our values of transparent and sustainable trade.

My introduction to ABOCFA challenged these preconceptions. A Farmer Association based in Ghana's Eastern Region, ABOCFA formed in 2008 as a project of Agro Eco, an institute promoting sustainable agriculture throughout Africa. Since then, the Association has more than doubled in size to 695 members, achieving organic and Fair Trade certifications and earning the reputation as an ethical, transparent and dependable producer of great cacao. When the Association's General Manager Stephen Ashia responded to my introductory email within 24 hours, my stomach jumped. Had I finally found the Holy Grail Cacao Bean?

Stephen immediately sent a cacao sample to Taza, and sure enough, it was outstanding - like (organic) homemade brownies fresh from the oven! Everything checked out on paper, but ultimately, Direct Trade is about the relationship. Until I visited Stephen and the ABOCFA farmers in person, asked respectful but hard questions, and got a sense of shared values, the Holy Grail Bean was still a vision.

In Part II: ----, Jesse travels to Ghana to visit Stephen and the ABOCFA farmers. Cacao bean harvesting, drumming and dancing, and village electioneering follow.

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