Club ChoKolate is always interested in knowing, as deep as possible, the details of bittersweet chocolate making and we take advantage of every opportunity we have to meet the artisans, the craftsmen and women; but also the source of the cacao beans that ultimately become a bittersweet chocolate bar. This trip to Costa Rica was no different.
I began to search for bittersweet chocolate bars that I had tasted and made with cacao beans from Costa Rica. I came across Dandelion “Hacienda Azul” chocolate bar and immediately contacted our agent within the company attempting to know the details of Hacienda Azul, and possibly visit this magical place. Colette and Greg, from Dandelion Small-Batch Chocolates, were unbelievable! They made every effort to get me in contact with Eric from “Buena Nota Imports,” who is their cacao beans’ broker in Costa Rica.
Eric offered me a day trip to “Hacienda Azul,” located in the Turrialba region of Costa Rica, near the town of Peralta. By coincidence, it happened that Eric and I met in January 2016 during the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI) initial Cacao and Chocolate Grader course that took place in San Francisco, California. At the time, we were both somehow starting our journeys in the world of fine cacao, and good-quality chocolate, especially dark or bittersweet chocolate.
We met in San José early in the morning to then stop by Wilfred’s house, the owner of “Hacienda Azul.” Wilfred, a german-decent Costa Rican, is an agronomist who started working with cacao approximately ten (10) years ago when searching for the best way to utilize his newly acquired land. CATIE, “Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza,” has a program to promote the growth of fine flavor cacao in Central and South América, and he decided to start growing cacao from the CATIE program. He had to completely transform the land since it was being used to raise cattle, so he planted cedar trees first, and after the shade was created, cacao trees followed.
On our way to “Hacienda Azul,” normally a 1-2 hour trip by car, we stopped to have a typical breakfast from Costa Rica and then continued our travel. I cannot describe with words the beautiful landscape!
After an enjoyable journey we arrived at “Hacienda Azul,” an approximately 93 hectares forest which half is planted with six (6) different varieties of cacao trees, some “Trinitario” variety and others are clones from CATIE that are more resistant to environmental factors, but preserving fine quality and aromas, very important for small-batch bittersweet chocolate making. Wilfred explained that there is no irrigation system, that the rainforest “takes care of this.” Later, Basilio and Wilber, the managers of the cacao plantation, explained that they plant cacao trees approximately 3 meters apart from each other which leads to 1,100 trees per hectare, and they prune the trees so they can be reached for harvest without major special equipment. Each tree produces from 50 to 60 pods, and there are two to three harvests per year depending on rain and other factors. Then after harvesting, the pods are taken in a truck to the area where the seeds will be removed from inside the cacao pod and cleaned. Even though I have visited several other cacao plantations, we never saw the method used which consisted of a “cacao man” sitting in the back of the truck with a log between his extended legs. This log has a special blade in the middle with the exact same width of the cacao pod husk, so it gets opened, but the seeds inside remain intact.
Afterward, these cacao seeds are cleaned and placed in fermentation cedar boxes. They have a “stair” fermentation system, where at the top of the “stair” the cacao beans spend 2 days in an anaerobic phase (no oxygen) of fermentation, and then 1 day in each subsequent box (down the “stairs”), aerobic (oxygenated) fermentation. To improve oxygenation, and to make sure all beans are fermented uniformly, the “cacao men” churns the beans inside the box with a wooden paddle. The temperature that these beans reach during fermentation is an astonishing 40-45℃ (105 - 115℉). Believe it or not, this fermentation process, where proteins are broken into amino acids, is critical for the development of exceptional flavors ultimately tasted in a bar of bittersweet chocolate.
The final step in these process is the cacao bean drying, which in “Hacienda Azul” is done naturally inside a tent-like structure to protect the beans from rain, which would delay the drying process. Now, before drying, Wilfred and his team wash the bean after fermentation to clear them from excessive debris, a process that has worked well for them in obtaining excellent quality beans. The drying temperatures might reach 65℃ (150℉), and the beans must remain to dry for a few days until the reactions, that started during fermentation are completed. They can't stay drying too long, otherwise undesirable flavors develop. In “Hacienda Azul” the drying time depends on the humidity and weather in the rainforest, and the team is on top of the drying cacao beans, so they are finally recollected at the precise moment. This final step is also an essential element to get a high-quality cacao bean that will end up as good-quality bittersweet chocolate.
Finally, the cacao beans are stored in jute bags to then be transported directly to the chocolate makers, or to a warehouse, with the perfect conditions to keep the quality developed, where they will wait for its final destination.
It impressed me from “Hacienda Azul” how organized the whole process is, and how they use everything generated in the process. From the husks from the cacao pods to be utilized as compost to fertilize the land, to the use of an “oxidation pond” to recycle the water needed for all this processing, and put it back in the rainforest with no significant environmental impact. We can assure you that every bar of bittersweet chocolate made with cacao beans from this team is of high quality.
After visiting “Hacienda Azul,” we are delighted to have coordinated this trip and forever grateful to all the people that made it possible. We at Club ChoKolate hope to have transmitted this nice story, and assure that these bittersweet chocolate bars made with cacao from the volcanic land in Costa Rica will guarantee you a bar with unique flavor, and made with the environment and the "cacao people" involved in mind.