From November 25th through the 27th, Colombia’s capital city of Bogota was home to the nation’s largest chocolate event: The Chocoshow. This 3-day event broadcasted amazingly diverse cacao bean flavors from across the country and the best of Colombian chocolate. Hosted at Corferias Convention Center, the event spread across 5 large buildings and included runway modeling inspired by chocolate, music, cultural dance, colloquial outfits, Chocolatier shows, workshops for the holiday season, and of course chocolate tasting.
Our friend Jenny Samaniego from Conexion Chocolate was already on the auditorium stage of the event’s academic forum. It was 1:00PM and we scurried over to support her during her presentation.
“There is a need to diversify and safekeep ancestral cacao beans and the HCP is working diligently to bank as many of these heirlooms as possible all across the globe.” Presenting Heirloom Cacao Preservation at the show’s academic forum was one of the goals of coming to Colombia, and Jenny highlighted the HCP’s purpose with excellence.
Afterwards, we made our way to Pavilion 7 hoping to get into the 4:00 PM chocolate tasting session. The tasting was being hosted by a Canadian non-profit called SocoDevi. SocoDevi works for the development of inclusive and sustainable cooperative companies, as well as for the empowerment of women. Their support includes all stages of the agricultural value chain, from inputs, production, transformation, to marketing.
We took our seats at round tables covered in a white cloth. Our host presented us with chocolate samples of 70% cacao from associations and co-ops of cacao farmers from different regions of the country. Each table was also given a large number to bid with (just in case the chocolate was so phenomenal you wanted to purchase 100 kilograms of cacao beans from any of the given samples). Idaly Farfan, a Colombian-Ecuadorian chocolatier, led the tasting. She guided the public on the subtle flavors that could be found in each sample and prompted the crowd to give our perception on the flavors we were able to identify. “Believe it or not you can actually hear chocolate!” She said excitedly. “Snap a piece off and listen for the snap sound. That tells you about the freshness and humidity level.”
First we tasted chocolate from the region of Putumayo and then Cesar and Magdalena. Each chocolate sample was the result of years of hard work and hundreds of families dedicated to perfecting planting and post-harvest processes in hopes to attract clients. After tasting each sample the auctioneer rallied the crowd, chanting and slamming down his wooden hammer hoping to inspire and nail down a great price. The bidding process was both exciting and heart-wrenching. The first 2 regions managed to sell for $2.50 per kilo.
No one bid on Magdalena’s sample.Too bitter, too moist, not enough time in fermentation. The chocolate industry can be a hard-sell. It often takes years of trial and error in improving farming techniques, perfecting the logistics of moving beans from farm to fermentation facility, mastering the fermentation process, and perfecting the drying processes in order for any of these cooperative companies to have the capacity and recognition to present at an event such as this one. Plus the public exposure to potential criticisms requires courage and determination. Jody was asked to speak: “Even though there was no bidder for this company, I want to acknowledge the amazing potential your product has. You’re doing great!”
Idaly asked us to unwrap our last sample. This one was from Meta, Villavicencio from the cooperative Workakao. The smell of the chocolate was subtle. It was more matte than the other samples with a softer snap when broken.
It doesn’t melt quickly. It has hints of honey or panela. It fills my mouth but doesn't quite fill my palate.I considered its attributes carefully.Not aromatic, but with hints of fruit.The microphone passed to a younger gentleman in a wheelchair. He was visually impaired. “There are hints of rose in the flavor, with a touch of honey. It is savory but not overly sweet. There are elemental tones such as wood that can be perceived in the aftertaste. It is delicious.”
He was spot on in his analysis. Idaly congratulated his superior tasting abilities and the auctioneer once more began the cattle rattle.
“The bid starts at $2.00, just 2 dollars for these hard working families and their amazing product!” Our number 23 was raised high. It was followed by a number 13 at the Cacao Hunters table. Jenny raised up her number 09. Ten cents at a time the price per kilogram rose. “Four dollars, four dollars, going once… going twice… oh 4 dollars Cacao Hunters raises it to $4.10!” The energy in the room changed from the disquieting silence of the previous bids to the now energetic shouts, whistles, and claps of the crowd.
“Do we have six dollars and fifty cents?” the auctioneer cried, “Yes! Oh and immediately $6.60! $6.60 going once… going twice…sold to our bidder number 09.” The room erupted in claps.
A Socodevi worker approached our table beaming with joy, “This is our highest sale to date! Thank you for your support and purchase. I’m Juan Manuel and I’m here to assist with anything you may need as we connect you with our representative from Workakao.” He quickly brought over Workakao’s manager and made us acquainted. As we spoke, Jenny stepped forward: “For us, traceability is important. We want to know that value is truly going back into the hands of the farmers. For that reason we would like to visit the fermentation center and speak with a few farmers.” Juan Manuel shook his head eagerly: “We can arrange for that, of course.”
At 4:00AM on Monday morning a white shuttle bus picked us up and we made the 3.5 hour drive to Meta. The cold Bogota air warmed as we made our way down the high mountain to Guamal, Meta situated only 500 meters above sea level. “This region is ideal for growing cacao,” said Juan Manuel, “soon we will be arriving at the fermentation center.”
A team of Socodevi and Workakao members led us to the center to show us around.
The fermentation center was hot and humid. I was immersed in a wave of fresh cacao pulp turning sour into fermentation. “This is our centralized location,” stated Freddy Diaz, Workakao’s manager. “Workakao is a cooperative company of 5 associations–that’s nearly 300 families involved in the work we do here.” An associative member was turning a batch of fermenting seeds, passing them from one crate to another.
“How long do you ferment them for?” asked Mario.
“5 days. 4 rotations. On day 4 we check to see if a fifth day is needed.”
Freddy continued: “Every farmer also has their own on site fermentation process, but this site helps us ensure that the seeds are processed homogeneously from the fermentation to the drying and packaging.”
Next we made our way to the drying station.
The cacao beans’ attributes were much more distinguishable here. An aroma of honey filled the air. Beneath the plastic tarp the space became like a modernized sanctuary.Genetics, terrain, and post-harvest process. The trinity to cacao’s heavenly flavor was exalted most in this open chamber. Mario cracked open a seed to admire the inner workings. We each took a nib and tasted the seed. The flavors found in the seed at this stage of the process were definitive of what this batch of Colombian chocolate would taste like.
We entered the packing room loudly, everyone conversing and enjoying learning from one another. In the packing room Workakao showed us the two quintales of cacao that were our batches. “Can you please check the humidity.” Jenny said straightfaced. A worker grabbed a handheld device and dropped a cacao bean inside its mouth: “7.4”
“The highest we will accept at the shipment is a humidity level of 7. Please be sure to set it back out to dry before sending it to us.” The room became quiet.
“We can do this favor for you, it is not a problem.”Workakao’s site manager replied.
“It is not a favor, sir. We are the client and the expected humidity standard is 7. This must be ensured at delivery if we are to expect a continued relationship.” Jenny may be petite, but she is ferociously particular when doing business.
We were standing in a circle, waiting for something to liven the atmosphere once more.
Jenny cleared her throat. “I know the questions we’ve been asking here today may seem imprudent or as if I am picking at you, but I want you all to know that I truly believe you will have excellent results in the international market. If I am being picky it is because the international clients for the niche you are in are going to be extremely picky. So it is important that you are able to standardize the process and continue with the excellence you have shown us today. Here in Latin America we have amazing people and amazing resources. We must learn to potentialize both our people and our resources so that we can continue adding value to what we do.”
The final stop at the fermentation site was the testing site.
“Here we verify and take notes on all of our products. We are constantly looking to improve the quality of our cacao profile.”
We were given small samples of cacao in nibs and powdered form. “Please, tell us what you think.”
It is amazing how different cacao and hence chocolate can taste. A working flavor profile can be found on Mark Chrisitan’s C-Spot website all about cacao.
As we prepared to go to our on site visit, we sat down to share hot chocolate and cheese. “This region was once filled with violence. I know. I grew up here.” Freddy Diaz, Workakao’s manager said sadly. “We didn’t have violence between us. It was imposed upon us from the outside. But in secret, between neighbors, we helped each other survive.” Colombia’s 50 year civil war ended in 2017, but the weight of his words showed how heavy a toll it continued to bear upon Colombia’s people. “Today marks a milestone for us. For years we have been working hard, arm in arm, hand in hand. We are farmers, administrators, men, women…families. This victory is the result of our unity and hard work.”
These are two beautiful virtues. Knowing that the value of these timeless virtues are being compensated justly and that the individuals behind our delicious chocolate are recognized for who they are and what they do is at the heart of Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate. Whether it is in country or out of country, we remain radically sustainable and delicious through ethical trading and ensuring traceability in all of our chocolate. Stop by our shop or online store and taste for yourself what it's like to spread joy!