An Insider's Look into Colombian Chocolate

An Insider's Look into Colombian Chocolate

Driving through the farmlands of Cordoba in Colombia, the car I’m in slows down to avoid the bumps and holes along the narrow road. As I look towards the tall plantain and yucca trees, I am able to catch a glimpse of one fruit that rarely leaves the country: cocoa.  The cocoa tree is rumored to have originated not too far from here under the foliage of the Andean foothills. To this day, cocoa trees in this area are still traditionally grown under the shade of other plants. These crops are usually the staple food of the community and the cocoa beans are primarily a cash crop. In small towns like Tierralta, small warehouses pay farmers for their harvest by weight and sell the beans and other local dried goods in bulk. Some cocoa is purchased by the locals, but the vast majority goes to one of the two big chocolate manufacturers in the country: Nacional de Chocolate of Medellin and Casa Luker of Bogota.

Domestic consumption and manufacture of cocoa products is driven by Colombian-style hot chocolate. It is prepared by breaking a piece of a chocolate block and then heating it with milk or agua de panela, a drink made from unrefined cane sugar which is also sold in blocks. After the drink reaches the desired temperature, a molinillo is used to create froth. Colombians of all different climates drink chocolate throughout the day, usually with an arepa, a type of corn flatbread. Some, myself included, like to add a chunk of semi-soft cheese called Queso Campesino.  The cheese doesn’t melt and its mildness enhances the chocolate instead of overpowering the drink.

Colombian cocoa production is in a unique state of transition. In 2012, President Juan Manuel Santos unleashed a ten year plan for the cocoa industry that gives tax incentives and a per pound subsidy to farmers in the hopes of boosting production. The administration also presented it as a way of combating the cocoa farming that fuels paramilitary and Marxist groups operating within its borders. This plan coincided with the first Colombian single origin bar hitting the shelves in international markets. For the 2013 harvest, huge shipments of the high quality beans arrived in Europe in hopes of attracting well-known confectioners. This year, the peace talks with FARC-EP, the biggest guerilla group, have moved forwards and many analysts are suggesting that they may soon lay down arms and form a political party. If peace talks are successful, it would free up a third of the national territory to an environment naturally suited for cocoa production.  

It is a good bet that Americans will be seeing more Colombian chocolate on the shelves in the years to come. This raises the agronomic problem of what variety and hybrid to plant. The choice is between planting disease resistant hybrids best suited for large industrial applications or maintaining native trees with more complex flavor profiles and higher prices on the international market. Domestic and foreign investment is gravitating towards the former but I feel both ends of the supply chain would benefit significantly by increasing production of the latter. The trees native to the region are old but replacing them with hybrids that rely on pesticides and require different farming practices may lead to a situation resembling Hershey’s involvement in Belize during the 80’s. After convincing farmers to cut down native trees to establish large-scale hybrid farms, Hershey abandoned their project a couple years later because it became cheaper to buy similar beans on the world market. These farms were left abandoned or replaced by other crops until UK’s Green & Black saw an opportunity to revitalize and capitalize on traditional farming practices. And so the first organic fairtrade bar was born.

cacao beans in the process of drying and fermenting

Cocoa grown in Colombia is in need of international support from entrepreneurs that know quality when they taste it.  Colombia has made a name for itself in other soft commodities like coffee by emphasizing perfect environmental conditions that lead to superior products. The success of that regional distinction along with renewed government interest and its struggling, but coveted native stock make it a prime opportunity for craft bean to bar chocolate manufacturers.

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