A visit to Kallari

Kallari Chocolate Bars

My favorite part of the trip happened at the end of our tour, when we visited the Kallari cooperative in the the Amazonian rain forest.  The trip began with a long but beautiful ride into the eastern part of the country.  The air got thicker, the roads bumpier and the conversation deeper (it was a 6 hour drive so we discussed chocolate — a lot). I was thrilled to be heading into the heart of cacao country.  According to studies tracing the origins of cacao,  Theobroma cacao is native to exactly where we were heading, the Amazon basin.

Fermentation Bins


We were here to visit  a cooperative of indigenous people living in the Napo region of the Amazon called the Kallari cooperative. They harvest, make and market their own chocolate.  The Kallari story is a fascinating one.  It began in 1997 when a group of Quichwa leaders decided to help local farmers to earn more money for their beans.   With the help of  Judy Logback, an environmentalist and volunteer working in the region, they began selling the beans directly while improving on their fermentation and drying techniques.  Several years later, they decided to take it a step further and actually began making their own chocolate.  They asked John Steinberg, one of the founders of Sharfenberger chocolate to help them develop their first prototype bar and the first shipment of bars went out in 2008.


Beans drying at the collection centre

To learn more about Kallari’s journey, and the people involved, check out these two articles.




Tasting the Fresh Bean

Shortly after arriving at our Amazon lodge, we visited the Kallari headquarters to watch a slide show presentation about the cooperative and to taste some chocolate.  Prior to this visit, we had toured the chocolate factory in Quito that manufactures the Kallari bars.  When I  tasted the bars then and I liked them a lot.   The chocolate is mellow and fruity with an excellent mouthfeel that signifies good conching techniques and a high cocoa butter content.


The opportunity to see this cooperative in action in the region where the cacao is grown,  really made me feel connected to the chocolate.   As a result, it tasted even better than before.  It just goes to show that the story behind a food is very important in increasing your pleasure of it.


Nacional Pods

On the itinerary for the next day was a visit to a traditional family farm.  The Quichwa use a system of agriculture called chakra where different crops are planted alongside each other to promote biodiversity.  Next to cacao plants were medicinal plants, vegetable ivory, and tropical fruits, such as coconuts, and plantains.  I learned that this system is also a way to preserve a traditional way of life that is threatened more and more by the encroaching western culture and economic pressure.  For example, if the Quichwa families didn’t make a secure income from selling their beans, they would probably resort to logging vital Amazonian trees as a way to make money.  This destruction of the forest threatens their environment, and hence, their way of life.


On the way to the farm

The very last stop before heading back into Quito (and our farewell dinner) was a tour of the cocoa collection center.  Unlike some of the others we’d seen, this one was clean, well organized and busy.  I saw a lot of pride in the people working here just like I had seen in the workers on the farm and in the office the day before.  It struck me that Kallari could be a really great model for other cooperatives in other cocoa growing regions. Instead of being at the mercy of multi-national companies who force down the price paid to cooperatives for their beans,  the Kallari cooperative retain 100% of their profits from the finished chocolate, the Kallari bars, all of which go directly back to their members.  That is a massive achievement and definitely something to be proud about!


At the Cacao Collection centers in Quevedo

beans drying at collection center

On the 3rd day, we visited several collection centers around Quevedo.  These centers are where farmers in the area drop off their beans and collect their money.  Usually the beans are already fermented and dried, but if the farmer doesn’t have the equipment or wants money quickly, he can drop off the fresh baba.  These collection centers are very convenient for the farmers but leave a lot to be desired in terms of promoting quality beans.

In two of the three collection centers the beans were dried using powerful blowers instead of natural sunlight.   Beans are “blow dried” to hasten the drying process so that it takes 10 hours rather than 4 days.  I asked Steve Devries his opinion regarding this method, and he is convinced that it kills a lot of flavors that come out of drying the beans naturally.

We sampled some beans at random and found that many of them were under fermented as well.  The beans we split open at Samuel’s farm were brown with nice even cracks, while these were mostly purple.  Under fermented beans means the chocolate will taste astringent and will ultimately have to be masked with lots of sugar or vanilla in order for it to be palatable.

Steve pointed out that bean quality is compromised when you mix all the beans from different farms together, because they will have to be roasted to the most common denominator.   The fact that some farmers bring in perfectly fermented beans won’t matter because others might not care as much about the quality of their beans.   This problem is worsened by the fact that collection centers accept both Arriba beans and CCN-51.  We noticed that very little is done to prevent them from mixing once they got past the door.  So, even if your bar of chocolate claims to use only Arriba beans, chances are it’s not.

Probably the biggest issue threatening quality is cleanliness.   I saw animal feces on the floors of the dryers at one (a good argument agains raw chocolate) and at another, there were chickens nesting in an unused fermentation bin.  At one point we saw workers scrambling to clean up an overflowing toilet that threatened to leak on coffee beans  which were laying out on the floor to dry!  Minutes later we watched in amazement as trucks drove over the those coffee beans.   This is just one example of why it’s very important to know where you food comes from!

I felt that the visit to these centers made one thing very clear:  there is really no better way to insure quality and consistency than by working directly with a farmer.


Samuel’s Cacao Farm, Quevedo, Ecuador

On the road to Samuels Farm.

On day 2 of our trip, we had an early breakfast and then caught the bus to Quevedo, a city in the Los Rios region of Ecuador, and one of the top cocoa bean exporting centers in the country.

Samuel in the plantion.

After a long but picturesque 6 hour drive narrated by our excellent guide, Pablo, we arrived at Samuel von Rutte’s farm.  Samuel is a swiss immigrant and former Nestle employee who moved to Ecuador years ago to become a cocoa farmer.    He now has thousands of trees and supplies many local and international chocolate companies with premium quality beans.  He also supplied us with a premium quality meal of  homemade empanadas and chocolate mousse, which we hungrily gobbled up before  taking a walk around the plantation.  Samuel’s trees are purely Arriba Nacional, a type of  forestaro cacao that is indigenous to Ecuador and considered to be a fine flavor bean.   The success of the cocoa industry in Ecuador is linked to the  Arriba cacao because it is said to have a distinctive flavor profile(floral) that can’t be found in the CCN-51, the other and perhaps more common type of bean available in the country.   The demand for Arriba cacao is so high now that  farmers are encouraged to plant them over the CCN-51 even though the latter are easier to grow.   Whether or not the Arriba can still be found in its pure form is another story and I’ll go into that later.

The men on the drying pad.

After our walk we saw Samuel’s fermentation and drying set up.  Samuel has a special technique to ferment the beans.  Instead of dumping all the baba (raw beans with mucilage) into fermentation bins and rotating them over the course of 4 or 5 days, he does something called dry fermentation.  Once the beans are removed from the pod, he spreads them out to dry for several hours.  He then piles them up overnight to allow them to ferment for 2-3 days.  In wet fermentation, it takes days for the enzymes to permeate the husks.  Using Samuel’s technique, the moisture is removed from drying the beans first, which allows the fermentation to start more quickly.    By doing this, the bad-tasting acids that normally stay trapped in the wet process, are eliminated straight away and the chocolate tastes less bitter and astringent.

After our tour, Samuel let us try some of his 100% chocolate and it was amazingly sweet, smooth, and lacked any bitterness at all.  We all bought lots of bars to take home with us.


Dry fermentation in progress.

A perfectly fermented bean.



Opening the cacao pod.



Beginning a chocolate tour of Ecuador.

This post is being released out of chronological order.  I will report on what happened in Peru and Bolivia in May and early June soon.  Thanks for your patience.  

(Events from mid June 2012)

I decided to treat myself(as if traveling around the world wasn’t a treat enough)by partaking in a chocolate tour at the end of our trip.  The tour was put on by Ecole Chocolat (http://www.ecolechocolat.com) which is an online school based in Vancouver that offers classes in chocolate making, chocolate manufacturing and chocolate tasting.  I am not a graduate, but I do use their website as a resource for finding ingredients and equipment. I sometimes fantasize about participating in one of their Master Classes which bring students together to the kitchens of highly acclaimed chocolate companies such as Valrhona or Felchlin in order to hone their chocolate making skills.

On perusing their website, I discovered that there was a plantation and factory tour scheduled in Ecuador at the end of June.  Not only did it fit exactly with the dates that we planned to be there, but it was lead by my chocolate hero, Steve DeVries!

Steve Devries is my favorite bean to bar chocolate maker in the United States.   His chocolate is a revelation.  He coaxes out amazing flavors and texture without the use of vanilla, cocoa butter or too much sugar.  During the tour, I discovered that this is a testament to his knowledge of cocoa processing techniques and a love for antique chocolate making equipment, which he insists makes much better chocolate. For those interested, his chocolate will soon be available online only which he ships from his shop in Denver, Colorado (http://www.devrieschocolate.com).

To begin the tour,  our group met in the lobby of Hotel Quito in Ecuador, which would be our hub for the week.   The plan was to take side trips to 3 different regions in Ecuador and then reconvene back in Quito.  There were 12 of us including Ecole Chocolat founder,  Pam Williams and her husband, Daryll, and on this first evening we shared dinner and stories of chocolate at a nearby restaurant.    It was the only time I would be away from my family during the entire 10 month trip and after meeting my new travel companions and fellow chocolate enthusiasts, I was excited to do my my own thing for a week.

The photos below are of some of the participants!