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.
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.