Tag Archives: Ecuador

HEXX Chocolate – A Super. Natural. Story on the Las Vegas Strip

Situated in the shadow of a half-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower, amidst the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas Strip, we find the unlikely presence of Nevada’s sole bean-to-bar chocolate concept called HEXX Chocolate (Feldberg). In a city where audacious and artificial are the norm – HEXX’s authentic approach to chocolate they call “Super. Natural.” is breaking the mold of industry paradigms and bridging the huge chasm between chocolate’s primary consumers in the global north and cacao producers in the global south (“Authentic”). In HEXX’s unique approach, they are taking on one of the most pressing social and ethical challenges facing the chocolate industry today – the plight of farmers in cacao producing nations and the general lack of awareness amongst consumers. By examining four key aspects of HEXX: The unique DNA of its leadership; the original way it is presenting its chocolate story to customers; its intentional cultivation of long-term, ethical relationship with its farmers; and its unique challenges, we will see HEXX molding chocolate’s present and future for the better.

HEXX’s Founders and Chocolate Makers – As Unique as Its Brand

As unique as HEXX’s presence is on the Las Vegas Strip, equally as original are its founders and chocolate makers. In the emerging craft chocolate space that has grown from a single company to 200 in the past two decades (Leissle 3; Giller), one might imagine a chocolate maker as a geeky chocolate scientist perfecting chocolate for other geeks (Giller) or perhaps a hipster with a cause (“MAST”). However, at HEXX, we find something quite different. The brain-trust and chocolate makers at HEXX are Matthew Silverman and Matthew Piekarski – established, culinary heavyweights in the Las Vegas dining scene who also lead HEXX’s 24×7 restaurant operation, which shares the same space and name (“Meet Our Chefs”).

Silverman and Piekarski
Chefs Matthew Silverman and Matthew Piekarski head up HEXX’s Restaurant and Chocolate Operations in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip (Morris).

In a town chock-full of celebrities, one could argue Silverman and Piekarski are celebrities in their own right. Silverman traces his culinary roots to the acclaimed Wolfgang Puck (Leach). Piekarski’s resume not only includes an Executive Chef stint working with Eva Longoria Parker but he has the distinction of being named “Las Vegas’ Hottest Chef” (“Chef Matt Piekarski”; Stapleton). Silverman and Piekarski’s culinary chops and earned reputations provide them a perfect platform to share HEXX’s chocolate story from their headquarters on the Las Vegas Strip, which they have been doing since 2015. In doing so, they are not only sharing the story of HEXX, but also the unique locales where its chocolate originates from and the oft-untold stories of farmers who cultivate and harvest cacao – the raw materials from which chocolate is made.

Engaging, Educating, and Expanding Chocolate’s Consumer Base

It is impossible to step-off of Las Vegas Boulevard, into HEXX’s 30,000 square foot restaurant and chocolate factory and not leave with a better appreciation for its chocolate and its origin stories (Womack).

HEXX's Logo
HEXX’s logo highlights the story of cacao farmers 20 degrees north and south of the equator (“HEXX Logo”).

That is exactly Silverman and Piekarski’s intent. From HEXX’s name and chocolate packaging to how it creatively engages customers throughout their restaurant dining experience, HEXX is educating its customers and changing their perceptions about chocolate (Piekarski). Says Silverman about the name HEXX, “The XX represents Roman numerals and speaks to the farms we source our cacao beans from, all of which are located 20 degrees above or below the equator” (Vintage View). Before unwrapping any of HEXX’s 2-oz, single-origin chocolate bars, one learns about the country and farm its cacao is sourced from and the unique flavors and terroir of the region (“Product”).

HEXX Chocoate Bars
HEXX’s single-orgin bars from different regions around the world (from left to right): Venezuela, Tanzania, Peru, Ecuador, and Madagascar (not pictured: Dominican Republic) (“About Our Chocolate”).
HEXX Dark Chocolate - Ecuador, Camino Verde Farm
HEXX’s most popular bar from the Camino Verde Farm in Ecuador (Vintage View). Its flavorings are “well-rounded with sweet marzipan and floral notes” (“Product Catalog”. It contains 73% cacao content (“HEXX Chocolate – Camino Verde Bar”).
Venezuelan Milk Chocolate Cheesecake
Venezuelan Milk Chocolate Cheesecake – one of the ways HEXX highlights chocolate throughout its menu (“Venezuelan Cheesecake”).

HEXX also sprinkles in subtle chocolate highlights throughout its restaurant dining experience – from its use of cocoa nibs as a nut replacement in muffins and salads to its use of Venezuelan Milk Chocolate in a luxurious cheesecake (Piekarski; That’s So Vegas). At the end of each meal, diners are given a petit four, which offers a taste of one of HEXX’s six single-origin chocolates. This end-of-meal ceremony not only serves as a decadent way to culminate one’s gastronomic experience but is an invitation to its patrons to learn more about HEXX’s chocolate story and more importantly connect with its cacao farmers – 20 degrees above and below the equator. 

Petit Four
A petit four, emblazoned with HEXX’s signature XX, and accompanied by a “spell-binding” message similar to those inscribed on the back of HEXX’s chocolate bars (HEXX Chocolate).

While HEXX’s chocolate message to its customers is subtle and sophisticated, its commitment to its farmers is clear and direct and can be traced to Silverman and Piekarski’s own personal culinary backgrounds: “Coming from our roots as chefs we have an appreciation for the farmers and purveyors who grow and raise our food. Developing relationships with the people who grow and import our ingredients is the most important thing that we do. Knowing who grows the ingredients, how they are grown and ensuring that the people growing them are paid a fair price is at the core of our beliefs as chefs and chocolate makers” (“Direct Trade”). It is HEXX’s relationship with its cacao farmers and how it is addressing current labor issues in the chocolate industry that we will explore next.

Cultivating Long-Term, Ethical Trade Relationships

One of the most pressing issues facing the chocolate industry today is the dichotomy between the wealth generated by big chocolate companies in the global north and the extremely low and inconsistent wages of cacao farmers in the global south (Martin “Introduction”). In 2014, the chocolate industry registered over $100 billion dollars in worldwide sales (“Cocoa Prices”). At the same time, in the two highest producing cacao nations of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana – responsible for 60 percent of world cacao production – farmers are paid on average $.50 and $.84 a day, respectively (Martin “Introduction”). This is far below the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.90 per day and well below other global minimum wage standards (“FAQs: Global Poverty”; Martin “Introduction”).

Cocoa Barometer
Cacao farmers in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana make $0.50 and $0.84 a day on average. Additionally wages are often irregular, creating other challenges for farmers (“Cocoa Barometer”; Martin “Introduction”).
Cocoa Barometer
While chocolate is a $100 billion dollar industry, just a small percentage of it makes its way back to farmers in cacao producing nations (“Real Cost”).

In response to this disparity, over the years a number of solutions have been developed including coalitions, government initiatives, civil society organizations and ethical trade models (Martin “Introduction”). The most recognizable of these today are the certifications emblazoned on the front of chocolate bars and other food products like Fair-Trade, UTZ, USDA Organic, and Rainforest Alliance (Martin and Sampeck 51; Martin “Alternative Trade”). While HEXX does purchase certified beans from at least two of its six cacao suppliers, in its choice not to exclusively source certified beans, HEXX is highlighting the limitations and critiques leveled against the certification model itself – that it is not always most beneficial to farmers (“About Our Chocolate”; Martin and Sampeck 52). While certifications generate big dollars – over $3 billion in revenue worldwide – very little of it makes its way back to producers (Martin “Alternative Trade”). By some estimations, for every dollar an American consumer pays for a Fair Trade product, a meager $.03 makes its way back to farmers (Sylla 125). Of its decision not to solely purchase certified organic beans in particular, HEXX states, “Not all of our cacao beans are certified organic, because certifications can be a costly expense for our farmers, but all are produced to the same standards that organic certifiers adhere to” (“Direct Trade”). Thus, while quality is of great importance to HEXX, consideration for its farmers is paramount.

Certifications
Certifications generate big dollars but by some estimations, for every dollar an American consumer pays for a Fair Trade product, just $.03 trickles down to farmers (Sylla 125; Martin “Alternative Trade”).

HEXX’s answer to the social and economic conditions of its farmers and the less-than-effective certification model is clear: the cultivation of long-term, direct trade relationships (“Direct Trade”). Advocates of direct trade, including HEXX, argue three primary benefits: first, it enables farmers to negotiate price, resulting in generally higher premiums. Second, it incentivizes farmers to produce higher-quality beans. Lastly and most importantly, it eliminates the layers of middlemen that have historically been a part of the chocolate trade. This fosters learning and mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and chocolate makers (“Direct Trade”; Martin “Alternative Trade”).

Conventional Cocoa Value Chain
Direct trade eliminates the layers of middlemen historically a part of the chocolate supply chain (Phillips).

Their relationships with cacao farmers is something Piekarski and Silverman take very personally. While potential partners are first identified by friend and “Chocolate Sourcerer,” Greg D’Alesandre of Dandelion Chocolate, Piekarski and Silverman take it from there (Piekarski). They travel to each country to meet and establish relationships with potential partners, and see the conditions farmers work under. Piekarski describes these trips as “life changing experiences” that have altered both his business and personal perspectives. Silverman adds, “When we form a partnership with a cacao farm, we are looking to build a long-term relationship with them. There’s no way to do that without going to the farm, trying and testing their cacao beans, and getting to know the owners and operators. Plus, we need to feel good about the culture of the cacao farm. Establishing a business relationship . . . is like getting to know extended family” (“Behind the Scenes”). HEXX’s verbal commitment translates into action. While the global commodity price for cacao has hovered around $1 a pound in recent years, HEXX pays its farmers between $5 and $10 a pound, according to Piekarski.

Silverman and Piekarski - Camino Verde
Piekarski (second from right) and Silverman (far right) visiting Camino Verde in Ecuador – one of the farms HEXX sources its cacao from (“Camino Verde”).

Direct trade is not without its limitations and critiques as well. Critics, particularly as it relates to craft chocolate, point to at least three limitations: first, its reach is very limited. For instance, of the 4.8 million metric tons of cacao purchased each year, HEXX purchases just 30 tons of it (Martin “Alternative Trade”; Martin and Sampeck 55; Piekarski). Second, direct trade partnerships tend to be devoid of farms in West African countries which account for 70 percent of the world’s cacao production (Martin and Sampeck 55; Wessel and Quist-Wessel). This is true of HEXX’s partnerships as well, which are in Madagascar, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Tanzania, and the Dominican Republic (“Product”). Lastly, direct trade relationships can be fragile, in part, because craft chocolate companies that favor these relationships may lack industry experience, financial stability, and face steep learning-curves (Martin and Sampeck 55). To this final critique, HEXX’s response is strong. Silverman and Piekarski’s culinary pedigree and HEXX’s business model set them apart from other craft chocolate companies. While chocolate will always be the foundation and cornerstone on which HEXX is built, its sales account for just $1 million of HEXX’s $30 million in annual combined revenue (Piekarski). This fact puts HEXX in an extremely strong position and affords them creative liberties to take risks with its chocolate brand – a luxury most craft chocolate companies do not have.

When one looks at the entirety of HEXX: The culinary and celebrity gravitas of its two chocolate makers, a $30 million restaurant behind it, and its prime location on the Las Vegas Strip, it is easy to assume HEXX holds the perfect hand in the burgeoning craft chocolate market. However, HEXX is not without its challenges. The very things that make HEXX distinct, also contribute to its biggest challenges. We will close by exploring these challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead for HEXX.

HEXX’s Challenges and Its Future

With its prime location and Silverman and Piekarski at the helm, HEXX has unrivaled access to two atypical markets for a craft chocolate company: the casual consumer dining at its restaurant and the vast number of restaurateurs in Las Vegas, whom HEXX could source its chocolate to. However, in its outreach to both groups, HEXX has faced some resistance. While chocolate is featured throughout HEXX’s menu, Piekarski said they have scaled back use particularly in some of its main dishes. While chocolate connoisseurs might swoon over a chicken mole or steak finished-off with condensed cocoa butter, not all of HEXX’s customers have taken to these flavors. Further, Piekarski said they have reached out to “every casino in town” to offer their chocolate as a source ingredient that could potentially be incorporated into other restaurants’ dishes. This has also been met with resistance. Piekarski states, “We want people to incorporate our chocolate in everything they do not necessarily because we want our brand out there but we want to supply people with a superior quality product at a cheaper price. We understand, as chefs, restaurants operate on very thin margins and this is as important for [other restaurants] as it is for us.”

Alexxa
HEXX’s Book of Chocolate Stories features Alexxa, HEXX’s “mystical muse” who is featured prominently throughout its brand. While appealing to mainstream customers, Alexxa’s presence as well as the absence of certification labels on HEXX’s products may be a hurdle for gourmet grocery stores (“Alexxa”).

HEXX’s location and popular appeal has also proved perplexingly problematic to a typical craft chocolate ally: gourmet grocery stores like Whole Foods. While HEXX has been well-received at events like the Fancy Food Show – the largest food show on the West Coast – it has faced a vexing, uphill battle with gourmet grocery stores precisely because of its mainstream appeal and Las Vegas Strip location (That’s So Vegas; Piekarski). Piekarski explains, “It took us a year and a half to get into Whole Foods in Las Vegas. And we only got there because we are [local].” He continues, “Everything about what we do is not what they look for in terms of craft chocolate. People ask, ‘Where do you produce? On the Las Vegas Strip?’ And that can be the end of the conversation 7 times out of 10.” In just its third year of operations, as the only craft chocolate producer in Nevada, challenges such as these should not come as a total surprise.  And as HEXX steps out further to explore new territory, its opportunities for growth are abundant.

HEXX’s future plans include developing its restaurant presence locally, growing retail sales nationally, and forming new cacao partnerships internationally. After recent renovations to its dining facilities, HEXX is purposefully reintegrating chocolate into its food program in a distinct way, says Piekarski. Weekend diners will now find a cart-wheeling Chocolate Sommelier offering up chocolate for guests to sample, adding another chocolate connection point for its customers. HEXX also recently hired a former Mars and Hershey employee tasked with expanding its retail presence in the Northwest and Midwest, in addition to Central Markets in Texas and Carr Valley Cheese Stores in Wisconsin where HEXX is currently sold (Piekarski; “Where to Find”). Finally, HEXX is looking to extend its international reach to cacao farmers in two additional countries – Trinidad and Granada (Piekarski).

HEXX - James Beard Foundation
Piekarski (third from left) and Silverman (far right) with fellow chefs and friends presenting a 6-course Chocolate Themed Valentine’s Eve Dinner at the historic James Beard Foundation House in New York City (“James Beard”).

Conclusion

In HEXX, we see an immensely compelling craft chocolate concept, connecting multitudes of atypical consumers to the story of its cacao farmers – 20 degrees above and below the equator. Through its authentic message to its customers and ethical relationships with farmers, HEXX is artfully bringing two worlds together that could not be further apart. While HEXX has faced challenges on multiple fronts during its first years, it is impossible not to be incredibly optimistic about HEXX’s industry-altering potential. With two talented and resolute chefs at the helm of its $30 million restaurant and chocolate operations, HEXX has both the gastronomic and financial chops to challenge the chocolate industry’s status-quo, transforming the way consumers see chocolate, and elevating the plight of cacao farmers in the process. In a city built on big wagers, perhaps there is none bigger and more important to chocolate’s sustainable future than HEXX.

Works Cited

“About Our Chocolate” HEXX Chocolate, 13 Jan. 2017, www.hexxchocolate.com/our-chocolate/#prettyPhoto/31/.

“Alexxa.” HEXX Chocolate, shop.hexxchocolate.com/products/alexxa-book-sample-pack-4-2-12-oz-milk-bars.

“Authentic. Handcrafted. Bean-to-Bar.” HEXX Chocolate, 27 Nov. 2017, www.hexxchocolate.com/.

“Behind the Scenes of Hexx’s Beans.” Vegas Seven, Dec. 2016, vegasseven.com/2016/12/06/behind-beans-hexx-chocolate-confexxions/.

“Camino Verde.” HEXX Chocolate, www.hexxchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Hexx-Chefs-in-Ecuador-with-Keith-from-High-Road-Ice-Cream.jpg.

“Chef Matt Piekarski – A Celebrity Chef among Celebrities.” Haute Living, 16 Aug. 2010, hauteliving.com/2010/08/chef-matt-piekarski-%E2%80%94-a-celebrity-chef-among-celebrities/76371/.

“Cocoa Barometer.” Green America, https://www.greenamerica.org/sites/default/files/styles/frontpageslideshow1382/public/2017-04/cocobarom.png?itok=mzOq8F1y.

“Cocoa Prices and Income of Farmers.” Make Chocolate Fair!, 16 Aug. 2017, makechocolatefair.org/issues/cocoa-prices-and-income-farmers-0.

“Direct Trade.” HEXX Chocolate, 9 July 2016, www.hexxchocolate.com/direct-trade/.

“FAQs: Global Poverty Line Update.” World Bank, www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/brief/global-poverty-line-faq.

Feldberg, Sarah. “Hexx Debuts New Chocolate Tour and Tasting: Travel Weekly.” Travel Weekly- The Travel Industry’s Trusted Voice, 12 Dec. 2016, www.travelweekly.com/North-America-Travel/Hexx-debuts-new-chocolate-tour-and-tasting.

Giller, Megan. “Geeks Are Using Science to Make the Best Chocolate Ever.” Engadget, 17 Jan. 2018, www.engadget.com/2017/12/19/bean-to-bar-chocolate-tech/.

HEXX. “Venezuelan Cheesecake.” Yelp, 8 Sept. 2016, www.yelp.com/biz_photos/hexx-kitchen-bar-las-vegas-2?select=XwvqAqiHkq5E9kth5ewVGg.

HEXX Chocolate. “Petit Four.” Facebook, facebook.com/hexxchocolate/.

“HEXX Chocolate – Camino Verde Bar.” HEXX Chocolate, HEXX Chocolate, www.hexxchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/product_20.jpg.

“HEXX Chocolates.” HEXX Chocolate, www.hexxchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/chocolate_2.jpg.

“HEXX Exterior.” Splash Magazines | Los Angeles, www.lasplash.com/uploads//4be6/598cc629ae581-hexx-kitchen-bar-review-2.jpg.

“HEXX Logo.” HEXX Chocolate, https://www.hexxchocolate.com.

“HEXX Restaurant Eiffel Tower.” TripAdvisor, www.tripadvisor.ca/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g45963-d7892832-i152216425-Hexx_kitchen_bar-Las_Vegas_Nevada.html.

“James Beard.” HEXX Chocolate, http://www.hexxlasvegas.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/JBF-2-13-2016-All-the-Chefs-in-the-Kitchen-01.png.

“Kitchen.” HEXX Chocolate, www.hexxchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/DSC_2749-e1429702796581.jpg.

Leach, Robin. “Mark Andelbradt Is New Chef at Spago; Chef-Chocolatier Matthew Silverman Sweetens Hexx at Paris Las Vegas.” Las Vegas Review-Journal, 19 Feb. 2017, www.reviewjournal.com/entertainment/entertainment-columns/robin-leach/mark-andelbradt-is-new-chef-at-spago-chef-chocolatier-matthew-silverman-sweetens-hexx-at-paris-las-vegas/.

Leissle, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 13, no. 3, 2013, pp. 22–31., doi:10.1525/gfc.2013.13.3.22.

Mair, Anthony. “HEXX Restaurant Interior.” Las Vegas Review Journal, 18 July 2017, www.reviewjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/8914853_web1_4-credit-anthony-mair-hexx_dining-room.jpg.

Martin, Carla D. “Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 04 Apr. 2018. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Introduction.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 24 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. and Sampek, Kathryn E., The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe. 2016 Jan., DoI: 10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

“MAST Brothers, the Most Hipster Chocolate Company Ever, Is Coming to LA next Month.” Time Out Chicago, 23 Mar. 2016, www.timeout.com/los-angeles/blog/mast-brothers-the-most-hipster-chocolate-company-ever-is-coming-to-la-next-month-032316.

“Meet Our Chefs.” HEXX Chocolate, 18 Oct. 2017, www.hexxchocolate.com/chefs/.

Morris, Sam. “Silverman and Piekarski”. Las Vegas Review-Journal, 3 Apr. 2014, www.reviewjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/9851452_web1_newfoods_040315sm_014.jpg.

Phillips, D.; Tallontire, A. Drivers and Barriers to Sustainable Purchasing in the Cocoa Sector; NRET Working Paper; Department of Geography, University of Newcastle: Tyne and Wear, UK, 2007; pp. 1–8.

Piekarski, Matthew. Phone Interview. 30 Apr.2018

“Product Catalog.” HEXX Chocolate, Jan. 2017, https://www.hexxchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/HEXX_00037_ProductCatalog_BR_LoRes.pdf.

“Real Cost” Raisetrade, www.raisetrade.com/real-cost-of-a-chocolate-bar.html.

“Sorting Beans.” HEXX Chocolate, www.hexxchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/DSC_2761.jpg.

Stapleton, Susan. “Matt Piekarski Is Las Vegas’ Hottest Chef.” Eater Vegas, Eater Vegas, 14 Feb. 2013, vegas.eater.com/2013/2/14/6479591/matt-piekarski-is-las-vegas-hottest-chef.

Sylla, Ndongo Samba. The Fair Trade Scandal Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Ohio University Press, 2014.

That’s So Vegas. HEXXY Valentine’s Day. YouTube, YouTube, 9 Feb. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gS36E7ttE4Y.

Vintage View. “HEXX Chocolate & Confexxions and HEXX Kitchen + Bar.” VintageView, 24 July 2015, vintageview.com/blog/hexx-chocolate-confexxions-and-hexx-kitchen-bar/.

Wessel, Marius, and Quist-Wessel, P.M. Foluke. “Cocoa Production in West Africa, a Review and Analysis of Recent Developments.” NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, vol. 74-75, 2015, pp. 1–7., doi:10.1016/j.njas.2015.09.001.

Ecuador’s Cocoa Quandary: Nacional vs. CCN-51

“Great chocolate starts with the finer Theobraoma Cacao trees. But those trees are poised for extinction. They’re being crowded out by the vast majority of other cacáo trees – 95% — which are bland, bulk-grade. As this bulk continues to encroach on the other 5% — prized as fine-flavored — at an alarming rate, a world of boring chocolate awaits…”                                (the C-spot, Atlas/historical timeline)

Ecuador is home to some of the world’s most prized cacao, a variety known as Nacional. Although the beans from this fruit fall under the general umbrella category of Forestero, Nacional beans are generally considered “fine or flavored”, and are distinguished by their unique, floral quality, making them highly sought after by chocolate makers. So distinctive are they, that of the first ten cacao beans recognized by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation, four of them are Nacional varieties from Ecuador.

ecuador

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Ecuador, to visit with cacao growers and see firsthand how they manage the routine activities of farming; of pruning and weeding, pest control, harvesting and generally maintaining their precious crop. Subsequent appointments at centralized co-ops were scheduled, to demonstrate the particular techniques that are required in post-harvest processing – a closely monitored system of fermentation, followed by several days of sun-drying, all set to specific protocols. Once dried, these beans are bagged up and sold to chocolate makers around the world. In posh boutiques stretching from San Francisco to New York and beyond, you will find examples of high quality “craft” chocolate bars made from these very cocoa beans, with prices ranging from $8-17 for a 2 oz. tablet.

 

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Considering the close attention to detail and care attended to the fruit at its place of origin, one might expect Ecuadorian cacao farmers to earn a respectable return on their investment. In contrast, what I found is that most growers were living at or near the subsistence level, barely earning enough income to offset the costs of production. The susceptibility of their prized fruit to various diseases, the vagaries of weather and the comparatively low yield of the Nacional variety has led many farmers to switch to more prolific, disease resistant clones, such as CCN-51, or to more profitable crops, such as bananas, palm fruit or rubber. Others, clinging to their Nacional trees as a point of pride, are choosing to band together into cooperative enterprises, hoping that solidarity and an increased demand for their beans will result in greater profits in the future. The paradoxical nature of this situation, that a luxury product such as chocolate might bring so little financial benefit to its community of origin, is curiously familiar in the world of fine chocolate and deserves a closer look.

 

A brief introduction to the story of chocolate:

Cacao Theobroma is known to have originated in the Amazonian/Andean region of South America, in an area that corresponds roughly to a modern-day confluence of Peru, Colombia and Ecuador.

centerdiversity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Screenshot 2018-05-09 at 2.03.41 AM

Through trading, exploration and expansion, or perhaps evolving independently as its own morphological strain, cacao fruit migrated north to Mesoamerica, where it was first cultivated by the Olmec, and then found favor in the everyday social life of the Maya, whose bitter chocolate drinks were consumed as part of ritual ceremonies (marriages, births, and deaths), and employed as medicine to treat various ailments, while the raw beans were used as a form of currency.  

The Aztec civilization saw further esteem bestowed upon cacao, as the drink became synonymous with wealth and prestige. The Emperor Montezuma’s penchant for chocolate is legendary;  far-flung Spanish explorers who visited the Emperor were quick to recognize its symbolic value, and soon developed a taste for the frothy, bitter drink.

European colonialism expanded chocolate’s reach, as it found new and appreciative audiences among Spanish Conquistadors, court royalty, the wealthy, and the Church. To meet these demands, encomenderos first conscripted vast tributes from the indigenous people, in the form of valuable cocoa beans. As the appetite for chocolate grew, increased pressure was put on production, leading to the complete subjugation of land and people, to the point of eventual demographic collapse. (C. Martin, lecture 5,  “Slavery, abolition and forced labor”). Domestication of cacao had already spread throughout Central America, then on to Venezuela and its South American neighbors, as well as to expanded plantings in the Caribbean islands, leading to its inevitable reliance on forced labor, indentured servitude and African chattel slavery.

As time went on and colonies gained their independence, established European chocolate companies were determined to find new regions to exploit, leading to the establishment of cacao plantations in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, the Atlantic islands of Sao Tome and Principe, and eventually the African mainland. The Industrial Revolution saw the development of new and valuable processing equipment, along with major adaptations to the chocolate recipe – alkalization (Dutch processing) became the norm, and milk powder was added to the blend. With expansion and increased output, chocolate consumption became much more democratic; as production methods became more efficient, supplies went up and costs came down. Cote d’Ivoire and the Gold Coast (now Ghana) grew to dominate the market, with their climate being well-suited to the specifics of cacao growth and with a seemingly inexhaustible supply, whether willing or not, of field laborers.

Chocolate’s evolution from bitter drink to a solid, sweetened confection parallels the establishment of other popular stimulants and “drug crops”, most especially coffee, tea and sugar. What was once a rare and costly product, reserved for the elite, became commonplace and a daily consumable of the masses. Large-scale manufacturers, seeking to maximize profits, diluted their products with increasing amounts of sugar and milk powder, then gradually introduced candy bars, who’s actual chocolate content was limited to a thin coating of brown material. Public perception being what it is, our understanding and appreciation for “chocolate” eventually became associated with a low-quality commodity, and the raw materials needed for its manufacture lost the value of their individual characteristics and “terroir”.

 

Ecuador’s role in the chocolate story

Ecuador has a long and prosperous history as a cacao growing nation, with cultivation of the crop dating back well before the arrival of Europeans. In the early days of the 17th century, Spanish explorers, fresh off their conquest of neighboring Peru and looking to compliment the dwindling resources in Mexico, found extensive forests of wild cacao growing throughout the Guayas river basin and established large plantations, manned largely by African slaves.  Such was the success of these haciendas, that by the mid-1700’s, Ecuador was providing nearly half of the cocoa beans exported from the New World. (Coe, p. 188).

hacienda

Cacao from Mexico had always enjoyed a reputation for quality, its ancient criollo beans considered the gold standard for nuanced flavor, and much of what was coming from South America met with significantly less enthusiasm. Yet, certain examples of the native fruit of Ecuador, although of forestero origin, piqued the curiosity of early explorers…legend tells of cocoa traders arriving at the port city of Guayaquil in search of this “black gold”, and upon asking where the best quality cocoa came from, were pointed up-river with the phrase “Arriba, arriba” (“up, up”). Since then, the prized fruit has been known as Arriba Nacional. (amanochocolate.com)

 

What are  “Fine or Flavored” cocoa beans?

The International Cocoa Organization states that “the world cocoa market distinguishes between two broad categories of cocoa beans: “fine or flavor” cocoa beans, and “bulk” or “ordinary” cocoa beans. As a generalization, fine or flavor cocoa beans are produced from Criollo or Trinitario cocoa tree varieties, while bulk (or ordinary) cocoa beans come from Forastero trees. There are, however, known exceptions to this generalization. Nacional trees in Ecuador, considered to be Forastero type trees, produce fine or flavor cocoa…”  Further along, ‘Fine Flavor’ is defined to include “fruit (fresh and browned, mature fruits), floral, herbal, and wood notes, nut and caramelic notes as well as rich and balanced chocolate bases.” (icco.org/about-cocoa/fine-or-flavor-cocoa).

Note that the qualities of bulk/ordinary cocoa beans are not specifically defined unless to conclude that they will lack the particular nuances that are the hallmark of better quality fruit. Curiously, this apparent shortcoming is exactly what the modern industrial chocolate confectionery business embraces –  cocoa beans with little personality. Because so much chocolate is characterized as candy, with vast amounts of sugar and milk powder blended into the formula, there is little need for a “fine” chocolate flavor. Instead, what industrial chocolate manufacturers look for, what constitutes their ideal, is an inexpensive “supertree” – one that produces prolific amounts of fruit with plump beans, tolerates direct sun, and is resistant to diseases. Such a fruit is found in a variety called CCN-51.  

 

The Story of CCN-51

The business of cacao farming is difficult. The very nature of its tropical, Third World origin suggests a hot and humid or dusty environment, far from the luxuries of the modern world; reliable electricity, medical assistance, internet access. The work involved can be tedious, back-breaking and hazardous, involving sharp tools, exposure to harmful chemicals, lifting and carrying heavy loads, and bending over for long periods of time. In addition, the financial situation is often fraught with inconsistencies and is subject to the whims of nature – drought or excessive rain, diseases, too much or too little sunshine. The unpredictability of the harvest, in an already stressful economy, has led many farmers to abandon this occupation or to seek out more reliable forms of income.

Homero Castro was an Ecuadorian agronomist, whose work in the mid-1960’s involved crossbreeding cacao to develop more productive, disease resistant strains. His eventual champion, Coleccion Castro Naranjal #51 (named for himself and the town of Naranjal, where the work was carried out), was tremendously successful, often yielding two to three times the typical harvest, and with considerably fewer examples of disease. Naturally, farmers were encouraged to replace their less dependable stock with this new variety (Masonis, et al. 167-69). The success of CCN-51 has allowed Ecuador to enjoy record harvests and steady growth in the cocoa export market, in addition to inviting substantial foreign investment.

For all its benefits, however, CCN-51 has one major drawback – it lacks fine flavor. Phrases like “acidic dirt” (Ed Seguine), “rusty nails” (Gary Guittard) and “scourge of the chocolate world” (Art Pollard) are complaints typically levied against it. Many would insist that, in addition, farmer’s reliance on CCN-51, and the consequent depletion of Nacional trees, has robbed Ecuador of an important national treasure, some going so far as to suggest that the fruit constitutes “a potential hazard from a conservation perspective in one of the critical centers of origin for the entire Theobroma Cacao species” (the C-spot.com).

To be fair, some would argue that the bias against CCN-51 is unwarranted and overblown, and stems largely from a misapplication of post-harvest fermentation processes. With its larger pod size comes an appreciatively greater quantity of mucilaginous pulp, which in turn requires a longer period of fermentation, leading to an overly acidic flavor (Masonis, p. 169).  With modifications to the traditional technique,  there exists a potential and satisfactory compromise. Whether or not the environmental and social costs pan out is yet to be determined. 

 

Agroforestry: Natural Forest Growth vs. Monocropping

IMG_6625

In its natural, tropical habitat, cacao lives within a vast and unruly network of fruit and hardwood trees, many of which provide shade, help to regulate moisture, combat invasive weeds and contribute essential nutrients to the soil, virtually eliminating the need for fertilizers.  Cacao grown in an agroforest environment will generally be healthier and more productive. In addition, fruit trees provide farmers with an additional source of revenue (both fruit and timber), not to mention food for the table. In this natural environment, it is expected that a certain number of trees will fall victim to diseases, most notably “witches broom”….this is all part of the ecological cycle. (Notes from farm visit with Francisco Peñarrieto, Esmereldas Province).

 

IMG_6586

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Conversely, most mono-cropped agricultural products will rely on artificial irrigation, to offset the lack of shade trees. Fertilizers and pesticides are commonly applied, to increase production and to counter the various diseases (witch’s broom, black pod, etc). IMG_6580 (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And yet,  mono-cropping will yield greater initial harvests of cacao, which translates to increased income for farmers. These would seem to be short-term benefits, but there can be difficulty in applying this logic in a challenging economic environment, where long-term viewpoints can be seen as risky and unpredictable.

 

Modern Ecuador, Nacional cacao and the future of “craft” chocolate

Jeffrey Stern, writing for the Heirloom Cacao Preservation, sees the cacao farmer’s perspective, commenting that “with no price differential for the fine aroma Nacional beans over commodity grade CCN-51 beans, and with small farmers at the bottom of the supply chain, they receive little benefit for their efforts”(hcpcacao.org).  

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A similar sentiment was shared by Juan Carlos Mesias, whose farm we visited in the highlands of Pichincha.  Mesias mused that CCN-51 is much simpler to grow and higher-yielding than Nacional plus “local intermediaries will purchase it without post-harvest production”. Typical pricing might be $110 per quintal (100 lbs) for CCN-51, while pure Nacional beans might warrant $135 – hardly an incentive. He concluded that he would need an additional $50 to $60 per quintal to make Nacional viable.

 

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Stern does offer hope for the future, however, recognizing that “growers cooperatives are gaining traction in Ecuador and working to preserve Nacional cacao.”  His opinion can be corroborated, as we discovered while visiting farms in Esmereldas province, where hundreds of small-holders have banded together to form the cooperative UOPROCAE. With stated goals of improved farmer education, increasing yield and quality, boosting productivity to ensure greater income and offering guarantees of consistency, they have made impressive gains, with Nacional beans selling for more than double the price of CCN-51. WIth a stronger community presence comes greater awareness, along with the opportunity to bypass the commodities market altogether and to link directly with independent craft chocolate makers. The premium price received will then go directly to the farmer and the coop, helping the ones who need it most, and ultimately preserving the legacy of this historic cocoa bean.

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Certainly, the world of chocolate is broad and multi-faceted and presents numerous opportunities for consumption and enjoyment, whether that be a hand-crafted, single-origin chocolate tablet, devil’s food cake with fudge icing or inexpensive, candy-coated M&M’s, munched absent-mindedly in the movie theater.  The world has options, and for indulgence in chocolate to be truly democratic, we need products to be available at various price points. Still, when one measures the social and environmental cost of production, it is important to be mindful of sustainable systems – the economic welfare of our farmers and producers, the healthfulness of the food we consume and the long-term effects on the planet. Greater awareness of the issues at each stage of the global supply chain will help consumers to make the most educated and thoughtful decisions.

 

A Tasting exercise:

To create an exercise geared toward observation, evaluation and reaching an informed conclusion, I prepared test-batches of 70% chocolate and organized a tasting.  Thanks to the generosity of Jenny Samaniego of Conexion Chocolate, Quito, samples of three different varieties of Ecuadorian Cacao beans (Nacional “Sabor Arriba” beans from Puerto Quito, Nacional “Esmereldas Province” from UOPROCAE, and CCN51 from an undisclosed origin)  were roasted in one-kilo batches for 35 minutes in a Combi oven, to reach a final surface temperature of 270℉. Once cooled, the beans were cracked and winnowed, then ground in Premier Grinders for 18 hours, before adding the appropriate weight of sugar.  Once the sugar was added, samples were ground further for 36 hours before the finished chocolate was tempered into 56 g tablets and 3 g coins.

Using a modified version of the protocol established by Barb Stuckey,  survey participants were asked to evaluate and offer feedback, comparing one sample of a Nacional-origin chocolate to one sample of a CCN-51 chocolate. While comments were mixed and decidedly more diplomatic than anticipated (no “rusty nails”, for example), Nacional examples were the clear winner, among seasoned tasters and novice alike, with ESM outscoring CCN 34-7 and SAN drubbing CCN 26-5.

Further evaluation awaits.

 

Internet Sources:

https://www.c-spot.com

https://www.c-spot.com/atlas/chocolate-strains/cultivar-strains/ccn-51/

http://www.anecacao.com/en/quienes-somos/historia-del-cacao.html

https://icco.org/about-cocoa/fine-or-flavour-cocoa.html

http://www.cacaoforest.org/news/cocoaagroforestry

http://www.amanochocolate.com/articles/chocolate-for-the-farmers-in-ecuador/

https://hcpcacao.org/2015/12/19/understanding-ecuador

 

Real, actual books:

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London (1996) Print

Masonis, D’Alesandre, Vega and Gore. Making Chocolate.  Clarkson Potter Publishers; New York (2017) Print

 

Maps:

shttps://theodora.com/maps/new2/ecuador.gif http://www.growables.org/information/TropicalFruit/CacaoHistory.htm

 

Chocolate bars made from Ecuadorian cocoa beans:

https://www.dandelionchocolate.com/store/products/camino-verde-ecuador-100/#anchor 

http://shop.amanochocolate.com/guayas-bar/

https://www.roguechocolatier.com/shop/esmeraldas-70-1

https://www.askinosie.com/70-san-jose-del-tambo-ecuador-dark-chocolate-bar.html

https://www.tastefruition.com/products/camino-crunc

What future for the Arriba terroir?

In the primary chocolate consumption markets, the demand for mainstream milk chocolate bars has stagnated amid health concerns from consumers. This new market behavior has in turn been boosting the fine or flavor cacao segment, whose beans are used to produce a less fat, high-end, more expensive chocolate. Ecuador is the first exporter of fine or flavor cacao in the world and his star cacao, internationally renowned for his specific flavor, is the Arriba cacao. This leaves us to wonder what is so specific about the Arriba Terroir? What is the country doing to preserve its traditional beans? And what developments can we expect in the production of chocolate from those beans?

Overview of the cacao industry in Ecuador

There are two varieties of cacao currently produced in Ecuador: the Nacional (fine or flavour cacao, “FFC”) and Colección Castro Naranjal 51, “CCN-51” (a bulk or ordinary cacao).

The CCN-51 was created by the Ecuadorian agronomist Homero Castro who grafted in 1965 few strains of cacao to fight against the plagues that were destroying the traditional cacao cultures. The result is a clone resistant to diseases created from the Iquitos (Ecuadorean- Peruvian 45.4%); Criollo (Amazon, 22.2%) and Amelonado (Ghana and Central America 21.5%) strains. For many years the cacao industry marginalized this variety for its acidity and astringency. The following article provides additional information on the CCN-51 origins and its current recognition on the international cocoa market : www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/negocios/cacao-ccn-51-paso-de.html

On the other hand, the Nacional has been cultivated for centuries in the areas of the upper basin of the Guayas river in which estuary the city of Guayaquil can be found. Guayaquil is still today the main export port in Ecuador in which all exports of cacao are being made. Since this time, the Nacional was known as Arriba cacao (“the cacao from above/up the river”). It is known for being exclusively produced in Ecuador, for having a very short fermentation and for producing a chocolate that is soft, with an intense savor that provides complex aromas. It is described as having « a floral profile with blackcurrants and spice» by Sarah Jane Evans, founding member of the Academy of Chocolate, in her book “Chocolate Unwrapped” (2010).

Both the cultivated area for cacao and the cacao production have increased in the past 10 years reaching 388,000 Ha [1] and 260,000 MT in 2015 [2]. Approximately 600,000 people are involved directly in the cacao production chain (4% of the economically active population and 12.5% of the agri EAP) [3]. In 2015, 87% of the total cacao exports were beans’ exports (raw product), 30% of which from the CCN-51 type, 47% from the Arriba type of less quality ASE (mainly to the USA), 23% of the Arriba types of better quality ASS and ASSS (mainly to Europe and Japan) [4].

http://www.anecacao.com/index.php/en/estadisticas/estadisticas-actuales.html

Fig. 1

The FFC market represents 6 to 8% of the total world production of cacao, and Ecuador, leader in this sector, produces 54% of this segment [5]. In 2015, the FFC Panel of the ICCO reviewed the Annex « C » of the International Cocoa Agreement 2001 and confirmed Ecuador as a 75% partial exporter of fine and flavor cacao:Fig 2Fig. 2

 The production of Arriba cacao throughout history

The Nacional cacao has been cultivated at least since the 1600s along the Daule and Babahoyo rivers’ shores when it was already known in international markets for its strong and distinctive floral aroma. Until 1890 it was the only strain cultivated in the coastal region of Ecuador (with the exception of Esmeraldas province) [6] when pods from Trinidad called « Venezuela » were introduced. Following the frosty pod and witches’ broom diseases, foreign strains were introduced in a larger quantity in Ecuador. More than 95% of the original area previously planted with Nacional cacao had been replaced by hybrid material involving foreign clones, particularly of the Trinitario types[7]. This has led to the dilution of the Arriba flavor in the Nacional cacao population.

According to Cristian Melo, Researcher Universidad San Francisco, Quito, 2011, in an interview with the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (“HCP”): “In 1997-98 El Niño event, wiped out most of the Nacional crop and prompted many growers to switch to CCN-51”.

Multiple genetic analysis and research have been conducted in the 2000s in privately-owned plantations or national parks and forests by organisations such as the HCP or the Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (“INIAP”) National Institute for Agri-fishing Investigations to identify trees of the Nacional strain[8] [9]. In 2009, INIAP collected DNA samples from cacao trees throughout Ecuador, and only 6 trees (out of 11,000 samples) were genetically pure Nacional. That’s a mere 0.05% of the cacao trees that were analysed [10]. Those studies have proven that most of the Nacional cacao today is genetically a mix between many different varieties with the original Nacional strain. To highlight this diversity, a classification system of the Ecuadorian Nacional cacao has been proposed [11]:

  • Ancient Nacional (aka Antigüo Nacional): genetically pure Nacional cacao tree
  • Landrace Nacional: young plantings of genetically pure Nacional cacao
  • Heirloom Nacional: open-pollinated coastal Ecuadorian cacao trees whose DNA is at least 80% Nacional
  • Complejo Nacional: trees that are at least 50% Nacional but does not include CCN-51
  • Modern Nacional: Nacional-based clones and hybrids, as well as descendants therefrom, developed by INIAP or other agricultural institutes in the interest of increasing yields for commercial production, excluding CCN-51

The characteristics of these Nacional hybrids differ from those of the Ancient Nacional – the most visible differences being the pods’ color and shape as highlighted by the pictures below:

Fig 3Fig. 3

Differentiation of the Arriba Cacao

More generally, there are many factors that make the Arriba cacao from the Nacional hybrids differ from other types of cacao and define the Arriba Terroir, unique to Ecuador [12]:

  • Polycultures is required
  • High sensitivity to climatic changes
  • Specific soil composition (volcanic close to the Andes becoming more alluvial close to the ocean)
  • Longer Maturation period
  • Beans of bigger size
  • Less fat (for example the Complejo Nacional is assumed to have less than 48% fat while Forasteros have more than 50%)
  • Human factors during harvest have a bigger impact on the yields and quality of the beans: the Arriba beans have to be harvested in the morning and opened latest on the following day to not harm the fermentation process
  • The post-harvesting process requires natural tools such as wooden tools, jute bags, natural light to not risk alteration of the Arriba savour
  • Short fermentation period: 1-2 days of fermentation when other types of cacao require on average 6 days

Although the Arriba taste is unique and distinctive, there is much more to this product than meets the eye (the tongue?): multiple genetic passports impacting on the size and the weight of the beans, soil compositions, harvest and post-harvest processes even within the same country that constitute the complex Arriba Terroir. As explained by Prof. Carla D. Martin, Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University in her interview for Formaggio Kitchen “Chocolate and the Cost of Terroir” (2014): « To put it simply, there are many complicating variables – climate, soil type, bean variety, post-harvest conditions, chocolate manufacturing, etc. – that play into the expression of flavor from a variety of cacao of a certain origin ». It is thus impossible to propose a single quality definition (and price premium) for the Arriba cacao and the ICCO had to classify it as below (from the highest to the lowest quality).

  • ASSPS Arriba Superior Summer Plantation Selecta
  • ASSS Arriba Superior Summer Selecto
  • ASS Arriba Superior Selecto
  • ASN Arriba Superior Navidad
  • ASE Arriba Superior Epoca

All these qualities are recognised and dictate a premium on the NY and London stock exchanges.

Fig 4Fig. 4

As we can observe on this chart, the higher Arriba qualities (ASS & ASSS) have always managed to attract a premium above the CCN-51 in the past five years.

Government support for the Arriba cacao

As explained above, the Arriba cacao in Ecuador faces many challenges : scarcity of genetic content, high sensitivity to climate changes and diseases, low production rate etc. which made it difficult for small producers (49% of the cacao producers in Ecuador cultivate less than 10 Ha [13]) to sustain its production, switching to CCN-51 or other crops and putting the country at risk of losing its competitive advantage and leadership in the international cacao market for FFC. As highlighted by Susanne van der Kooij in her “Market study of fine flavour cocoa in 11 selected countries – revised version”, Royal Tropical Institute (2013): « In 2005, the ICCO downgraded Ecuador’s cocoa from being rated as 100% fine aroma to 75%, due to the introduction of- and problems with the CCN-51 variety, especially the mixing of CCN-51 with the Nacional ».

Thereafter the Ecuadorian government decided to work on the revalorisation of the Arriba Cacao and that same year the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fishing (“MAGAP”) signed the Ministerial Decree No. 70 which declares cacao as a Symbol Product of Ecuador (highlighting its importance in the history of the country, and in its social, economic and political development as well as for its unique qualities recognized internationally). Again in 2005, the MAGAP signed the Ministerial Decree No. 60 in which it is declared that the Nacional and CCN-51 beans cannot be mixed and appointing the ANECACAO as responsible body for issuing the Certificates of Commercial Quality for Cacao Export [14].

Fig 5Fig. 5

In 2012, the MAGAP launched another project of « Reactivation of National Fine and Flavor Coffee and Cacao» with the primary objective of boosting the Nacional cacao production. The project’s timeline is of 10 years with the first focus 2012-2016 being on the promotion of the cultivation and the second focus 2017-2021 being on the other segments of the value chain (such as transformation). For the first phase, the government has committed on the rehabilitation of 150,000 Ha and to increase the production from 5 to 25 qq/ha/year in order to reach a total export volume of 700,000 MT/year. The project will provide plants, technical tools, pruning to plantations older than 10 years (50% of the plantations), and promotion of cloning gardens with a total investment of 66.8 millions USD [15]. The government has made a video to promote this initiative:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKT1bfD952c

In 2014, the Ecuadorian Institute of Intellectual Property (“IEPI”) approved the first use of denomination of origin (“DO”) for the Arriba cacao as detailed in the following publication from the Institute: https://www.propiedadintelectual.gob.ec/iepi-entrega-primera-autorizacion-de-uso-de-la-do-cacao-arrib/

The government also declared an agricultural emergency in 2015 due to the unusual excessive humidity of the dry season (due to el Niño) which created an explosion of Monilla (cacao disease). The MAGAP implemented a plan that allowed the recovery of the whole country’s production particularly through distribution of kits to fight against Monilla. The ministry also started a campaign of information directed to 200,000 families of producers providing free input and technical training.

As explained above, in 2015 the government has also managed the renewal of the classification of Ecuador by the ICCO as a 75% partial exporter of fine and flavor cacao and has now the objective of achieving 85%.

Through all these actions, the Ecuadorian government have provided a strong support to the Arriba Terroir and is not only providing confidence to the small farmers to invest in further production but also to the international markets (ICCO, buyers etc) that the country will maintain its level of Arriba exports while preserving the quality of the product. Its efforts to reverse the trend that the Arriba cacao would disappear by 2025 have been working so far as described in the following article: https://www.eltelegrafo.com.ec/noticias/economia/8/ecuador-vendio-usd-750-millones-en-cacao-en-2015

 Demand for FFC

Defining the demand for FFC is a difficult task particularly « due to the niche character of craft chocolate and specialty cacao » as described by Prof. Carla D. Martin, Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, in her article “Sizing the Craft Chocolate Market”, Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (“FCCI”).

The demand for FFC is multiple:

  • From the big traditional chocolate-makers which have some Premium quality products (well established for many) and that need FFC from specific origins to maintain the distinctive savour or colour of their chocolate.
  • From the craft chocolate-makers, a smaller segment that is however growing, who create gourmet chocolate for which they almost uniquely use FFC.
  • From the direct trade chocolate-makers that work directly with producers of FFC.

In general, the chocolate consumers’ demand has changed in the past years with the following criteria becoming more important:

  • The quality of the product with consumers looking for stronger or specific flavours
  • The health and nutritional properties of the aliments
  • The origin, traceability and production process (and to a certain extent the sustainability and impact on the environment)

Chocolate consumers require thus a higher content of cacao with specific origins and terroirs (where the savour and quality of the grains are critical) [16].

This extract from the article “Premium chocolate ‘leg up’: how to win fine flavor cocoa status “ by Olivier Nieburg, 2016, Confectionarynews.com summarizes the FFC market mood today:

Laurent Pipitone, director of the ICCO economic division, said at the Cocoa Revolution conference there was « strong growth in demand » for fine flavour cacao. It comes amid premiumization in chocolate within developed markets as manufacturers experience growth in dark chocolate tablets with high cocoa percentages. « We have more and more chocolate tablets and consumers willing to pay a higher price for chocolate tablets » said Pipitone. « We are far from the wine market but the wine market can be an example on how the trade can develop in future years ».

The demand for cacao in general is also expected to grow with the increase of the world population, particularly in emerging countries where the chocolate consumption is still low today[17]. This might not however benefit directly the FFC market but will certainly put pressure on bulk cacao production and prices. What is unclear at this stage is whether this effect will push all cacao prices upwards or reduce the spread between bulk and FFC, which could lead to more farmers switching to CCN-51 in Ecuador (which might consequently create a bull market for FFC too as it becomes scarcer).

Domestic transformation industry

Only 10% of the cacao beans produced in Ecuador are actually processed locally, even for semi-transformed products (butter, liquor etc). Only 1% are processed into chocolate (Bars, powder etc) [18]. These new chocolate-makers are creating a trend in the country and are led by groups such as:

As mentioned by Paul Richardson in his article « The choc of the new », The Economist 1843 (2017): «We are not talking mass-market slabs: these are chocolates that take you on a journey, carrying the palate on intense flavour-waves of citrus and red berries punctuated with earthy notes of walnuts, cedar and tobacco»

Such a culinary journey that travelling bloggers dedicated they blog on Ecuador to the tasting of 21 local bars : https://www.livingthedreamrtw.com/2014/07/the-21-chocolate-bars-we-ate-in-ecuador_14.html

Arriba cacao SWOT analysis

Fig 6

Conclusion

With a flavour appreciated by all cacao connoisseurs around the world, the Arriba cacao presents many opportunities for Ecuador (the only country in which it grows with this distinctive flavour and quality), as long as the local regulatory bodies and the main actors of the cocoa value chain maintain their current efforts of preserving the Nacional genetics and quality while increasing its production and productivity in a sustainable and environmental manner. The government intervention through its Arriba Rehabilitation Program and potentially the implementation of technology for quality control will in that respect be crucial to the future of the Arriba cacao in the world. Still very under-developed is the local transformation industry that has however started to gain ground with award-winning chocolate such as Pacari bars. If more investments are made into this industry domestically, developing more Ecuadorian high-end single origin bars, it seems safe to predict that the Arriba Terroir will soon become to chocolate what the Bourgogne is to wine: a classic!

 

Sources and References:

Fig. 1: ANECACAO website

Fig. 2: ICCO website

Fig. 3: www.nacionalcacaoconservation.org

Fig. 4: M. Acebo Plaza, Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral ESPOL, « Industria de Cacao », Apr. 2016

Fig. 5: FAO, IICA

[1] Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos (“INEC”) National Institute of Statistics and Census

[2] Asociación Nacional de Exportadores de Cacao – Ecuador (“ANECACAO”) National Association of Cacao Exporters

[3] Ramírez, Pedro: “Estructura y dinámica de la cadena de cacao en el Ecuador: sistematización de información y procesos en marcha”, GTZ (2006)

[4] ANECACAO

[5] The International Cocoa Organisation (“ICCO”)

[6] Van Hall, (1932)

[7] Loor et al. (2002)

[8] Loor & Risterucci & Fouet & Courtois & Amores & Suarez & Jimenez & Saltos & Cros & Rosenquist & Vasco & Medina & Lanaud: “Genetic diversity and possible origin of the Nacional cacao type from Ecuador”, CIRAD, INIAP, USDA, UTEQ (2010)

[9] Loor & Risterucci & Courtois & Fouet & Jeanneau & Rosenquist & Amores & Vasco & Medina & Lanaud: “Tracing the native ancestors of the modern Theobroma cacao L. population in Ecuador”, Tree Genetics & Genomes (2009)

[10] Christian, The Mother ‘F’ Tree (2012)

[11] Nacionalcacaoconservation.org

[12] E. Quingaísa: “Estudio de caso: Denominacion de Origen “Cacao Arriba””, Instituto InterAmericano de Cooperacion para la Agricultura « ICCA » (2007) InterAmerican Institute of Cooperation for the Agriculture

[13] National Census for Agriculture and Livestock 2000, Ecuador

[14] E. Quingaísa: “Estudio de caso: Denominacion de Origen “Cacao Arriba””, ICCA (2007)

[15] ICCO & MAGAP, update presentation Sept 2013 Wembley

[16] Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (“CBI”) & Euromonitor & https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cocoa-demand-innovation/chocolate-makers-innovate-to-entice-health-conscious-consumers-idUSKBN1ED1PZ

[17] M. Acebo Plaza: « Industria de Cacao », Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (“ESPOL”) (2016)

[18] ANECACAO

The World’s Most Expensive Chocolate Might Just Be Worth It

It should come as no surprise that chocolate is a main or complementary ingredient in all of the most popular, mass produced candy bars in America. Having come a very long way since its adaptation into daily life by the Mayan people, cacao is available in a seemingly unending number of varieties today. From those popular candy bars with relatively little chocolate in them to more (un)refined bean-to-bar products, there really is something for everyone in the realm of chocolate. In recent years, there has been an increase in the availability of small-batch, luxury and artisanal chocolates making it, for some, more confusing than ever to choose a chocolate bar.

Beyond the obvious question of milk or dark—or in the case of some bean-to-bar chocolates I have found a hybrid of the two—it seems as though choosing a bar of chocolate could now be compared with choosing a bottle of wine; for those unaware or lacking a specific tried and true preference or knowledge base, there may exist a great deal of uncertainty surrounding what company to choose and why. On the other hand, however, this increase in availability and attention to detail in the realm of luxury, high-end chocolate has cultivated a new attention to detail; to flavor and quality and the overall terroir of chocolate which is made evident by the popularity and prized nature of single origin chocolate bars.

Similar to the wide price range we can see with wine, the price of a chocolate bar can run the consumer anywhere between $0.50 and $500 in cost. This is an expansive range and many may wonder if those higher end chocolates are truly worth shelling out the money for only a bite or two. While not necessarily consumable by the greater public on a regular basis, as a true lover of chocolate and the finer things in life myself, I am sure some of the most expensive chocolates in the world have tastes to match the price tag while others may seem drastically outrageous. Read on for an in-depth look at two of the world’s most expensive chocolate companies and the unique but important differences between them.

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TO’AK Chocolate is regarded as one of the most expensive chocolates in the world with a price tag of $385 for 50 grams of chocolate. The story of this Ecuadorian company is somewhat of a rags-to-riches tale, its start originating in a cabin in the rainforest with no electricity. To’ak was co-founded by two Ecuadorian transplants, Jerry Toth and Carl Schweizer. It is evident early on that they approach their chocolate making with the utmost care and attention for the sacred cacao tree and with ecological appreciation for their placed-based production right down to the very name of the company; “Derived from a fusion of ancient dialects in Ecuador, the name To’ak (pronounced Toe-Ahk) means “earth” and “tree,” which together represent the true source of all chocolate. We liken this name to the French term terroir, which describes how the taste of an artisanal product (wine, cheese, chocolate) expresses the specific soil and climate conditions of the land on which it was grown” (To’ak Chocolate).

To’ak Chocolate Video

Located in the province of Manabí, To’ak began with Toth’s conservation work and his desire to cultivate an organic orchard featuring fifty different kinds of fruit trees in addition to cacao trees. While working on this endeavor, Toth and his team found several old cacao groves along the banks of a river. This heirloom cacao was harvested and they began making chocolate as it was taught to them by their neighbors. Because of the lack of electricity, in the beginning everything was done by way of the old world; beans were roasted over an open fire, de-husked and ground by hand. After doing this for a while and coming to understand the value and quality of the cacao he was working with, Toth brought in Schweizer as well as fourth-generation cacao grower Servio Pachard to further his mission to bring the fine, dark Ecuadorian chocolate to the world.

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Not only does To’ak demonstrate an appreciation and respect for their product, but also for the environment around them; it is clear that they understand the importance of giving back and replenishing the resources they use in order for them to be successful in the preservation of cacao into the future. “To’ak is working with a coalition of local cacao growers, conservationists, and international universities to save Ecuador’s historic Ancient Nacional cacao from the brink of extinction. Cuttings from DNA-verified 100% pure Nacional trees have been grafted onto seedlings and planted in a protected plot of land in the nearby Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve, managed by the rainforest conservation foundation Third Millennium Alliance. Within three years, each of these young trees will be able to provide enough cuttings to reproduce dozens of additional pure Nacional seedlings each year, which will then be distributed to any local cacao grower who wants to help save this historic variety from extinction. We call it the Noah’s Ark of Ancient Nacional cacao” (To’ak Chocolate). To’ak also pays their growers the highest price per pound in Ecuador, a direct indication that they have responsible business practices not only in regard to the environment but also in regard those that they employ. It should be noted that To’ak chocolate is based entirely out of Ecuador, from harvesting to packaging, it is providing a wealth of opportunity and safe jobs.

To’ak currently offers 5 different chocolates for sale on their website, all of them available in a 50-gram portion. When you purchase from To’ak however you are not just getting a bar of chocolate. “Each of our editions contains a 50-gram bar of dark chocolate with a single roasted cacao bean in the center. The chocolate bar is accompanied by a bamboo tasting utensil and a 116-page booklet, all of which are housed in a handcrafted Spanish Elm wood box with the individual bar number engraved on the bottom. The design of each of these items is inspired by ancient Ecuadorian artwork, dating back thousands of years, which we proudly introduce to the contemporary world” (To’ak Chocolate)It is these touches that make the chocolate that much more of a luxury experience. Divided into two collections, Vintage and Harvest, the former aged anywhere from 2 to 4 years and the latter from the 2016 harvest. For each chocolate, they list specific tasting notes and qualities one might pick up on as well as flavor wheels.

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There are several indications on the To’ak website that they are aiming to make their chocolate an experience on par with that of tasting fine wine or whiskey, with heavy nods towards understanding and appreciation of their product’s terroir and value as it related to Ecuador and the rich history and appreciation for cacao. Despite the very steep price tag, for those who are looking to have a fine chocolate experience and are willing to pay for it, in the case of To’ak, you are getting what you pay for.

Heading in a different direction and more than a bit closer to home, we come to Knipschildt Chocolatier based out of Norwalk, Connecticut. Started by Fritz Knipschildt, Knipschildt Chocolatier has been around since 1999 where it got its start in his small apartment kitchen. Knipschildt is a chef by trade as well as an immigrant from Denmark, giving him a unique perspective on chocolate. “Pursuing the American dream founded on traditional European chocolate craftsmanship, the philosophy behind House of Knipschildt rests on this desire to constantly improve the confectionary experience to provide customers with the highest value imaginable” (Chocopologie). Since its creation, Knipschildt has branched out to include two additional brands apart from Knipschildt Chocolatier, House of Knipschildt and Chocopologie. All three brands aim to produce quality products which respect individual ingredients, process, and the people behind each step.

Unlike To’ak, the Knipschildt brand, while there are indications they use single origin cacao from places such as Ecuador, the overall brand is much less process focused and much more end result. Not only do they not show pictures of any kind of their cacao source, but there is no specific mention or indications towards the rich historical traditions of cacao. It is safe to say that this company is much more of a European chocolatier in that their attention seems to be more on highly decorated refined chocolate truffles than on bean-to-bar efforts.

Their most prized chocolate is the La Madeline au Truffle with a price tag of $250.00 for a single truffle. This truffle starts with 70% Valrhona dark chocolate, heavy cream, sugar, truffle pol and vanilla as the base for a ganache. Then, a French Perigord truffle which is a very rare mushroom is surrounded by the chocolate ganache. This is then dipped into more dark chocolate and rolled in fine cocoa powder. The end product “Is pure extravagance! Lying on a bed of sugar peals in a gold box tied with ribbon” (Chocopologie) The company also offers other truffles at much lower price points however these come with no indication of where the chocolate is coming from.

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While I am sure this truffle has a unique and incomparable taste, I find it much harder to justify spending hundreds of dollars on something that shows little to no indication of where its coming from or who its really made by. Not to mention, there is no sign that they are sourcing their cacao from places that are free of child-labor or unfair and unsafe work conditions. I think this is a huge determining factor in understanding and appreciating today. While they do indicate that they use Valrhona chocolate, a visit to the Valrhona website does not provide much additional information

Comparing these companies might seem like comparing apples to oranges, in light of all we learned in chocolate class this year my opinions and preferences are changing. When one has a true knowledge base on the subject of cacao and the intricate web that has been woven around it throughout history, it changes how they view chocolate. And while I still love and appreciate the milky European varieties, I know understand what true chocolate is. True chocolate pays homage to those who came before with a heightened level of sacred respect for cacao as an ingredient passed down from the gods. It is difficult to maneuver the protection of old-world techniques and practices in the modern world but it can certainly be done as made evident by To’ak. Of course, business is business and both of these companies examined aim to make a profit however it is their differences that set them apart. The people behind To’ak have demonstrated a heightened connection to the cacao industry and from close examination of their website, one might leave thinking they are more in the business of preservation than candy sales and I think this is very true; by selling the chocolate for a high price, they generate money to protect and preserve the cacao species so it will thrive well into the future as well as provide for local indigenous people in the moment. Buying one of their chocolate bars is almost ceremonial in the same way that sharing chocolatewas seen as sacred and to be saved for special occasions such as new life, marriage, or death in the Mesoamerican culture (Coe & Coe 2013). As Maricel Presilla said in her book, “The true appreciation of chocolate quality begins with a link between the different spheres of effort. To know chocolate, you must know that the candy in the box or the chef’s creation on the plate begins with the bean, with the complex genetic profile of different cacao strains. Think how impossible it would be to make fine coffee with the coarse acrid beans of Coffea robusta. You must know also that the flavor of the finished product further depends on people carrying out careful, rigorous harvesting and fermentation practices” (Presilla 2009 pg. 4). It is with this in mind that we can find appreciation and understanding for certain higher end chocolates like To’ak.

 

 

Works Cited

“About.” Valrhona, http://www.valrhona-chocolate.com/about.

Coe, Michael D., and Sophie Coe. True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.

“Knipschildt Chocolatier.” Chocopologie, chocopologie.com/.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: a Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009.

“The World’s Most Luxurious Dark Chocolate Made by To’ak in Ecuador.” To’ak Chocolate, toakchocolate.com/.

 

The cacao production workforce in Ecuador throughout history

For its historical role in the growth and agrarian features of the country and its print on the national culture, the production of cacao constitutes without a doubt a relevant subject with regards to the Ecuadorian economy and society. As central to the nation as the cultivation of cacao can be, it seems however that this has not been reflected on the life conditions of its main producers.

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The origin – 3300BC

As explained by Professor Martin, Carla D. from Harvard University, the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao L.), is native from the Amazonian basin on the foothills of the northern Andes, a region that spreads on what are now Ecuador and Colombia. A ceramic pottery dating 3300BC and found in Ecuador’s southern Amazonian region of Zamora Chinchipe, contained microscopic remnants of cocoa, suggesting that cocoa beans were being harvested and consumed there more than 5,000 years ago.

 

The beginning of the colonial period (1530- 1750)

Cacao production became a business under the colonisation of the territory by the Spaniards. «Around 1600, the collection and exploitation of the cacao beans constituted one of the most important activities of the old province of Guayaquil. Almost 9 boats were leaving annually the port transporting cacao» (Chiriboga, 2013: 27).

The agrarian structure then developed trough the system of Encomiendas, large land concessions (Haciendas) received by the colons with a right of serfdom over the native population. Theoretically they were in charge of educating and baptizing the Indians under their guardianship, in practice they were reducing them to slavery through the necessary tribute (gold, chicken, maize, cacao and other foodstuffs) as well as through services of personal nature. Thousands of Indians died. In 1600 there were approximately 500 Encomiendas in Ecuador.

Meanwhile, the trade of slaves had started in the middle of the XV century in Spain. Slaves were brought by the colons mainly as workforce for the agricultural labour. In fact, native populations (often coming from the highlands) were not considered as performant for such hard labour under the hot and humid climatic conditions of the coastal area where most of the cocoa cultivation was taken place. Mortality rate amongst slaves was high and average life expectancy extraordinarily low. Approximately 30% of the slaves died in the process of adaptation to their new life (environment, diseases) therefore the system of control and repression was extremely hard as it had to face rebellions and escapes from the slaves.

 

The First Cacao Boom (1779-1842)

Following the Bourbon reforms, the departure of the Jesuits and the authorisation in 1789 by the king Charles IV to cultivate and export cacao from the region, the food crops and tobacco plantations turned into cacao plantations (in high demand in Europe). Cacao production then spread all over the country and the first large cacao Haciendas were born. Exports went from 5,600 metric tons (MT) to 15,700 MT in 1843. Spain was the first market, then England and Germany.

The cacao crop did not require year-round attention and it was often just as profitable for an owner to let his slaves buy themselves and then hire them to work for wages during the high-season. It is estimated that between 1780 and 1820 several hundred slaves took advantage of this new reality.

More details on the slavery and manumission in Ecuador are available in the following article:

http://www.elcomercio.com/tendencias/esclavitud-manumision-tierras-ecuatorianas-ideas.html

This first boom, led by the exports to foreign markets, was also achieved through the movement of the workforce from the highlands. Indeed, an important migration of the native people from the highlands to the coastal area took place that was entirely related to the cacao production. Around 1830 there were many more day laborers than small landlords/producers on their own piece of land.

 

The second cacao boom (1870-1925)

During the Second Cacao Boon the production increased consistently up to 100,000 MT annually and Ecuador became the first world producer supplying 15 to 25% of the international demand.

Soon appeared a reduced group of 20 families that controlled more than 70% of the producing area. These Hacendos were known as the « Gran Cacao » and accumulated land that were initially acquired by indigenous people during the colonial period. These appropriations – often dishonest –concentrated power and created an even bigger contrat between this new oligarchy and the workforce made of farmers brought from the highlands and former slaves (abolition of slavery was in 1861).

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Source: Anecacao website (Asociación Nacional de Exportadores de Cacao – Ecuador)

 Indeed, the « Gran Cacao » enjoyed the increased world demand, high prices but above all, the cheap domestic workforce that were scarcely remunerated and submitted to high debts.

« Indians and negros of Ecuador do the work of cacao and other plantations. These unfortunate creatures are slaves. They are not called slaves. Slavery is not permitted by the constitution of the Republic. […] The explanation is very simple: every plantation worker must buy what he needs at the plantation store. He is given credit and encouraged to get into debt. Once in debt, he is a slave. He has no hope of clearing his debt. » (People of All Nations: Their life today and story of their past, J.A. Hammerton P.1627)

In this context, arose new popular revendications and the first workers associations and syndicates were created.

 

The cacao crisis (1920)

The increase of the world production in the new colonies such as Ivory Coast or Indonesia as well as in Brazil (trees had finally reached maturity) and the start of the First World War led to a market saturation, lower demand and falling prices. Finally, an outbreak of Monilia and Witches’ Broom diseases (1915-1920) finished to depress the cacao industry locally. The production dropped to 15,000 MT in 1930 and soon plantations were abandoned by their owners.

 

The current model (since 2000)

Nowadays the country is a major player in the international cocoa market not due to volumes but to quality. The demand for specialty cocoa is growing and outweighs supplies which creates a very attractive niche market. Ecuador’s cacao annual production is above 230,000 MT since 2013 and continues rising:

https://www.statista.com/statistics/497880/production-of-cocoa-beans-in-ecuador/

Ecuador counts approximately 100,000 cacao producers (not always exclusively), out of which 85% cultivate less than 10ha, 15% between 10 and 20ha and 5% more than 20ha.

The increasing demand for organic and Fairtrade cocoa also helps to improve small producers’ income. A survey made with a representative group of cocoa producers in the Manabí province showed that 69.8% produced or have produced at one point with a Fairtrade label.

However, one of the representatives of the Kallari association (https://www.kallari.com.ec/), explained that the annual cost, some non-adapted procedures and the lack of selling premium were the reasons why they stopped their Fairtrade certification. Hence extent of Fairtrade certification locally is not necessarily representative of the actual treatment of the producers. What is more representative is the rise of producers’ associations, sometimes establishing their own bean to bar transformation and selling onto the domestic or foreign market. As such they control the whole value chain and ensure fair revenues for the whole community. One representation of this trend on the domestic market is Kallari, composed of 850 producers (mainly Quechua families) from 21 communities of the Tena region in the Ecuadorian Amazon:

https://www.aljazeera.com/video/news/2017/04/ecuadors-cocoa-farmers-making-fair-trade-chocolate-170410145552552.html

 

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Although slavery and forced labour constitute a large part of the history of the commercial cacao production in Ecuador (for 3 centuries), Ecuador’s cacao industry has taken a drastic turn in the last 100 years placing it in the top 10 world producers targeting the niche market of specialty cacao produced mainly by small farmers more and more organised into producers associations that allow them to capture a fairer revenue for their cacao beans or a bigger part of the value chain through transformation of the raw products and marketing of the bars.

 

 

Works Cited

Martin, Carla D.“MesoAmerica and the « food of gods »”, Harvard University, AAAS E-119, 2018

Martin, Carla D.“Slavery, abolition and forced labour”, Harvard University, AAAS E-119, 2018

Chiriboga, Manuel (2013). Jornaleros, grandes propietarios y exportación cacaotera 1790-1925. Quito: Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar.

Vassallo, Miguel Diferenciación y agregado de valor en la cadena ecuatoriana del cacao / Miguel Vassallo. — 1ª. ed. — Quito: Editorial Instituto de Altos Estudios Nacionales IAEN, 2015

Wilmer S. Sepúlveda, Irinuska Ureta, Claudia Mendoza & Louiza Chekmam (2017): Ecuadorian Farmers Facing Coffee and Cocoa Production Quality Labels, Journal of International Food & Agribusiness Marketing, DOI: 10.1080/08974438.2017.1413612. P 7

Radi y Martínez, 2008: 4.

Melo & Hollander, 2013

 

Web Sources

https://gain.fas.usda.gov/Pages/Default.aspx

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-22733002