Tag Archives: Theobroma cacao

Chocolate and Beer: how the ancient use of Theobroma spp. inspired the creation of a new “ancient brew”

Dogfish Head Theobroma
Image 1: Dogfish Head – Theobroma “Ancient Ale”

Chocolate is a favorite treat for many in modern times, but it was also a favorite for the people in ancient Mesoamerica. Today, in the U.S.A., we can easily purchase chocolate from establishments ranging from grocery stores to gas stations, and chocolate is a popular ingredient in foods such as candy and many beverages. We are able to easily purchase our chocolate treats, in all forms, without ever seeing, touching, processing, or preparing our treats from the plant itself. In ancient times the fruit of Theobroma spp. was collected and processed by the inhabitants of many ancient civilizations. When scholars investigate the origins of the use of Theobroma spp. many questions arise such as, “How was this plant used by ancient cultures?” and “Which parts of the plant were consumed?” These questions are answered through the use of many scientific facets such as analyses of ancient writings and the examination of ancient artifacts through chemical analyses. Through these efforts, scientists are able to piece together a timeline detailing the earliest known use of this plant by ancient societies. This post will examine how the discovery of ancient pottery demonstrated that ancient civilizations used the fruits of Theobroma spp. to produce alcoholic beverages, and how this discovery allowed for the incorporation of chocolate into a modern day beer “Theobroma” developed and produced by the company Dogfish Head.


Image 2: A statue of a man holding a cacao bean

What is Theobroma spp? The genus Theobroma is located in the family Malvaceae and contains ~20 species (“Theobroma” n.d.). The most familiar species within the genus is Theobroma cacao which translates to “food of the gods”. The seeds from this plant are used to make chocolate. This evergreen, shade grown, amazing tree is unique in that the flowers and fruit grow directly on the trunk (cauliflory). The fruit, once ripe, contains the prized seeds which are used for the modern day production of chocolate. It is truly a beautiful plant which has had a tremendous impact on human culture as described by many researchers who have searched for, recorded, and shared their finding detailing the use of this plant ancient times.

Image 3: Theobroma tree and fruit (showing pulp and seeds)

When researchers uncovered shards of pottery at the northern Honduran site of Puerto Escondido they were about to redefine the history of chocolate and inspire the creation of a “new to the modern world” chocolate drink. Archeologist identified these vessel shards at the site as having a “long neck” (think “long neck” beer bottles). The presence of the “neck” was an indicator that foam was not a component of the liquid stored within this container (Henderson 3). The process of pouring the cacao mixture between two containers to create foam was previously believed to be the way in which cacao drinks were first consumed (Henderson 3). The sample of a spouted (“long neck”) vessel (4DK-136 – Type name: Barraca Brown), based on radiocarbon dating, showed that the process of consumption involved fermentation to produce an alcoholic beverage (beer). This would now be the earliest known use of cacao from anywhere in the world, and via radiocarbon dating, scientists could now date this vessel to the Ocotillo phase (1400-1100 B.C.) (Henderson 2). Further chemical analysis of this vessel, using chromatographic and mass spectrometric analyses showed the presence if theobromine and caffeine (Henderson 3). These two compounds are found in Theobroma spp. and proved that these vessels once held a drink made from the plant Theobroma. The research conducted by John S. Henderson, Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick McGovern not only shifted the date for first cacao consumption (by humans) back 500 years, but they also established that, in all likelihood, that the method for the consumption of cacao began with the fermentation of the pulp to create an alcoholic beverage, and that the use of the cacao seeds, and the method for producing “foam”, did not occur until hundreds of years later.

Image 4: (Re)drawing of the Barraca Brown bottle from northern Honduras by Florance Richardson 2017 (original drawing by Yolanda Tovar)

The invention of a new “ancient beer” could not have happened without the collaboration between Dr. Patrick McGovern (the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology) and the folks from Dogfish Head Brewery. Dr. McGovern is not only an incredible archeologist, but he is also reproducing drinks of the past for modern day consumption. The collaboration between Dr. McGovern and the brewers from Dogfish Head demonstrates how science and intuition, blended together, can have amazing results.

“Since it proved impossible to transport the fresh fruit without spoilage from Honduras, we did the next best thing. We were able to obtain chocolate nibs and powder from the premier area of Aztec chocolate production, Soconusco, the first such dark chocolate to be imported into the States in centuries (Askinosie Chocolate in Missouri). As you drink this luscious beverage–almost like a fine Scotch or Port–you will pick up the aroma of the cacao and hints of the ancho chili in the aftertaste. Any bitterness of the chocolate is offset by the honey and corn. Achiote colors it red. It was fermented with an American ale yeast.” (Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, “Theobroma”).

Do we now have in our possession the ancient recipe used to brew beer with cacao? The recipe used to create “Theobroma” beer uses the wealth of knowledge gained by understanding and studying ancient artifacts, writings, and through chemical analyses conducted on the pottery uncovered during archeological excavations and historical studies, but even with this wealth of knowledge, we will never know for sure how the drinks prepared by the ancients tasted or the precise measurements and ingredients used to create them. However, with the use of science and craftsmanship we can certainly come close to tasting these “ancient brews”.

Theobroma was a limited release from Dogfish Head, but please enjoy the following video in which Dogfish Head brewer Sam Calagione describes how lovely this ancient brew tastes.

Video 1: Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione on the brewery’s Ancient Ale Theobroma.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Acad Sciences, 16 Nov. 2007 http://www.pnas.org/content/104/48/18937 Accessed on 8 March 2017

 McGovern, Patrick E., “Biomolecular Archaeology Project” https://www.penn.museum/sites/biomoleculararchaeology/ Accessed on 8 March 2017

 McGovern, Patrick E., “Theobroma”, https://www.penn.museum/sites/biomoleculararchaeology1/re-created-beverages/theobroma/ Accessed on 8 March 2017

 Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009.

 Trivedi, Bijal P., “Ancient Chocolate Found in Maya “Teapot””, National Geographic, July 17, 2002,  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/07/0717_020717_TVchocolate.html Accessed on 8 March 2017

Wikipedia, “Theobroma”, n.d. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobroma Accessed on 10 March 2017

 Wikipedia, “Theobroma cacao”, n.d. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobroma_cacao Accessed on 8 March 2017

 Multimedia Sources:

 Image 1: Dogfish Head Theobroma https://www.flickr.com/photos/julishannon/3006530318/in/photolist-5zFfHC-5eg55n-a4nn57-6tkSc5-6T39ix-6tXNV9-6GT3Tw-6NZdi1-5trpAn-5eksFw-5eg2Di-Drdr2g-7K5CQH-9Ni1br-6FT3ub

 Image 2: Wikimedia Commons, Cacao Aztec Sculpture, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacao_Aztec_Sculpture.jpg Accessed 10 March 2017

 Image 3: Wikimedia Commons, Theobroma tree and fruit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chocolate_in_its_Rawest_Form_(27583224425).jpg

 Image 4: Author owned, (Re)drawing of the Barraca Brown bottle from northern Honduras by Florance Richardson 2017 (original drawing by Yolanda Tovar)

 Video: Quick Sip Clips by Dogfish Head: Theobromahttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtXCJjJz6sI Accessed on 10 March 2017



Stimulating Relationships

The indulgence that we know as chocolate has its roots in a South American tree that can not exist without a symbiotic partner. Originating in the upper Amazonian River basin, as an understory tree of the rainforest, Theobroma cacao is a fascinating plant. Pollinated by a single type of insect, colorful melon like pods are full of sweet pulp and bitter seeds–which we refer to today as “beans.” These hefty pods have to attract the assistance of a hungry monkey, Toucan, or human to release the beans and the next generation of trees. Monkeys and birds like the sweet pulp, but when it comes to humans, we became addicted to the bean.

Cacao pods often grow in groups and can be many different colors.

T.cacao migrated northward along the Pacific coast to take hold in a place that is now Central America. Although the details of the journey between continents is a mystery, the first evidence in the historical record that cacao was used as a food source is found in the Rio Ceniza Valley of modern El Salvador. (Martin)

Chemical analysis of pottery shows the Olmec culture made cacao pulp into an intoxicating beer-type drink at least 1000 years before the current era. Eventually the cacao bean byproduct fermented into its own food source and began to resemble chocolate–at least in its crudest liquid form. (Henderson) In the rural communities of the region today you can still find sweet pulpy drinks as well as meal-replacing beverages made from ground cacao beans and maize. These traditional ground bean beverages are bitter, filling, and stimulating enough to provide a morning or afternoon energy boost which keeps the drink popular despite being labor intensive to prepare. The stimulating caffeine and theobromine compounds that the Olmec people unlocked from the cacao bean became a driving force for the political relations and trade between nations until Cortez arrives in the modern era–usurping the entire region and economy for the Spanish crown.

The Classic Maya Civilization (250-900 CE) raised the imbibing of the rustic, gritty, cacao bean drink to a godly level. The artwork they left behind tells the story of how cacao was literally considered to be the food of their pantheon and used in rituals for pivotal moments in society and life. In The New Taste of Chocolate, Presilla points out that “from both the glyphs and actual pictured scenes on Maya posts we have been able to learn that chocolate made using particular recipes was drunk by kings and nobles. There is also evidence that it was used by people of all classes, particularly during rites of passage…” (12) 

 Mayan drinking vase documents one particular event.

The gourds that most people used for drinking have not withstood the impacts of time but some ceramic vessels of the wealthy remain intact. These colorful jewels of Western Hemisphere art document the details about ritual life by describing events, attendees, and even the ingredients. Many of these vessels can be seen in art collections today; the Mayan drinking vase on display in the permanent collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is a fine example of storytelling. Slightly larger than a modern quart jar, the drinking vase has a wrap-around visual narrative that details a ritual, specifically noting out that kakaw (cacao) was one of the stimulating substances used in this event.

Mayan Interpretive dignage MFA

Although the Mayan people still live in the same region today, they mysteriously abandoned their cities around 900 CE and were eventually conquered by the Aztec civilization. Cacao beans not only survived the invasion from the north, they could well have been the cause. The Aztecs so valued the stimulating substance that they used dried beans as coinage to exchange for produce, meat, and other locally available consumables.

small and large cacao bean
The size and quality of a cacao bean determined its worth in the Aztec economy.

Unfortunately for the Aztecs, though their money grew on trees, those trees did not grow on the arid plateau that was the center of their empire. They solved this dilemma by strategically conquering trade routes into regions where cacao was cultivated. The wealth of these conquered regions was then extracted by political tribute–much of which was paid in the form of fermented cacao beans. This cacao wealth was then added into the Aztec economy both by putting it onto the consumable market and by stockpiling it as currency in treasuries. Used throughout their empire as form of payment and a beverage of celebration, cacao was also milled into portable nuggets to use as traveling rations for instant energy. The earliest documents of the Spanish settlers refer to how the native culture prepared cacao with maize into a cold frothy beverage that was used as a meal replacement in the extreme heat of the subtropical afternoons. (Presilla 17-24)  Cacao literally fueled both the people of the working class and the general economy well into the Spanish colonial period.

Anasazi vessels are reminiscent in shape to the Mayan.

Recently have we discovered the literal lengths that native peoples went to in acquiring this stimulating beverage. Modern gas chromatography analysis on Native American pottery has increased our understanding of which cultures had access to the only source of theobromine in the hemisphere. Testing of North American artifacts has shown that long before the Aztecs usurped the market on cacao, the trade routes of the Mayans had extended northward to the Anasazi nation of modern New Mexico. This 1200-mile path between where the vessels were found (in the Pueblo Bonito of Chaco Canyon)  and the nearest source of cacao would have required 600 hours of backpacking through rough country and sweltering heat. As one researcher phrased it “That’s a long way to go for something that you don’t need for survival”, [something] that’s more of a delicacy…”  Whether the Anasazi acquired this cacao through dedicated treks south–which would have taken weeks–or their pueblo was the endpoint of an even slower hand-to-hand, village-to-village trade route, acquiring the ingredients for a cacao beverage came at great cost. (Mozdy) Such an expenditure indicates how intensely desired this addictive substance was.  

The historical record may not tell us how the first cacao trees made their way to a new continent, but we do know that once here, it helped fuel people, economies and trade for centuries. The stimulant properties that the seed contains spurred the native cultures of a continent to covet, acquire, distribute and control access to the plant itself. By affecting and connecting with humans in this way, the plant forged a symbiotic partnership with the indigenous peoples which ensured its survival and success throughout pre-Columbian era.  

Works Referenced:

Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Acad Sciences, 16 Nov. 2007, www.pnas.org/content/104/48/18937.full. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Revised ed., Berkeley, NY, Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.” 8 Feb. 2017, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.

Mozdy, Michael. “Cacao in Chaco Canyon.” Natural History Museum of Utah, Natural History Museum of Utah, 4 Aug. 2017, nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/08/04/cacao-chaco-canyon. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Unknown. Anasazi [Pueblo] pottery, Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New MexicoAMNH Digital Special Collections, accessed March 06, 2017, lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/38991.

Unknown. Drinking Vase for “om kakaw”. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, 2003.

Image Citation:

Images may not be reused without attribution.

Chocolate,Chocolate Everywhere

As I ponder the selections of chocolate available in my local Trader Joe’s , it is important to understand a bit of the history of chocolate that is included in The True the History of Chocolate by  Coe & Coe .Cacao, Chocolate originated in Meso-America and is referred to as the “Food of the Gods” consumed by the elite and used in sacrifices to please the gods.  

Did you know that unlike money cacao really does grow on the pods and barks of trees.The chocolate trees were scientifically named Theobroma cacao in 1753 by the “great Swedish Naturalist” Linnaeus (1707-78). 

Theobroma cacao
Linnaeus- Swedish Naturalist that named the cacao tree-theobroma cacao

Raw Cacao beans don’t taste anything like the chocolate bars we consume.  After the cacao beans are harvested the cacao and pulp are fermented once fermentation is complete the beans are laid out to dry in the sun.  Once dried the beans are then sorted and roasted.  After the beans are roasted they are winnowed and finally  the cacao nibs that are used to make chocolate reveal themselves. The cacao nibs are naturally bitter therefore sugar and other ingredients are added when making chocolate to reduce the acidity and bitterness and increase the sweetness.

Sidney Mintz in his book Sweetness and Power reminds us that sugar and sweetness is introduced to us at a very young age , “the first non milk food that a baby is likely to receive in North American hospital is a 5% glucose and water solution used to evaluate its postpartum functioning because newborns tolerate glucose better than water.”(Mintz, 1985)  The fondness for sugar influences the chocolate that we consume as “most Americans instinctively go for blends with a high West African cacao content – this is a dominant cacao in some mass-produced brands that most American have eaten since childhood that is naturally identified with full chocolate flavor. Americans gravitate towards very light chocolate.” ( The New Taste of Chocolate, p. 136) Sweetness is a preferred taste from a very young age Cacao and sugar go together sort of like peanut butter and jelly. Alone each tastes okay but together they taste wonderful.

Chocolate has always evoked pleasant happy memories for me. From my childhood I can remember the heavenly aroma of chocolate from the Lowney Chocolate Factory wafting  through the air as we walked to school, the anticipation of devouring my  grocery store chocolate Easter bunny after Mass and the way the chocolate icing on a Honey Dew Donuts éclair melts in your mouth in an explosion of chocolate mixed with Bavarian cream. 

As I matured my love of chocolate did not waver and I stayed loyal to brands like Hersey and Nestle and for special occasions Godiva was the go to brand.  Then one day in 1987 a local chocolate shop called Puopolo’s Candies opened nearby.  As a big believer in supporting local business I felt that it was my duty to check out the new chocolate shop.  It was heaven!  The aroma and the wide assortment of chocolate confections was astounding. There wasn’t a Snickers, Milky Way or Kit Kat in the place and it didn’t matter because these chocolates didn’t require brand recognition as one could see, smell and anticipate the chocolate truffles melting smoothly on your tongue while the milk chocolate flavors come to life. I never knew exactly why I came to prefer the chocolate sold at Puopolo’s over Hersey, Nestle or even Godiva, until now.

The big chocolate manufactures like Hershey, Nestle and Godiva appeal to the masses for both taste and price of their products.  The chocolate  is made in huge factories using industrial equipment. Each batch of chocolate is made to taste exactly the same as the other so that there is no variation  of taste, color or texture in the thousands of candy bars that are made each day. Chocolate manufactured in this manner is referred to as industrial chocolate.


Shops like Puopolo’s are known as chocolatiers’ that appeal to people who appreciate and will pay for high quality chocolate . Chocolatiers’ produce chocolate creations on a much smaller scale and create confections in small batches by melting large bars of chocolate.


Sailboat and Anchor Favors
Puopolo chocolatiers’ confection

Another player has come on the scene and companies like  Taza chocolate  are part of a growing movement of small companies that produce  bean to bar products.

Image result for taza chocolate


The bean to bar companies are conscious of the long history of exploitation in the chocolate industry including children being used as forced labor on cacao plantations. (Off, 2006)  The bean to bar companies produce an ethical and sustainable product by controlling all stages of their chocolate making including choosing and grinding their own cacao beans.
The advantage of industrial chocolate for the consumer is that whether you purchase a Hershey bar in Alaska or Massachusetts the wrapper texture, color and taste of the chocolate will be the same. Whereas the smaller manufacturers including chocolatiers and bean to bar, aim to produce small unique batches of products.  Cacao beans alone are bitter thus sugar and sometimes other flavorings like vanilla and milk are added to cocoa beans to make the chocolate bars more palatable.  The more cacao content in a product the more intense the chocolate flavor which to many tastes bitter.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a local chocolatiers nearby so I set out to my local Trader Joe’s  to utilize my new-found knowledge and analyze their chocolate section.

Mintz states ” food choices and eating habits reveal distinctions of age, sex, status , culture and even occupation.” (Sweetness and Power).  Trader Joe’s is a slighty upscale, funky progressive full service grocery store who cater to their customers food and need to shop at a socially responsible store. Customers that shop here generally care about where and how the ingredients in their food come from . Trader Joe’s listened to their customers and according to the timeline listed on their website in 1997 they “made a commitment to eliminate artificial trans fats from all private label products (along with artificial flavors, artificial preservatives & GMO ingredients… but that’s old news by now).”

Trader Joe’s shoppers are diverse and span the  socio economic scale. They want to feel as if they are being socially and environmentally responsible without spending a lot of cash. They will however spend a bit more for a product if it makes them feel like they are achieving the goals of being a responsible consumer.   One such chocolate bar checks all those boxes the  Fair Trade Organic Belgium Chocolate Bar is  included in the wide selection of chocolate products that are displayed throughout the store. These bars were included in the chocolate bar section located at the back of the store at the end of an aisle near the milk.  The majority of the chocolate bars were 3.5 ounces with price points between $1.99 for the Fair Trade Organic Belgium Chocolate bars , $2.99 for a Valrhona dark chocolate bar and for $4.99 you could purchase a milk and almond pound plus bar.  There were quite a few chocolate products located in the impulse buy zone at the front of the store including dark chocolate peanut butter cups and chocolate covered almonds for $4.99 each.

As I strolled the isles I noticed some chocolate bars above the seafood section that had pretty and exotic looking labels.  Upon closer inspection it is revealed that these are dark chocolate bars made with 70% cacao and delicious fillings like coconut caramel and toffee and walnuts.  Along side these bars there was a 65% Dark Cacao bar that is made from single origin fairly traded beans from Ecuador. These chocolate bars highlight the cacao content to entice those that believe the claim that chocolate is good for your heart . However,  James Howe  advises  that the claim that chocolate is heart healthy  is not scientifically proven that chocolate consumption alone is the primary element in increasing cardiovascular health. ( Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health, 2012) The artwork depicts nature scenes to enhance the natural allure of these chocolate bars that are priced at just $1.89.










In spite From the  lovely artwork and detailed descriptions highlighting the cacao content and country of origin of the beans it is clear from the price points of $1.89 that these are mass marketed  industrial made chocolate bars covered in cleverly  designed Trader Joe’s wrappers. The wrappers contain all the buzz words and images  the consumer wants to see so they feel like they are purchasing socially responsible products.  When I questioned the  store manager about the private label chocolate bars he did not know what company Trader Joe’s bought the chocolate bars from however he assured me that they were made from the finest organic ingredients yet… only a few chocolate bars are labeled organic or Fair Trade.

IMG_1461IMG_1462 IMG_1463

The Trader Joe’s Chocolate truffles look decadent on the shiny red background of the package. They even provide directions on how to”taste these delicate truffles”.  Trader Joe’s selections so far were on target for their consumers, good cacao content, some organic selections. therefore  I was very surprised when the first ingredient listed in the Cocoa Truffles was vegetable oil , the second sugar and finally cocoa powder appears as the third ingredient. This was disappointing  as it is not as high quality chocolate product as it appears and not consistent with the prior products viewed.

After reviewing the chocolate bar and other chocolate products at Trader Joe’s  I’ve concluded that Trader Joe’s should expand their chocolate selections to include more Fair Trade chocolate products and add a few  Bean to Bar and local chocolatiers products to the inventory.  It would be a clear statement to Trader Joe’s customers and the chocolate industry  that  Trader Joe’s cares about ethics and is committed to providing  their customers with more Fair Trade, organic and local chocolate products.  While the typical Trader Joe’s customer appreciates a bargain , many would be willing to pay more for chocolate if they know that their purchase directly benefits the cacao farmer or the small business person.  Trader Joe’s has the opportunity to make a difference in the chocolate industry if they go beyond selling private label chocolate bars and include bean to bar and local chocolate makers.
If you want to make an effort to consume Fair Trade organic chocolate the key is read the labels or find your local chocolate shop , either bean to bar or chocolatiers you won’t be disappointed.


Works Cited

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Mintz, S. W. (1986). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

“Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12.1 (2012): 43-52. Web.

The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ed. Maricel E. Presilla. New York: Ten Speed, 2009. 61-94. Print.

Carol Off, Bitter Chocolate: the dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet.2006. The New Press.  print.


Multimedia and internet sources

Google Images , date accessed 5/7/16. http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/images/content_img/CacaoGod.jpghttps://madhuwellness.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/cacoa.jpg
http://www.traderjoes.com/images/fearless-flyer/uploads/article-428/95474-Trader Joes 95475_Fair_Trade_Chocolate.jpg

Websites referenced.

Hershey’s Chocolate Making Process. htttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TcFYfoB1BY-
USDA Organic guidelines.  https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/organic-certification


Theobroma cacao as a replacement species for Caffea arabica in Central American farmlands of under 1000 meters in elevation

Coffee farmers of the Central American countries of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador and to a lesser degree Colombia are increasingly faced with a difficult decision looming in the horizon with regards to the economic sustainability of their farming practices in the near future. The vegetal and atmospheric realities caused by climate change disturbing coffee farms in areas under 1000 meters of elevation on the one hand, and the economic pressures produced as a result of an increasing demand for premium Arabica coffee produced in high altitudes on the other – 1000 to 2000+ meters – are increasingly threatening the sustainable future of mono-cropping in coffee farms of Central America. While farmers of higher altitudes are increasingly incentivized to perfect their production of specialty coffee, owners of small low altitude traditional coffee farms that average around just over 2 hectares of land under production are facing serious climatic issues in the near future with the respect to rising global temperatures. In the ensuing discussion, the argument will analyses the potential of cacao plant to either replace Caffea arabica or serve as a diversification crop during a transition period from coffee to cacao, as many of the productive lands of the aforementioned low lying areas are becoming increasingly unsuitable for cultivation of coffee. On the one hand, the argument will focus on vegetal qualities of Theobroma cacao as a well-positioned replacement for Caffea Arabica. On the other, the research will discuss the logistical suitability of this replacement as a result of the similarity of post-harvest processing, and the relatively analogous supply chains shared between green coffee and raw cacao beans.

A recent report by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture indicates that Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are in the fore front of the full impact of climate change with regards to suitability of land under cultivation of coffee. Climate models indicate that by 2050, the majority of the low lying areas – under 1000 meters of elevation – of Mesoamerica will, in all likelihood, experience an increase of 2 to 2.5 degrees in Celsius in mean annual temperature. Moreover, the majority of the region will experience between 5 to 10 percent differential in annual precipitation. (CIAT)

CIAT Table1
Table from CIAT

Given that Caffea arabica is incredibly sensitive to climatic stress, the changing mean annual temperatures will cause a tremendous challenge for coffee farmers in the region. Higher ambient temperatures speed up the ripening process of coffee cherries and therefore result in poorer cup quality. In a region where coffee production is the predominant source of agricultural GDP especially among the small farming families, the degrading quality will directly impact household income as the resultant green bean will certainly fall outside of the 80 percentile mark determined for high premium yielding specialty coffee. (CIAT)

Global map of production of coffee based on species and its consumption – Produced by Author

Moreover, given that coffee is a native plant of the understory layer of southwestern highland forests of Ethiopia, it has biologically adapted to steady and slow vegetal growth. The primary production of coffee in Latin America however takes place in full sun where the coffee plant is in effect growing and producing cherries at much higher rate than it is biologically accustomed to. This differential in growth and production cause a tremendous increase in susceptibility to diseases such as leaf rust disease. Increasing mean temperatures and increasing photosynthetic production as yielded by climate change will, in all likelihood increase the potential in Caffea arabica’s susceptibility to leaf rust disease.

Diagram explaining coffee plantation according to its natural habitat on the top, versus commercial modern plantations in the bottom

Given the narrow climatic conditions that the coffee farms operate within, and given the social and economic structures that comprise the coffee agriculture in this region of the world as one of the few place where rustic or semi-rustic polyculture agroforestry systems persists within a closely knit network of small farm producers, a number of global organizations such as CIAT have invested interest to conduct research as a potential model for combating climate change induced stress in agriculture in other regions of the world. As a result, in all likelihood, there will be an increasing amount of research, initiatives, and funding available for programs that support polyculture or replacement of coffee with other suitable crops. (Coffeelands, Responding to) However, it is important to take into account that many farmers in this region of the Mesoamerica have been farming coffee on lands averaging around 2 hectares using traditional wet mill processing and patio drying for more than 150 years in successive generations. A systematic diversification or complete change in agricultural crop of choice in this region of the world may take more than just research, as local, governmental and international support with regards to implementation and education will certainly be necessary in order to achieve a successful transition. In Nicaragua for instance, majority of farmers do not call themselves cacao farmers, although many small farmers do cultivate and harvest cacao as third or fourth crop. One of the main issues with respect to the potential for cacao as the primary crop in this region is the incorrect attitude that cacao is a low maintenance crop. Many coffee farmers have a small number of Theobroma cacao plants that they harvest as a third crop with very little adequate post-harvest handling. They typically sell the raw and often poorly fermented cacao bean in local markets. As a result, the poor quality of cacao produced and sold using these practices undermines the full capacity of the species as a major source of agricultural income for these small farmers. (Cacao Bisiesto, Cacao in Nicaragua)

The reality of climate change with regards to the production of coffee is not only limited to disease susceptibility and cup quality in that the rising temperatures could easily shift the altitudinal range of the crop upwards over time. Using a simple method of plant classification according to the age old system devised by Alexander Von Humboldt, it is easily recognizable that all species migrate with regards to their range across the global latitudes, as well as across a vertical range in accordance to their altitudinal habitat. These habitats are not fixed and therefore as the global temperatures change over time, the territorial range of species move accordingly. As a result, Von Humboldt first proposed that plant species should not be classified based on nativity to specific regions, but rather in accordance to their altitudinal tolerances. This method of classification is of particular importance to tropical agriculture, and it should be noted that Von Humboldt prioritized altitudinal ranges over latitudinal ones in that latitudinal temperature variations are much less noticeable than changes across elevation in the tropical Central America as a result of extreme topographies and climatic systems created by the Andes.

Drawing by Alexander Von Humboldt explaining the altitudinal range of different dominant species

For instance, given that every 100 meters of change in elevation will result in an approximately 0.5 degrees of Celsius change in temperature, it is easily deducible that with the given predictions of 2 to 2.5 degrees change by 2050, the production of high quality coffee could certainly move up the mountains by 400 to 500 meters in elevation. (Coffeelands, Knocking on) More importantly, as the production range of lower quality coffee will adjust accordingly, the resultant 400 meters in elevation change will encompass much larger territory across lower altitude foothills that have less altitudinal differential across the terrain. As a result, coffee farmers are faced with three primary choices. They may diversify and eventually completely change to a different polyculture of agricultural regime. Alternatively, many farmers could decide to rely heavily on a losing battle of subsidized disease resistant research that supplies specific Arabica strains resistant to leaf rust. Thirdly, the emerging generation may choose to leave farming with migration from rural areas to heavily populated cities.  While option two is a temporary solution at best, option three is not only economically inconceivable, but from an ecological perspective the deserted agricultural territories will experience massive soil erosion and potential landslides as a result of the susceptibility of the volcanic soil in these areas that is ironically very fertile but extremely fragile in the face of erosion. Luckily, Theobroma cacao is an incredibly well suited plant for the circumstances of these conditions. Cacao thrives in warm temperatures, deep soils with abundant organic matter. The species love the evenly distributed rainfall pattern of low lying tropical lands with a minimum of 1200 mm of precipitation per annum. (Coffeelands, responding to) More importantly, given that cacao is a native of riparian zones of the tropics, it has evolved to develop an unusually long tap root for a tropical plant. As a result, Cacao plant is extremely well positioned to combat soil erosion in these areas of the Central America. Moreover, Cacao, much like coffee is produced primarily by farmers that share very similar socio-economic profile to that of coffee farmers. 90 percent of cacao is produced by small family owned farms ranging between 1-5 hectares in size. (Coffeelands, Responding to) Above all, perhaps the most important statistic is Cacao plant’s altitudinal range with an optimal elevation band of 100 to 600 meters above the sea level, making cacao a perfect diversification or even replacement plant for low altitude coffee lands that will eventually fall outside of Caffea arabica’s production range.

Diagram explaining suitable soil make up for cacao plant’s deep tap root morphology

A secondary but perhaps more crucial factor from a socio-economic perspective are the similarities that coffee and cacao share with regards to post-harvest processing and the market structures with regards to production and supply chains. The post-harvest processing for coffee in Central America is predominantly based on wet mill processing and fermentation, with an extremely small group of farmers, mostly in the south and in Brazil relying on dry fermentation. The main driver in this split is the marketability to consumers in the Northern Hemisphere where most of coffee enthusiasts and everyday drinkers are used to the clear, crisp and to some degree bright profile of Latin American high altitude coffee. Dry fermented coffee results in a much fruitier and a much earthier coffee in that coffee cherries are not de-pulped before fermentation. This difference and the need for a wet mill is perhaps the only primary difference in the post-harvest processing of coffee and that of raw cacao beans. Both crops need extensive flat spaces for drying and fermentation with the possibility of utilizing movable trays for both industries. Although the knowledge required to perfect the fermentation process of each crop is fundamentally different, with adequate support and education, small coffee farmers of under 1000 meters of elevation could very easily diversify or completely switch to cacao production.

As previously mentioned coffee is predominantly produced in this region of the world within family owned farms averaging approximately 2 hectares in size. Cacao is also produced within farms of similar make up ranging from 1 to 5 hectares in size. Both crops are produced by an aging demographics with the average coffee farmer and the average cacao farmer both at around 55 years of age, with an increasing number of individual farmers whose children are more and more likely to refrain from continuing the familial trade, in part due to the diminishing profits of the bulk production of both crops. As a result, many metropolitan areas in Central America, West Africa, and East Asia have experienced a massive migration boom of predominantly young workforce encouraged by their previous generation to abandon the agricultural lifestyle. Another important similarity between the two crops is the emergence of a relatively new consumer base that is willing to pay a premium for higher quality raw products. In coffee, the so-called third wave which coffee enthusiast have described as post-Starbucks movement, has mobilized a robust direct trade movement in number of Latin American countries. For instance, Pedro Miguel Echavarria, the founder of Pergamino Café in Medellin is at the fore front of establishing a sophisticated coffee culture in the bustling and growing metropolis of his home town. However, the primary constituent of his growing business consists of sourcing specialty coffee directly from Colombian farms to American coffee roasters.

Cafe Pergamino in Medellin, Colombia

Although direct trade has its own shortcomings in both industries, the so-called exclusive quality that is promised through direct sourcing has resulted in emergence of local cooperatives that are more conscious of quality and DO (Designation of Origin). delos Andes Cooperativa for instance, situated near the city of Andes in Antioquia, has recently equipped itself with highly technological sorting machines that have the capacity to de-shell and process specific green coffee batches separate from one another, in order to preserve the integrity of DO. Although cacao seems to be slightly behind coffee with respect to DO, and coffee itself is tremendously behind wine with regards to DO as a marketing tool, there seems to be a growing evidence that there will be more place-specific sourcing of both products in the future as the consumer base in the Northern Hemisphere pay higher premiums for quality raw products. (Coffeelands, A Napa Valley) The issue that has particular importance with regards to this argument is the commonality of the networks of social, marketing, and trade infrastructures that regulate the supply chain of both crops. Due to this observation, a diversification strategy or complete replacement of coffee framing with cacao in areas that will eventually fall outside the altitudinal range of Caffea arabica could be a potential success.

delos Andes Cooperativa near Andes, Antioquia, Colombia

The argument put forward here makes a compelling argument for on the one hand the need to diversify and ultimately replace coffee as a monocrop in low lying farmlands of Central America. On the other, the analysis has identified Theobroma cacao as an incredibly suitable species for this replacement, in that cacao plant’s biological capacities that are matched for this vulnerable territory, coupled with the potential as a result of the overlapping trade infrastructures and post-harvest techniques with that of coffee industry, makes cacao a potential successor to coffee in farmlands of lower than 1000 meters in elevation. Nevertheless, as identified by this research analysis, there are many challenges at governmental as well as farm level that would require extensive support and education through industry imitated programs. In short, the effort takes more than just sprinkling cacao plants in coffee farms.



“A Napa Valley Vineyard – a Glimpse into the Future of Coffee Farming?” Coffeelands. Web. 04 May 2016.
“Cacao in Nicaragua.” Cacao Bisiesto. Web. 04 May 2016.
“Knocking on Coffee’s Door: Cocoa’s Case as a Coffee Farm Alternative.” Coffeelands. Web. 04 May 2016.
“Responding to the Climate Crisis through Crop Diversification.” Coffeelands. Web. 04 May 2016.
Thelen, Jeff. “Pergamino Café: Forging a Coffee Culture in Medellín.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com. Web. 04 May 2016.
“Mesoamerican Coffee: Building a Climate Change Adaptation …” CIAT. Web. 4 May 2016.

How to Move Towards a Sustainable Cocoa Market

Sustainability within the cocoa industry has become an increasingly common buzz word, but it is a term more often than not kept vague and unqualified in order to obfuscate the amount of progress that the industry has made in regards to sustainability in regards to issues that stretch from agricultural methods to fair labor practices. While initiatives, public statements, and advertisements released by cocoa corporations of all sizes often address issues of sustainability, it is often a marketing ploy to engage with socially conscious consumers as opposed to a goal to actually improve flaws in the cocoa supply chain. How many schools have chocolate companies claimed to have built in places like West Africa, and how does that exactly improve the lives of underpaid farmers? The following video, produced by Fair Trade America introduces the range of initiatives the company claims through the filming of seemingly daily life at a cacao cooperative in West Africa.

A plethora of Fair Trade initiated programs market themselves in manner to emphasize that they have increased the well being of local farmers and their families, is not made clear how financially and programmatically they have been achieved. It is important as consumers who are subject to the marketing campaigns that make companies appear more socially and economically responsible to be able to weed out superficial attempts at sustainability from those that may make a difference, for better or for worse, in order to better make informed decisions. This paper aims to demystify the definition of sustainability within the cocoa supply chain- sustainability from the perspective of farmers, specifically, and outline methods through which such sustainability can be achieved.

Unsustainable practices can be found in many aspects of cocoa production. In terms of horticultural and agricultural processes, very little is known about the cacao plant. It is a manually intensive plant to harvest, and in recent years it has become more and more fragile and susceptible to disease. This decrease in productivity due to the plant’s genetics, age, and horticultural practices have not only negatively impacted supply for large companies, but the lack of income has contributed to many sociocultural issues surrounding farmers in affected regions. The lack of agricultural sustainability, while not the only influential factor, has a direct relationship to the lack of financial sustainability of cacao farmers which ultimately leads to socially and culturally unsustainable practices like child labor. To better put this one plant into perspective, around 50 million lives depend on Theobroma cacao, and in the Ivory Coast alone, 15% of the country’s GDP is dependent on the raw good which translates to about 5% of the country’s households [1]. To these farmers, according to Peter Laderach of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture who studies the effects of climate change in cacao farming region, the cacao trees are “’like ATM machines. They pick some pods and sell them quickly to raise cash for school fees or medical expenses. The trees play an absolutely critical role in rural life [2].’” A rift in the supply of cacao beans for these farmers could be catastrophic to their wellbeing.

The challenges that farmers face in reaching sustainable harvesting regimes range from poor knowledge of best farming practices, older plants with diminishing yields, increases in pest and disease, and the looming threat of climate change; oftentimes farmers face the entire range of issues. In Brazil, for example, disease like Witches Broom reduced production by 80% in the late 80s. Now, another disease, Frosty Pod Rot, has been spreading through Latin America while cocoa swollen shoot virus, the cocoa pod borer, black pod rot, and water mold affect plants in Africa [3]. If Witches Broom and Frosty Pod Rot were to reach West African growing regions, from Latin America, where the majority of the crop is grown, the affects to cacao production would be devastating [4]. Other factors negatively impacting crop yields include a very narrow band of growing compatible growing region along the equator and a diminishing gene pool due to a history of inbreeding. This lack of genetic diversity has exacerbated the species’ ability to combat disease and other hardships.

In light of these issues, many efforts have been taken, especially by large chocolate production companies, in order to produce more resilient plant specimens that will produce more pods and are more resistant to disease and pests. Many, like Nestle, Mars, and Hershey’s, have taken a scientific approach to studying the genetics of the cacao tree in order to increase yield. The video linked here quickly describes the race between teams of scientists at both Mars and Hershey’s to map the genome of the Theobroma cacao plant in order to find answers to disease and pest resistance. Nestle has also placed many resources and efforts into research and development of “super saplings” that will be able to increase yield. Nestle plans on giving away 12 million of these saplings to farmer in 2022.

Both the genetic sequence and selective breeding of cacao plants are crucial in identifying the ideal specimen. Tests done on naturally resistant plants and their offspring are helpful but slow, and the process is greatly sped up with the help of a mapped genome that better identifies where disease and pest resistance genes are located [5].

In all cocoa growing regions, 30-40% of crops are lost to disease and pests [6], and while the efforts to genetically modify the perfect cacao plant are helpful, there are a myriad of other factors that stand to undermine this single faceted approach. Soil fertility, for example, has decreased in many of the growing regions. In fact, oftentimes in abandoned coffee plantations that have moved for higher elevations in order to reduce instances of pest and disease, cacao would take its place as it is less fragile than coffee plants. Additionally, the lack of socio-political infrastructure in many cacao growing regions, for example, coupled with the fact that the cacao farming community is made up of tiny scaled operations in large numbers, makes it incredibly difficult to disseminate change across an entire region and making progress a slow endeavor. Overall, a lack of access to education affects all aspects of a farmer’s financial and social well being. From access to latest technologies to professional literacy, farmers are at a huge disadvantage in terms of setting themselves up for long term economic sustainability. The looming threat of climate change also further exacerbates all of the aforementioned issues.

Given the complexity of issues that stand in the way of sustainability for farmers, the focus of companies like Nestle, Mars, and Hershey’s in finding the ideal cacao plant to increase productivity and therefore profit margins for farmers and ultimately themselves is insufficient in the holistic improvement of the livelihoods of cacao farmers. Take the introduction of cacao to Vietnam as a case study; cacao plants and knowledge of how to plant and harvest them were well distributed to farmers in the 1980s, but after demand for cocoa disappeared after the fall of the Berlin Wall, farmers slashed their crops out of frustration [7]. This demonstrates that access to plants and planting knowledge is merely one facet of many in building a more resilient livelihood out of cacao farming. The lack of control or input and general knowledge regarding the global market of cocoa production and consumption puts farmers at a huge disadvantage and at the mercy of chocolate makers.

In that respect, the work of smaller, niche chocolatiers like Taza and Equal Exchange are a great complement to the top down scientific research of larger corporations. Due to the scale of their operations, smaller chocolatiers are able to form closer relationships with their cacao producers and create a more mutually beneficial relationship that may raise prices for consumers, better reflects the price point of a sustainable supply chain. Shared knowledge about how cocoa should be grown and how cocoa products should be evaluated is still burgeoning, but one effort that Equal Exchange has been pushing is the development of testing and tasting labs within the region of cultivation to better bridge the knowledge gap between farmers and those buying their goods. How can farmers be expected to produce better quality cacao beans for a higher price if what they are producing is a very foreign product or is too valuable as an export to be consumed? The following video, while is a dramatization of reality, begins to hint at the disparity between those who cultivate and those who consume.

The point to take home isn’t that farmers are unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but rather the roadblocks that stop farmers from understanding what happens to their goods after they leave their farms. It is beneficial for all when farmers are as fully aware of the chocolate making process so that they may be able to make decisions about how to plant and harvest for a better product as opposed to constantly relying on manuals and instructions from outside organizations and companies who do not always have the best interests of the farmers as a main priority. Sustainability for a farmer includes the ability to affect the economics of cocoa as opposed to perpetually being victim to the rising and falling prices of cocoa. Overall knowledge and more involvement are key factors in closing this gap.

While much of the focus in on farmers themselves in creating a more sustainable livelihood, there is much that can be done from the perspective of the consumer as well. Awareness and education about chocolate should not be limited to the various producers along the supply chain. A broader, collective conscious effort to understand how the cocoa products come to be lead to more informed consumers that apply pressure to the overall industry to be more sustainable and resilient. While seemingly altruistic, this approach is quite practical as well. The end goal is not for a consumer to feel good about being charitable and righteous, but rather the goal should be about creating a more economically, ecologically, and socio-politically chain where the weakest links at this point are disenfranchised farmers and disconnected consumers. Corporations and organizations in between have various approaches at closing the gap for a variety of reasons, but working towards a complex solution from both ends of the supply chain will be critical to the success of a more sustainable market.

1. Schmitz, Harold, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. “The Race to Save Chocolate.” Scientific American. Accessed May 03, 2016. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-race-to-save-chocolate/.

2. ibid.

3. ibid.

4. Moyer, Michael. “Death and Chocolate: Disease Threatens to Devastate Global Cocoa Supply.” Scientific American. Accessed May 03, 2016. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/death-and-chocolate/.

5. ibid.

6. “Challenges.” World Cocoa Foundation. Accessed May 04, 2016. http://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/about-cocoa/challenges/.

7. “Cacao and Chocolate in Vietnam, a Brief History.” Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat. Accessed May 03, 2016. http://marouchocolate.com/post/55951688118/history.

Better Than Ambrosia

Theobroma cacao. The food of the gods. It has a long history, one that gets longer every time new discoveries are made. The cacao tree itself dates back even farther, but the fruit has likely been consumed by humans as long as we have known of it, and though the preparation has changed over time, the importance to human culture has not.

Cacao is remembered, from less modern times, as the province of the elite. Who better to enjoy the food of the gods on earth than those considered gods on earth, or descendants of gods, the kings and queens? The rulers, the nobles, the warriors, they are among the select few granted the privilege of such a luxury. Theirs are the names and faces associated with the remaining artefacts of the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Olmec. Images in stone or on clay, words left behind from languages only partly deciphered, recipes handed down, all of these things help build the picture of what once was, and have helped to create what is now.

Originally, it must be assumed, cacao was eaten as a fruit, for its pulp, and it is still unknown how or when it was first discovered that, through an intricate process, the nibs inside the cacao seeds could be transformed into something so different. When and however it happened, cacao became a beverage, and remained a beverage for many centuries, even to the present day.

The most important part of a cacao beverage, today and in the past, is the frothy head. Today, mechanical steamers create foam when milk is aerated, or whipped cream is added to the top of a drink for effect as well as taste.

Common Grounds - Aerating Milk on a Mastrena
Common Grounds Coffeehouse & Cafe, Ohio

But before the age of Starbucks, a foamy head to a cacao beverage was still essential, if not more so. The foam “was considered the most desirable part of the drink by the Aztecs, and almost certainly by the Classic Maya. And by the later Maya too…” (Coe, 48).

Scene from the Princeton Vase
Art Institute of Chicago - Maya Vessel 1
Maya vessel for drinking chocolate, The Art Institute of Chicago



“The raising of a froth – the feature most visible to chocolate connoisseurs – required repeated pourings from one container lifted above shoulder height into another on the ground,” (Presilla, 20). This would also later be achieved by using a wooden whisk called a molinillo (pictured below)


– a tool which is still in use today. Not quite as high tech as a Mastrena, but just as suitable for the task.

Over time, cacao could be enjoyed hot or cold, and mixed with a variety of other ingredients. Corn was used to thicken cacao into a kind of gruel, chilies could be used to give it a kick, or honey could be used as a sweetener (the Maya had even bred a stingless honey bee!), but always it would come with a frothy top. “Rosario Olivias Weston… quotes the nineteenth-century traveler Johann Jakob von Tschudi as saying that at Sunday almuerzo (brunch) black servants would even froth each guest’s chocolate in the cup, sometimes so dexterously that the froth almost completely filled the cup, leaving only a couple of spoonfuls of liquid,” (Presilla, 31).

While not the common hot chocolate of the modern era (and even hot chocolate is made very differently around the globe), cacao beverages are still being made that must be very similar to those made centuries ago.

While our ideas of cacao have changed, and our particular tastes vary, our desire for the food of the gods remains.


Books Cited:

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, Third Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2013.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.


Common Grounds Coffeehouse & Café

The Princeton Vase, Late Classic Maya (c. AD 750)

All other images from the personal gallery of the poster

Basic Botany: Theobroma cacao

Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, was the one who chose to name the cacao plant Theobroma cacao. Considering the historic popularity of chocolate, the choice of Theobroma (“food of the gods” in Latin) is highly understandable.

For current consumers of chocolate, little is known about the plant behind the popular sweet. This should be remedied, as cacao is serious business. The World Cacao Foundation calculated the world cacao production to be around 4.8 million metric tons at the end of 2012. The report also noted that nearly 50 million people depend on cacao for their livelihoods.

The window of opportunity for cacao growing is comparatively small: most cacao farms are situated 15 to 20 degrees of latitude from the equator because, having originated from the lower Amazon basin, Theobroma cacao grows best in warm temperatures and with relatively high humidity. Currently, most cacao is grown in the West African nations like Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire.

Map Highlighting Prominent Cacao Growing Countriesbg-www-mapSource: http://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/wp-content/themes/worldcocoa/images/bg-www-map.png

Theobroma cacao is a small, 13-26 ft. tall, tree. Historically, three varieties of cacao have been recognized- Criollo, Forastero, and Trinidad. The Forastero variety is now known to include over 9 genetically separate varieties (The New Taste of Chocolate, 2001). All Theobroma cocao plants can be easily identified by their thick leaves and a property known as cauliflory: the growth of fruit and flowers off the main trunk of a plant rather than offshoots. It flowers and produces cacao pods year round, but there are usually two distinct harvesting seasons.

Theobroma cacao, aka the cacao tree, covered in podsCacao-TreeSource: http://www.jivacubes.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Cacao-Tree.jpg

With proper care, cacao trees reach peak pod production around their fifth year and can maintain this level for up to ten years (The World Cocoa Foundation, 2012). The pods of Theobroma cacao come in a wide array of vibrant colors: yellow to magenta. They contain, depending on the variety of cacao, 20-50 seeds attached to a central placenta. A white pulp, baba, surrounds the beans. These seeds can be ground up and processed with sugar and various spices to create chocolate.

Unfortunately for chocolate lovers everywhere, cacao trees are affected by a wide range of diseases. Witches’ Broom (Moniliophthora perniciosa), Frosty Pod Rot (Moniliophthora roreri), and Vascular-streak dieback (VSD) (Oncobasidium theobroma), as well as a myriad of insects routinely threaten the crop. The International Cocoa Organization estimated that this combination of disease and pests damages around 30 to 40% of the cacao crop each year. The main methods of controlling disease include pruning, the removal of infested pods, and the maintenance of appropriate spacing between trees. Fungicide can also be applied. Biological control is advocated to reduce insect pests.

Cacao pods affected by frosty pod rot (Moniliophthora roreri)Cacao_Fig17

Source: http://www.apsnet.org/publications/apsnetfeatures/Article%20Images/Cacao_Fig17.jpg

However, popular methods of protecting Theobroma cacao won’t keep the plant safe forever. The sensitivity of the cacao trees, mentioned above in relation to growth conditions, also means Theobroma cacao is extremely sensitive to weather patterns. As reported by the World Cocoa Foundation, the increasing periods of drought and excessive rain due to climate change will negatively impact the crop.

There’s a lot more to be said about and explored with Theobroma cacao. And it’s important that people care enough to say and explore more; to maintain current levels of consumption, we must work to further our understanding of this plant and to protect it. Thankfully, asking people to care about cacao shouldn’t be too difficult. Chocolate’s a lovable thing.



Works / Reference Cited

Presilla Maricel.“The New Taste of Chocolate”. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2001.

“Cocoa Market Price Trends.” West African Studies Regional Atlas on West Africa: 1 Apr. 2014. Accessed 17 Feb. 2016.

“Pests and Diseases” International Cocoa Organization: 10 Apr. 2015. Accessed February 17th, 2016. http://www.icco.org/about-cocoa/pest-a-diseases.html


Exploring Cultural Appropriation Through A Chocolate Tasting

Over the course of the semester, I’ve found myself chiefly concerned with the  appropriation of Indigenous cultures within the production of goods for non-Indigenous consumption. To be clear, my concern is not with the sharing of culture, taste, and economies of people across land and oceans. Rather, the dilemma with chocolate exists in the historical institution of slavery and continued poor labor conditions ingrained in its industry, as well as the present appropriation of culture evident specifically in craft or artisanal chocolate and its advertisements. In order to observe how this subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, appropriation of culture interacts with the modern day consumer, I decided to host a chocolate tasting party and record the social and individual responses. I found that, regardless of the individual’s personal connection, chocolate served to highlight the importance of food both as culture and as shared community in their connection to sense memory; additionally, the chocolate tasting also revealed how food reflects the transformation of culture in displaced communities that have experienced forced assimilation and adaptation.

Maya glyphs depicting cacao tree (center of photo)

As this class knows by now, the theobromine cacao tree originates from the equatorial region, primarily within 20 degrees north and south of the equator (Presilla 8), that encapsulates modern-day Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. From this magnificent tree, the Indigenous peoples from the region were able to use cacao from the pods that grew on the theobromine’s trunk to produce chocolate. You might be thinking, “So what? Some Indians figured out how to make chocolate products.” We’re not talking about a discovery of plant use and food product within the last hundred years; we’re talking about the use of a plant to make chocolate products by, at least, 300 B.C., which dates chocolate production and consumption by more than 2,500 years. Anthropologists and researchers have found that the Olmec civilization (1200 B.C. to 300 B.C.), from the southeast coastal area of what is now Mexico, were most likely the first peoples to regularly use cacao for commerce, food, and religion. (Coe and Coe, Fash, Presilla). The Maya, who wielded great influence throughout the region from about 250 A.D. to 900 A.D., learned much about cacao from the Olmecs and continued to rely on it for their commerce, short and long distance trade, ceremony, and food. Their connection to cacao and chocolate is well-documented via burial chambers, pottery (including pottery from Chaco Canyon in the southwest U.S.), glyphs, and stories that survived European invasion and colonialism. (Presilla, Fash)

Chocolate vessels  http://www.maya-archaeology.org/pre-Columbian_Mesoamerican_Mayan_ethnobotany_Mayan_iconography_archaeology_anthropology_research/Theobroma-cacao-beans_trees_plants_cocoa-chocolate_Maya-kakaw-pataxte_Verapaz-Peten-Guatemala-Belize-Honduras-Mexico.php

The Aztecs (more accurately known as the Triple Alliance) who politically and militarily dominated much of present-day Mexico at the time of Spanish arrival, intensified the reliance on cacao as an economy, using it for actual currency and building a highly stratified system wealth around cacao. The evidence is clear: cacao and chocolate predates European contact with the America, and was deeply embedded in the lives of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas for their consumption, economies, and ceremonies.

Maya glyph for cacao

When the Spanish arrived, they quickly gleaned that cacao was highly valued within Indigenous society. Ever interested in political, religious, and economic dominance, Europeans quickly organized to control over the region and, in particular, cacao. In Bernardino de Sahagun’s “Historia general de las cosas de nueva España,” chocolate was observed to be grown at a large scale, used as money, and, under Aztec leadership, was limited for consumption by only nobility and those who were granted permission. (Presilla)

High level officials pictured with drinking chocolate

More accounts would be written and documented: the 1544 presentation of chocolate to Prince Phillip by a delegation of Kekchi Maya nobles; the first large shipment of cacao from Veracruz to Seville in 1585; an English traveler, E. Veryard, and his account of the production of chocolate; and the general, widespread European fascination and inclusion of chocolate across its courts, medicine, art, and social settings. (Coe and Coe) Europeans encountered chocolate in a big way; they fell hard for chocolate and “sought to re-create the Indigenous chocolate experience.” (Norton 1) In fact, Presilla writes that “within fifty or sixty years, the [habit of drinking chocolate] had spread to France, Italy, England, and most parts of Europe.” (24) Of course, this intense spread of chocolate was powered by the trading and brutalization of Indigenous and African peoples in the transatlantic slave trade. (Mintz) Although the chapter on slavery and colonization in chocolate’s history is critical, I have previously written on it and will continue to focus this paper on the exploration of appropriation.

Chocolate, like any other food, is an edible heritage, a tangible thing that we can savor, smell, bond over, learn from, and have deep feelings about. (Mintz) It is a vehicle through which we can remember the past and create a future. People all over the world have tied their well-being, income, and sense of community to it. Today, the craft chocolate industry has seemingly awakened from a long history of unethical practices, and is creating space within the industry to produce goods in a sustainable way and to employ fair labor practices. While this is a welcome shift in paradigm, this ethical or fair trade and organic chocolate movement has brought with it an inclination toward “Aztec” or “Mayan” chocolate making. At best, chocolate makers are paying homage to Indigenous traditions, and, at worst, they are appropriating Indigenous culture for capital, as has been common practice since Europe encountered the Americas. To explore this problem of appropriation, I conducted a chocolate tasting with some friends. The following chocolates were sampled:

Chocolates for the tasting

  • Cadbury’s Royal Dark;
  • Nirvana’s Aztec Chocolate;
  • Hershey’s Milk Chocolate;
  • Ritter Sport Milk Chocolate with Hazelnuts;
  • Chuao’s Spicy Mayan Chocolate;
  • Three Taza Chocolates from their Chocolate Mexicano sampler pack (specifically, Pura Cacao, Cinnamon, and Guajillo Chili).

The four people surveyed covered a range of tastes and habits around the consumption of chocolate:

  • Person 1 stated that they did not care for chocolate;
  • Person 2 said they prefer 80% dark and fair trade chocolates;
  • Person 3 said they love chocolate and crave it often;
  • Person 4 consumes chocolate a few times a week, mostly as the sweetener to their coffee.

Each person saw the chocolate and the packaging before sampling. As they ate, I asked them to be cognizant of the feel or snap of the chocolate, the smell, the texture, the taste, and after taste of the chocolates.

Though they had clear instructions to analyze the flavors, textures, and smells they experienced, my tasters were more eager to talk about how the chocolate made them feel. Amidst all of the mmm’s and ew’s, one of the more interesting responses was from a Native American female from White Earth, Minnesota, whose favorite chocolates were the Ritter Sport and the Nirvana. Here is her response:

“[The Ritter Sport] reminds me of home, and growing up on my father’s reservation, harvesting hazelnuts.  I didn’t realize how expensive they were until I arrived here [Cambridge] and had to buy them for the first time. They grow naturally in White Earth, and in where I went to high school on the Lac du Flambeau reservation. Every August, usually in the second week, the hazelnut trees (which look more like overgrown bushes) start getting ready to drop the clusters. That’s when you want to grab them, when the leaves covering them have turned from green to brown, but before they drop to the ground. My father and I would take these giant burlap sacs and go and fill them up; my favorite spot by the refuge has almost an entire acre of them. It’s a hassle to harvest them, and most of the time we leave them raw in their shells in order to savor them until next year’s harvest.

I also liked the Mayan chocolate for much the same reason–I grew up with the flavors. My mom is a spice nut, so if something isn’t spicy it’s not in our house. She says it’s from going to boarding school in New Mexico and having to learn how to cook with what you’re given out there. We still have relatives who live in the Southwest and ship us ingredients on the regular.”

When prompted to comment on the fact that the spicy Mayan chocolates were not, in fact, made by Mayans, a chorus of “UGH” ensued. One Native American male commented that hearing that didn’t surprise him and that the clothing industry appropriates Native American culture often. Another taster, a Mexican-Native American female said, “I love the flavor of this chocolate, and that I can go buy this whenever I’m in the mood for spicy chocolate, but I do wish that it was actually Mayan chocolate.” I mentioned that Taza chocolates are also not Mexican made and that the factory is right down the street. The fourth taster responded, “It doesn’t bother me that they are White-owned, but I do wish they gave back to community that they got this product, or method of chocolate making, from. Like, don’t appropriate, please. Native people are still around.

While I didn’t observe the overwhelming negative reactions to instances of appropriation as I expected, I did observe how ingrained issues of identity are in our every lives. They may not be explicit in their connection, from a broader perspective, but these instances reveal some of the long-standing effects of interactions between communities and their cultures. For instance, the woman from White Earth preferred, over all others, the chocolate with hazelnuts, as it took her home, in her mind, to a place that is deeply involved with long-standing traditions around harvesting nuts. Maybe my findings point more to issues of being directly involved with one’s culture versus being a product of a multicultural environment. Or perhaps at this day and age, we’ve become so comfortable with cross-cultural exchange that we are not always mindful of which products are Indigenous modeled instead of Indigenous made. We might also be so inundated with examples of cultural appropriation, that having to identify whether or not our foods are examples of appropriation would make it impossible to feel comfortable or at ease in our own neighborhoods. Either way, in my ideal world, the craft chocolate or bean-to-bar companies would do more to serve the Indigenous communities that remain connected to this delectable food and culture that we seem to love.

Author’s note: If I were to do this again, I would want to shift perspective and explore the preconceptions and misconceptions of chocolate in connection to Indigenous roots and Latin-American usage. I would also use more than just chocolate bars, and incorporate foods like traditionally made mole and pozol!

Works Cited

Fash, William. Entry on the Maya. Moctezuma’s Mexico: Then and Now Course Reader.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Kindle Version

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics” American Historical Review: The Oxford Journal, 2006. Online. Accessed March 17, 2014

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print


Cacao vessels: http://www.maya-archaeology.org/pre-Columbian_Mesoamerican_Mayan_ethnobotany_Mayan_iconography_archaeology_anthropology_research/Theobroma-cacao-beans_trees_plants_cocoa-chocolate_Maya-kakaw-pataxte_Verapaz-Peten-Guatemala-Belize-Honduras-Mexico.php

Cacao glyphs: http://ajourneythroughguatemala.blogspot.com/2010/05/chocolate-food-for-gods-speciality-of.html

Making cacao in the traditional way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC4dq69rqE&feature=youtu.be

Product websites






Nirvana not longer sells their chocolate on their website, but you can find their online site here: http://nirvanachocolates.businesscatalyst.com/index.html#organic

Cacao: A Genetically Modified Organism

The variety of cacao pods seen here helps showcase the abundant biodiversity within the species, and raises questions of how this can be harnessed.

Before humans roamed the Earth, the landscape looked significantly different. Not just the absence of buildings and bipeds, roads and machines, but also aspects which today we might consider a natural part of our world. The plants which we consider to be “nature” very often have been modified from their original forms. These, in a way, were the original Genetically Modified Organisms, their characteristics changed not through playing around with their DNA directly – inserting genes from other organisms, for example – but through artificial selection and selective breeding. Humans realized early that crossing plants with desirable characteristics led to offspring plants with desirable characteristics. From corn to leafy greens to cacao, we have molded aspects of the natural world to accommodate our likes, preferences, and tastes, a fact both fascinating and worrisome – it is important to consider the impacts of past and future modifications to the organisms that provide our foodstuffs, such as cacao. Looking forward, the goals within this scope of human-made modification should be to make cacao growing more sustainable while also realizing that excessive alteration can be harmful.

Many of the ancestors of our modern-day produce are unrecognizable because they differ so substantially from the plants that we are used to seeing. As Professor Martin stated in class, “We’ve been tinkering with plants since we’ve figured out as humans how to do that – to make them taste sweeter, less bitter” (Martin). Corn, especially, has dramatically been stripped of nutritional value in favor of making it taste sweet, and even supposedly healthy foods like spinach are lacking in nutrients when compared against wild plants (Robinson).

Examples of now-common fruits and vegetables in their original forms, prior to human efforts to selectively breed them.

We have been able to select for particular characteristics that we want to emphasize or others that we want to minimize. For example, from a single wild mustard plant we have been able to breed several individual strains that we now see in grocery stores.

Shows the variety of our leafy greens that were in actuality derived from the same wild plant by selecting for different characteristics, and therefore the level to which humans have played a role in creating new strains and varieties, historically a phenomenon that occurred simply through stochastic chance and selective pressures in nature.

Though this may have led to better-tasting food, the issue is that it has also stripped the plants of much of their nutritional value. Overall, I argue that the domestication and selective breeding in which humans have engaged, here in the case of cacao, is representative of the largely unique human ability to significantly change one’s environment. And while this has been beneficial in some ways, namely the cultivation of more edible foods, we have also lost some of the nutritional value of these foods, as evidenced by the corn example. Furthermore, on a larger scale our development of the earth is causing global warming and climate change, which in turn may affect the geographic range of cacao. It is important, then, to consider these biological and ecological aspects to the historical and modern production of cacao, especially as they have bearing on an uncertain future. And as cacao is an especially picky crop to cultivate, it is possible that by 2050, those regions in which cacao is now grown may not be able to sustain such production (Martin). Additionally, cacao is highly susceptible to disease, which has been a “consistent threat [in many areas] since at least the nineteenth century” (Presilla 74).

To combat this threat, growers of cacao have cross-bred varieties in the hopes of producing sturdier strains that will produce more cacao and also be of high quality. Even after early cultivation, those seeking to further “improve” the plant created hybrid trinitario trees – first created by accident in the 18th century – with the goal to “combine the desirable vigor of the forester plant with the superior quality of the criollo bean” – that is, the hardiness of the former with the flavor of the latter, a project that still continues till today (Coe and Coe 26). More recently, in the 1930s and 40s at the Imperial College in Trinidad, in the face of rampant cacao diseases, specifically witches’ brooms disease, healthy cacao were found, tested for resilience, and then crossed, resulting in the “world’s largest germ plasm bank” (Presilla 85).

In the modern day, these efforts to modify cacao continue. This video describes the efforts of IBM, Mars, and the USDA to sequence the cacao genome, with the purpose of identifying ways to make it a more hardy, disease-resistant crop that can be grown with increased ease and reduced effort.

It is clear, then, that such genetic modification could have some benefits – especially as we face a future in which with populations growing and climates changing, we need to secure our food supplies. However, while disease resistance is certainly a beneficial characteristic for cacao to have, those who are engaging in genetic modification, whether by gene transfer or selective breeding, should be cautious and steer clear of the nutrient-deficient pitfalls that have befallen other produce organisms on their way to the grocery store. After all, chocolate is the Food of the Gods and it would not do for such a food to be in any way lacking.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Harrell, Eben. “Chocolate Potentially Made Safe From Climate Change.” Time Magazine15 Sept. 2010. Print.

Martin, Carla. AAAS 119x Lecture 7: Sugar and Cacao. 2015.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Random House LLC, 2009.

Robinson, Jo. “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food.” New York Times 25 May 2013.

The European Cacao Encounter

The European Cacao Encounter

Chokola’j (verb) /cho-koh-lahj/
To drink chocolate together. (Quiché Mayan)


It’s possible that one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments is the production of chocolate. I know, I know, that’s probably an overstatement. But chocolate is up there, along with pizza, Peruvian chicken, and mashed potatoes. It’s something that you crave after first taste. It’s something that is so pervasive it reigns over the taste buds of millions of people across cultures. It is something that has been so normalized that we rarely stop to think about its story. Where did it come from? How did the world come to appreciate chocolate? Why is chocolate such a major part of our lives and economies? Through the cacao tree, the genius of American Indigenous peoples, and European enchantment and oppression, we have (drumroll, please) today’s chocolate!


Chocolate is the combination of cacao seeds and additives such as vanilla, flowers, cinnamon, sugar, honey, chiles, allspice, or milk. Depending on the chocolate maker’s mission, the additives vary greatly in order to achieve a particular taste. The Maya would add vanilla, achiote, ground ear flower, pepper, and other spices. The Aztec were known to add maize, chiles, huitztecolli-flower, and ground ceiba seed, among other things. (Coe & Coe Kindle Locations 866, 905, 1244, 1252) When Europeans entered into the chocolate game, they added sugar, milk, alkalized the cacao powder, and found different ways to froth chocolate drinks. (Coe & Coe) The bottom line here is that none of these mouth-watering combinations and preparations are possible without cacao.


As I mentioned earlier, cacao comes from the cacao tree. This tree grows green pods on its trunk and branches. Inside the pods are jelly slash leechy slash gooey pulp that surround seeds. Those seeds are it. The cacao tree’s pods are cut open, the pulp removed, and the seeds are shed of pulp. They are then fermented, roasted and ground into powder, to be mixed with whatever flavors the chocolate maker desires. Researchers trace the cacao tree, or Theobroma cacao, to the Amazon basin. By way of travel and trade, the tree made its way to Mesoamerica, where civilizations as early as the Olmecs (1500-400 BC) began to process the cacao into powders, drinks, and foods. By the time Europeans arrived in the Americas, Indigenous peoples had long drunk, eaten, and traded with cacao and chocolate—it was highly valued and highly integrated into society.

In 1502, Christopher Columbus and his crew found themselves in Guanaja, an island in the Caribbean. During one of their encounters with the Indigenous in August of that year, Ferdinand observed:

“They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen.” Ferdinand Columbus (Coe & Coe 109)

And that’s where it ended for Columbus. Neither of the Columbus men would come to recognize the power of these “almonds” until the Spanish conquistadors spent time in Mesoamerica—exploring, plundering, living, becoming enchanted, and detailing their journey into Mesoamerica. Spanish exploration became Spanish subjugation, and that included a religious domination. Dominican friars were among these early European religious figures in the Americas. These friars were markedly different in their approach to the Indigenous, as they often took time to get to the know people and observe their every day lives. In Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, friars led by Bartolomé de las Casa were able to form a relationship with the Kekchi Maya and they would soon agree to accompany the friars back to Spain. In 1544, this delegation of Kekchi Mayas brought with them many goods, including plumes, clay gourds, plants, foods, and beaten chocolate. (Coe & Coe Kindle Location 1835) Chocolate arrived in Europe.


Europeans became hooked. Overtime, they would destroy the homes and livelihoods of the Indigenous people that showed them how to live in the Americas, that gave them new foods and medicines, and their precious chocolate. By the 1500s, Indigenous slavery for the production of chocolate was well underway. The Spanish added African slave power to their chocolate enterprise, and the industry boomed. By the 17th century, this slavery-powered business pumped European courts, homes, and businesses with as much chocolate as they could get their hands on. It is important to note that the cacao tree does not bear fruit outside of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator. (Coe & Coe Kindle Location 221) There was nowhere else they could build this empire but on the back of the people from this equatorial band in which cacao was born. So when we eat chocolate today, we should remember that this delectable treat that we crave during get-togethers, the holidays, after break ups, on cold days, or really, any day of the year, was made possible by Indigenous genius and Indigenous and African exploitation.

On the backs

Coe, Sophie D.; Coe, Michael D. (2013-06-28). The True History of Chocolate (Kindle Location 1667). Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.

Mintz, Sydney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking Penguin. 1985.