Ecuador grows some of the most highly prized chocolate in the world, and recently became the top Latin American exporter of chocolate. In Ecuador’s Amazon, cacao producers have the hot and humid environment they need to grow the world’s most flavorful cocoa beans (note: cacao refers to the plant, while cocoa is the name of the bean).
The world’s other top chocolate-exporting countries have run into problems with their crops, which has only added to the growing popularity of Ecuadorian chocolate. 70 percent of the world’s cacao grows in western Africa — primarily in Ghana and Ivory Coast. These countries have faced particularly bad droughts in recent years.
In 2013, cocoa prices rose by 24 percent. Economists speculate that by 2020, the demand for chocolate is going to exceed chocolate production by 1 million tons. Adding to the shortage concerns is the fact that cocoa beans take a relatively long time to reach maturity.
Part of this number-crunch comes from a rising demand for dark chocolate. With its recently touted antioxidant health benefits, dark chocolate has attained the enviable status as a health-conscious dessert choice. Dark chocolate accounts for 20 percent of the chocolate market in the U.S. Demand for chocolate is also on the rise in China.
Ecuador’s Amazon is a likely contender for the home of the earliest cacao plants. Archeologists have discovered containers with remnants of cocoa in Ecuador dating back to 3,300 B.C. This is some of the oldest evidence of chocolate consumption.
Spanish conquistadors started exporting cocoa from Ecuador in the early 17th century. Ground up and mixed with water, cocoa initially proved too bitter for European taste buds. After clever European chocolatiers started adding sugar to the mixture, it became a popular drink among members of the upper class.
In the early 20th century, a fungal infection wiped out a huge number of Ecuadorian cacao plants. Not too recently, a similar disease also annihilated a portion of Costa Rican cacao crops. Luckily, the Ecuadorian cacao plants have recovered, and are making a huge comeback with chocolatiers all over the world.
Ecuador is most famous for its rare Arriba cocoa beans. These beans are used to make high-end chocolate for discerning chocolate lovers. Some Arriba cacao trees are over a hundred years old. Arriba means “up” or “above” in Spanish, a reference to the fact that these beans grow up-river from the port city of Guayaquil.
Ecuador’s high-quality chocolate comes from the Arriba bean. Chocolate experts describe the flavor of this bean as fruity and spicy, a complex flavor without much bitterness. High-end chocolatiers compare cocoa to the grapes grown to make wine. Soil and the climate play a large role in the flavor of the cocoa. Arriba beans at one elevation have a different flavor than the same type of beans grown in a different part of the Amazon Basin.
Cocoa beans ripen inside football-shaped pods, which start out green and gradually turn shades of yellow and orange. Inside these pods, you’ll find a soft, white coating around each cluster of red beans. Chocolatiers ferment and then roast the beans to get the best flavor, a process that turns the beans a toasty shade of brown.
In an attempt to prevent a chocolate shortage, scientists have engineered a controversial new type of cocoa, called CCN51. Its industrial name belies its unflinching practicality. CCN51 plants yield a much larger crop than Arriba. These genetically engineered plants are also highly resistant to the fungal infections that prey on cacao plants. Unfortunately, the top palates in the chocolate industry have given poor reviews to CCN51’s flavor, some of whom have described it as tasting like dirt. Mars and Cadbury use CCN51 in some of their candies, blending it with better-tasting types of cocoa to produce their trademark milk chocolates.
Although Ecuador produces some of the world’s best chocolate, Ecuadorians don’t consume much of it themselves. The vast majority of chocolate made with Arriba beans is exported.
Nestlé is the largest chocolate producer in Ecuador, while Mars, Hershey's and Ferrero Rocher also have a significant presence. Companies like these mix the flavorful Ecuadorian beans with less expensive types of cocoa, and ultimately the superior cocoa beans don’t get a chance to shine. But this could change soon. Recently, Nestle spent $16 million on a line of fine chocolate made with high-quality Ecuadorian cocoa.
In the Amazon, some Ecuadorian natives still maintain a strong relationship with the crop. Quichua people still eat cocoa in a traditional preparation, ground up with hot water and sugar.
Some companies, both in Ecuador and abroad, are working to produce the best possible experience for consumers and Ecuadorian farmers. The following chocolatiers are small-batch manufacturers that produce high-quality chocolates with Ecuadorian beans. They also work to make sure the Ecuadorian laborers receive a wage that reflects the price of the final product.
Pacari Chocolates, a chocolatier based in Quito, won 6 gold medals at the 2013 International Chocolate Awards in London. Pacari specializes in organic chocolate. The name “Pacari” means nature.
The Kallari cooperative formed to try to get a better price for the Arriba beans harvested by the native Quichua people. With the help of a few American marketing volunteers, Kallari now earns more than double what it did for its beans. Kallari chocolate is available in high-end supermarkets in the U.S.
At $260 for a 1.5-ounce (50 gram) bar, Ecuadorian-made To’ak bars have broken the record for most expensive chocolate bar. The tiny square of chocolate comes with its own pair of disposable tweezers. Why? You don’t want to the chocolate melting on your hands, only to be wasted on a napkin. Sure, you could lick it off, but the oils on your fingertips will compromise the chocolate’s complex flavor.
Recently Ecuador has overtaken Brazil as the top exporter in Latin America of fine chocolate. President Rafael Correa’s government recently concluded negotiations for a trade agreement with the European Union. Europe is the world’s top consumer of fine chocolate.
Increasingly, Ecuadorian farmers are turning to one of Ecuador’s oldest crops to make a decent living. With the rising prices of chocolate, more farmers are willing to devote their crops to cacao.
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