The Resurgence of Brazilian Cacao and Chocolate

Power, Decadence, Resilience and Revolution 

By Zelia Frangioni

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October 2017. After an 11-hour flight from Brazil, I arrive at Heathrow Airport, London. The border officer—whom I can only describe as tall, strong and serious–carefully checks my passport and asks me the purpose of my visit: Business or pleasure? I thought for a second and smiled. “Both!” I told him that I was in London to be a judge at an international chocolate competition. He was surprised, but immediately smiled broadly. “Ah, I want this job! It must be the best profession in the world!” he said, returning my passport. Chocolate has always had this power of delighting people around the world.

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Fazenda Bonança’s cacao – Bahia 2019

I have always liked chocolate, but it was never my intention to work in that area. I thought I was just a Brazilian chocoholic who understood that good chocolates were made only by the Belgians and the Swiss, white chocolate was not chocolate at all, dark chocolate was very bitter and Brazilian cocoa was bad. Today, I don't believe any of these things any more. My early passion for chocolates developed into a serious hobby of collecting and tasting bars from around the world. Curiosity led me to research beyond what traditional media usually publish and to study about manufacturing and tasting. 

In 2014, I started to share on a blog what I was learning. Since then, I have been following market developments closely, mainly in the niche of craft bean to bar chocolate, for which I have developed an awards system that led me to international consultation in chocolate competitions. This niche market, while small, has influenced the cocoa market worldwide, especially in Brazil, whose recent history reflects chapters on prosperity, wealth, environmental crime, destruction and, now, resurgence. 

Chocolate is like wine: to understand it better, you have to taste it frequently and get to know the fruit and the transformation process. My perception of the world changed when I started to understand chocolate and cacao/cocoa (here, I’m using“cacao” to refer to the living plant, while “cocoa” refers to cocoa beans, after fermentation.) I began to immerse myself in their taste, history and science. What before was just a sweet treat has become for me a sensory experience and a new path to extend my knowledge of human relations, politics and even economy. I don't focus on chocolate as an ingredient, but rather on chocolate for consumption. 

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Cacao (the fruit), cocoa beans, cocoa butter and chocolates

 

Cocoa in Brazli: Power in the '80s

Cacao trees don’t grow everywhere. They need specific growing conditions in hot and humid weather. The ideal region is up to 20 degrees latitude just above and below the Equator.  The main cocoa producing region in Brazil in the 1980’s was the southern part of the northeastern state of Bahia, an area close to the city of Ilhéus. Cacao cultivation started there at the end of the 18th century and the country reached the second place on the rank of the world’s largest producers in the 1980s, just behind Côte d’Ivoire, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which registered Brazilian production as more than 392,000 tons of cocoa in 1989. Consequently, the region was very prosperous and owners of large farms were rich and politically powerful.

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Fazenda Lajedo do Ouro – Bahia 2019

 

Cocoa in Brazil: Decline in the '90s

All that prosperity started to collapse in 1990 due to a fungus transported to Bahia from the Amazon. The fungus is responsible for Witches' Broom Disease, a plague that destroys cacao pods. Police investigations concluded that the introduction of Witches’ Broom was a deliberate criminal act, with the intention of reducing the power and wealth of the “coronéis do cacau” (cacao colonels), the wealthy owners of the largest farms. Whoever spread the fungus on cacao trees in Bahia likely did not comprehend the consequences in full. Witches' Broom spread in the wild and gradually all the farms of the region were affected. Cacao production is estimated to have dropped by more than half in the following years, causing thousands of workers to lose their jobs. In an attempt to save their crops, farm owners went into debt and many had to leave the region, which lost its wealth and power in dramatic fashion.

Only a few families in the region have managed to maintain their cocoa production in large quantities over the last 30 years. They survived by replacing part of the cocoa crop with other crops, as well as cattle. I share here the story of João Tavares, because he represents an example of persistance and excellence.

Tavares is a third-generation member of a family of cocoa producers in the Ilhéus region. Just as I have a passion for studying chocolate, he has a passion for studying cocoa. In the 1990s, struggling to save their crops, he and some other cocoa producers sought solutions and, with the help of CEPLAC (Executive Committee of the Cocoa Crop Plan), the Brazilian government's technical body, made dozens of tests in an attempt to develop a technique that would protect the crop or create a cacao hybrid that could be both productive and resistant to diseases.

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Cacao varieties: hybrids displayed at a festival in Ilhéus 2017

However, at that time, the taste of cocoa was a factor of less importance, since the vast majority of chocolates carried in their formulas high amounts of sugar and flavoring, which masked any unwanted flavor that might come from the cocoa beans. For this reason, common cocoa is considered a commodity, so-called “bulk cocoa.” Thus, farmers prioritized high-yielding varieties of cocoa over varieties with coveted flavor profiles.

Unlike what novices often beliece, chocolate gets its flavor characteristics primarily on cacao farms, rather than at the chocolate factories. Genetic characteristics—varieties—of cacao matter, but so does the human effort, such as knowing when to harvest each fruit, as well as how and for how long to ferment and dry the beans. These processes are laborious, require time and investments, and are crucial for the flavor notes, bitterness, astringency and acidity of the beans, which are then reflected in the resulting chocolate. Cocoa that undergoes successful harvest, post-harvest, and transportation and receives a resulting price premium based on its perceived flavor quality is called “specialty cocoa” or “fine flavor cocoa.” 

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Round fermentation box, Fazenda Leolinda, Bahia - 2019

 

Cocoa in Brazil: 2010 onwards

After years of study and investment in post-harvest excellence, Tavares saw his first international recognition in 2010, when he won the award for best cocoa at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris. After years of damage to its reputation due to Witches’ Broom and focus on commodity cocoa production, Brazilian cocoa being awarded was something so unexpected that some people believed it was a mistake. The following year, Tavares' cocoa won again, thus resolving any doubts.

The quality of cocoa has always been considered an important characteristic in certain markets. In addition, there has been a growing interest in conscientious consumption globally, so flavor and purity of ingredients only are no longer enough to delight consumers. They (we!) began to demand sustainability, traceability and transparency from brands. A revolution had already begun in the niche of artisanal chocolates, with the continuous emergence of new bean to bar chocolate manufacturers. Before that, artisanal chocolates, in general, were made by chocolatiers by melting an industrially produced chocolate and turning it into something else like a bonbon or truffle. In the bean to bar concept, production is made by artisanal methods starting with cocoa beans, and creating finished chocolate bars that typically contain less sugar, higher cocoa content, without vegetable fats and with a focus on cocoa flavor, without any other flavoring. And there is a constant search for valuing everyone in the production chain. It is absolutely different from industrialized chocolates, which focus on scale, longer shelf life and low cost, and therefore made from bulk cocoa and cheaper and less noble ingredients. 

 

Chocolate: the craft bean to bar revolution

For those who make bean to bar chocolates, the quality of cocoa matters the most, so the demand for fine cocoa beans has increased. Tavares’ cocoa has been purchased for use by important European chocolate makers such as the acclaimed French chef Alain Ducasse. Progress in reclaiming the quality identity of Brazilian cacao continues. During my trips to Bahia in 2017 and 2019, I could clearly observe advances in cocoa post-harvest technology at the farms. For example, in July 2017 at Leolinda farm, owned by Tavares, I saw his cylindrical boxes for cacao fermentation, which are different from the traditional rectangular boxes, and result in an improved flavor. I also saw his “barcaças ventiladas” (ventilated netting platforms) on which his cocoa beans are placed to dry. They replace the traditional wooden “barcaças” commonly used at that region. The ventilated platforms are made with special netting that allows a greater contact of the cocoa beans with the air, resulting in more uniform drying. In addition, they have electric curtains to protect from rain and regulate the passage of wind. In May 2019, I saw the solar drying tunnels used to complement drying, both at his farm and at another three. For instance, at Vale Potumuju, a farm belonging to the Aquino family, the cocoa beans dry on sliding mesh drawers, inside a solar drying tunnel. These improvements all show how the Brazilian cocoa producers have realized the importance of investing in technology for quality.

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Traditional barcaça – Bonança Farm - 2017

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João Tavares and Zelia Frangioni – Ventilated “Barcaças” at Leolinda Farm, Bahia– 2019

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Solar drying tunnel – Leolinda Farm 2019

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Solar drying tunnel sliding mesh drawer – Vale Potumuju, Bahia 2019

The craft bean to bar movement is also growing in Brazil. In 2014, this kind of chocolate was unheard of, but by 2017 there were already around 30 brands and, in a period of approximately three years that number has swelled to more than 140. These chocolate makers also use fine flavor Brazilian cocoa from Bahia and some other states, such as Pará and Espírito Santo. It is worth noting that, compared to the traditional chocolate market in Brazil, the bean to bar sector represents an extremely small portion, even difficult to accurately measure. This participation will grow only if there will be a joint effort of the market players for consumer education.

In July 2017, I launched the first edition of the Prêmio Bean to Bar Brasil (Brazil Bean to Bar Award), aiming to promote bean to bar chocolates and to contribute to the improvement of these products. Unlike other chocolate competitions, here the chocolate makers themselves are part of the official jury, together with international judges. Chocolates are produced in identical molds to avoid identification by the judges. A blind assessment collects both the scores that are used to determine the winners, and the written feedback that is sent back to each participant. This feedback have proved to be an important tool for improving chocolate formulas, for example, improving sensorial caracteristics and reducing defects.

In addition to the official jury that decides on Gold, Silver and Bronze awards, a jury of consumers chooses the People’s Choice award. Thus, chocolate makers receive feedback from both professionals and consumers.

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Random distribution of samples, Official Jury, Prêmio Bean to Bar Brasil 2018

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Kits for evaluations, Jury of Consumers, Prêmio Bean to Bar Brasil 2019

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Official Jury, Prêmio Bean to Bar Brasil, São Paulo 2019

Analyzing the results of the competitions, we see clearly how the investment in technology on the cocoa farms has made a difference in the resulting quality of the chocolate. An example is Cacau do Céu, a chocolate brand that received Prêmio Bean to Bar Brasil bronze award twice. Its chocolate is made with cocoa beans from Tavares’ farm. Fazenda Camboa, also from Bahia, is another important reference. Mission Chocolate (two golds and one People’s Choice Awards) and Casa Lasevícius (one bronze award) are two brands whose bars were made with Fazenda Camboa’s beans, also used in bars by the U.S. brand Dick Taylor.

In cocoa-producing countries, verticalization of the chocolate manufacturing process is also to be expected. Cocoa producers have already realized that they can further enhance their profits by making their own chocolate. It is not easy, it is double the work, but this is how the “tree to bar” brands are created, using the same concept as in bean to bar. Tree to bar brands, such as Amma, Baianí, Mendoá, Mestiço and Var, have already been awarded in international competitions.

Development also appears in the distribution process. Gradually, we have seen entrepreneurship initiatives in Brazil spreading the bean to bar concept to commerce. In the beginning, bean to bar and tree to bar chocolates were sold just at health food markets and small food stores. Then stores specialized in this type of chocolate started appearing. These are stores that do not commercialize industrialized chocolates and are committed to promoting the bean to bar movement.

In a more ambitious business model, from the point of view of impact, Dengo has emerged as a brand that produces bean to bar chocolates and distributes them in its own stores. So far, they have grown quickly – opening 18 exclusive stores in three years throughout Brazil. The stores are located in some of the most upscale malls in big cities of four states (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Distrito Federal and Paraná). They are cozy and well-decorated, and employees are trained to educate consumers about this new type of product. Dengo chocolates are made with cocoa beans from small producers from Bahia and are enhanced with tropical fruits and Brazilian nuts, in the format of regular bars and giant bars sold by weight (considering less use of packaging), and also bonbons and “pepitas” – which are chocolate covered cocoa beans, an inovation that delights consumers. In addition to the increased visibility of this new type of chocolate to the market, Dengo promotes important environmental and social impacts. The prices paid to cocoa producers are up to 150% higher than those of bulk cocoa and are based on the quality of the beans, determined by physical-chemical and sensory analysis carried out by their partner CIC (Cocoa Innovation Center). 

Such incentives are taking Brazilian cocoa to the next level of excellence, which consequently leads to the creation of wonderful chocolates, with a diversity of sensory notes, without the need for flavorings. It's a whole new world of flavor experiences that opens up for us, chocolate lovers, with great potential for creating lasting social change. It is an immense pleasure to see this revolution happen.

 

Zelia Frangioni, Brazilian engineer, author of the blog Chocólatras Online, founder and Director of Prêmio Bean to Bar Brasil, consultant and content producer about chocolates