Costa Rica has an incredibly diverse ecology. A couple hours on some bumpy roads can take you from the beaches, deep into the jungle, to a cloud forest, and then some volcanoes. Every morning I wake up to a cacophony of birds and the occasional howler monkey. Every day when I inevitably find an ant or some strange bug crawling around my room, I am reminded that we are invading their space, and not the other way around. I’ve seen spiders in places too close for comfort. After 3 weeks of being here you’d think I’d get use to it, but I yelp every time I see a spider, and then laugh at myself.
While in Costa Rica, I visited Finca La Amistad, a cacao farm in Bijagua de Upala region. It was quite an experience. Cacao is serious business and this visit confirms my feeling that growing Bar & Cocoa will become deeply satisfying beyond just educating the public, and selling good chocolate. I hope that we can create a larger impact in the cacao industry too.
In a Forest between the Jungle and the Mountains
I came across Finca La Amistad, after having tasted the 70% and 85% dark Upala bars from Potomac Chocolate. The 70% dark bar is featured in our February box. As I taste bars I make note of distinct flavors such as this one from Upala. I contacted Simon a few weeks ago, the manager of the farm to arrange a visit, and made my way from Monteverde to Bijagua on iffy dirt, and pot hole riddled roads.
On Monday morning, I met Simon at a soda on the main drag of Bijagua, and then followed him about 12 km headed north into the forest, close to Tenorio National Park. The farm is located between tropical and mountain rain forests, about 600 meters above sea level. Heavy rainfall and the rich biodiversity makes this area ideal for cacao plants.
The farm is 97 hectares of which 20 hectares is used for secondary reforestation, and 55 hectares are used to grow 45 unique variations of Trinitario cacao. The farm practices sustainable agriculture as part of its core mission, taking a holistic approach towards business to create an environment that allows for high quality of life for the farmers, good cacao, and responsible and respectful use of natural resources. When the farm first started over 15 years ago, they started with macadamia nuts, but it failed due to poor weather conditions. The cacao plantation has grown in phases from 15 to 55 hectares over the last 10 years.
The Laborious Steps from Cacao Pod to Dried Beans
Upon arrival, I was introduced to Minor, Simone, and Isabel who were busy taking care of various duties around the farm. Simone and Isabel, were “massaging” the cacao beans which were still sticky and somewhat wet after having been fermented for 5 to 6 days. Cacao beans are massaged on the wood tables to remove stickiness, clumps and plant fruit matter.
There are two peak harvest seasons a year, but the farmers are constantly harvesting any ripe cacao each month from their trees. Fermentation starts immediately after harvest. Fermentation is done in steps and shaded so that there is more evenness in flavor. This process was developed with two of the farm’s largest clients, Felchlin and Rausch. You can see from the picture the wooden fermentation crates are stacked in levels. The pulp from the cacao start out at the top, and at each phase of the fermentation process the cacao is moved to a lower crate to aerate the cacao. The farmers pay attention to many factors such as humidity and temperature to determine how quickly the beans move from one step into another. They are constantly fine tuning this important process to ensure the highest quality fine cacao.
After fermentation and massaging, beans are dried on wooden tables in large shaded tents. Sometimes if it is too humid and wet out, the beans are taken a couple hours south to Cana where it is drier and sunnier to finish out the drying.
After we explored the main farm house areas and tents, Simon and Minor took me for a walk around a portion of the cacao farm trees. Each hectare was covered in dense but carefully measured, and spaced out cacao trees, along with complimentary taller trees that offered the much needed shade for ideal growing conditions. Each row of trees represented a specific hybrid variety. The cacao pods ranged in variations of green, yellow, red and purple colors, and in different sizes.
As we walked, Simon and Minor talked at length about the (all too common) issue of fungus and disease that were killing some of the harvest. There were 2 different kinds of problems, one attacking the soil and one the leaves, and it is very tricky to eradicate the disease in a sustainable way without the use of harsh chemicals. As we walked Minor would sporadically cut off the ruined pods. There were so many “wasted” pods already on the floor.
But for the most part, the cacao trees were flourishing with beautiful cacao, some ripe and ready to ferment (or eat) now. Simon and Minor cut one such pod for me, and we snacked on the fresh cacao as we continued walking around the farm. “How do you know when the pods are ripe?” I asked.
None of the pods are the same color when they are ripe. Some start out green and turn yellow, some start out yellow and turn red, some just never change in color. How do you know? Simon had a mystical smile on his face, “there’s no science to it!” You learn from getting to know each strain and their behavior and with experience, the farmers just know. Even the group that helped that plant the cacao had no clear answer on how to tell when to harvest cacao. “You just know,” Simon repeated.
In the middle of the trees, Minor took Simon and I to a recently collected harvest of cacao pods. Beautiful!
Back to the main farm housing area, Simon gifted me with some cocoa powder and some freshly dried cacao beans. I cracked and ate a bean. Delicious! 100% unroasted fine cacao with no sugar is like good espresso. It doesn’t need anything else.