Sunday, 18 March 2012

Bean-to-Bar: An Interview with a Caribbean Organic Chocolate-Maker

A Selection of Caribeans Chocolates at the Feria Verde, Costa Rica

I have recently been attending the weekly Feria Verde Farmer’s Market (a.k.a. Green Market) in San José, Costa Rica. This market is full of farmers selling their agrochemical-free fruits. The market also provides a space for people who process raw food materials and sell unique food products. One of these products is chocolate. 

My love for chocolate inspired me to talk with Paul Johnson, who runs a business - Caribeans - that brings locally-sourced, organic, and fair-trade chocolate from his farm in the Caribbean to San José. In fact, Paul not only travels from his farm to bring us chocolate, but he travels all over the country working with Indigenous peoples to obtain a chocolate bar's main ingredient, cacao beans. But, instead of hearing it all from me, I’ll let Paul tell you about these experiences through our brief Q & A (all quotations are Paul's).

1) Many of us who are not in the chocolate business have little to no idea where the cacao beans in our chocolate come from. Your business is unique in that you are one of only a few bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Could you explain what it means when chocolate is produced from bean-to-bar?

"Caribeans gets the cocoa bean directly from the local producers who have prepared the beans by fermenting and drying them. Once the beans are in the “chocolate creation lab” we process them from the bean to the chocolate bar all in one location." 

Paul also explained that chocolate-makers fall into two or three categories: 1) bean-to-bar, 2) tree-to-bar, and 3) chocolatier (someone who makes chocolate bars from chocolate that has already been processed). Caribeans is both bean-to-bar as well as tree-to-bar.

A Cacao Tree in the Costa Rican Caribbean

A Cacao Fruit (the cacao beans are found inside the fruit)

2) When I first saw your chocolate at the market, I noticed that on each individual chocolate bar you include the names of the towns where the chocolate beans came from. For example, I tried chocolate from two Indigenous communities, one Ngöbe and one Bribri. Could you elaborate on why having the names of these communities on your chocolate is important?

Paul discussed that providing the consumer with the names of the chocolate sources directly on the product is consistent with the Caribeans fair-trade production philosophy

On a personal note, knowing which communities are involved in organic production was what drew my attention to Paul's chocolate; eating chocolate became more of a cultural experience and I began to appreciate just how much work goes into making such a specialty product. 

Paul shared some other important observations, observations that would be impossible without establishing direct relationships with Indigenous cacao producers. 

As Paul mentioned, "Caribeans has noticed a couple of important things in the cacao and chocolate markets. First we have seen that many cacao producers do not know how to ferment or dry their beans and give away value when they sell the beans as wet raw fruit. As a result of learning this we have started to teach a few producers how to properly ferment and dry their beans and guarantee the best price to the growers if they use our recommendations. 

Another thing we have noticed is that most producers have never tasted chocolate made from their cacao. Because we keep their cacao separate from any other farms or areas, we are able to make chocolate from very narrow origins. This is treating chocolate much more like wine than candy. Tour guests can taste chocolate from several farms and experience the incredible range of flavors that only cacao and sugar produce."

Notice the Names of the Towns where your Chocolate Comes From (Ngöbe and Kachabri)

3) I tried two dark chocolate bars (Ngöbe and Kachabri) made by Caribeans and although they had the same ingredients their flavours were quite different. Was this just me? Or, like coffee beans, does the flavour of the chocolate bean change with location and cacao farming techniques?

Paul shared that many factors can affect the end flavor of chocolate, including 1) the cacao growing conditions, 2) the variety of the cacao plant, and 3) the cacao harvesting, fermenting, and drying methods. Paul explained that most of these factors play a role in cacao flavour before the chocolate-maker even gets to look at the beans.   

Interestingly, Paul mentioned that, "...since Caribeans makes chocolate right here in Costa Rica we can often influence the flavor of the chocolate earlier than our fellow chocolate makers in North America or Europe. We hope that through this close contact and the chocolate feedback, we will make some of the best chocolate ever made."

Lastly, I asked Paul if he eats only organic, fair-trade chocolate and if he would share any similar life choices. 

Paul laughed and told me that when it comes to chocolate, he almost only eats what he makes himself. He stressed that fair trade, direct trade, locally produced, and organic are all on his list of values before making a purchase. He explained that chocolate is one way he can make a difference and promote more ethical production and consumption in his area. 

Readers, please feel free to share your experiences with locally-sourced, organic, and/or fair-trade chocolate here on the blog; if you have any questions, please post them and I'll see if myself or Paul can get you an answer.

Thank you again to Paul. I invite you to learn more about Paul's chocolate-making on his site or with him in person at Caribeans!


  1. You forgot to stress all the different varieties (i.e., flavors) that they can make...although the bacon may be the most memorable, I prefer the espresso.

  2. You're right David, the varieties of Caribeans chocolate are impressive. Although it isn't too clear, the first picture in this blog post shows just a few of their creations.

  3. Ive tried some of their product when I was visiting a friend near San José. It was very unique and delicious to say the least.

  4. After reading about Cacao here, and visiting the Caribeans site, I am pleased to hear that efforts are being made to save the cacao plants. I am curious about how Paul develops the newer disease resistant plants. This has been very informative.

    1. Hi Gerry...We are relying on the research from the international cacao programs like CATIE. They have been working hard to develop the trees and we will plant these trees amongst the older cacao. We are also hiring a well known indigenous man to trim and prepare the trees for the next season. Thanks your your interest in our project. Paul Johnson _ owner Caribeans Chocolate

  5. Olivia, thanks for sharing the interview. A friend kindly shared one of these bars with me during my last trip to Costa Rica... The taste was quite unique and one I will not soon forget! Pura vida

  6. Brian and Anon - Thanks for reading! I'm glad you both enjoyed the Caribeans unique chocolate experience.

    Gerry - Cacao is a crop very important for Indigenous farmers in Costa Rica. And, although many farmers still produce cacao, production has decreased in recent years. One reason for a decrease in cacao farming was the cacao fungus that devistated many farms in the early 1980s. Many indigenous farmers abandoned their cacao production and began to produce plantain and organic banana. I'm not sure of the details of the efforts to save cacao varieties or develop disease resistant plants, but I'll be sure to ask Paul and get back to you. Thanks again for reading.