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Xoco Gourmet

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Variety

A variety is a group of plants within a species that has one or more distinguishing characteristics and usually produces true-to-seed (same flavour fruits).

To obtain same flavour fruits, all fruit plantations must be planted for variety. For example, there are more than 7,000 varieties of apples, including Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala, and Honeycrisp.

Cacao is a fruit tree. It grows in the tropical belt and needs a warm environment.

Planting a single variety of cacao is key for the development of flavour. Every variety has a distinct intrinsic flavour. Again, think of the intrinsic flavours of apple varieties. However, in contrast to apples, where you can bite into the apple and appreciate its flavour, the intrinsic flavour of a single variety cacao bean must be unlocked. First, the bean must be fermented. With a single variety you can optimise the fermentation process to that variety. After fermentation and slow drying, the bean must be roasted. Having single variety beans allows a roast to be performed that is tailored to the intrinsic flavours of that variety. You know what you are looking for and can start to experiment with the oven you are using.

Each of the cacao varieties forms the basis of a chocolate couverture. We present our chocolate with no frills, no additives, and no vanilla. It is just pure chocolate. 

Our first signature variety is Mayan Red.
It comes from rare mother trees that we identified deep in the jungles of Honduras, close to 3,000-year-old Mayan settlements. The cacao pod is red and the chocolate has a deep reddish hue. The flavour of the cacao is full-bodied and intense, with notes of red berries and mature fruits. It also has a juicy acidity with hints of plums and heather honey.

The aftertaste is long and complex. 

Mayan Red

Tuma Yellow

The Tuma Yellow variety mother trees were found in the jungle of northern Nicaragua, near the Tuma river, where indigenous tribes grew cacao in pre-Columbian times.
It is a variety characterised by subtle yellow fruit flavours, citrus, and hints of nuts and floral notes. 
We have also identified additional varieties that we are now growing, which will be released over the coming years and will soon join our current range.

There are two ways you can reproduce a fruit tree. One is by taking a seed from the fruit and planting it in the ground. This is cheap and easy. The chances are that a new tree will grow out of the ground. The other way is by grafting or by taking cuttings. Grafting is a technique where you take a bud or a branch from the fruit tree and patch it onto a seedling. Cutting is when you simply take a branch from the desired fruit tree and stick it in the ground. Both methods take time and are expensive.
By grafting you obtain the same flavour fruit. If you plant a seed, the flavour of the fruit will be random and tend towards the astringent and bitter.

Grafting

Cacao Fruit

The cacao beans sit inside a cacao pod that grows on the cacao tree. There are 30-40 beans inside a pod. The top and bottom beans tend to be smaller than the middle ones. Each bean weighs about 1-1.5g.

The cacao fruit is a treasure of flavours. To unlock them, one must treat the beans in a complex process where details can make a big difference in how well you develop the flavour notes. The key steps are fermentation and roasting. Each variety will have its own treasure. Mayan Red, our signature variety, has red fruit as a common theme and multiple complexities. It is a bold bean.

However, there are countless flavours yet to be discovered and variations on fruitiness to be appreciated. Nutty, spicy, grassy notes, and more, all remain to be found in the cacao fruit. Unfortunately, because cacao has historically been seed-planted, these flavours have been lost in the industrialised approach to cacao and chocolate. The world therefore needs to take a new approach to the cacao fruit. We can easily draw on an example from other fruit categories. For instance, no serious fruit grower would ever seed-plant an orchard.

For apples, it has taken approximately 2,000 years from when the Romans started to graft for flavour. We are at that same stage in cacao, and a long and exciting journey lies ahead of us.

Mythbuster: It is erroneously said that there are only three varieties of cacao: Criollo, Trinitario and Forastero. Criollo, Trinitario and Forastero, however, are not varieties. They are genetic groupings made by scientists exploring genetic ancestry markers that have nothing to do with flavour. Within each grouping there are thousands of varieties, each with different potentials for flavour.

This is the term we use for the original trees we discovered that form the basis for a variety. Because all trees in the wild have been seed-planted, it can be difficult to find a homogenous set of trees with a desirable and similar flavour. On a typical cacao farm, there will be as many different trees and flavours as there are trees.

For several reasons, it is not practical to start a variety based on one tree alone. For instance, in the space of a year you can only make another few hundred trees or so from the buds of one tree. The reproduction of thousands of trees thus becomes a truly long-term project. You also need some initial diversity in order to identify better producers over time.

In the case of Mayan Red, we roamed the countryside in Honduras for almost a year before we found 200 ancient mother trees in an isolated grove in Northern Honduras. In Nicaragua, it took a little less time. In Guatemala and Belize, we were not able to find enough trees of good flavour for a long time. Currently, we are evaluating two varieties found in Guatemala. We have also searched southern Mexico where we have found a number of varieties with excellent flavours, but unfortunately their disease resistance and yield are poor.

The project is ongoing and extremely exciting.

Mother trees

Own farms

Xoco Gourmet owns and operates its own farms in Central America. Our main farm in Nicaragua is designed as a modern fruit orchard with high density planting, irrigation, and spacing to allow a small tractor to move between the rows. We continuously monitor the plants, water, and soil to provide the trees with the nutrition they need.

We share the knowledge we develop with our partner farmers via our team of technicians. Pruning, irrigation, and nutrition are pivotal elements in ensuring a good harvest.

We have planted all our trees from a selection of high yielding, autocompatible trees. Our target yield is more than two tonnes of cacao per hectare, compared with the average smallholder farmer’s yield of around 400 kilos per hectare.

The farm is the only one of its kind in Central America and will serve as an example to show cacao farmers how to grow a single variety, flavour cacao more efficiently and in balance with nature.

We also operate farms where we monitor and develop new varieties. Different varieties are found in the wild, often in isolated groves where they have remained homogeneous, i.e., they have not crossbred with other cacao trees. We first evaluate the variety. If we find that it has an exceptional (“wow”) flavour, we proceed to a monitoring phase where we check for disease resistance and yield.

In Honduras, Nicaragua, and Belize we have planted Mayan Red cacao trees with our partner farmers. We take care of the grafting and early growth of the young cacao trees before they are sold and transported to the partner farmers. We provide technical assistance to each farmer regarding planting, growing, and how to obtain a good harvest yield.

When it is time for the harvest, we organise and collect the cacao beans. These sit inside a white pulp within the cacao pod. After harvesting, the pod is opened and the pulp with beans is extracted. The sugary sweet pulp is what ferments and thus indirectly ferments the beans.

Upon collecting the beans in pulp in sealed milk containers, we transport the wet beans to our fermentation and drying centres. Xoco conducts the fermentation, drying, and sorting of the beans.

Xoco pays the farmer a price that is substantially higher than the market price. In 2021, the average price paid was 1.5 x higher than the highest “fair trade” price and more than double the average local price. We buy all the farmer’s cacao all year round, rain or shine, hurricanes, or pandemics, at the farm gate.

This is different from traditional “fair trade” programmes, where only the cacao that can be resold by the buyer is purchased. There, the farmer is left to fend for themself with the remaining cacao. Buying at the farm gate also eliminates any logistical issues preventing the farmer from getting to market. This is valuable in places where transportation is scarce and difficult.

We are not providing a handout to poor farmers. We are paying partner farmers for a better product. Xoco takes on the market risk so the farmers can focus on growing.

Partner farmers are breaking the poverty cycle through the cacao they have on their farm. This means improved nutrition and health, having money to buy medicine and get to a doctor, and sending children to schools and universities. Our technical assistance programme also helps farmers modernise their farming techniques, which has a spillover effect on other crops they may grow.

We believe that Xoco’s approach is an example for the big chocolate industry. The industry needs to up its game and become more involved in how cacao is grown. Cacao should be planted like any other fruit, for flavour and variety. Industrials should make better chocolate that people are willing to pay more for. Farmers should be paid for making a better cacao.

More than 200 partner farmers form part of our programme.

Most of the partner farmers have other crops and livestock apart from the cacao. These include coffee, pineapple, banana, rice, and beans.

Partner farmers

Farming

Cacao is a fruit tree – like an apple tree – and most of the farming principles for fruit trees are therefore identical for cacao.

The first principle is to plant the trees for flavour and variety. All fruit orchards are planted this way, except for cacao. Through its approach, Xoco is now changing this. This is key to improving the flavour in chocolate.

The principles for farming are also similar to those for all other fruit trees. Some of the more important elements of cacao farming are as follows:

Pruning is essential to encourage the tree to produce fruits. Pruning also ensures that the tree is kept low (under 2.5m tall) and balanced. The target is 3-4 producing branches, or 10 metres of producing branches. The harvest target is 22-30 fruits per tree per calendar year. On average, 22 fruits is a kilo of cacao, which roughly translates into 1 kilo of 70% couverture. As a general rule, 2-3 fruits make a 100g chocolate bar.

In-field grafting is another technique used to augment production and income for farmers. Some trees may, for biological reasons, be more inclined to produce fruits than trees. In such cases, the farmer needs to conduct infield grafting, taking branches or buds from the more productive trees and grafting them onto less productive trees. Because the root system in the cases of mature trees is already working well, the time to production is considerably shorter than with new plantings.

To avoid competition for nutrients and minerals, weeding is essential. Smallholder farmers often spend 50-80% of their time on the cacao farm weeding with a machete. On Xoco Gourmet’s farm in Nicaragua, weeding is mostly carried out by a mower behind a tractor, which is one example of how modern farming can improve efficiencies and farmer security.

Regulating the pH value of the soil is another essential element. If pH values are lower than 5, the trees are prevented from taking up nutrition. The remedy is to apply natural lime around the root system of every tree on the farm. More than half of the partner farmers had soil with pH values below 5 before this was remedied.

Cacao farming – except the initial planting for flavour and variety – does not influence the flavour. No hard studies have been conducted on the influence of land as this is difficult due to all the variables implicated in the process from bean to chocolate. Soil conditions, altitude, and sunshine do not seem to affect the flavour of our single varieties in any detectable form. In the rainy season, the pod takes up more water which again affects the sugar level of the fermentation, which needs to be corrected. Cacao trees do not care about human politics, and country origin per se has no influence on flavour.

The main source of flavour is the variety itself.

Fermentation is the first major step in developing the flavours that are intrinsic to the cacao bean. A raw cacao bean is bitter, even from the selected flavour varieties.

Xoco collects the beans and conducts fermentation and drying. On our own farms, the collection process is easy and short, while collection with partner farmers involves getting up early to drive to the collection points and returning to the fermentation and drying centre late at night.

Throughout the fermentation process, we monitor changes in the temperature and pH value, both inside the beans and the white mass. During the process we conduct cut tests to visually assess the beans. 

We have developed our fermentation protocols for each variety over many years. It takes numerous iterations (and headaches!) to reach the exact formula where the intrinsic flavours of the variety are best expressed for the next step in flavour development, which is roasting (see below).

On average, we ferment the beans for 5.2 days and the beans are turned twice in our boxes. Once the beans achieve their optimal expression of flavour, we stop the fermentation. The beans are then carefully put into drying bins made of odourless wood, and dried in the sun with UV protectors, that also work as a cover for rain. The initial aim of drying is to slowly stop the fermentation. Flavour enzymes are still developing, and this phase of drying is therefore extremely important. The thickness of the layer of beans is adjusted to the weather (humidity, rain, sunshine). The beans are turned by hand during the day to avoid trapping unwanted acidity. Drying lasts between 9 and 14 days until the beans are below 7% humidity and the beans take on a dark golden colour.

Once beans have dried, we separate the beans for size. This is because bean size affects the time needed to roast them. As this is not a standard practice in cacao, we had to build our own machinery to do this step.

Fermentation

Roasting

The roasting of the cacao beans is the next step in the development of flavour. 
Single variety beans can be roasted at lower temperatures and for a shorter time than mixed beans from seed-planted trees. This is because you have a homogeneous set of beans with an intrinsic desirable flavour that you can “look for” in the roasting. When you know what you are looking for, you can stop roasting at the right time.


We roast at low temperatures and only for a short time. We had to invent our own approach as no textbooks come close to describing the low roast we conduct. We start our roasting at 110 degrees and do not reach more than 118 degrees, which is about 20% lower than the lowest industry roast. Our roasting time is also shorter, around 20 minutes, which is about half of the industry standard. The result is a chocolate that has a completely pure cacao fruit flavour.


The industry norm is that a low roast starts at 130 degrees for 40 minutes. This may make sense when using mixed beans from seed-planted trees as you are mixing different flavours in the oven. Some may be fruity, some astringent, some bitter, and some have other characteristics. When roasting, you do not know what you are looking for as each bean is different. The common solution in the industry is to roast more to achieve consistency and take away as many off-flavours as possible. The result is flat and lacks the fantastic and complex flavours of the cacao fruit. This flatness leads the chocolate industry to add vanilla for flavour. In some cases, fruit flavour is added artificially.

We produce chocolate on leased machinery in France and in Central America, as well as in a lab in Bogota, Colombia. Each oven and all other chocolate making equipment is different and the recipe must be adapted accordingly.

Our chocolate maker, Diana Cruz, develops the recipes for roasting, grinding/refining, and conching. The entire process has to be fine-tuned to the variety of beans. At times, tweaks must be made; for example, if the beans have small differences in humidity, or the surrounding climate in the factory is different.

Chocolate making is an integrated process ranging from bean variety to the finishing touches in tempering.

Chocolate making

Traceability

Because Xoco is vertically integrated, we know each batch of beans and chocolate and can trace each chocolate to the farm.


For our own farms, this is easy. With the partner farmers, during collection (see above) we know which farmers contributed to each fermentation batch. There will typically be 5-10 farmers involved in each batch. The batch number assigned to each fermentation follows the beans in drying and into chocolate making. This way, each chocolate can be traced back to the farm and farmers.


We equip every chocolate with a QR-code that enables you to see which farmers contributed with cacao to the chocolate. This permits a traceability similar to that provided by most top restaurants to their regular suppliers of ingredients. It thus offers full visibility from farm to table, typically over 10,000 kilometres of physical distance.
We do this not only because it is good practice to be able to understand where your food comes from but also to connect people. Chocolate is not a commodity product; it is a cornucopia of flavours made by people for people.

The cacao and chocolate industry is in trouble. Revenues of cacao buyers and chocolate producers may be high, but profits are low. Nobody has bothered planting cacao for flavour, in contrast to all other fruits. The industry is plagued by child and slave labour, and most cacao farmers live in poverty. Protecting the rainforest is not a priority when your main worry is your next meal. Investments are lacking when the farmers do not own the land. Hence, productivity is low and keeping up with the growing demand for cacao can only be achieved by cutting down the rainforest.

We need a radical change. Makers will have to reinvent the products, starting with the upstream growing of cacao. They will have to create experiences that customers value and pay for. They will have to become providers of pleasure and experiences, instead of churning out yesterday’s industrialised product at the lowest cost possible. Furthermore, the farmers should be able to prosper, thanks to investments resulting in higher productivity as well as higher quality.

There is no easy or quick fix. There must be enough money in the industry to pay for good cacao beans.

Industry needs
to reinvent itself

Roots of
the problem

The structural problem of the industry is attributable to the sharp divide in the chocolate making process. Cacao is grown in the tropical belt; that is, in developing countries. However, processing the cacao into chocolate (the process of roasting, grinding, and conching) has historically been carried out in temperate climate countries; that is, in developed countries. Chocolate was never really consumed in the cacao growing countries. Growers knew next to nothing about chocolate, and chocolate makers knew little about cacao. Contrast this with wine, where the winemaker typically has their own vineyard. They fully understand every step in the wine making process and are often in direct contact with the customers.
In cacao and chocolate, the division of the process has resulted in a mediocre product. Cheap boring products equal no money for innovation. Chocolate makers and buyers have become bigger in their race to lower costs, and are in no position to pay higher prices for cacao. Few makers seem to understand the problem. Many have started to market their products for “country of origin”, as if that had any meaning for the flavour. It is like saying “grapes from Italy”.

The cacao farmers are paid at a price that only compensates them for harvesting the cacao, not for expanding or improving it. Farmers in Ghana, for example, probably plant new plantations because the cost of using child labour is close to zero. This sad reality is illustrated by a report commissioned by the US government, which states that child labour has increased to 600,000 new children (out of a total of 2 million) over the past 10 years. This correlates perfectly with the annual growth of cacao demand. Growth is simply fuelled by zero cost child labour because the prices for cacao are so low. 
Today, almost half of the world’s cacao is certified. However, UTZ/Rainforest Alliance certification does not increase prices for cacao in any meaningful way. According to their own reports, the average price increase to the farmer is four cents per kilo, or less than 3%. Farmers are lured by the notion of “free money”: land is granted from the authority for free, seeds may be given for free, and NGOs may provide technical assistance for free. However, in Ghana, most land is tribal land or owned by the state. Few hold titles to their land. This means there is little incentive to invest in the farm. 
Therefore, yields over the past few decades in West Africa have been flat. This means that meeting the world demand for chocolate, which increases by some 2%-4% per year, can only be achieved by planting on new lands – using child labour – and in Africa that means cutting down the rainforest. To make matters worse, cacao prices are fixed by the government, and the sector is highly regulated. This leaves little room for differentiation for flavour. The low pricing does not incentivise the farmers to invest in increasing yields on their existing plots of land. 

Facing reality

Time to reinvent
the industry

There is no reason why chocolate should be a commodity product. By growing for flavour, much better products can be made which people are willing to pay more for. A segmented marketplace where flavour and value are the key elements for consumers to choose is a prosperous one where farmers are paid for the value of their work. 
For the bulk of mainstream cacao, cacao based products also need to upgrade their value proposition. “Free land” for low-cost production in Africa is running out. Thus, time is ticking for the big corporations – low prices will not continue to be the order of the day. 
The problem of West African cacao is quite simple and can be solved quickly: let farmers have ownership over their land, give them titles, and allow market prices to be freely set. When people own land, they tend to invest. When they invest, they can increase their productivity and returns. 

Xoco, of course, in our own small way, has done “the full Monty” and vertically integrated. We selected trees for variety and flavour and planted 1 million of them in Central America – some with small holder farmers and some on our own high yielding farms. Over time, we have come to realise that we also had to make chocolate to understand the full process. To roast, for example, you must know your bean very well, and you need to know how you fermented it and how that interacts with your oven in the chocolate factory. In today’s market, customers also want the full story. They want you to be in control of every step of the process. They want you to know where the beans came from. 
Change is already starting to happen. The unanswered question is whether the bigger players will step up and start to act, or see themselves become further challenged over the coming years.

Our process

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