The key aim is to select trees that produce cocoa of the best flavour. Today, genetics cannot tell us much, if anything, about cocoa flavour.
In reality, to select the best flavour trees, you have to taste the beans from the trees: and to do that you must apply the micro-fermentation techniques that produce cocoa liquor.
The process is arduous, and can take from months to years, as there are very few flavour trees left. We call them the “mother trees”, as they are used to graft baby trees.
Creating the new trees starts in the nursery. Rootstock is planted under 60 per cent shade, and grown until it is ready to be grafted.
Through grafting, flavour characteristics from the “mother tree” can be preserved. Grafted trees are also typically more sturdy and productive. We graft all trees before planting with our farmer-partners.
It took us several years to develop the right techniques, thus realising a project that was unrivalled and hitherto unseen in the cocoa-producing world.
Promoting & PreParing
Xoco promotes fine cocoa with local farmers, going from village to village in the countryside. The farmers who are interested in the project sign up to a partnership with Xoco, and prepare their land for receiving the young cocoa plants.
Land preparation includes cleaning the land for a different crop; eliminating weeds and stones; digging drainage canals and making holes for planting; and creating the right shade conditions for the plants beneath to thrive.
When the saplings are ready and the grafting shows positive results, the plants are transported to the farmer. Typically, the farms are high up in the mountains, 600 metres above sea level, where little fungus is present and there is no need for pesticides or chemicals.
Here, the trees grow in the forest in an ecosystem that also protects the wildlife. The trees live off the nutrients the ground offers and are watered by rain. Typically, neither fertilisers nor irrigation are used in planting.
The farmers carefully nurture their cocoa trees through to maturity and full production, a process that lasts up to ten years. For the first 18 months the trees are very vulnerable and need to be protected from fungus, diseases and drought.
They need pruning to ensure the right balance of light for the shade-grown trees and to enable the air to circulate through them. This process can take several hundred man hours a year.
When ready, a meticulous process of bean harvesting and collection begins. When the cocoa pod is ripe, it is carefully cut from the tree and collected by the farmer.
The mature cocoa fruits are harvested all year round, although mostly between October and June.
A few hours after harvesting, the farmer brings the pods, normally by mule, to a local collection point a couple of kilometres away.
The Xoco collection van arrives, the pods are opened, and the beans and pulp are transported onwards in sterile milk containers.
Before nightfall, the beans arrive at the Xoco fermentation centre, where they are transferred into wooden fermentation boxes to ferment in their pulp.
It took several years to fine-tune the system to achieve the optimum release of flavour potential.
DRYING and separating
When the fermentation process is complete, the beans are immediately transferred to wooden trays for drying. Slow drying under the tropical sun is an essential part of the delicate process of flavour development.
Drying too slowly or too quickly can ruin an otherwise good bean.
After several days of fermentation and drying, the beans take on a dark golden colour. Now they are ready to be separated for size. Inside every pod, the bean size differs. This affects the time needed to roast the beans (just like in coffee).
Therefore, we separate into sizes, before the beans are packed into sacks and exported to chocolatiers. Through our farmer registry and the numbering of the bags, we ensure full and clear traceability between the beans and each individual farmer.
ROASTING AND CHOCOLATE MAKING
Each variety requires a different roast and conch. The roast is usually much lower for a single variety bean than for a mixed set of beans, and can be fine-tuned with precision, adapted to the machinery used by the chocolate maker.
It often requires some experimentation, but once the recipe is done, it works every time because of the great consistency of single variety beans.