Written by Rowan Jacobsen
Images/Video by Alyssa D'Adamo
The little country of Guatemala does not make many people’s lists of fine-cacao paradises, but it’s been on HCP’s radar for years. Here in the heartland of the Maya, chocolate appreciation stretches back to oldest antiquity. Long before cacao was a cash crop, people here were growing a few trees in their yard for personal use, and many still do. Sometimes it feels like everywhere we turn, there’s another strange and fascinating heirloom tree.
And he’s taken us everywhere to meet them. From the fertile, volcanic Pacific coast, which was famous for its cacao orchards 500 years ago, to the Alta Verapaz highlands where his own farm is located, to the steamy lowlands of Petén, in search of wild cacao. At all these locations, Erick’s been doing the detailed work needed to establish new sources of superb cacao.
So this seems like the perfect time to explain not just how we do this work, but why it’s so necessary. And for that, it’s worth backtracking a little bit.
HCP was founded in 2012 for the purpose of recognizing and honoring the world’s greatest sources of fine-flavor heirloom cacao, as a way of ensuring that they wouldn’t suddenly disappear. The criteria were rigorous. Applicants had to wow our tasting panel in a blind test, and they had to be genetically interesting. Since then, HCP has designated 17 heirlooms, from 11 different countries.
But in order to pass the test, these farms already had to be operating at an elite level. They had to have great cacao, they had to nail the flavor in their post-harvest processing, and they had to be large enough to submit 8 kilograms of well-fermented beans. In other words, these were the All-Stars, and they were already playing in the major leagues.
But for there to be a major league, of course, there needs to be minor leagues, a feeder system of potential phenoms still in development. This might be small farms with great flavor genetics but little knowledge about how to coax those flavors out of the fermentation process, or it could be small numbers of heirloom trees on established farms that are getting mixed in with less interesting varieties, or it might even be wild trees still clinging to existence in the jungle.
HCP realized that to preserve fine cacao, it wasn’t enough to acknowledge the reigning masters. We somehow needed to find the unknown cacaos—especially those with a tenuous grasp on existence—and help them get started on the path to becoming the next generation of prized beans and flourishing farms.
And that’s what we’re doing. The process got underway last year, with the release of the Review of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements, produced by Lambert Motilal at Trinidad’s Cocoa Research Center with support from HCP and the Lesley Family Foundation. That 289-page opus provided a roadmap of cacao genetics around the world, showing how cacao had spread from its Amazon birthplace, and pinpointing the places most likely to still harbor great flavor varieties that had escaped the transition to mass-market bulk cacao in the 20th century.
The answer is that you need on-the-ground partners like Erick, who already know the lay of the land. In Erick’s case, this knowledge came through years of consulting with farmers across the country, helping them to pivot toward fine-flavor cacao production.
That learning process started with his own farm. It’s named Finca Ana Maria, after his mother. He started the farm with his father and his six brothers back in 2006. The family had always grown corn, but they had become increasingly concerned about corn’s impact on the land. “Corn is very intensive,” says Erick. “It’s necessary to use chemicals. And you have to remove the whole forest. You don’t leave anything on the land.” They preferred cacao, because it could be part of a mixed agroforestry system that conserved soil and water and sequestered carbon. “It’s a really good crop,” Erick says. “A lot of co-benefits."
But after exploring different models, Erick quickly saw that growing bulk cacao was never going to be commercially viable. Like most farms in Guatemala, Finca Ana Maria was too small to compete on price with large cacao plantations. The only thing that made sense was to grow specialty cacao that would command top dollar.
Thus began years of experimentation. The surrounding area of Alta Verapaz actually had lots of great criollo strains, mixed in with more modern Trinitario introductions. Why not try them all? “One of my principles is that all cacao varieties in Guatemala have the potential to produce very good flavors,” Erick says. But each is going to require a different regimen of weeding, pruning, shade regulation, nutrition, and fermentation. “There’s no fixed rule,” Erick says. “You always have to experiment.”
Erick was particularly keen to play around with the many white-seeded cacaos in the region, despite their reputation for being poor producers, because he knew they were in demand. And he found that their bad reputation was a myth, started by “experts” who had only worked with modern hybrids. “People say that white-bean trees are too low-yielding and too susceptible to disease,” he says, “but we’ve shown that Criollos are equal or better producers than the best Trinitarios.” The gamble paid off, as Finca Ana Maria’s white-bean trees have delivered strong yields and have been snapped up by European chocolatiers at $9–10/kilo. “The economic model is working really well,” Erick says.
So Erick already had a hit list in mind, a mixture of active and semi-abandoned farms. We just had to tag along for the groundtruthing. This is the heart of the HCP discovery work. You find farms with interesting cacao. You take photos of every notable tree. Trees that seem the most promising get geotags and complete morphological descriptions of flowers, leaves, pods, everything. How old are they? How are they being managed? What’s the soil like? The climate? How does the pulp taste? Are they healthy? Do we know anything about where they came from? Then you take some pods and leaves for later analysis.
Most of these rare trees don’t exist in numbers sufficient to produce the 8 kilograms of dried beans needed for a full-blown HCP tasting panel assessment. Maybe there are only a handful of the trees. Maybe just one. So the first goal is to get these trees into the development leagues.
Step 1: Don’t let them get cut down! That part is obvious, but it can still be challenging.
Step 2: Make more of them! Plant seeds in a nursery. Take budwood cuttings from individual trees and use them to establish clonal gardens of identical trees, so a single windstorm or chainsaw can’t push the variety into extinction. The clonal gardens also become a living laboratory, where you can learn what makes this variety happy.
Step 3: Spread the love! Once you have enough seedlings in your nursery, make them available to other farmers, along with information on how to manage them. That’s how a new heirloom is born.