A continent of flavours: Discover Central America’s cocoa beans

cocoa beans

Central America offers a great genetic variety of cocoa beans. However, many growers lack the knowledge to take advantage of the opportunities this offers. As part of CBI’s Connecting Central America project, we help cocoa growers identify the genetic groups they cultivate. We coach them on how to take better care of their crops and train them to understand the different flavour profiles they can get from their beans.

Variety is Central America’s strength

Many chocolate lovers may think they have the Mayans and Aztecs to thank for this delicious treat. Vianney de Abrego, a biologist at the University of El Salvador, has studied the genetics of cocoa beans for over a decade. She explains that many researchers also thought this until recently when they discovered that cocoa originated much further south and slowly made its way up the continent. “Thanks to genome mapping, we have been able to establish that of the 10 genetic cocoa groups we know today, 9 are from the Amazon basin,” Vianney says. “2 of those main groups made their way up to Central America, one was Criollo, and the other was Amelonado. Over time, hybrids emerged, resulting in what we now call modern Criollos, Criollos or ancestral Criollos, natural hybrids and hybrid products of plant breeding programmes. You can now find these varieties across Central America.” She adds, “Each group has its own qualities, resulting in unique flavours.”

Jörn Berger, CBI’s cocoa and chocolate consultant in Central America, explains the commercial value of this variety. “Asking which is the best cocoa in the world is like asking which is the best wine,” he says. “Experts have been debating it for decades, and everyone has their own favourite. It is the same with chocolate. We all enjoy different kinds of chocolate, so offering a variety of flavour profiles is one of Central America’s strengths. It allows each buyer and processor to find their preference for the market they sell their product to.”

Growing cocoa on the side of a volcano

One farm carrying on El Salvador’s ancient cocoa tradition is Transition. Owner José Eduardo Zacapa explains that they work with ancestral cocoa beans from El Salvador passed down through generations. “Another reason why our cocoa beans are special is because they are part of a genetic group known as Trinitario hybrid,” he says. “Our plantation is 1,100 metres above sea level, on the side of a volcano. Cocoa normally only grows up to 800 metres above sea level. The higher altitude enhances the flavour of our beans. The resulting notes are fruity, floral and nutty. There is also a bit of spiciness in there. This special combination of flavours has already won us awards at the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris. In 2017, we were among the top 50 cocoas and the top 18 chocolates in the world.”

In 2018, Transition joined CBI’s Connecting Central America project. José Eduardo explains how CBI is helping him and other producers prepare for new markets. “CBI helped us understand the quality and possibilities of our beans,” he says. “Understanding the types you are growing means you can optimise the fermentation process and get the best flavours. They helped us prepare samples and took them to various European chocolate makers. Our beans were very well received. We already sell our brand JEZ Chocolate here in El Salvador, and we have sold beans to France, Italy and Belgium. The international demand for Central American cocoa is high. We hope to increase our production in the coming years to meet that demand.”

“We encourage farmers to protect what they have inherited”

Jörn explains that farmers are often under pressure to underprice their products or replace the traditional tree crops with more common types of cocoa. “The main goal of our activities is to create sustainable income through sustainable products,” he says. “All countries in Central America offer excellent genetic cocoa varieties. And there is still a lot to discover. We want to encourage farmers to stick to what they have inherited and recognise that it is worth protecting. We also show them that high quality does not mean producing less and that many can access speciality markets with their products. Cocoa farming can have a very positive socioeconomic and environmental impact, so valuing the product and working with the right buyers can make a huge difference for communities.”

More information

Would you like to know more about Transition’s brand JEZ Chocolate and its success in the Connecting Central America project? Take a look at their success story!

For more information on participating companies’ achievements, visit the Connecting Central America Facebook Community.

Are you a European importer interested in products from Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras? Please contact Programme Manager Daphne ter Braak for more information or to meet with the suppliers in this project who are being trained to export to Europe.

The European Union (EU) co-finances the Connecting Central America project. The Secretariat for Economic Integration of Central America (SIECA) coordinates it. This project is part of the Central American Regional Economic Integration (INTEC) project.

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