Rebecca and Renee wrote this blog post together, and they were fortunate enough to attend our annual guest trip to Belize that we offer each February (just one of the many perks in working for a chocolate company—in addition to all of the chocolate you care to eat). This trip is one of many that we’ve taken as a team: Greg visited in 2013, and Molly had a look a year later, but this is the first for Renee and Rebecca. Renee is a chocolate maker at our Valencia Street factory. Rebecca was formerly the manager of the Valencia Street café, but she just became the Director of the Chocolate Experiences team. Warning: their travelogue will make you want to pack your bags.
Hello Dandelion Friends! This February we had the opportunity to attend a Chocolate 301 cocoa trip: an interactive, hands-on, seven-day exploration into the world of cacao in the southern tip of Belize. Along with Greg, our Bean Sourcerer, and 11 chocolate aficionados from across North America, we stayed at the very scenic Chaab’il B’e Lodge in Punta Gorda. We ate amazing chocolate-infused meals and washed them down with local cacao rum and Coke prepared by lodge owners, Sheila and Rusty.
Diving right into the jungles of Belize, we spent our first day touring Eladio’s farm where we learned about the gospel of cacao, and the harmony between man and earth that helps synthesize healthy plant growth. As he led us through his farm, Eladio would stop to pick what appeared to be random plants and teach us about the benefits they have on the body, as well as how they contribute to the growth of the entire ecostructure. We ate hearts of palm, sugar cane, cacao, and corn right out of the ground! It was a wild jump into the deep end of Belize. He stopped to cut open a cacao pod and said, “now we look for faces.” As Eladio explained it, the faces that can be identified in the raw pod give us insight into all of the animals and creatures that love to eat them! I found Stitch. What faces do you see?
After our long trek through Eladio’s wild farm, we finished the day with a delicious, home-cooked Belizean meal and a lesson on making traditional Mayan drinking chocolate.
Another day, we went to Xibun Reserve, a former Hershey plantation of 1100 acres that has been revamped and is now growing cacao and citrus. It is HUGE. We spent a bumpy couple of hours riding through the orange groves and rows of cacao trees in the back of a tractor. We got to see firsthand as the farmers split the cacao pods and harvested the wet beans. It was mind-blowing to see how easily and quickly they got the pods open because they are so thick! We also hopped down from our iron chariot to walk around through the trees, enjoying the variety of colors that each pod produced. The trees were full of beautiful flowers and budding cacao pods. Seeing the difference in how the cacao trees were kept at Xibun and at Eladio’s was really interesting. Xibun had very well-kept, neat rows of trees that were in stark contrast to the wild jungle of Eladio’s farm. Even as we rode around the tractor at Xibun, one side was all cacao—and then we’d turn around and see all citrus. It was surreal.
On Valentine’s Day we went to Maya Mountain Fermentary. The name may sound familiar to some of you who may have tried our Maya Mountain, Belize chocolate bars—feel free to learn more about how Elman developed this bar’s flavor profile. Maya Mountain is an organization, not a co-op, from where we source our delicious Belizean beans. They collect wet beans from farmers around Belize and ferment the beans at their location in Punta Gorda. This experience took the term “hands on” to a whole new level! We got to actually stick our hands in the gooey fermentation boxes to see how much heat they produce! We also got to taste the beans at different stages of fermentation and drying. The flavor of the nibs changed significantly from one to four days of fermentation, as well as at different stages of drying. Truly in her element, Renee got right to work, showing the team how we sort beans and explaining what we look for in this process. We learned what their quality manager looks for when they sort before packaging and sending beans to the chocolate makers. She then showed us what she looks for when she grades beans. She could look at a cut test and see how far along fermentation had occurred. We then tasted a wide selection of chocolate made with Maya Mountain beans from other makers. As a chocolate maker, this is one of Renee’s favorite things to do. One origin can taste so vastly different depending on the maker, but there remains a consistent character from the terroir that is discernible in each bar from the same origin.
On our last day, we went to Copal Tree Lodge where we walked around their beautiful garden and made chocolate with their chocolate maker. It was amazing to learn about their process and see that one chocolate maker takes ownership of every step! He gave us beans to taste from different times in the roast. We could taste the flavors evolving. Then we got to winnow the freshly roasted beans. It was very therapeutic, like raking a zen garden. After this, the chocolate maker showed off his skills and hand-tempered a large batch of chocolate right in front of us for us to pour into molds. To remove air bubbles from the bars in our factory, we rely primarily on a vibrating table. At Copal Tree, they rely on the more rudimentary system of slamming the chocolate mold against a table to remove air bubbles—a very satisfying alternative. It was incredible to see such a large batch of chocolate hand-tempered with such ease. He didn’t even need a thermometer; he could just feel the change in viscosity and knew when it was ready!
This doesn’t even scratch the surface on what happened on the trip. There was so much more that can’t be captured with words or pictures. It was really refreshing to be around so many people who are passionate about chocolate; not just the customers, but also the farmers, fermenters, and other makers. It was so eye-opening to see how much goes into making a treat that the world enjoys. 10/10 would go back on this trip! Without question, it is worth every drop of bug repellant, sweat, and slathering of sunscreen!
To Belize with Love and Chocolate,
Renee and Rebecca
PS: Want to learn more about what life is like in Belize? Maya moved there to deepen her work in chocolate, and our friend Madeline shares her story of living there for several months.