Cacao Culture in Ecuador
All cacao beans are not created equal. Thankfully, Ecuador is home to some of the highest quality beans in the world. Even though Ecuador produces less than 10% of the world’s cacao (cocoa), the country produces more than 70% of the world’s highest quality cacao. This fine flavor cacao (FFC) bean is known as Arriba, or Nacional (National). The flavor of Arriba beans has been called nutty, fruity with a hint of orange, and floral with jasmine tones. It is a diverse flavor that attracts chocolatiers from all over the world. Cacao in Ecuador has had a long time to evolve in its complexity; the cacao trees and their pods have been growing here ever since the pre-Colombian era.
The Arriba aroma is part of the Forastero species of Amazonian bean, which is considered to be one of the three finest categories of beans in the world, along with the Criollo and Trinitario species. The name Arriba traces back to a Swedish explorer who smelled the chocolaty aroma while boating along the Guayas River. He asked locals where it came from and they said, “de río arriba,” meaning upstream. Hence, Arriba beans.
Arriba refers more to the type of cacao produced, rather than the specific bean. The bean is typically called the Nacional, or Nacional Arriba, bean. These beans are designated to be fine-flavor cacao (FFC). There are three major categories of Nacional beans: Arriba Superior Época (ASE) accounts for about 37% of national production. Arriba Superior Selecto (ASS) accounts for about 20% of national production, and Arriba Superior Summer Selecto (ASSS) makes up about 7% of national exports.
The Cacao Controversy: Natural or Genetically Modified?
Nacional beans are the purest form of cacao from Ecuador; their flavor is what first captured the interest and investments of foreign buyers. However, over the last three decades, these beans have been replaced by the genetically modified CCN-51 beans which are more fungus and disease-resistant. CCN-51 beans are easier to grow. In fact, they now make up 36% of the country’s exports, barely trailing the Arriba Superior Época bean production. CCN-51 is a hybrid of the Trinitario and Nacional beans. Their popularity increased after El Niño destroyed many of the Nacional trees in 1997 and 1998.
Estimates say that small farm owners plant 30-40% Nacional beans and 60-70% bulk beans (often CCN-51). This mixing of flavors dilutes the overall quality of the crop, and is one of the reasons why the price of cacao has fallen about 30% over the last 10 years. However, the CCN-51 variety also produces significantly more; therefore, the total quantity of exported cacao beans has increased threefold in those same past 10 years. Herein lies the controversial terrain of cacao: CCN-51 beans are lower quality, require less work, produce more raw beans, but are sold at a lower price. On the other hand, Nacional beans are higher quality, require more work, produce fewer raw beans, but sell for a higher price. This conundrum is something for any investor and farmer to consider when starting a cacao plantation: fine flavor Nacional beans or disease-resistant CCN-51?
Fair Trade and Nacional Bean Preservation
The decline of Nacional trees has resulted in more grassroots efforts to preserve the Nacional beans. This movement stems from a global trend toward organic and fair-trade farms. For example, Pacari, the most well known chocolate company in Ecuador, works with farmers that only use Nacional beans, and it pays higher wages for these beans. Though growing Nacional beans requires more attention to detail in the fermenting and processing stages, these beans are the key to Ecuador’s distinct cacao flavor. They are still highly desired amongst foreign markets.
Cacao Farm Owners
Small farm owners make up about 90% of Ecuador’s cacao producers. Farm size ranges between one and five hectares. Due to limitations in technology and investments, many farmers still utilize rudimentary methods and are limited in their use of insecticides or modern fertilizers. However, in 2013 the Ecuadorian government created a program, the National Cocoa Program, to help prune plants and minimize disease. Over 20,000 families in 15 different provinces have benefited from this program.
Best Regions for Cacao
80% of the country’s cacao production takes place on the coast in the Manabí, Los Rios, and Guayas regions. The combination of mineral rich volcanic soil and the warm climate helps the beans grow best. About 7% of cacao is also cultivated in the Amazon provinces. There are also some plantations in southern Ecuador as well.
Profit Potential of Cacao
For farmers in Ecuador, cacao is still the most lucrative cash crop. Most of the cacao that is exported goes to the United States, the European Union, or Mexico. Cacao from Ecuador is typically exported as a bean, rather than a semi-processed product like cacao paste, powder, or butter. As of 2015, farmers made roughly $28 per 100 pounds of common cacao beans (CCN-51) but for fine flavor cacao Nacional beans farmers earn $80 per 100 pounds. Pacari, a fair trade organization based in Quito, pays $150 for 100 pounds of Nacional beans. To help farmers get started, Pacari owners Santiago Peralta and his wife Carla Barboto even offer classes on the growing, fermenting, harvesting, and pruning processes.
Peralta, Pacari’s founder, explained his belief in the power of cacao succinctly and beautifully in Jarrett’s article for NBC News. Peralta explains, “Cacao is not just a way to get money…there’s a consciousness…(farmers) carry a responsibility. If chocolate can’t succeed, I don’t see any other food succeeding. Chocolate is the most loved food on earth.”
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