Demand for fine or flavor cacao with its exquisite color, taste, and quality is increasing. And instead of exporting these cacao beans (cocoa beans) mostly cultivated in the Caribbean, they are being used by old and new chocolate making companies popping up in the region. Some of these chocolate companies are associated with cacao plantations that have hundreds of years of history and heritage, others have just been created by people who love chocolate. But before we can highlight some of the leading Caribbean chocolate brands, it’s important to review the different kinds of cacao trees that produce cacao beans which are the ultimate source for chocolate. Also, the ways to check for quality and taste when sampling this new wave of artisan chocolate.
Different Kinds of Cacao Trees
Like coffee, the production of chocolate starts with a tree that grows anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five feet. Specifically, cacao trees (cocoa trees) which produce a fruit – cacao pods shaped like an American football which contain cacao beans. There are three different types of cacao trees including Criollo, Trinitario, and Forastero. From a review of the history of chocolate, we uncover that Criollo is the original cacao tree and is native to Central and South America as well as the Caribbean islands. The second type of cacao tree is the Forastero native to the Amazon basin. Now grown mainly in Africa, Ecuador, and Brazil, Forastero cacao trees account for 80% of the world’s cocoa supply. Finally, Trinitario cacao trees are a natural hybrid biological class resulting from cross-pollination. These were created in Trinidad after a hurricane in 1727 destroyed most of the Criollo cacao trees. The Trinidad cacao plantations were then replanted with Forastero which created the hybrid of Criollo and Forastero.
In the Caribbean, you’ll find mostly Criollo and Trinitario trees cultivated as they require hot, humid yet cool conditions found under the canopy of a tropical rainforest. These are thought to be the best type of cacao trees. Criollo cacao trees produce cacao pods that are very aromatic and lacks bitterness. Criollo cacao pods are considered the prince of cacaos and are prized as an ingredient in the very finest chocolates. Trinitario cacao trees produce a high yield similar to Forastero but have the refined taste of Criollo. The quality of the Trinitario cacao pods varies between average and superior and is predominantly fine flavor cocoa. Surprisingly, the white or pinkish pulp on the cacao beans which I find rather delicious is often just tossed away. However, new companies like Repurposed Pod are using the fruit to make cacao juice. For chocolate though, the cacao beans are really the beginning of the process to create chocolate.
Harvesting and Processing Cacao Beans
Cacao trees flower in two cycles of six months and on average producing anywhere from twenty to fifty cacao pods each year. Each cacao pod contains anywhere from twenty to fifty cacao beans (cocoa beans). Once cacao pods are confirmed as being ripe, they are picked and carefully split open to remove the cacao beans which are then proceeded through the following stages: fermentation, drying and bagging, winnowing, roasting, grinding and pressing.
What I love about taking a chocolate tour at cocoa plantations in the Caribbean, is that you can often see workers going through the various stages of processing cacao beans often using very traditional methods. In fact, last year when I was in Grenada, I got to tour Belmont Estate which dates back to the 1600s and got the chance to try dancing the cacao a traditional method of polishing cacao beans to a high sheen. Also walking the cacao, another traditional way of creating ridges in the layer of cacao beans which maximizes drying. Visiting Belmont Estate is one of the many chocolate experiences in Grenada.
It should be noted that all chocolate products created are derived from cacao beans in some form or another, which are picked from the cacao tree. But while cacao and cocoa are often used interchangeably, they are two different ingredients. The purest form of chocolate is cacao which is raw and much less processed than cocoa powder or chocolate bars. On the other hand, cocoa refers to the heated or processed form of cacao that we typically purchase in the form of powder.
Chocolate Flavor Wheel
Growing up, I ate mostly American chocolate (i.e., Snickers Chocolate Bar, Reese’s Nut Bar, etc.) made from bulk or ordinary cacao beans and so my appreciation for fine chocolate was limited. Only once I started sampling cacao bean to bar chocolate bars from across the Caribbean region that my awareness of the complex taste and flavors awakened. Seriously, I previously thought all chocolate was just sweet, and it took a while to truly appreciate what was on offer since many had little to no sugar and could be considered bitter. It also took me a while to get to grips with the various ways to describe artisan chocolate.
One of the things that really helped was paying a visit to the Chocolate Museum in London which has an exhibit with a large chocolate flavor wheel which offers guidance on how to evaluate the quality and taste of chocolate. This starts with taking a snap to ensure that the chocolate has been tempered and stored appropriately. Then taking a piece of the chocolate to sniff. Good quality chocolate will give out a deep chocolate aroma while the lower kind will smell fatty and very milky or caramelly.
After the chocolate snap and smell test, is the chocolate melt test. This involves merely placing the chocolate in your mouth and just letting it melt. Good chocolate will feel smooth and leaves a clean feel. Whereas lower quality chocolate products will be really sticky and linger in your throat. Another thing to take note of is which part of the mouth and tongue reacts the most. The acidity will be felt more on the sides of the tongue, while bitterness in the back. Also, astringency (puckery or drying sensation) will be felt on the sides of the mouth.
As the chocolate flavor wheel further points out, the type of cacao beans used and the length of the manufacturing process affects the taste of the chocolate. Overall, key things to check for with each piece of artisan chocolate:
- * Acidity: When cacao pods are harvested too early and/or through artificial drying of the cacao vs. the traditional sun-drying method
- * Astringency & Bitterness: Both decrease during the fermentation of the cacao beans
- * Chocolate Aroma: It increases in intensity through proper fermentation and depending on the degree of roasting of the cacao beans
- * Nutty Flavor: It develops during the roasting stage
- * Smokey Flavor: It derives from the drying of the cacao beans as well as from the roasting process
- * Sour Flavor: It peaks and levels out during the fermentation of cacao beans
That said, chocolate can be described as fruity, sweet, floral, herbal, acidic, spicy, roasted and dairy. You can then go a second level with most of these chocolate taste categories. For example, you can describe chocolate as sweet with caramel or honey or vanilla. Another example is fruity with a hint of coconut or grapefruit or lemon or orange or strawberry.
Caribbean Chocolate Brands
With knowledge about the source of chocolate and the ways to evaluate artisan chocolate, below are seven Caribbean chocolate brands some of which have been supported by the Caribbean Development Export Agency funded in part by the European Union, to develop their businesses, attend trade shows or improve branding many of whom have already or are looking to expand to regional and international markets. They handmake a range of chocolate products including chocolate bars, bonbons, cacao nibs, cocoa powder, treats for stockings and hot chocolate mix.
Tan Bun Skrati
Website | Address: Tan Bun Skrati N.V. , Leo Heinemannstraat 36
Established in 2010, Tan Bun Skrati is an artisanal chocolate maker in Suriname by husband and wife team Rutger Lem and Ellen Ligteringen. They harvest cocoa pods from about 200 trees on privately owned gardens and orchards in the districts of Saramacca, Wanica, Para and Commewijne and then process the cacao in their studio in the capital city of Paramaribo. All their products are handcrafted and include chocolate bars 70%, 72%, 80% & 100%, two year aged bars and cacao tea. The Tan Bun Skrati chocolate products are sold in retail locations in Paramaribo as well as in the Netherlands.
Website | Address: Prolongación Av. 27 de Febrero 1762, Alameda, Santo Domingo 10902, República Dominicana
Kah Kow is a cocoa brand from the Dominican Republic produced by Rizek Cacao S.A.S. who have been planting and supplying cacao Beans to some of the worlds best chocolatiers since 1906 and became artisan chocolatiers themselves in 2007. But the Kah Kow brand was not introduced to the local market until 2011 with chocolate bars 70% and 62%. The company now has a fuller range of chocolate bars with 55%, 62%, 70%, 82%, and 100%. Also, they expanded their product range to include chocolate and macadamia cream, Chocodamia. The Kah Kow chocolate products are sold in retail locations in the Dominican Republic as well as via their online shop.
Trinidad & Tobago Fine Cocoa Company
Website | Address: Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago
Founded in 2014, the Trinidad & Tobago Fine Cocoa Company was set up as a private-public partnership with the goal of not just creating amazing Caribbean chocolate products but also helping to rehabilitate the cocoa sector in Trinidad and eventually across the region. Thus, they focus not only on product development but also on educating farmers to improve the quality and yield of cacao Beans grown and harvested. Their award-winning chocolate products include chocolate bars, cocoa powders, chocolate tins, couverture, and roasted nibs. The Trinidad & Tobago Fine Cocoa Company products are sold at retail locations in Trinidad as well as in the United Kingdom at Kings Fine Food and world-famous Harrods department store.
Agapey Chocolate Factory
Website | Address: Hinkcs Street, Bridgetown, Barbados
Established in 2010, the Agapey Chocolate Factory is an artisan dark chocolate maker in Barbados. Using Criollo and Trinitario cacao beans from the best cocoa farmers in the Caribbean along with Barbadian Plantation Reserve Gold Cane Sugar, they create a collection of Caribbean chocolate bars with a wide variety of flavored fillings such as rum caramel, coconut rum, mango vodka, vodka ginger, espresso, nutmeg, salted caramel, and almond. They also create chocolate bars identifying the country of origin including Cacao Grenada and Cacao Hispanola. The Apagey Chocolate Factory products are sold at retail locations across Barbados. You can also tour the Apagey Chocolate Factory and buy products at the end of your visit!
The Grenada Chocolate Company
Website | Address: Hermitage, St. Patrick’s, Grenada
The Grenada Chocolate Company is considered the pioneer in organic and sustainable cacao beans to bar chocolate production. Founded in 1999, instead of selling off its Trinitario cacao beans that grow in Grenada’s pristine rainforest to international chocolatiers, it set about creating the first bean-to-bar chocolate. Now an award-winning organic dark chocolate, their bars comes in six varieties including 60%, 70%, 82%, 71%, and 100%. The company also produces cocoa nibs which are 60% chocolate and pure organic cocoa powder. The Grenada Chocolate Company products are sold at retail locations across Grenada. They can also be found at specialty chocolate and confectionery shops in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Website | Address: The Rabot Estate, Saint Lucia
Hotel Chocolat, a UK retailer, purchased the 140-acre Rabot Estate located in the South West of St Lucia in 2006. The same family had owned Rabot Estate since the 1930s, and once acquired by Hotel Chocolat, they set about transforming the cacao estate and building a chocolate factory. Now they are the world’s first chocolatier and cocoa grower to present a single côte chocolate; The Rabot Estate Marcial 70% dark. What this means is that cacao beans are kept separated as they are picked and fermented from each côte (terroir section) within the Rabot Estate. This single côte Marcial is part of their Rabot 1745 range. The Hotel Chocolate products are sold primarily in Saint Lucia and retail locations across the United Kingdom.
Website | Address: 37 Fitt Street, Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago
Founded in 2009 by Isabel Brash a former architect, Cocobell Chocolate based in Trinidad sources Trinitario cacao beans from the local cocoa estates and then produces a range of products including chocolate bars, boxes, bark, dragees, seasonal sets, cocoa nibs, cocoa powder, and chocolate cookies. Cocobel Chocolate also sells 30+ different flavored bonbons which some of which include cream, butter, nuts, and natural fruit purées. Cocobel Chocolate is made and sold exclusively in Trinidad & Tobago.
These are but a small selection of the emerging Caribbean chocolate brands. In Grenada, beyond The Grenada Chocolate Company, there are four other bean-to-bar chocolate makers including Jouvay Chocolate, Crayfish Bay Organic Cocoa Estate, Belmont Estate and Tri-Island the latest on the market who are combining Grenada’s finest cacao, seasonal fruits, and delicate spices to craft pure Caribbean chocolate. In Saint Lucia, there is another new chocolate favorite, Emerald Estate Chocolate managed by the owners of the architecturally stunning Jade Mountain Resort. They also use cacao beans which are fermented and sun-dried on their Emerald Estate Chocolate to create a wide range of delicious chocolate bars. In Jamaica, there is Chocolate Dreams who have been producing chocolate and chocolate baked products since 2004.
Beyond these brands using cacao beans from the Caribbean, there are others like The Green Monkey Chocolatier in Barbados who import their chocolate from France and Magnolia Chocolatier also in Barbados who import their chocolate from Belgium. Essentially, the cacao industry in the Caribbean is rich and diverse. Thus chocolate lovers visiting the region have many cocoa plantations to visit for a regular chocolate tour or chocolate factory tour and more importantly many chocolate brands to taste and sample.
Note: This blog post/article is part of a series featuring Caribbean entrepreneurs and businesses sponsored by the Caribbean Export Development Agency. Working together with the European Union, the Caribbean Export Development Agency supports the sustainable development of Caribbean brands ultimately to increase employment in the region, inclusiveness, particularly for youth, women and indigenous groups, and secure overall poverty reduction.