Story by Manos Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis and courtesy of Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Agropecuarias

cacao & nibs from ecuador

The Alchemy of Chocolate

Is Ecuador home to the world’s best chocolate ingredients? I recently received a package of chocolate samples from KakaoZon and I would say a resounding ... Yes!


According to recent research, the variety of Nacional or Arriba Cacao in Ecuador dates back to ancient times, when it grew wild in the Amazon region. Its intentional cultivation is evident from archaeological sites that show its use in pre-Colombian times, 5,000 years ago.

Cacao Pods Ecuador

The fruit of the cacao tree is a football-shaped woodsy pod. The seeds  inside the pod, have a bitter taste and must first be fermented to develop any  flavor. The fermentation process transforms the flavor to what we nowadays associate with cocoa and chocolate. Without fermentation there would be no flavor. Fermentation takes anywhere from two to eight days depending on the bean variety. When the fermentation is complete, the cacao beans are sun-dried and cleaned. In small plantations the fermented beans are spread by hand, and later turned over by hand; on larger plantations they use electric dryers and tumblers. The drying process takes 1-2 weeks, and during that period the color changes from a light reddish brown to dark brown

Roasting, like seed fermentation, is a crucial stage in establishing the final aroma and flavor of the chocolate. The ultimate taste depends as much on the correct choice of roasting conditions as it does on the characteristics of the raw beans. Roasting accomplishes several things. For example, it will kill any micro-organisms that are present on the bean; this is important since numerous bacteria develop during fermentation. It also permits chemical reactions that are integral to a good flavored chocolate.

Cacao Handfull

After roasting, the beans are "winnowed" to remove the shells from around the bean, leaving only the roasted meat which is the key ingredient for making chocolate. Machines crack the beans open. Then fans blow over the beans carrying the light shells away, leaving behind pure cocoa meat bits called “nibs”.

After roasting and winnowing, the cocoa nibs are ground into a paste known as “chocolate liquor”. Chocolate liquor contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter in roughly equal proportion. Cocoa liquor has a deep, dark brown color, is extremely aromatic, with a rich, bitter taste. It contains over 300 compounds that give chocolate its euphoria-inducing attributes. The liquor is the product that imparts the distinctive flavor and aroma to finished chocolate. Cocoa butter imparts no flavor or aroma at all to the finished product but it gives smoothness to the chocolate.

Conching further refines the chocolate mass. At this stage in manufacturing, it is where the chocolatier adds more ingredients such as sugar, milk powder (if making milk chocolate), vanilla, and other ingredients and flavorings.  The process affects the size of the particles in the chocolate and the chemical structure, which ultimately affects the flavor. Chocolate prior to conching has an uneven and gritty texture; the conching process produces cocoa and sugar particles smaller than the tongue can detect, hence the smooth feel in the mouth. 

The final process is called tempering. Uncontrolled crystallization of cocoa butter typically results in crystals of varying size, some large enough to be clearly seen with the naked eye. The uniform sheen and crisp bite of properly processed chocolate are the result of consistently small cocoa butter crystals produced by the tempering process.

Cacao Plant Nacional Ecuador

All cacao beans are not created equal. For many years, Ecuador has been recognized as the home to some of the highest quality beans in the world. Even though Ecuador produces less than 10% of the world’s cacao, the country produces more than 70% of the highest quality. This fine flavor cacao bean is known as Arriba, or Nacional.

Ecuador  is the main producer of this special cacao with a highly floral aromatic profile.  Arriba Cacao was originally found in the Ecuadorian Amazon; when European traders came across it in Guayaquil,  Ecuador’s main port, they asked the locals where these amazing beans came from. The locals answered “Arriba” i.e. “up-river” meaning further up the watershed. The name stuck, and to this day, this cacao is known in Ecuador as “Cacao Arriba”.

80% of the country’s cacao production takes place on the coastal regions of Manabí, Los Rios, and Guayas. The combination of mineral rich volcanic soil and warm climate helps the growth of the very best beans. There are a few plantations in southern Ecuador as well.

Cacao package from KakaoZON

My “care” package from KakaoZON consisted of a large bag of milk chocolate chips, that Barbara used when she made a banana bread; yum!! A bag of pineapple snacks, covered in bitter-sweet chocolate. Excellent nibbles when watching a TV program. And 3 chocolate bars, one made of pineapple bits, one of chocolate covered coffee beans, and an 85% dark chocolate bar made with coconut sugar, an ingredient I learned to love during my press trip to Thailand a few years back. Coconut sugar is sweet, even seems sweeter than cane sugar, yet with a much lower glycemic index which means it is more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolized and causes a lower and slower rise in blood glucose levels.

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