Our Head Chocolate Maker Visits Ecuador | By Elizabeth Gentry

 

Being given the opportunity to see where our cacao comes from, the land it grows on, and the hands that process it was so exciting, and I’m thrilled to be able to take you along for a glimpse inside our chocolate making process at El Quetzel in Mindo, Ecuador!

During my visit, each morning started with a freshly roasted cup of El Quetzal coffee, and a variety of delicious breakfast options. As a Chocolate Maker, it seemed only appropriate to opt for the Mindo Chocolate Chunk Pancakes with housemade ginger syrup, and a harmonious salad of fresh papaya, pineapple, dragon fruit and berries. Mindo sits within the Cloud Forest, so the mornings often started with a blanketed sky of clouds, followed by a peak of sunshine and a calming afternoon of rain to take us into the evening. 


A stroll through the Cacao Route at El Quetzal was a morning ritual. This is where a portion of our cacao is processed. The landscape offers an array of different trees, flowers, and plants that contribute to the biodiversity of the area. Grapefruit, passion fruit, guava, citrus, banana, coffee, and cacao are only a few of the impressive sights and smells. Come along with me as I take you through the various steps to Chocolate Making starting right at the Origin of our cacao in Ecuador!

HARVEST

To start at the beginning, all chocolate starts at the cacao tree. The genetics of the cacao tree determines the potential for high-quality flavor in the final chocolate. We use only organic heirloom Nacional cacao which is known for being the oldest and rarest variety that produces the absolute best chocolate. All of the steps in harvesting throughout the process of chocolate making serves to bring out the flavor that is inherent in the genetics of the cacao.  

Walking through the Cacao Route at El Quetzal, I quickly learned that the cacao tree is fascinating in a lot of ways. Cacao pods grow from pollinated flowers found on the trunk and branches of the cacao tree. Cacao flowers are only pollinated by midges, tiny flying insects that live in dead leaves, twigs, and park on the ground beneath the trees. Thousands of flowers are produced each year, and cacao pods develop from the flowers that are pollinated. 

When harvesting the pods, it’s critical to cut the stem without damaging the pod, the flower cushion, or the tree. If damaged, no pods will grow from it ever again! 

Once the pods are harvested, they are sliced open with a machete revealing the cacao beans that are covered with a tasty tart-sweet white pulp. This is what we call the fruit of the cacao! Depending on the type of cacao, the fruit can taste sweet and citrusy, with notes of lychee, and passion fruit. The fruit holds the seeds of the cacao that is used to make chocolate, but before becoming the chocolate that we all know and love, it must be fermented to develop flavor. 

After harvesting, the cacao beans are placed inside of a wooden box layered with freshly picked banana leaves, then topped with canvas. When the beans are first added to the boxes, the box is wafting with the most amazing scent of passion fruit! As fermentation begins, the cacao naturally heats up and in 7-10 days, the cacao is ready to be dried. 

FERMENTATION


After harvesting, the cacao beans are placed inside of a wooden box layered with freshly picked banana leaves, then topped with canvas. When the beans are first added to the boxes, the box is wafting with the most amazing scent of passion fruit! As fermentation begins, the cacao naturally heats up and in 7-10 days, the cacao is ready to be dried. 

DRYING

Once the beans have been fermented, they must be dried: wet cocoa beans are susceptible to mold and mildew, and the drying process itself influences the development of flavor.

The best method for drying is to lay the beans on raised drying beds, and allow them to dry naturally low and slow under the sun. Cacao beans are constantly changing and evolving throughout the process of chocolate making. With these changes, comes flavor and complexity. 

A cut test of the cacao at different stages of drying shows the beautiful journey of chocolate and allows the producer to detect the quality they are looking for in each bean. 

ROASTING & CRACKING

Another component in flavor development during the chocolate-making process is roasting. This process also further reduces the moisture content, so as the beans are turning inside of the roaster, you can actually hear and feel the extra moisture dissipating. Once the roasting profile has been reached, the outer shell of the cacao bean becomes thin and brittle. The warm beans are then sent through our cracking machine to reveal the beautiful cocoa nibs inside. These cocoa nibs are what we use to make Chocolate!



WINNOWING

After cracking the cacao beans, they must be sent through a process of winnowing which further removes the shells and separates the nibs. To do this, the beans are pushed through a sifting screen that further breaks down the beans. Below the screen is a wind tunnel that allows the nibs to fall to one side, then the shells are blown to the other side. The nibs are reserved for chocolate making, and the shells are saved to make the most delicious Chocolate Tea. After winnowing the cacao nibs three times, the nibs are ready to be sent to Michigan for chocolate making! 

After returning from Ecuador, each time I bite into our craft chocolate, I am able to look back in my mind to the beautiful trees the cacao grew on, the evolution in color, taste, and scent that the cacao went through to unlock the amazing flavor of Mindo chocolate that we all know and love. Tasting craft chocolates made from carefully selected cacao beans allows us to discover a true kaleidoscope of the attention that goes into making the very best chocolate. Meeting the farmers, seeing the beautiful terroir, and watching the chocolate evolve each step of the way is a beautiful process. 

I am thrilled to be able to celebrate the craftsmanship behind chocolate that first started with just two people who had a love for chocolate - Barbara and Jose, the Founders of Mindo Chocolate Makers.

3 comments

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I will appreciate all that goes into your delicious chocolate.

Rose Ann March 18, 2020

Very interesting and well written.

Rose Ann March 18, 2020

What a wonderful tour of how Mindo chocolate is made. The process is so interesting. Elizabeth you did an outstanding job explaining everything. Thank you so much. I learned so much !!

Liz March 18, 2020

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