As a kid, the day after Halloween was my favorite holiday. I remember bringing in some of my candy to school to trade with other kids. For me—more chocolate was always the goal. Little bags of Skittles for M&M’s. Lollipops for bite-size chocolate bars. Don’t get me wrong—Sour Patch Kids always have a special place in my heart—but having more chocolate than fruity candy was my preference.
Now that I’m an adult, I’ve developed a taste for dark chocolate. There’s really nothing that can cure a crappy day than a piece of some damn good dark chocolate—I mean besides a basket of puppies, but you can’t get those at the grocery store. So, when we were picking out things to do in Puerto Viejo, the chocolate tour at Caribeans was a top priority.
We arrived at Caribeans about 20 minutes before the tour began. Caribeans is also a fantastic coffee shop in edition to a great place to have chocolate. They also have a chocolate tasting room in the coffee shop that is separate from the rest of the coffee shop by sliding doors and temperature controlled to keep the chocolate from melting. Before the tour I of course felt it was my duty to try each and every one of the 20 or so chocolate samples they had to taste.
Jeff, one of the owners of Caribeans, was our tour guide for the day along with Oscar, a local who fondly remembers growing up in the area and works at the farm. Jeff and his wife had bought the old cacao farm only knowing that it was an ocean front property and his friend Paul would be his neighbor. The farm was originally abandoned in the 1980’s when disease struck many of the cacao farms in Puerto Viejo. The Costa Rican chocolate industry’s production came to a screeching halt as a result.
The first part of the tour we walked about a mile up a steep hill. Along the way Jeff showed us an example of a diseased tree. The other trees further up the property they are actively fighting off the fungus and actually are successful! He pointed out some wildlife that lives on the property as well, such as red frogs, owls, iguanas, sloths, agoutis, golden orb spiders (which we learned are completely harmless), the spiny pochote tree, and a tree that has a thin red bark—indio desnudo (translated as naked indian but also sometimes called the sunburnt tourist haha). He told us about how they are trying to graft healthy trees to fight off the disease on future cacao trees. I was surprised how tiny the cacao flowers are compared to the full size cacao pods.
Once we were at the top of the hill we arrived at the beginning of the chocolate making process—fermentation. Oscar cracked open a cacao bean and let us try the raw fruit. There was a white gelatinous coating around the beans that was sweet and slightly tart. The bean itself was very bitter. The bean is fermented in a small wooden box between 2 to 8 days. The sugars in the fruit is what starts the fermentation and it removes the natural tannins and acids in the actual cacao bean. Fermentation is a really important process to making chocolate because it is what gives the cacao bean the chocolate flavor we know and love.
After fermentation. The beans are set out on tables in an open-ended tent which allows the sun to dry the beans while protecting them from rainfall. This drying process usually takes around 10 days. We tried a bean at this stage and it was of course still bitter but had the hint of the smoky and intense chocolate flavor compared to the raw bean.
At this point, the beans are taken to the “chocolate factory,” a 2-room processing area that has various machines that Paul rigged to do the same job as the expensive industrial machines the major chocolate producers use. Roasting is the first part. We tried the bean at this point, and it added depth to the bean’s taste—bringing as close as ever to a recognizable chocolate flavor.
From here the nibs go into the melanger, a granite slab with 2 granite wheels that crunches the nibs into a cocoa liquor, at which point the other chocolate bar ingredients are thrown in, sometimes just sugar, or in the case of flavored chocolate bars, spices and other flavorings. The melanger runs for 2-3 days to make a very smooth and silky chocolate liquid.
The beans are then ground into little “nibs,” or little sprinkles of unsweetened chocolate. After being ground to nibs, it is time to separate the shell from the nibs. This was Bryan’s favorite machine—a shop vac that had been tinkered with to create a makeshift winnower. The nibs and shell are dropped in and the shop vac sucks up the bean husks while the nibs drop into a bin below.
Hold on, we’re not done yet! In order to make the actual chocolate bars, the chocolate liquid has to be tempered. Tempering gives chocolate it’s sheen and snap and helps prevent bloom. Have you ever had a chocolate bar for a long time and noticed white-ish or light colored areas? That is bloom. Essentially, if the chocolate has been poorly tempered the fat, or cacao butter, separates from the chocolate and towards the surface of the bar. This makes the chocolate melt upon touching and changes the texture.
Anyways, let’s get back to tempering. The chocolate liquid is cooled down to between 79-81˚F and then heated up again to 88˚F. At this point the chocolate is poured into molds and allowed to cool completely. Finally, you have a chocolate bar ready to wrap and sell!
In addition to their own beans, Caribeans also makes chocolate with other local Costa Rican cacao farm beans. At one point of the tour we went up to the overlook of the property and tasted 4 different chocolate bars, all with the same cacao-to-sugar ratio, the only difference was where the beans came from. They each had their own flavor which could be due to many factors, such as elevation difference, fermentation time, and drying time. We then got to taste the chocolate drink that the Aztecs made for Hernan Cortes in 1519 (except it did have some sugar in it to make it taste better). Cortes brought this drink back to Spain, which is how Europe first was introduced to the cacao bean.
We both found it interesting that chocolatiers around the world are known for making the best of the best chocolate all get their beans from the 3 cacao growing regions of the world—near the equators of Latin America, Africa, and Asia/Oceania. And as we learned in our tasting, the flavors vary wildly, but most of that flavor is produced before the cacao beans even leave the farm! The variety of the bean, how they are grown, how long they ferment, and how long they are dried is what gives each chocolate its unique characteristics. These world-renowned chocolatiers roast the beans to make a subtle difference in the flavor, but they really control the texture of the chocolate more than the flavor. Caribeans is one of the few bean to bar producers and works closely with the cacao farms it sources its beans from. The cacao farmers can actually taste their own beans in the chocolate and learn how to refine the chocolate based on their growing, fermentation, and drying processes. We certainly thought this made the quality of the chocolate at Caribeans intense and higher than some of the best-known chocolatiers around the world.
The final part of the tasting portion of the tour was making our own chocolate pairings. There was a table with small pieces of the 4 different chocolate bars we had tasted before. Beside the chocolate was spoons filled with different herbs, spices, and flavorings—such as vanilla, coconut, salt, lemongrass, basil, chili, pepper, ginger, garlic, rosemary, etc. We got to make our own combinations to make our own flavors. After all of this chocolate tasting, I would have thought I’d be done with chocolate for a week. Instead, we went back to the chocolate tasting room after the tour and bought a small bar of chocolate…and had some that night. Seriously, it was that good.