Cocoa from farm to cup, is all part of a process that creates the chocolate we crave, in the Colombian Coffee Axis!
An incredibly diverse eco-system is part of what makes the Coffee Axis of Colombia so special and unique. Come along with us as we show you the entire process of cocoa from farm to cup, with visuals from real farms here in the region.
Cocoa From Farm to Cup
Cocoa is a basic staple of the Colombian diet – as a hot drink consumed in the morning. Based on ancestral processes, it is relatively easy to make and requires less processing from field to table than the sweet chocolate, or even the fine powdered cocoa which we are used to in the US/Canada and Europe.
Scientific Name: Theobroma cacao
Caldas, the biggest section of what we consider to be the Coffee Axis is the 12th department for overall quantity of cacao produced at 548 annual tons of production in the year 2003. 13th is the department of Risaralda. 
Cacao is a seed, which comes in a pod, surrounded by a mucus-like, but incredibly tasty substance. The pods begin as chunks of flowers, and then transform into pods extending from the trunk and branches. The flower is beautiful and white. Pods begin as green ovoids, then mature into a football shapes which come in yellow, deep red, or even brown colors.
Cocoa Cultivation in Colombia
Cocoa From Farm to Cup in Colombia is characterized by low-tech production methodology. That is to say that the average producer does not have the technology or training to create an export-ready product. To bridge the gap from farm to export while avoiding middleman, requires buyers to work with local associations.
These associations are cooperatives of local farmers who have a small group of representatives who are trained and funded by the growers to help in the post-harvest production to create an export-ready product.
The opportunity here for foreign buyers is to create working relationships with these associations, and then make a contract with them for the quantity needed.
Cocoa trees are a plant that requires a relatively low altitude, rainforest, warm but always moist – type of climate. According to ICA (Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario), the governing authority of agricultural export and production in Colombia, the orchard should consist of clones which are constantly improved upon to create a homogenous production.
Since they require a lot of water, it is also necessary to plant near streams, creeks and rivers. Orchards must have a relative humidity of 80% throughout the year and at least 2,500 millimeters of water annually.
Cocoa is a perennial plant that is capable of giving an average of two harvests per year. The biggest or principal harvest cycle is typically between October and January. Like coffee, the ripe fruits are harvested while green fruits are left on the tree to mature. The production cycle typically requires 5 to 6 months from fertilization to harvest.
Once the pods are taken from the tree, they are cut open and the mucus covered beans are placed in an enclosed space to ferment for 2 to 8 days before taken out into the sun for drying. Traditionally in Colombia, each day new harvest of cocoa beans are added to the fermenting harvest from the previous day.
This practice, while increasing overall volume, damages export quality because it isn’t as even. Some associations are creating facilities which will allow the cocoa beans to ferment in even groups to create a homogenous product. The same principle applies to drying.
Traditional Colombian harvest techniques do not create a product dry enough to export – which is one of the reasons why buyers from the exterior must work with growers associations who have the extra large facilities and resources to create cocoa from farm to cup, that is a good quality for shipping abroad.
Once the beans are fermented and dried, they are ready to roast. The thin filament, or parchment, which protects the bean, cannot be removed until after the roast. Unlike coffee, which can be processed by machines to create a clean bean, cocoa is much more delicate.
Machine processes do exist, but a large percentage of the product is wasted in this process. The preferred method to conserve the greatest amount of quantity, is to de-husk by hand immediately after roasting.
Once the cocoa is roasted, it is ready for the first grind. Cocoa when ground properly, comes out of the machine as a thick paste.
In Colombia, this product is adequate for making into hot chocolate, or local small-batch artisan chocolates. When hot chocolate is made, a stick with a ball on the end, called a Bolonillo is used to further pulverize the chocolate.
To create the chocolate we are accustomed to in Europe, or the US, an additional grind process must be used, called “Conch.”
The Conching machine runs for 12 to 24 hours (depending on the machine type and desired product), grinding the cacao into a much finer consistency. At this point the cocoa butter is often extracted and then added back in, or used for other applications such as cosmetics, lotions, or other products.
It is important to note, that some of the steps to process cocoa are more expensive and time consuming than coffee. This is part of the reason that cocoa is so expensive and why export agencies may want to consider exporting cocoa paste, versus cocoa beans, because the de-husking labor is much cheaper in Colombia.
Cocoa in the Colombian Coffee Axis
With the recent drops in coffee prices, many farmers are looking towards cocoa and/or avocados as a replacement for their coffee. Entire farm regions have been transformed by the emergence of these two crops as a greater economic potential.
In the Colombian Coffee Axis, the main areas for growing cacao are in and around Pereira, Armenia, and Cartago. The north of Caldas is mostly too high altitude, or too cold to cultivate cocoa except in small hot-weather low altitude pockets between mountains. ‘
The biggest pueblos (small towns) for producing cocoa currently, are Alcala, Viterbo, Belalcazar, Marsella, Belen de Umbria, and a few others like Rio Sucio or Supia. All these places are characterized by low altitude areas with sufficient humidity and rainfall. Essentially, they are all tropical rainforest climates.
Cocoa Farm Tour at “La Tulia” in Viterbo, Caldas
For cacao tourism we recommend La Tulia, in Viterbo, Caldas – where visitors will follow a walking path loop and learn about cocoa and the typical tropical fruits grown in this low-altitude rainforest climate. A special feature of this tour is Cocoa Guarapo – a delicious cold drink made from the white pulp of cocoa pods.
To learn more or schedule your own tour call or WhatsApp +57 317 762 4888 Reservations must be made 24 to 48 hours prior to expected tour.
How to Make Colombian Hot Chocolate
Colombian hot chocolate is easy to make. For two people you will need to heat water with a golf-ball sized chunk of panela and 2 cups of water.
When the water boils you add two small squares of chocolate and then agitate with a bolonillo to ensure the chocolate is pulverized enough to mix with your panela-water solution. Once the chocolate begins to bubble up the neck of your chocolate pot, you can shut off the heat and then serve.
Chocolate is served in aqua panela with milk added, or in steamed milk with the option to add panela or sugar.
In Colombia, chocolate is a typical breakfast drink. Coffee is usually drank before or after breakfast, with chocolate being the beverage of choice to have WITH breakfast. In restaurants, a typical breakfast usually comes with either chocolate, or coffee.
International Export of Cocoa From Farm to Table
Most do not speak English, Spanish is necessary for any representative who approach these associations. Very few small-farm producers have the resources or knowledge necessary to create a product that is dry enough, or of a quality that a foreign buyer desires.
Another major hurdle to keep in mind is the length of shipping. Cocoa that is shipped out must be dried out adequately to ensure that it doesn’t begin to mold during transport. Even so, shipments are still lost if they get wet or sit too long in a wet environment.
For the overseas buyer who wants to do part of the processing in Colombia, he must consider the machines which are available here – which are often cheaper and less quality due to exchange rates. However, it IS possible to import or obtain the necessary equipment, pay local labor, then export cocoa paste, or even fine chocolate.
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If you decide to work with local labor to process your chocolate prior to export, it is absolutely necessary that you have someone you trust who overseas quality control and personnel.
Colombian people are characterized by a warm, open and friendly culture of interaction, but the rate of pay and opportunities often lower their incentive to put out the effort required to ensure high quality.
But, it is the opinion of this publication, that with time, leadership, incentive and effort, you CAN cultivate a good labor force which will meet the standard a foreign buyer is looking for while creating local jobs.
Cocoa from farm to cup, is still a largely unrealized potential due to low levels of education and limited or artisan style farm technology.
In recent years, due to economic downturns, farmers, and associations, are starting to put more effort, and study, into creating a higher quality product that can be exported to foreign markets. With the right investment, and attention, it is possible to find ways to obtain a quality product, at a good price, for export.
The other major hurdle, is the bureaucracy of exporting products (like cocoa from farm to cup) from Colombia. ICA and INVIMA are the two governing authorities which decide who gets to export. However, they both require money, contacts and time in order to pave the export path. The average Colombian farmer may or may not have the financial means to buy the stamps, or gain the necessary approval.
Some of the best farm lands for cocoa are areas of conflict where social upheaval has limited the amount of environmental impacts due to factory farming, or bigger production models. As more armed groups are socialized and brought out of their defensive postures, entire regions that are ideal for cocoa could open up creating a much bigger production potential for cocoa from farm to cup, in Colombia.
If we can protect the local environment, use a minimum of pesticides, and follow ancestral – organic cultivation techniques, Colombia could potentially become a powerhouse for high quality cocoa/chocolate. All we need are a bit of time and effort.
If you would like to learn more about cocoa production in Colombia, or create a tour package that features chocolate – contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or +57 312 794 8245 for more information!
- http://bibliotecadigital.agronet.gov.co/bitstream/11348/3666/1/031.1.pdf “Guia Technica para el cultivo de cacao – Federación Nacional de Cacaoteros” (Technical Guide for the Cultivation of Cocoa by the National Federation of Cacao Cultivators)
- https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PA00W6GT.pdf “Analisis de la cadena productiva de Cacao en Colombia” (Analysis of the productivity chain of Cocoa in Colombia)
- https://www.colombiatrade.com.co/noticias/el-cacao-en-colombia-esta-presente-en-sus-departamentos “Cocoa in Colombia is Present in Her Departments”
- https://www.ica.gov.co/getdoc/a14aeacf-0949-4814-965a-627dfb0369a2/cultivo-de-cacao.aspx Cocoa cultivation in Colombia
- 3. PRODUCCIÓN Y ZONAS DE PRODUCCIÓN Para …https://www.finagro.com.co › files › 3_produccion_1 Information about cocoa cultivation in Colombia