Better Beans Make Better Chocolate: TCHO’s Efforts in Quality Development

The very first chocolates made by TCHO were a collection of single-origin dark chocolate bars featuring the distinct flavor profiles found naturally in each origin’s cacao beans. We quickly found that crafting these chocolates was more than a little difficult to source cacao consistently from one harvest to the next with a specific flavor profile.  Some of the biggest challenges we faced were:

  1. Cacao producers not roasting and tasting their cacao beans.  Producers generally follow industry standards of rating the quality of the cacao beans based solely on the physical attributes of the beans. This form of quality control prevents the worst defects (mold) but does nothing to illuminate the flavor profile of the cacao. 

  2. All the cacao beans gathered by cooperatives from their members were being processed in the same way without consideration for the flavor nuances in the beans. 

  3. The standardization of producing and processing of cacao made it unclear which factors (like genetics, fermentation time, drying time, terroir) were the leading influencers of certain flavors.  Treating all cacao beans as though they are the exact same makes it very difficult to intentionally draw out positive flavor notes that develop during cultivation and/or post-harvest processes.  

To overcome these challenges, we began collaborating directly with cooperative partners in Ecuador and Peru around a shared vision to grow our respective businesses through a focus on higher quality.  More specifically, our partnerships focused on collaboration, investments, experiments, and innovation to gain improved understanding and control over how to best achieve specific and delicious flavors consistently in cacao beans.  With mutual benefit from this improved understanding and capability, farmers earned a higher price for consistently producing cacao with a specific flavor profile and TCHO was able to gain more sustainable and efficient access to delicious, flavor-specific cacao.  Producing higher-quality cacao paved the way for TCHO and others to reward farmers with cash premiums specific to quality. From these collaborations and shared vision, our unique sourcing program, TCHO Source, was born. 

The first step in creating a shared language of flavor and reverse engineering what factors (like the aforementioned genetics, terroir, post-harvest processing) cause which flavors, is by tasting cacao.  Since day one, TCHO has tasted every lot of cacao we purchase by taking a sample of the lot, roasting those beans, turning them into cocoa liquor (refined cacao without any added sugar, fat, etc.), and completing a sensorial evaluation of the liquor.  To achieve our shared goals, it was essential for our producer partners to do the same.  

In 2008, we installed the first TCHO Flavor Lab, a bean-to-bar lab with the basic equipment needed to turn cacao beans into cocoa liquor and chocolate. We worked with the Norandino cooperative in Piura, Peru on this initiative and began making and tasting cacao together.  In 2009, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), we installed a second TCHO Flavor Lab at ACOPAGRO cooperative in San Martin, Peru.  The impact from these first two labs was so positive and tangible that we knew TCHO Source and TCHO Flavor Labs were concepts worth taking to scale. 

Later in 2009, TCHO learned of USAID’s plans to launch the Cooperative Development Program, a global initiative that focuses on building capacity of cooperative businesses and cooperative systems for self-reliance, local ownership, and sustainability.  We approached our friends at fellow chocolate company Equal Exchange and solidified our mutual interest in facing various challenges in the areas of cooperative capitalization, cacao productivity, and cacao quality in our supply chains.  With Equal Exchange as the expert in cooperative development and management,  and TCHO as the expert on cacao quality and flavor, our nine-year collaboration was born.  With funding from USAID, TCHO, and Equal Exchange collaborated with six farmer-owned cacao producing cooperatives in Peru, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic:

  1. Norandino Cooperative - Piura, Piura, Peru | TCHO Flavor Lab installed 2008
  2. Acopagro Cooperative - Juanjui, San Martin, Peru | TCHO Flavor Lab installed 2009
  3. Oro Verde Cooperative -Lamas, San Martin, Peru | TCHO Flavor Lab installed 2011
  4. Conacado Cooperative - San Francisco de Macoris, Cibao, Dominican Republic | TCHO Flavor Lab installed 2012
  5. Fortaleza del Valle Cooperative - Calceta, Manabi, Ecuador | TCHO Flavor Lab installed 2012
  6.  UOPROCAE Cooperative -  Atacames, Esmereldas, Ecuador | TCHO Flavor Lab installed 2014

These 6 cooperatives represent and serve 19,242 farmers.  The specific objectives of the project were: 

  1. Improve post-harvest processing and drying of cacao beans; steps crucial in the development of flavor
  2. Promote sensory analysis of improved genetic varietals using TCHO Flavor Labs
  3. Strengthen small farmer cacao cooperatives in Ecuador, Dominican Republic, and Peru
  4. Increase farmer incomes
  5. Support efforts to increase the productivity of biodiverse cacao and coffee farms through training and implementation of proper pruning and harvesting; use of biological pest and disease control; replacing unproductive cacao and coffee trees with grafted, improved varietals; and implement improved soil management plans and practices. 

The CDP program allowed us to conduct extensive TCHO Source activities in Peru, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic to improve Quality, Productivity, and Capitalization.  Here are the results we achieved from our nine years of work:

Productivity

  • Focused on all organic cacao farming
  • Hired agronomists with expertise in cacao farming to work with all cooperative members, specifically related to soil management and crop production
  • Increased productivity by 85% (total cacao produced by weight) at all partner organizations over a 7-year period.  Field Schools and producer-to-producer driven models were most effective at replicating best organic practices on farms. These model farms and schools served as proof points for other cacao farms to see the benefits of improved practices, like pruning and grafting cacao trees.

TCHO staff and UOPROCAE cooperative staff at the close out reception for Cooperative Development Program partners in Ecuador.  Pictured from Left to right: Julio Quiros - CDP Program Agronomist, Vina Verman - TCHO, Francisco Bienvenido Peñarrieta Peñarrieta - General Manager of UOPROCAE, Javier Enrique Valencia Castro - UOPROCAE, Luis Javier Meza Cabrera - UOPROCAE TCHO staff and UOPROCAE cooperative staff at the close out reception for Cooperative Development Program partners in Ecuador.  Pictured from Left to right: Julio Quiros - CDP Program Agronomist, Vina Verman - TCHO, Francisco Bienvenido Peñarrieta Peñarrieta - General Manager of UOPROCAE, Javier Enrique Valencia Castro - UOPROCAE, Luis Javier Meza Cabrera - UOPROCAE 

 

Capitalization

  • Generated $4.8 million (USD) in member equity and savings programs.  These funds consist of member investments into a cooperative fund to help cooperatives to be more liquid in their day-to-day cash flow.  This is important because farmers are paid upon delivery, whereas cooperatives have to spend time to process the cacao and add value to sell products to customers like TCHO, which can create cash flow inefficiencies.
    • Strong education and communication programs within the cooperatives increased trust and understanding of long-term business goals to foment growth in member equity
    • For more information check out Not Too Poor to Invest by our friends Equal Exchange

Quality

  • Cash Premiums for high-quality cacao generated for our partner cacao cooperatives reached $5 million (USD) over 8 years
  • Over 3,000 cacao liquor samples were analyzed by cooperatives to understand how cacao flavor varies depending on cultivation practices, growing region, and post-harvest processing.

Cacao Liquor Samples for Cooperative Development Intercambio in Peru at Acopagro cooperative. Cacao Liquor Samples for Cooperative Development Intercambio in Peru at Acopagro cooperative. 

  • Increased average quality point scores of cacao grown at project co-ops by 15%
  • Established a culture of quality and tasting panels at cooperatives, which improved understanding of their products and their value
Cooperative Development Program Cacao Analysis Tasting training with the newly developed standardized form.

Miriam Elena Maza Asencios of the Acopagro cooperative participates in a cacao sensory analysis training using the Cooperative Development Program's Analysis Tasting Form.

  • Implemented improved food safety protocols

Over almost a decade, the Cooperative Development Program provided sufficient funding to make a lasting impact and forever change the status quo of cacao sourcing.  More than $4 million in funding came from USAID and $1.5 million in counterpart contributions from the partner cooperatives, Equal Exchange, and TCHO. At the start of the CDP program, TCHO and the participating cooperatives were at the start of our journey into the fine cacao and chocolate industry.  The investments and research enabled by the CDP project positioned these individual cooperatives to offer consistently high-quality cacao and benefit from the current growth of the fine chocolate industry.  TCHO and the CDP partners have truly grown our companies together on the shared premise that quality is of utmost importance.  

Finally, the results from the CDP program reinforced our belief that investing in cacao quality bears meaningful and mutual benefits for both cacao producers and chocolate companies. 

For full results, project activities, and additional details, see the Cooperative Development Program final report here