The first “Brasil Bean to Bar Chocolate Week” is taking place May 3-6 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. As we couldn't attend, we thought it would be a great opportunity for us to introduce you to Brazil as a cacao origin. Brazil has much to offer the world of fine chocolate... but what's the history of cocoa and Brazil, and why is it not often talked about?
Brazil is a large country of 8.516 million square kilometers. Compare this with the size of Canada at 9.985 million square kilometers for perspective: it is immense! Brazil shares borders with nearly every South American country, with the exception of Chile and Ecuador. Multiple biomes make up this country, and the two which we will focus on for our journey into cacao growing are the Amazon Rainforest and the Atlantic Rainforest (see map).
Amazonia, known as the Amazon Rainforest in English, is the world's largest tropical rainforest. The forest covers a total area of 5.5 million km2. The majority of the rainforest is contained within northern Brazil (60%), but it extends beyond into neighbouring Peru (13%), Columbia (10%), with smaller areas located within the borders of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. Theobroma cacao is native to the Amazon Rainforest, and this biome boasts the greatest diversity of cacao. It was brought from the Amazon Basin to Central America by the Olmec people, and eventually, across the oceans to other parts of the world (that, however, is a complex topic for a future discussion!).
The Mata Atlantica – Atlantic Rainforest in English – is the most biodiverse rainforest on earth, despite suffering a 90% loss of total coverage. It occures along the eastern coastline of Brazil, and encompasses some of the most heavily populated and developed areas of the country. Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro – two of Brazil's largest urban centres – occupy formerly forested lands. Historically, the Mata Atlantica covered 1.2 million km2, while today less than 100,000 km2 of rainforest remains due to centuries of cattle ranching, deforestation for timber, farming of crops such as sugar cane & coffee, and urban sprawl. It is now a fragmented forest rather than a continuous forest. Despite this destruction, the Mata Atlantica remains remarkably rich in biodiversity and endemic species.
Brazil has a long history of producing cacao for the commodity (or commercial) market, and is often associated with the 'bulk cacao' known as Forastero – the type that produce large numbers of cocoa pods with little complexity of flavour. This reputation for bulk cacao production lingers on, but, as with our previous discussion about West African cacao, there is a lot more complexity here than this reputation may suggest. Recent genetic mapping in Bahia has shown that it is more than simply “the land of bulk forestero”.
The State of Bahia was historically the most prodigious cacao producing state in Brazil, contributing approximately 80% of the nation's cocoa output. It is located within the Mata Atlantica biome (see topographic map). Cacao arrived in Bahia in 1746 when a French settler living in Para (a northern state within the Amazon Rainforest) sent seeds to a farmer in Bahia. Cocoa production spread throughout the region in the 19th century, and, with rising demand for chocolate in Europe and the United States, it became Bahia's main export by the 20th century. It was cacao from Bahia that was eventually brought to West African countries and Indonesia.
Brazil once ranked as the world's second-largest cacao producer, until the industry was decimated in 1989 by the arrival of the Witch's Broom Disease (WBD) in Bahia. WBD is caused by the fungus Moniliophthora perniciosa. This fungus – easily spread in the rainy season – attacks the shoots, flowers, and pods of cocoa trees. It initially causes the tree to grow new stems and leaves at a tremendous rate, forming a dense tangle of stems. Within months this new growth dies, leaving a thick tuft of dead sticks that resembles a broom. WBD produces seedless cacao pods, which has devesatating consequences for farmers. Brazil went from a top exporter of cacao to a net importer. Many farms never recovered, and the lands were seized from the broke landowners by the government for other uses such as cattle ranching. Some farmers struggled to retain their family farms, working to clear disease-ridden trees and grafting disease-resistent varieties. With increased knowledge of genetics, farm management, and Moniliophthora perniciosa, the cacao industry in Bahia has started to recover, and Bahia has once again begun exporting cacao.
So what has been happening in Brazil's chocolate sphere over the last decade? There have been some success stories, and the chocolate movement has been gaining momentum. AMMA Chocolate, founded in 2007 by Diego Baderó, was the pioneer of the Brazil bean-to-bar movement. The Chocolate Project has been big fans of this chocolate for many years, and it's been a regular part of our lineup. They are located within the Mata Atlantica biome and source their cacao from their own farms and small farmers in the area. AMMA has also created a bar from Cupuacu – a close relative of Theobroma cacao called Theobroma grandiflorum. More recently, Luisa Abram and her familiy founded Luisa Abram Chocolate in Sao Paulo in 2014. Luisa seeks out wild-growing cacao from the Amazon Basin. We were excited to get our first taste of her chocolate last fall, and currently have two bars in stock – Rio Jari and Rio Purus, from these two rivers in different areas of the Amazon biome. As of 2016, there are more than 40 bean-to-bar makers located in Brazil. Last year the “Associação Bean To Bar Brasil” was founded by a group of Brazilian chocolate makers to promote the bean-to-bar movement, develop their knowledge and resources, and share Brazilian chocolate with the world. And this week they are hosting the first “Bean to Bar Week” in Sao Paulo.
In addition to the bean-to-bar movement, there has been an increased focus on developing the knowledge of cacao and creating a regional community of farmers and makers. For instance, the “Centro de inovacao do Cacau” (Cacao Innovation Centre) was founded in early 2017 in Bahia as a public-private initiative launched by stakeholders of the value chain, research bodies, and universities. Their focus is on developing a culture of quality, and offer top laboratory analysis with the goal to foster innovation, disseminate knowledge, and train farmers on post-harvest practices.
We are excited to see the enthusiasm and dedication of farmers and chocolate makers in Brazil, and we look forward to seeing growth in Brazil's fine cacao and chocolate industry. This country has much to offer the world of chocolate. If you have yet to try this origin, we have many options for you to explore at The Chocolate Project.
AMMA Chocolate - 75%, 85%, 100%, Flor do Mer 75%, Gula Merah 70% (coconut sugar), Aroeira 60% (pink peppercorn), Cupuacu bar
Akesson's Estate - Fazenda Sempre Firme 75% and 100%
Sirene - Fleur de Sel Fazenda Camboa 73%
SOMA- Fazenda Boa Vista dark milk
Harper Macaw - Rainforest Milk Blend, Vale do Juliana 74%, Libanio 75%, Tome Acu 77%
Luisa Abram - Rio Purus 70%, Rio Jari 70%