Our container is finally in the country! It’s on board the MSC Francesca, which is currently in LA, so it has one more short journey before it arrives in Oakland. We just heard from our customs agent that the beans have been cleared by the FDA, but they still need to be inspected by customs because we’re a new importer (gotta make sure we didn’t slip any guns in with our beans). Assuming smooth sailing (har har), we could have access to the beans in just a week or two.
We’ve really been struggling to keep up with demand these last few months. After making sure we had enough great beans on hand and getting some more help at the factory (thanks Chiann, Caitlin, Cynthia, and Natalie!), we started running into capacity limits with some of our machines. Fortunately, we just got three more big melangers from Cocoatown:
Having multiple melangers is really helpful since a single batch occupies one machine for anywhere from 2 to 5 days. It’ll take us a bit to get them set up but once they’re all working, we should be able to crank out some more chocolate!
We just ordered our first container of beans, which is both really exciting and a little scary. A full container is 12.5 metric tons which is still a little too big for us so we’ll be sharing some of the beans with our fellow chocolate makers at Woodblock Chocolate and Bar Au Chocolat.
To actually make the container happen, we’ve been working with our good friend, Bertil Åkesson, to get them from the SOMIA farm in Madagascar. We’ve always loved the flavor of Madagascar cacao and after Alice and I visited the farm last year, we knew we wanted to get a lot more of it and get it as direct as possible. We had to figure out a bunch of things in short order, fortunately Alice made quick work of ISF forms, customs brokers, shipping, warehousing, and marine cargo insurance. Everything looks like it’s on track and the container was loaded onto the Kiara at Antsiranana, MG on last week. The Kiara makes a loop around Madagascar so once the container reaches Port Louis, it’ll transfer to another ship before continuing its journey towards the Port of Oakland:
It should take about 2 months for the whole trip and we’ll be sure to post any updates.
Just a reminder, we won’t be at this week’s Noe Valley Farmer’s Market due to some machine issues.
After spending most of the day looking at the trees, pods, and harvesting, we spent the last part of the afternoon looking at the bean drying process. After the beans have been fermented (we were too late to see that part this day, but we’ll cover it in another post), they have to be dried. Bean genetics, fermentation, and the environment where the beans are grown play a large part in determining the flavor. Drying can’t be ignored, though, as it also has a big impact on the final flavor. Here are some beans drying on the concrete on their first day post-fermentation:
To make sure the beans are spread out evenly and don’t clump up, the workers draw coarse rakes over the beans:
As Bertil explained, the first part of drying is to stop fermentation of the beans. Since fermentation generally takes place between 47 C and 52 C, you can either cool the beans down (e.g. by washing them) or heat them up (e.g. by putting them on hot concrete). Concrete works well because it’s hot (but not too hot) and it’s less likely to stick to the still wet beans. Usually, after a day or maybe two of limited drying on concrete, the beans are moved to the mobile wooden drying beds:
The other part of drying is, not surprisingly, letting moisture, both water and acetic acid, out of the bean. How much acid you let out has a big impact on the flavor, with some makers preferring a more acidic taste and others preferring a more mellow flavor. You can control how much acid stays in the bean by varying how long the beans are left in the sun. Counterintuitively, the longer the beans are left in the sun, especially early on, the more acid stays in the bean. This happens because the outer shell of the bean dries first which then prevents any more acid from escaping. By getting the beans out of the sun sooner, the outer shell stays wet and the insides can keep drying. The great thing about visiting the farm and working with the farmer directly is that we can provide input on the drying process in order to get the flavor we want!
Once the beans have been out in the sun long enough for the desired flavor, they’re gathered up and moved inside, where they’ll rest (and continue to dry) until they’re moved back outside the next day:
It depends on the weather, but drying often takes about a total of seven days.
Since all of the other pictures in this post are mostly brown, here’s a picture of the delicious mango (from the tree outside Ivan’s house) I had for breakfast:
I don’t want to interrupt the Madagascar posts too much, but we were just approved by Apple to join their developer program! As I mentioned earlier, our legal company name contains the word cocoa which Apple saw as a conflict with their API named Cocoa. Fortunately, after a few phone calls from Apple’s very nice and professional support team (and a few weeks waiting), they approved our application. It was a little more hassle than I was expecting, but it was nice to have a big company decide in favor of the little guy.
Now that we’d seen the capital, it was time to go to the farm and see the cacao. To get there, we flew from Tana to Nosy Be (nosy means island and be means big in Malagasy) and then took a cab from the airport to the port in Hell-ville. From there, we took a small boat to Ankify back on the mainland, where Ivan, the farm manager, picked us up in his truck.
During the cab ride from airport (and after the driver fixed a flat tire), we saw the guy below crossing the road. He was nice enough to hold this pose while we gave him the full paparazzi treatment.
As cool as chameleons are, it was the cacao that had started the whole trip:
As we were looking at all the pods, Bertil pulled out two that made it really easy to distinguish between unripe beans and ripe ones:
The top beans are firm and tightly packed, indicating they’re not ripe yet. The bottom ones, in contrast, are softer and looser so you know they’re ripe. We spent more than half the day traveling all over the farm and looking at different parts of the cacao growing and harvesting process. We spent the other part of the day looking at what happens after the fresh beans are collected, but I’ll leave that for another post.
If you want to see more pictures of the trip, check out our Facebook page.
After grabbing a few hours of sleep, we got up to see Antananarivo. I don’t know what I was expecting when I got here, but it was surprising. Maybe I thought there’d be a parade of lemurs (there wasn’t) but reality has a way of being more complicated, and interesting, than fantasy. The first thing I noticed was how bad the air is (even worse than the air the last time I was in Beijing). After getting passed that, the main city is an interesting combination of rice paddies and more developed areas. Even in the “developed” areas, though, it’s obvious that the standard of living is very low.
Rice is a huge part of the Malagasy diet, so big, that Madagascar has the highest per capita rice consumption in the world. It’s not just rice, though, as there are little corner shops and markets all over the place:
After getting a feel for the city, we visited the Cinagra chocolate factory. Cinagra does all of the chocolate manufacturing for Madécasse, as well as having product lines for Europe and the local Madagascar market. Shahin Cassam Chenai, the man behind Cinagra, gave us a great tour and it was nice talking chocolate making with him.
We ran into a bunch of traffic on the way back through the city, but it worked out as we could walk along the road and through some more markets while we waited for the car to catch up with us. It was a long and very interesting day but, by the end, I was ready to get out of the city and onto the farm… Fortunately, that was exactly the plan for tomorrow.
If you want to see more pictures of the trip, check out our Facebook page.
Just wanted to wish everyone (in the US, at least) a Happy Thanksgiving! Todd, Alice, and I are currently spread throughout the continent for the holidays: Alice is in Boston, I’m in LA, and Todd’s in Mexico. Unfortunately, we won’t be back in time for this weekend’s Noe Valley Farmer’s Market on 11/26. We will be at next week’s Mission Community Market on 12/1 and the Noe market on 12/3. Hope to see you there.
Alice and I were in Madagascar last week, checking out the farm that supplies the beans for our Madagascar bar. We had very limited access to internet so we’re doing the posts now that we’re back. Hope you enjoy!
The first part of the whole adventure was just getting to Madagascar. It turns out that Madagascar is almost the antipode for San Francisco, meaning that it’s almost exactly halfway around the world from us. Originally, Alice and I had planned on taking the same flights over but after a missed alarm and an airport shuttle no-show, I’d be setting out first and Alice would be joining a day or two later. My route to get there was San Francisco (SFO) -> Atlanta (ATL) -> Paris (CDG) -> Antananarivo (TNR):
The total distance, according to Google Maps, is just under 12,000 miles. I left SFO on Saturday at 7:40am (PST) and arrived in Tana (the French colonial shorthand for Antananarivo) on Monday at 3am (GMT + 3), which means those 12,000 miles turned into about 36 hours straight of plane travel. The only good thing about flying for that long is that by the time we got to Madagascar, my body was so confused that I didn’t have much trouble adjusting to the new timezone. I met up with Bertil Akesson, the son of owner of the farm and the one who handles bean sales, in Paris for the flight to TNR:
I also met Olvier Coppeneur as he would be joining us on the trip:
After landing, we had to pass through immigration, which took almost an hour:
We picked up our luggage (fortunately no bags were lost) and exchanged some money. The currency in Madagascar is the Ariary and $1 is worth about 2000 Ariary, which means when you exchange a few hundred dollars, you get this:
I felt pretty flush with cash until I realized a bottle of water cost 3000 Ariary :( Pockets stuffed with bills, we grabbed one of the ubiquitous taxis and headed to the hotel. The main roads from the airport were fine, but as we got closer to where we’d be staying, the “road” turned into an almost impassable series for bumps, ruts, and rocks. Our taxi driver navigated it expertly, though, and we made it. I should point out, by the way, that hotel can conjure images of plush beds and fresh towels but that’s not exactly what our accommodations were like. The room was clean and had electricity and there was a shared shower (in the laundry room) and a shared bathroom (the sink broke shortly after arrival, though). When we asked about internet, we got a quizzical look from the owner of the establishment… and no, there was no room service :) We were all exhausted and so we went straight to bed so we’d be ready to see Tana in the morning.
We’ve been churning through our supply of cacao and we’re almost out of a few of our origins. That, by itself, isn’t a problem as we always like trying new beans and looking for great flavors. While looking for beans, we got a sample of beans from Ghana. We roasted them up, put them in our sample molds, and tasted them. They were delicious and aromatic, with flavors like clove and cinnamon that reminded us of a Christmas cookie.
We called the broker who sent us the sample to ask him some questions about the beans and where they came from. Unfortunately, the more we learned the more concerns we had about them. They are “conventional” (no certifications) which can be ok if you know how the beans are grown. The big problem, though, is that the beans aren’t traceable beyond the Ghana Cocoa Board. The Cocobod, as it’s called, fixes the price for most cacao produced by Ghana, in theory to protect the farmers from volatile prices. This creates a couple of a challenges though. First, there’s nothing to stop the Cocobod from setting the price arbitrarily low and keeping the difference between the world market price and the artificially low price for themselves. In fact, that’s happened numerous times in the Cocobod’s 50+ year history. Even if prices are set fairly, there’s no way to trace the cacao after it’s been sold by the Cocobod, making it impossible to set up direct trade with the farmer in the future. Even worse, there’s no way to verify the cacao has been grown without child or slave labor.
With all of this information, we had to make a decision: buy great beans with potentially questionable backgrounds or pass on them and find something else with great flavor. It’s often challenging to make this decision when you have something tasty in your hand. But, as we discussed it, we knew we couldn’t buy these beans in good conscience. This doesn’t mean that Ghana doesn’t have some great cacao or that it’s not possible for people to buy it responsibly. However, there wasn’t a way for us to responsibly buy this cacao given the size of our orders and the sources we have access to at the moment.
So, the search for great cacao continues… and to that end, Alice and I are off to Madagascar!