What Makes Venezuelan Cacao So Good

A peculiar combination of nature, culture, and scarcity makes Venezuela the country with the highest wealth in cocoa genetics and diversity. But that treasure needs to be protected

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Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Right now, as you read this article and wonder whether you should have some chocolate or not, agronomist Francisco Betancourt looks after the quality of the Carenero cocoa in Barlovento, while Rodrigo Morales tends to his crop in Canoabo, Carabobo. In Yaracuy, environmentalist Oscar Pietri harvests Guáquira cocoa in the natural protected and protective area of Nirgua Shield; and more to the west, agronomist Iraima Chacón knows each and every one of the cocoa bean growing south of Lake Maracaibo: the famous porcelain cocoa, many times confused with amelonado cocoa; the guasare, the purest of national cocoas; the bocadillo and the benavides, which are from Mérida; and the ones from Táchira, lobatera, macanillo, novillero, and pentagona.

In Bolívar, economist and cocoa grower Albe Gorrín looks after the development of Guarataro, and he knows the Yekuana Indigenous nation is doing the same in their own way. In Paria, producer and researcher Calixto López has experimented with cocoa from Paria since 2003. Businessman Douglas Dáger is willing to try anything when it comes to cocoa: buying it from Ocumare de la Costa; looking after the twenty kinds of cocoa of the coast of Aragua held at his germplasm bank; producing western cocoa and reproducing in his nursery the saplings he’s managed to classify.  

So, not only in Chuao, but on the coast of Aragua, you’ll find “the best cocoa in the world.” In fact, Venezuelan cocoa not only stands out because of its quality, but because of its genetic wealth. Chocolatier María Fernanda Di Giacobbe explains that all across the continent, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a lot of cross-breeding so that cocoa would be more productive, more resistant to disease and better for the industry. Ancestral cocoas were transformed into the export varieties we know today. Venezuela was the exception. “That didn’t happen here because of how we are, the ‘we’ll do it tomorrow’, the ‘Don’t touch my cocoas! They’re my grandmother’s!’ But that left us with a genetic treasure with aroma and flavor that doesn’t exist in other countries anymore.”

This is why Venezuela is the territory with the widest cocoa genetic diversity in the world.

You still have forastero cocoa, which came to the country from the south and settled around Lake Maracaibo, where it mutated until it became the almost uncontrollable criollo variety. There’s also the trinitario or deltano cocoa, a hybrid of the criollo which spread through the coast, and Amazon cocoa.

But proving all this to obtain certificates of denomination origins with international validity is much more complicated because, as it happens with the Parmigiano Reggiano or Champagne, a label of this sort must guarantee a strict set of rules and standards. In other words, a specialized knowledge that is applied and defended. Chemist Benjamín Scharifker, member of the commission that obtained the Registered Denomination of Origin of the main rums in Venezuela, explains that not only are there no incentives to produce knowledge in a country where intellectual property isn’t protected, but the law that regulates it is from the ‘50s. Those in charge, the Servicio Autónomo de Propiedad Intelectual (SAPI), is barely operational, and after Venezuela left organizations like Mercosur and the Comunidad Andina de Naciones, there’s no regional support to place their products in the international markets.

A Flavor for Every Region

Criollo cocoa is classified as a “cocoa with a fine aroma,” which is given by the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) to the fruit with exquisite aroma and flavor. Chuao cocoa has held its certificate of Registered Denomination of Origin since 2000. Furthermore, Venezuela has two cocoaids with a Protected Geographical Indication: the Carenero (from Miranda) and the Caripito (from Monagas). These indications not only certify the natural qualities of these regions, but also the harvesting practices and artisanal processes followed by the farmers.

The country also uses a category which Venezuelan chocolatiers call the “Traditional Denomination of Origin,” to honor the trajectory and quality of cocoas like the ones from Río Caribe (Sucre), Cuyagua (Aragua), Ocumare (Aragua), Canoabo (Carabobo), and Maracaibo.

According to sensorial analysis specialist Elba Sangronis, the flavors from a bean show its genetics, and therefore, its place of origin: eastern cocoas have hints of tobacco, fresh forest, wood, and spices; while the cocoas from the west taste of nuts, honey, raw sugar, malt, and caramel. On the other hand, those from the central valleys are known for being spicy, sweet, woody, and fruity. The ones from the central coast stand out for their citric fruit flavor; and the southern cocoas for being more bitter.

We know this because we have counted for twenty years on the efforts of what Di Giacobbe calls the “illustrated cocoa farmers,” who are, as defined by the chocolatier, “descendants of cocoa farmers who went to the university, learned the trade in the workshops, and then fought with their parents and grandparents so things are done in a different way.” 

“Making those changes was an ordeal with my dad in early 2019!” says young cocoa farmer Rubén Escobar. “For example, my dad used to sell cocoa only to the industry, and I started selling to the chocolatiers, because we are the great Carenero Superior. He’s a great fermenter. And I’ve been updating the processes. Now we make different fermented cocoas, depending on what the client wants.”

There are also the “entrepreneur cocoa farmers,” who are, in the words of Di Giacobbe, those who plant, harvest, ferment, dry, transform their cocoa into chocolate, and have tourist farms and shops.

In spite of the shortcomings, harvesters who used to go and cut down the fruit as soon as the tree would bear it, now work hard to take care of it. Little by little, lands have gotten better technology, harvesters are turning into farmers, and engineers, technicians, chocolatiers and researchers are doing the same.

As Francisco Betancourt puts it, producers work so that their kids study and leave the countryside, while the others study to get to the countryside. And it’s there, at the end or the beginning, that their knowledge meets.

Chocolatier Jesús “Churri” Méndez says that “in Paria, there’s technical growth by producers in relation to their crops. In other words, they have an understanding about the importance of pruning, following the planting cycles, and being more efficient in their harvests.”

Betancourt adds that, in at least sixteen of the harvesting centers that he coordinates, producers are learning that the quality of cocoa is, mostly, the result of the care of the plantation and post-harvest control, before the final processes of fermenting, drying, selecting, and storing. He’s clear about it: “Without a properly trained farmer, producing high-quality cocoa isn’t possible. Without high-quality cocoa, it’s impossible to make world-class chocolate.”

The improvement of the crops goes along with the Bean to the Bar (BTB) movement that started in the United States, which favors artisanal production. For Morales, BTB was a turning point: “From there, we began to think that cocoa could become an enterprise in the long term and give it added value if it’s transformed into chocolate. From that, after  the year 2000, comes the rise of what is called ‘the professionalization of the cocoa industry’ in Venezuela.” 

Both for Pietri and chocolatier Naudys González, the BTB and the Tree to Bar movement were the stepping stones to go from the ordinary cocoa ball, the ground cocoa, and the chocolate as a snack to a refined bar, delicate, and for a gourmet audience.

The Chain of Responsibility

Douglas Dáger says that individual commercial initiatives are valuable, but a state plan for the mid and long term is still needed to set parameters about production goals, best agricultural practices or priority varieties. Venezuela is also lacking credit for small and medium producers, who are the majority; this is as much a priority as encouraging seeding and planting, because as those in the know claim, many crops are already old, with unproductive trees that have lost the genetic quality with which Venezuelan cocoa earned its fame.

Iraima Chacón adds that production has to be reliable, inhomogeneous, continuous batches, “because the problem with our cocoa isn’t the price, it’s productivity… Let’s stop dreaming, because we have no time. We have to take action; our customers are leaving.” We need to be responsible, as in: knowing what’s being planted and improving traceability the way Gorrín does with the Guarataro cocoa and Pietri with the Guáquira cocoa.

Chacón explains why: “It’s not that marketers today are demanding too much, it’s that we’ve lied so much with our cocoa, that now they want to be sure about which one they’re getting.” Naudys González adds:

“When you go to chocolate shops in Paris and see that the most expensive ones are the ones that say they’re made with Chuao or Carenero cocoa, one can’t really know if that’s truly what’s in there, because there’s no police in the chocolate world, let alone the cocoa world.” 

Investing in rescuing and setting up germplasm banks to safe keep genetics, and cloning gardens to spread it, like Corpozulia and the Universidad Experimental del Táchira did, is urgent. In addition to continuing research projects, since, as Chacón insists, the results of those investigations, the certificates, validate that all cocoa is good, with history and identity.

Alejandro Luy, director of environmentalist NGO Fundación Tierra Viva, points out the importance of a national policy that includes releasing current statistics: “There isn’t recent data about the amount of land with cocoa in Venezuela today or what the productivity is. We don’t have that clear starting point to know how much is left and in which geographic areas we need to focus on.” 

For example, the Manual de caracterización morfológica del cacao venezolano, although it’s known by some who are in the cocoa world, still isn’t published. Fundación Tierra Viva’s Cacao resiliente. Manual de producción agroecológica de cacao can be downloaded, but it’s out of reach for those in the fields, where it could be more useful.

Arturo Somara, director of the Fundación Cacao Macuare, believes that “the State has to invest in knowledge. We also have to reinforce the schools so that children have the tools for a profitable trade.” 

Above all, we have to remember what Calixto López says: “Look, people come and go, but cocoa is still there from the beginning of time, because the plant still lives there, and as little as it may be, it always gives something. So we have to do our jobs well so that our cocoa keeps being as good as it is.”

Read part I of the series: The Miracle of Producing the World’s Best Cocoa