Yes, the Napa Valley of Chocolate. Sounds heavenly, doesn’t it?
Jason and I spent the whole afternoon on Caribeans’ Chocolate Tour– a tour of the land where their cacao pods are harvested all the way to the demonstration of the process creating a chocolate bar. From tree to bar.
We ate lunch at the cafe which, as I had mentioned earlier, is located beneath Om Yoga. The meal was delicious and the fruit side dish was sprinkled with cacao nibs from the property– a nice touch they add to all their plates. We were greeted by Jeff, an American from Florida, who owns the 13 acres where Caribeans is located. We were the only two taking the afternoon tour until a girl joined us later on.
We began a hike up the mountain, listening to Jeff discuss the flora & fauna of the dense forest, the history of the land, and the harvesting of cacao pods, which hung sporadically along the path. The pods were green in their young stage and a bright mustard yellow in their prime. I, unfortunately, did not remember to put the SD card back in the camera after loading some pictures to my laptop so taking any photographs was not in the cards for us. Oops.
We spotted spiders, red dart frogs, and even a sloth along the way. Jeff talked about the help they employ from the Bribri local indigenous tribe, working with them to understand the lay of the land and the growth of cacao, while creating a fair trade– or as he stated it, generous trade– agreement resulting in the happiness of both the Bribri people and the owners of Caribeans, Jean and Paul, as well as everyone else involved in their company.
We reached the top of the mountain, with a pod in tow, where the fermentation tower was set up. Jeff cracked open the pod and revealed the cacao fruit, a white, sweet and juicy soft flesh that tastes like candy, covering a purple almond-sized seed within. The fermentation tower looks like a small wooden tower you’d see on a playground, but inside three wooden boxes are held where the beans are taken off their stem and kept for 6 days to ferment. When fermented, they are laid in the sun upon a wooden framed metal mesh until properly dried.
After drying, the beans are taken via large bags to the “Chocolate Creation Lab”, which in reality is just an open workshop with all kinds of homemade gadgets to ensure the chocolate is made properly. Caribeans began as a coffee roasting business, actually. Paul and Jean had a cafe in downtown Puerto Viejo where they made coffee from the beans they roasted themselves in-house. So, when they partnered with Jeff and his land of cacao trees, they switched specialties from a drink to a bar.
They now use the coffee roaster as a cacao bean roaster, grinding the bean in-shell afterwards, and then sifting in a very high tech container [actually just metal mesh over the top of a Rubbermaid container] to separate bean from shell. Once separated, the bean is ground with sugar– making it 72% cacao & 28% sugar– in a specialty machine that warms the mixture only through friction and grinds it for a full 72 hours, bringing out the natural cocoa butter and creating a finished product that is reminiscent of melted chocolate.
If you pour that product directly into a mold and throw it in the freezer, the hardened bar will fall to pieces when released from the mold because the molecules are not properly bound. Because of this, the chocolate/sugar mix is poured into a metal bowl that sits in ice water and constantly stirred, then transferred to a metal bowl sitting in heated water, then back to the bowl in ice water. This allows the molecules to properly bind and readies the mixture to be poured into the mold.
The mold is placed inside a cold room. Then its taken out, the bars released from the mold, and hand wrapped in tin foil and the Caribeans’ paper packaging.
How cool is that?!
Jeff took us to this amazing look-out point as well, where his wife, Sherry, had a chocolate tasting prepared for us. Caribeans creates bars for neighboring cacao farms as well so, as in a wine tasting, we tasted different chocolates from these nearby farms. They were all 72% cocoa and processed the same way in the Chocolate Creation Lab, but it was amazing the differences in the taste of each bar. Each one truly had its own texture, and first and finishing notes.
We then were given a platter with ingredients such as vanilla, cardamom, pepper, curry, and fresh basil, tarragon, and peppermint leaves. We were encouraged to create our own flavors with the chocolate pieces, which was fun and really interesting to see how random flavors flowed together well with the chocolate.
Jeff and Sherry have an amazing piece of land and a gorgeous home. Plus, that view!! I wish I could have had our camera just for the view. Nothing beats overlooking the coast from a beautiful patio set in the forest atop a mountain. We even spotted a 3-foot- long iguana in a tree across the canopy, which was so cool.
They were so accommodating, generous with their time and knowledge, and really made our tour informative and fun– beyond our expectations! Paul was working the shop down the mountain and was super kind and funny, too– great, great people!!
Hope we’re able to come back again some day to visit and see the amazing progress they will make with their seriously delicious chocolate!