In 2008, Pearson spirited some coarsely fermented beans out of Peru & brought them back to California. Everyday before this gym rat works out, he’d pop a couple in his mouth as a sort of natural PED (Performance Enhancing Drug). More than a food, less than a drug, he noticed his routines getting easier as he lifted ever-heavier weights.

Afterwards he’d usually jock the internet. Research quickly revealed that aggregate chocolate sales hovered at a standstill. Industry growth remained stagnant with one glaring exception. During the last decade the premium sector experienced double-digit gaind, as did Fair-Trade & organic chocolate. Hmmmm… due to poverty, growers in Marañón Canyon can ill-afford petrochemicals fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, et. al. He considered the news a boom.

Marañón husbands their cacáo in an eco-sensitive manner, advantaged by a microclimate located inside a horseshoe canyon up in the highlands. The canyon walls protect trees from many natural onslaughts that otherwise would plague them (like high winds). They experience but a 10% crop loss versus up to 50% for the commercial standard. Correct, the dirty secret in the cacáo groves: far from immune, so-called ‘sturdier, more resistant clones’ suffer devastating attacks despite rampant use of chemicals.

Two other factors attribute for Marañón’s success: inter-cropping & organic production.

Pests like Moniliophthora perniciosa (the fungus responsible for witches’ broom) tend not to be a problem there because the organic cacáo is less densely planted among other vegetation. As expected the harvest is also smaller. On the upside, the bottom line increases. Without the use of expensive agrochemicals & the attendant damage in downstream costs to soils, waterways & forest reserves, production costs are lower. So net profit is high even if yields are unspectacular.

As for Fair-Trade, that system attracts increasing scrutiny because it usually benefits growers only indirectly. The FLO (Fair-Trade Labeling Organization) which oversees Fair-Trade presents a complicated story. It’s first (& some argue foremost) a bureaucracy in business to serve its own personnel. It often cuts deals with co-ops representing growers that build their own bureaucratic apparatus to question just how much of any social premium paid by Fair-Trade trickles down to the farmer. To be fair, some does; just not much.

‘Certifying’ commodities ‘Fair-Trade’, whether coffee, cocoa or cotton, allows huge multinational corporations to burnish their credentials & advertise CSRs (Corporate Social Responsibility programs) to the public, thus, engendering goodwill & sales.

It also frees them to a degree from the painstaking task of restructuring an industry rife with headaches.

From the perspective of growers, incomes remain undervalued despite strong rates on the world commodity markets (the bulk captured mainly by middlemen traders); basic sanitation such as running water & sewage are substandard; inferior nutrition, medicine & education dashes any hopes for the next generation to seek a future in the ‘family business’.

Big Candy is in for its share. That it operates in treacherous territories fraught with political instability & labor unrest, spotty production yields & shoddy cocoa beans, poor infrastructure & dismal understanding of supply chain logistics – resulting in millions of tons of raw cocoa destroyed each season as inedible – means they have to play hardball while simultaneously appeasing their hosts with supplemental income by way of medical clinics, school buildings, low-interest housing loans & outright graft.

In between, the environment absorbs the hardest hit. In its headlong rush for efficiency, productivity & scale – to both spur & meet burgeoning demand – the industry unleashed a massive assault on the ecology that besets it today. Rampant deforestation, soil depletion, then erosion, followed by dependence on hybrid seeds, petro-chemical fertilizers &, perhaps the worst nightmare of all, pesticides / herbicides to combat an army of diseases crippling crops everywhere.

Quality then suffers all the way around.

Fair-Trade strategically inserts itself in that slot between the candy giants & middlemen-markets that control the action in & around the ports of the growing zones. It rarely reaches down to ground zero level where farmers work. As such it serves as another layer – albeit one with an appealing message — & positions itself as yet another middleman. It amounts to a deal among members of a club, an inner circle of brokers. And come to think of it, brokers throughout history have always traded fairly… amongst themselves.

An alternative posits direct trading or direct sourcing in which any premium price paid goes right into the pockets of those responsible for growing the cacáo. That would add up to more than just incremental income at the margins but a tangible benefit to their bottom line & livelihoods.

It is in this vision that Dan Pearson wants to go about his business for Marañón Canyon.

In January 2009 he checks out a confab where chocolate people huddle in the manner of drug-dealers & arms merchants to exchange whatever esoteric beans & bars they’re carrying.

Today it’s a hit of Marañón Canyon Cacáo for the ‘G’-Man Gary Guittard (double-gansta initials GG), CEO of the eponymous Guittard Chocolate.

Chances are most Americans, 90% of whom reportedly eat some form of chocolate every day, have had Guittard without ever realizing it. The company specializes in couverture or big blocks of chocolate containing extra cocoa butter for easier use by the professional trade – bakers, chefs, restaurants, & wholesale customers. His clients include See’s Candies®.

Very vanilla-driven flavor profiles, Guittard excels in the Semi-Dark range, its sweet spot being in the low-to-mid-60s cacáo content with the rest of the balance sugar. Best exemplified by the label’s wickedly / deceptively simple 61% Blend with its soda-pop fizz of flavors, perfectly fit for mid-American preferences, that garners quite a following as a workhorse ‘flavorite’ among pastry chefs.

With an industrial-sized company to run, Gary rarely turns the lights on in his factory for less than a couple tons of cocoa. Here someone hands him but a bagful weighing a fw grams. Under such circumstances the conversation could go something like:

“Thanks” (muttering under the breath ‘Geez, does this chigger know who he’s talking to or is he snoop-doggin’ way out to lunch?’)… 

“Lemme see what I can do” (These frickin’ beans, encrusted with sores all over them, what appear to be plant leprosy in need of a medic-vac, smell worse than vinaigrette or even cat’s piss [re: tigrillo urine; sorry, kidz, this ain’t Kit Kat™])… 

“I’ll call ya” (DO NOT call me; lemme get ‘em to neighbor John Scharffenberger with time to kill ever since he junked his label when Hershey’s acquired it & the corporate suits swooped in to shutter his operations in Berkeley, CA, burying them in Robinson, IL; he can use his kitchen coffee grinder on these maladies & pour the slurry as salad dressing over some tossed heirloom lettuces)… 

But Gary, a 4th generation barsmith chocolate maker, remains artisanal in spirit. Recently he launched the E. Guittard collection of vintage chocolates – ‘E’ for Etienne – in tribute to his great grandfather who founded the company in 1868 after the California gold rush subsided in San Francisco. Ever since then this family affair (that haven in an oft-heartless world) has quietly gone about its craft in the shadow of the candy giants Hershey’s & Mars, still made with pride in the land flowing with wine & money across the Bay from Napa grapes & up the 101 Freeway from Silicon Valley. It stakes 2 additional claims to fame: it survived the cataclysmic 1906 earthquake & introduced chocolate chips to the market.

The E. Guittard line boasts several stellar bars: the ambrosial wonderland called Chucuri from northwest Colombia, an origin with major properties, noted for an inherently melonic honeysuckle-rose, or the charming treatsicle Ambanja sourced in Madagascar’s Sambirano Valley filled with sweet citrus notes over underlying caramelized cocoa. True, his Peruvian bar named Machu Picchu crashes up a bit of a train wreck, quite leguminous & embittered, apt survival rations to slip in the backpack on the Inca Trail while shooting for the Temple of the Sun.

Better than Fair-Trade, he too sources cacáo directly from estate owners & growers, & he likes Pearson’s approach.

So to confirm any first impression, a couple weeks & a test batch later, the chocolate Good-Guy kept his word. Guittard manufactured the first chocolate with Marañón Canyon Cacáo.

That prototype exhibited some pitfalls. Fruit tones jumped out, as did some nuts, but overall astringent & highly acidic. A sensory panel comprised of alpha-tasters who make it their business to evaluate & get it right (which will simply have to do until electronic noses currently under development to analyze 50 times human capacity can retire them) rated it absolutely off-the-charts… a heretofore unseen 17 on a scale of 100. In a word, ‘pathetic’. The likely culprit: inadequate fermentation.

Drilling down further, the dataset rendered an over-riding impression that no one tasted anything like this before (seriously), eliciting comments such as ‘not great but interesting’. Most anyone else would interpret this as PC-talk covering up for harsher criticism. “Nasty” really; c’mon now, lighten up, it’s only chocolate.

What should have demoralized Pearson somehow piqued his curiosity to keep going.

Oddly emboldened, Dan packed up for another trip. This time with his family in tow.

GO TO PART V –> Southbound with the Hammers Down

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