On a trip to Ecuador, Native Californian and French-trained Chef Jeff Stern discovered the quality of Ecuadorian cocoa. Soon after he relocated to Quito and, after importing equipment from North America and meeting with cocoa growers he launched Aequare Chocolates. The company produces extremely high quality, small batch, single origin chocolate bars and French-style bonbons in flavors like vanilla, passion fruit, Amazon-ishpingo, lemongrass, saffron, citron, and blackberry cobbler. Stern, a former employee of USAID, works closely with local farmers to source all of his ingredients locally and giving back to the community. Aequare is the only chocolatier exporting to the U.S. who sources ingredients and manufactures entirely in the country of origin. He agreed to answer a few of our questions:
10 Questions with chocolatier Jeff Stern
To start, how did you end up in Ecuador?
Jeff Stern: I initially worked for USAID here in 1994-96, while getting my masters in community and regional planning and then after graduating from UT Austin. I met my wife here then. After doing development work several years and living and working in Nicaragua, South Africa, and then settling in the DC area in the US, we were looking for another opportunity to go overseas. We had considered going back to Ecuador because of family, and once we had kids, we decided it would be good for them to spend at least several years here while growing up.
I’m noticing more and more chocolate manufacturers producing Ecuadorian origin chocolates. Why now?
Here in Ecuador, it seems like the word has gotten out to many growers/producers, as well as investors in Ecuador about the market for high quality chocolate in the US and Europe. Several new brands have emerged locally, but many of them are simply that-brands set up with local money that have the product contract manufactured here in Ecuador. Nonetheless, the Kallari story has also inspired many growers and cooperatives. Ecuador produces approximately 63% of the world’s fine aroma cacao (80% of the world’s cocoa is bulk or standard grade, the other 20% is fine grade-Ecuador produces over half of that). I think the big multi-nationals like Barry Callebaut, Hershey’s, and others recognize the growing demand for high quality chocolate, and since Ecuador is a major producer of fine cacao, it’s a natural evolution that Ecuador is at the forefront since it’s the largest producer of fine quality cacao.
Having been employed by USAID, you have a history of working with local sources in Latin America. How do you do this with Aequare?
We currently buy all our couverture directly from a local grower who has his cacao processed in country to his specifications. He’s always open to suggestions and comments on how we might improve the couverture, from roasting temperatures to conching time to other details. I have visited his farms and can go see what’s going on there anytime I want. I also know personally the company that processes the cacao, and can also go visit with them anytime I want and see the operations. So it’s a totally open, transparent process from tree to couverture as far as the raw material is concerned. I work with a local printer for all our packaging materials. I also buy all our dairy and other ingredients locally, which covers about 99% of my inputs, with the exception of a few items like vanilla and some natural flavoring oils. My workshop doors are open to the public, and you can come see our operations any time.
Tell me about the Arriba cacao? How is it different from the more popular CCN-51?
In the strictest sense, Arriba chocolate is produced from cacao nacional in the upriver areas of the Guayas River in the lowland provinces of Ecuador. This would include areas in the province of Guayas, Bolivar, part of Cotopaxi, and Los Rios provinces (where the upper reaches of and tributaries to the Guayas River extend), in the strictest sense.
Legend has it that a Swiss chocolatier in the 19th century, while navigating along the Guayas River, encountered men bringing down freshly harvested cacao. Upon smelling it, he asked where it came from, and they responded “de rio arriba” or upriver. Since then, this variety of fine aroma cacao has been known as Arriba. Arriba is perhaps ultimately a type of terroir label for nacional beans grown in the region of Ecuador upriver from the Guayas River and the chocolate made from those beans, with a specific flavor profile often characterized as having a distinct floral aroma. Climate, amount of sunshine and shade, soil composition, ripening, time of harvest, and bean fermentation are all factors that may contribute to the unique Arriba flavor profile.
If a denomination of origin were to be established based on the legend, then only nacional cacao-and the chocolate produced from such cacao-from this area could truly be called Arriba. Nonetheless, there are many well-known companies and brands that sell their products with the fashionable label Arriba. Because Ecuador is a major producer of fine flavor and aroma cocoa (as opposed to bulk cocoa used by most of the world’s large chocolate manufacturers), the label implies the chocolate is made from fine flavor and aroma beans. And though much chocolate labeled Arriba may come in part from the Los Rios, Guayas, and other regions upriver of the Guayas river, technically the home of Arriba cocoa, much of it may also come from other provinces of Ecuador and may not be nacional beans. These provinces may include Esmeraldas, Manabí, Napo, Orellana, Santo Domingo, Sucumbíos, and others. Beans from these areas are not known for, and never have been recognized for having the distinct Arriba flavor profile.
The other important distinction you ask about, and is not often mentioned regarding chocolates labeled Arriba is the actual variety of beans the chocolate is produced from. In Ecuador, there are two main varieties of beans, Nacional and CCN-51. Genetically, Nacional is considered a Forastero bean. However, Nacional grows only in Ecuador and alleged attempts to grow it in other regions have not produced the same flavor profiles. CCN-51 is an acronym for Collecion Castro Nacional, or according to others Collection Castro Naranjal. Carlos Castro, a well-known cacao breeder in Ecuador, created the hybrid of a Trinitario and Nacional and it was number 51 of his experiments. CCN-51 is a higher yielding, more disease resistant variety of cacao than Nacional. It is also sometimes called “Don Homero” variety. While both varieties of beans can produce quality chocolate, only Nacional beans were grown historically in the country, and the historical precedent for the Arriba flavor profile is based on Nacional beans, not CCN-51. Nonetheless, many of the beans leaving Ecuador destined for so-called Arriba chocolate are a mix of CCN-51 and Nacional beans, and these beans may or may not have originated from the original areas that supposedly provide the Arriba flavor profile.
Unfortunately, many growers are switching to CCN-51 as it’s a higher yielding, more disease resistant variety of cacao. Because of these characteristics, it can generate greater income for farmers since there are currently no price premiums officially recognized or being paid for pure “Arriba” cacao.
Are most chocolate producers that claim to use Arriba Nacional beans actually using them?
I can only speak from my numerous conversations with people in the cacao trade and chocolate industry and anecdotal evidence, but it’s widely known here in Ecuador that there is a large problem countrywide with mixing of CCN-51 and Nacional beans. And beans from all over the country are often called Arriba. So you have mixing of true Arriba Nacional beans, CCN-51, and just Nacional beans from all over the country. And once they are mixed, you can’t tell the difference visually. So it’s unlikely, if you stick to a strict definition of the term as I defined Arriba above, that most producers are actually using true Arriba Nacional beans. Even our 55% bar has some CCN-51 in it, while our other couverture is made from only Arriba Nacional beans.
You mention in your blog that “a denomination of origin for Arriba beans an chocolates would benefit growers in Ecuador by granting them a premium price for their beans, help chocolate makers by allowing them to certify the origin and quality of their beans, and increase choice and traceability of the final product for consumers.” What is the likelihood of this happening and how can a buyer help support the Arriba bean?
I think it’s a difficult challenge to implement a certification program for arriba beans with something like a D. of Origin. Despite years of efforts by industry and government, there are still no formal standards, procedures or enforcement for defining nacional, nacional arriba, and CCN-51 beans and preventing mixing. There have been some efforts by the Gov. of Ecuador’s Ministry of Agriculture and Industry Groups, including an education campaign for farmers and broker’s patios against mixing beans of different varieties. I also know that Transmar, a major commodity broker and large player in the cocoa trade here in Ecuador, have programs attempting to trace origin of beans and prevent mixing of varieties. The problem is that CCN-51 may come to dominate the landscape here (just anecdotally, that seems to be the case when driving around cocoa growing areas as the types of trees are easily distinguishable by sight), and Arriba Nacional may become scarce or even wiped out. Consumers need to demand transparency from bean to bar or confection and vote with their pocket book. How does one know that the large MNCs producing the bulk of the world’s chocolate aren’t just putting in 5% Ecuadorian cacao in their chocolate, mixing it with an additional 95% bulk bean, and calling it Arriba? We already know that Arriba has become a loosely used marketing term for any chocolate from Ecuador, so this term should be taking with a grain of salt anywhere you see it. I have also seen a bar made by Chocovic of Spain called Ecuador-Guaranda; Guaranda is at 8,000 feet and there’s no cocoa within 25 miles, so it’s a total misnomer foisted off on the unknowing public.
Are there any particular regions in Ecuador that you particularly like for producing its cacao? Why are they unique?
I can’t say that I have tasted chocolates made from different regions of Ecuador.
Who is the typical cacao grower in Ecuador? Are they being treated fairly by the international market? Are fair trade practices really making a difference with growers?
Most cacao growers are small holders with just a few acres. Because there are no local, enforced standards or procedures on weighing, drying, fermenting, etc. small farmers are the most likely to be taken advantage of by the local brokers who buy from many farms from surrounding areas at low prices. These brokers then consolidate large amounts of cocoa, which are in turn sold to MNCs or commodity traders. I think the number of intermediaries in the process for Ecuadorian cacao that is either semi-processed in country or sold as beans leaves the small farmer at a disadvantage.
There is a lot to be said about fair trade- I’ll just say that I think it’s a strange development model to encourage people to stay in agriculture artificially when it’s been fairly clear, as far back as Adam Smith, that specialization of labor is the way to create wealth. Why don’t we pay a premium for our Nike Shoes to the laborer in Indonesia or one for our shirts made in El Salvador, when we are willing to pay one for our coffee or chocolate? You can’t raise the amount of money the people at the beginning of an input get by raising the final price.
People also mistakenly have interpreted Fair Trade to be a sign of premium quality, when it’s really supposed to improve the quality of life of the farmer, so I think as a branding message it’s become distorted in the mind of the consumer. Fair Trade does not necessarily mean premium quality.
I also think people have a romantic notion of the coffee or cacao farmer in South America, and think it’s nice to help them out…however, I don’t think a lot, if any of the premium gets back to the farmer. In simple economic terms, by paying a premium or subsidy as in FT for a commodity you are encouraging more people to grow more of it, thus negating any price premium by increasing supply.
I prefer our model, which is based on direct trade, where we buy as many of our inputs as possible by dealing with those who are directly producing them. Being here in Ecuador allows us to do this.
You have begun giving chocolate making classes in Quito? Where are they taking place, how much are they and what goes on in the classes?
I hold chocolate classes regularly in our workshop in Quito. They are $30 per person and last 2-2.5 hours. We discuss Ecuadorian chocolate varieties, how to taste and distinguish fine chocolate, and then spend at least an hour making ganache, working with tempered chocolate, and hand dipping truffles. It’s a lot of fun and the classes are open to anyone.
Apart from being beautifully decorated, you use many local and exotic flavors (Amazon Ishpingo & Cinnamon, Passionfruit Honey, Lemongrass) for fillings in your chocolates. What are the favorites so far and are you working on any new flavors? Anything unusual?
Passion fruit has been a big hit, as well as the salted caramel. I’ve been working on Pate de Fruit, or Fruit Jellies, using exotic local fruits like Taxo, Naranjilla (aka Little Orange), Blackberry and others. These are available locally but not yet for export.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.