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Collaborative Cacao Research Project

By Roxanna Chen

BFREE in collaboration with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) facilitated a cacao research project at the BFREE’s Field Station in May 2023. The primary objective of the collaboration was to co-design and enhance post-harvest practices and methods for Criollo Cacao which is intercropped and shade-grown in several experimental plots within the property. Criollo is a Spanish term that means “of local origin” or native. Criollo beans are usually white to pale pink in color, and it is a pure cacao variety.

The four-day project was made feasible by several participants including the Crioco staff, myself as BFREE’s Advanced Cacao Fellow, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville student researchers and professors. The project involved a variety of activities that ranged from harvesting ripe criollo pods to pod-cracking and bean extraction, to fermenting and data collection. The collaboration commenced with the Crioco staff playing an instrumental role in the cacao field specifically in teaching the students how to appropriately harvest pods. This activity is considered a crucial first step for good quality and fermentation because the pod must be mature, healthy, and not damaged. Good quality also means good chocolate!

Thereafter, I taught the students our recommended methods for pod cracking and bean extraction, as well as fermentation set-up and preparation. The students were very hands-on and did not hesitate to share useful ideas and information regarding data collection during fermentation and the application and usage of instruments. The exchange between both partners was mutually beneficial for everyone involved.

The student researchers received many first-hand experiences; these include the ability to differentiate the four criollo phenotypes grown at BFREE, harvesting and extraction of cacao beans from pods and most importantly getting practical during fermentation. Additionally, as the advanced cacao fellow, I became more knowledgeable about fermentation chemistry and terminologies and was exposed to multiple lectures on basic food components relating to Food Science and its applications to cacao. 

Special Thanks

Thank you to everyone from UTK who participated in making the project a success. Professors: Dr. DeWayne Shoemaker, Dr. Denita Hadziabdic-Guerry, and Dr. Kevin Moulton Student Researchers: Holly Brabazon, Celeste Chadwick, Amber Gunter, Laura Whaley, and Madison Fomich.

The Review Of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements

by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP)

The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP) has partnered with Dr. Lambert A. Motilal to create a comprehensive evaluation of all cacao-growing countries around the world. The Review Of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements is a 300-page review is comprised with riveting information regarding the history, genetics, flavor profiles, and cultivation areas of each country.

The purpose of the review is to enrich readers with the understanding of cacao origins, migrations and explorations of cacao varieties have taken place over time, and where future collections should be focused.

Cacao is an important tree crop impacting on livelihoods of millions of farming families in tropical and sub-tropical countries worldwide. This review serves to help conserve cocoa genetic diversity by identifying places for in situ collection and germplasm collection for ex situ genebanks.

To celebrate the launch of The Review, Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director and HCP President, participated in a webinar with Dr. Motilal and Anne Zaczek, HCP Executive Director. The event was hosted by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) as part of their on-going webinar series.

You can now download your copy of #TheReview on at the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund website! We encourage cacao enthusiasts to donate to the research efforts that made this publication possible, and to support future research possibilities, Heirloom cacao, and HCP farmers.

The Science of Fine Chocolate

by Jacob Marlin

The flavor attributes of chocolate, especially fine flavor chocolate, is determined by numerous factors: 1. Genetics of the cacao, 2. The farming practices implemented, 3. The location, biophysical features, and climactic conditions of where it is grown (also called terrior), 4. The time of harvest, 5. Fermentation protocols, 6. Drying methods, and finally the chocolate-making including, 7. Roasting and, 8. The final recipe. Each of these factors has tremendous variability and requires specific expertise to successfully implement the management and interventions.

Fermentation is a critical aspect in flavor development and final acidity of a finished chocolate bar. You can’t hide bad fermentation in chocolate. If the beans are over-fermented, they yield an undesirable, wet “barnyard” type flavor. If they are under-fermented, the results are an astringent attack on your tastebuds that causes your mouth to pucker.

Even with the best farming practices producing the finest beans, if the fermentation is not done to its fullest potential the results will be disappointing at best. Our work to determine this important stage in producing some of the world’s finest chocolate is an important part of our current efforts.

BFREE began a collaboration with Dancing Lion Chocolate in Manchester, New Hampshire, to begin to determine the best fermentation protocols for Criollo cacao. Crioco Cacao’s Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam, and I managed the fermentation experiment at the BFREE Field Station. Because there is no information on successful fermentation of the rare and ancient Criollo cacao, we had to undertake our methods based on limited information. We instituted three separate fermentation protocols and upon completion sent these batches to Dancing Lion Chocolate, where my good friend and colleague Rich Tango-Lowy and my son, Shaman Marlin, processed the beans into chocolate using a standardized roasting methodology. These three profiles were then molded into exquisite artfully designed hand crafted limited release specialty chocolate bars. Dancing Lion Chocolates is not your typical chocolate shop. Each bar is a work of art – visually dazzling and delicious. And chocolate is made in small batches and only one time in that exact way, they never repeat the same recipe twice. Rich has used BFREE Criollo cacao in the past on a few specialty bars and bonbons. After visiting BFREE with his wife, Torene, and Dancing Lion’s Baker, Donna McLintock, we began a conversation on how to improve and refine our fermentation methods.

I’m thrilled to announce that our initial collaboration was a success. Chocolate from these three different batches will be sold this year through Dancing Lion Chocolate. I’m especially proud to acknowledge Shaman Marlin who has been working at Dancing Lion for over a year and was responsible for making the chocolate in these bars! A very limited supply will be available in the shop and online after Thanksgiving. The bars can be identified by Criollo I, Criollo II, and Criollo III.

By determining the best fermentation protocols based on continuous feedback, revisions can be made until the process reveals the unique flavor attributes intrinsic to this unique cacao. In 2016, the BFREE cacao beans and chocolate were designated “heirloom fine flavor” by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP), one of only 16 cacao varieties throughout the world to receive such an honor. In order to get designated “Heirloom Fine Flavor”, beans are submitted to HCP blind, meaning the chocolate maker, in collaboration with Guittard Chocolate, does not know where the beans were sourced. Once made into chocolate liquor and chocolate, it is tasted, also blind, by a 9-person panel made up of the world’s most expert chocolate tasters. If the flavor meets a very high mark, the beans are designated Heirloom. Based on those results and additional feedback and reviews, we are confident that this Criollo cacao is unlike any other cacao in the world, and this inspires us to continue our efforts to master the process, from the nursery to fermentation to chocolate bar.

Adopt a Cacao Tree

In 2015, cacao beans discovered on wild trees within the BFREE Privately Protected Area were submitted for genetic testing to the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP). The results determined that this could be the original chocolate tree, 100% pure Criollo parentage, grown and revered by the ancient Mayan Civilizations, and one of the few pure wild cacaos known to exist on the planet. The beans were given the designation of “heirloom fine flavor” by HCP, only the 11th chocolate in the world to receive such an honor. Since this designation, BFREE has become an active partner with HCP. As part of HCP’s work, they have generously been providing small grants to BFREE over the past two years to assist with the development of our work to propagate heirloom fine flavor cacao.

Become a Champion of Heirloom Cacao Farmers

We are excited to share that you can Adopt a BFREE Cacao Tree through HCP’s adoption program to champion heirloom farmers and families around the world. Adoptions are either a one-time payment of $180 US (or 12 monthly payments of $15 US).  For each adoption, you will receive a digital personalized adoption certificate, an Information card including the farm overview, location, and photo of your adopted cacao tree, and three (3) bars of fine chocolate made from the Heirloom Cacao farm where your adopted tree lives.  

Adopt a tree from BFREE by selecting “HCP #11, BFREE Demonstration Cacao Farm, Belize” at the link below!


The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund

HCP was established in 2012 with the mission to “identify and preserve fine flavor “heirloom” cacao for the preservation of biological diversity and the empowerment of farming communities.” Launched in partnership with the USDA and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, HCP was formed in response to the global pressures of environmental change, deforestation, and economic influences threatening the world’s supply of high-quality, flavorful cacao. Recognizing these endangered cacao trees are the foundation for not only delicious chocolate but also the livelihood of many farmers and farming communities, the HCP is the first initiative to identify and map the world of high-quality, fine flavor cacao and certify growers of these endangered trees.  

Learn more about BFREE’s designation and view a short documentary about our heirloom cacao: HCP #11 – HEIRLOOM CACAO PRESERVATION FUND

Stakeholders Discuss the Future of the Cacao Industry in Belize

Participants gather in a circle for an open discussion during the Forum in San Pedro Columbia.

On  20th July 2017, the Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE) along with Ya’axché Conservation Trust hosted the first Belize Cacao and Agroforestry Forum, entitled “The Future of the Cacao industry in Belize,” at the Church of the Nazarene Medical and Education Center in the historic village of San Pedro Columbia, Toledo District.

The Forum brought together nearly 50 participants representing the NGO community, cacao farmers, community leaders, and government representatives in what proved to be an extremely positive event.

Located near the Bladen Nature Reserve in Toledo, BFREE has been hosting and sponsoring workshops, symposiums, and forums to promote the conservation and maintenance of Belize’s rich biodiversity, its tropical forests, watersheds and abundant wildlife for the last 25 years. This forum took shape in response to our current research and work, which focuses on using cacao-based agroforestry as a way to expand the edges of rainforests and protect the wildlife who inhabit the area.

The Forum had two primary goals; bring together a group of stakeholders in order to share information, discuss challenges and explore opportunities for collaboration and compile information regarding the cacao industry in Belize for inclusion in a regional cacao website, CocoaNext, which will be launched later this year by the Cocoa Research Centre at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago.

Forum goals were achieved as information was shared and opportunities for collaboration were considered. The group represented an exceptional diversity of experts with a wide breadth of knowledge and experience representing in Belize’s cacao industry making for focused and informative discussions throughout the day.

With the success of the Forum behind us, participants are already looking forward to the future. The shared desire resonated – that Belize and, particularly Toledo, will continue to become an important player in the local, regional and world Cacao Market and that this growing industry will benefit local farmers, local businesses, Belize’s economy, and most importantly future generations.

BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin welcomes the participants of the first Belize Cacao and Agroforestry Forum on Thursday, July 20, 2017.

The Forum speakers included:

  • •  Ms. Antoinette Sankar of the Cocoa Research Centre, at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. Ms. Sankar provided fantastic overview and history of the Cocoa Research Centre as well as need and purpose for the regional cacao website that will be launched later this year.
  • •  Mr. Wilber Sabido, Chief Forest Officer of the Belize Forest Department. Mr. Sabido spoke of the Forest Department’s position on cacao and agroforestry.
  • •  Mr. Densford Mangar, Ministry of Agriculture Toledo Extension officer. Mr. Mangar presented a national perspective of cacao in Belize.
  • •  Mr. Pablo Mes, Program Coordinator for Maya Leaders Alliance. Mr. Mes described traditional Maya lands rights and land use in Belize.
  • •  Mr. Johnson Ical from Trio Village and Mr. Martin Chiquin from Indian Creek Village both provided the group with an overview of a small farmer’s viewpoint.
  • •  Mr. Gustavo Requena, Community Outreach and Livelihoods Director of Ya’axché Conservation Trust. Mr. Requena described how agroforestry bridges livelihoods as well as on protected area management and adaptation to climate change.
  • •  Mr. Jacob Marlin, Executive Director of BFREE. Mr. Marlin presented how cacao agroforestry may conserve and restore biodiversity.

Hyla and Jacob Marlin along with Antoinette Sankar of the Cocoa Research Centre pose for a photo before the Forum in BFREE’s cacao nursery.

BFREE would like to thank each of the speakers and the participants for their dedication to a healthy and sustainable future for cacao in Belize. Special thanks also to BFREE Deputy Director, Heather Barrett, BFREE Operations Manager and Cacao Demonstration Farm Manager, Elmer Tzalam and BFREE Board Member, Gentry Mander who helped make the event a success.

Funding for the Forum was provided by Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education, Ya’axché Conservation Trust, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, on behalf of the Nyanza Natural Resource Damage Trustee Council – comprised of the Service, Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

If you would like to know more about the Forum, would like to be involved or have any questions, please contact us at: contact@bfreebz.org

 

 

Making Chocolate at BFREE

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Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam, introduces students to how cacao grows in the rainforest. Photo by Graham Byers.

The 2017 field season is well underway! In late January, Vermont Commons High School returned to BFREE to participate in a field course. The group explored the rainforest, participated in homestays with Maya families in Golden Stream Village and traversed the coastal town of Placencia.

A highlight of the trip was making chocolate from scratch at the BFREE Field Station. The journey began with a tour of the cacao demonstration farm led by Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam. There students harvested ripe pods and, after cracking them open, were able to taste the sweet pulp that surrounds a cacao bean before biting into the dark chocolate bean.

removing a cacao pod from the tree

Student carefully removes a pod from a cacao tree. Photo by Graham Byers.

The group followed beans from the tree, through the fermentation process, to sun-drying, then peeling, pan roasting, and grinding until it was time to pour the liquid chocolate into molds and – finally – eat!

fermentation of cacao

Students remove beans from fermenting boxes. Photo by Mark Cline Lucey.

hand-making chocolate

BFREE Field Course Leader, Nelly Cadle, helps a student fill the chocolate molds. Photo by Mark Cline Lucey.

roasting cacao beans

Students roast the cacao beans in cast iron skillets. Photo by Mark Cline Lucey.

 

Can Chocolate Save the Rainforest?

cacao podCan chocolate save the rainforest? BFREE has been exploring this question for many years, beginning when our certified organic shade-grown cacao demonstration farm was planted in 2006. Since then we have worked diligently to provide educational opportunities and support for those interested in learning more about the benefits of shade-grown cacao. We have offered workshops and training programs for local farmers which have provided Belizeans with the tools necessary to grow sustainable and successful crops. BFREE along with students of UNC Wilmington have co-produced ‘The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook.‘  This handbook is a resource manual for anyone interested in growing cacao in Belize.

Due to its high value and its success as an understory crop, cacao is proven to be a great alternative to other forms of agriculture in the tropics which generally require clearing of tropical rainforests and heavy input of agrochemicals.  Therefore, we have been promoting shade-grown cacao as a method for restoring the forest canopy and to help improve the lives of local farmers by offering higher income and healthier working environments, while also maintaining and expanding rainforests, and providing habitat for birds and other wildlife. Growing chocolate is a win-win; it’s good for the environment and can improve farmers’ livelihoods.

cacao agroforest

Pedro Rash and Elmer Tzalam manage BFREE’s cacao agroforest.

 

Cacao Pod photo credit: Graham Byers

BFREE Fundraiser in Washington, D.C.

BFREE volunteer, Lisa Ramsden shares informational materials with guests as they arrive. More photos from the event can be found on Flickr here!

On February 4th, BFREE hosted a social and fundraiser at Levine Music in Washington D.C. The event was attended by over 120 supporters interested in hearing about chocolate’s connection to rainforest conservation. 

The event marked the launch of a new campaign to raise capital for the Cacao Discovery Center, The CDC will be a centralized multipurpose educational facility dedicated to enhancing the learning environment at BFREE and promoting cacao-based agroforestry as a strategy to conserve and restore tropical rainforests in Belize. Once complete, the solar-powered facility will serve the many types of visitors that come to BFREE including students, researchers, farmers, conservation practitioners, and the public in general.

During the event, guests indulged their taste buds with BFREE’s finest hand-crafted chocolate made in Florida from cacao beans grown at the field station in Belize. The chocolate was presented in tasting squares, as whole roasted beans, as nibs and as a fondue from a chocolate fountain. Fresh fruit, as well as a variety of hors d’oeuvres were offered to guests. In classic, Willy Wonka style, gold-foil wrapped chocolate bars and hearts were available for Valentine’s gifts. The nights’ specialty cocktail; a ‘Belizean Rum Old Fashioned’ was created with homemade infused bitters using BFREE cacao nibs and Belizean One Barrel Rum.

A silent auction included food and handcrafted items all originating in Belize and including Marie Sharp’s hot sauces, beautiful wildlife and forest paintings, Maya hand-crafts, lovely hardwood bowls, and, of course, a variety of cacao products like nibs, cocoa powder, and soap.

Executive Director, Jacob Marlin shared some of BFREE’s history and described the growth of both the organization and field station over the past 22 years. He highlighted stories of the many projects BFREE has implemented, and focused on how growing cacao (chocolate) trees under the rainforest canopy is an important strategy for restoring and conserving tropical rainforests in Belize.

If you would like to support BFREE in our efforts to build the Cacao Discovery Center please consider making a a donation here: Donate now to support the Cacao Discover Center! 

If you have any questions, please contact us by email at: contact@bfreebz.org

More Photos of the event in Washington, D.C. are on Flickr here! 

Special thanks to Levine Music for providing the perfect event location and excellent staff support.  

Also, thanks to the artisans who created wonderful works of art just for this occasion: Grayson Sierra, Greta Leslie, Avelina Choc and Mr. Tyrone. We are grateful to event volunteers who donated their time and expertise: Kelly Sanville, Katie Bates, Lisa Ramsden, Shaman Marlin, Sofia Marlin, Hyla Marlin, Tierra Maclean, B. Trewin and Donato Alvarez.

Finally, thanks to David and Jackie Marlin without whom this event could not have been possible.

Chocolate and Beer Tasting with BFREE

Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, described cacao-based agroforestry and the chocolate-making process to Gainesville community members.

Over 100 supporters joined BFREE on April 21st to help us put the FUN in fundraiser. BFREE hosted “BIRDS, CHOCOLATE & FORESTS: CONSERVATION EFFORTS CONNECTING THE US TO CENTRAL AMERICA,”  in Gainesville, Florida, the home of the US for BFREE office. The event took place at First Magnitude, one of the most loved craft breweries in the area; they have a passion we can all get on board with, “great beer and great community.”  In addition, local food truck, Cilantro Tacos joined the effort by donating ten percent of their nights sales to BFREE. A silent auction with bid items ranging from bagels to acupuncture was supported by many incredible donors and was a highlight of the event.

fm event

BFREE volunteers, Wendy Wilber and Juliana Carrillo, greeted event supporters.

The BFREE chocolate offered for tasting was made with 100% organic, shade-grown, fine flavor, single-origin beans. The beans are grown in cacao agroforest at BFREE where, once harvested, they are fermented and dried in the sun. The beans for the fundraiser were brought to Gainesville where they were handcrafted in small batches.  

While chocolate, beer and tacos can make any event successful, the true spotlight was the message which fueled invaluable conversations about the connection between birds, chocolate, and forests. Deforestation threatens the nearly 600 species of birds that call Belize home and cacao-based agroforestry can provide an organic, wildlife- and environmentally-friendly alternative to other types of agriculture. Therefore, BFREE is working to convert degraded land to cacao-based agroforestry for the purpose of expanding migratory bird habitat and protecting Belize’s rich, biodiverse rainforest.

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Belize is home to one of the last undisturbed rainforests left in the world and the largest continuous tract of tropical rainforests north of the Amazon. We believe that the key lies in the connection between birds, chocolate, and forests.

If you are interested in learning more about the work that BFREE is doing to promote cacao- based agroforestry or would like to make chocolate from bean to bar please contact us at contact@bfreebz.org.

BFREE would like to extend a special thanks to all of the silent auction donors for ensuring the event was a hit: Adventure Outpost, Alvaro Toledo, Bagel Bakery, Kirk and Gloria McDonald, Lauren Schaer,  Leonardo’s Pizza of Millhopper, Liz Getman, Michael and Janice Carrillo, Sami Gabb, Theresa Rizzo, Wendy Wilber, Wild Birds Unlimited of Gainesville. Another big thank you to Cilantro Tacos and First Magnitude Brewery for supporting both our mission and event.

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BFREE depends on the support of individuals like you. To purchase a BFREE t-shirt, hat or to make a donation please contact us at contact@bfreebz.org