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Our Trip to Belize: Harvesting with Maya Mountain Cacao

  • By Orissa Agnihotri
By Orissa Agnihotri & Brielle Milano

Fostering close relationships with our cacao farmers is a key value at Raaka.  Earlier this May, Raaka’s Director of Sales, Brielle Milano and I had the opportunity to travel to Belize to visit one of the wonderful cacao cooperatives that Raaka sources from - Maya Mountain Cacao.  We spent a week working alongside the MMC team buying wet cacao, giving out samples of Raaka to local cacao farmers, and learning about cacao farming, processing and exporting.

After three plane flights under our belt, Brielle and I arrived in the coastal town of Punta Gorda welcomed by our host and Managing Director of MMC, Maya Granit. We began our adventure with  a glass of fresh watermelon juice as Maya explained   the history of Maya Mountain Cacao and provided us an overview of cacao farming in Belize .

Maya Mountain Cacao is a cacao cooperative located in the Toledo district of southern Belize.  

MMC revolutionized the way cacao is being purchased, processed and exported in Belize. Previous to MMC’s buying model, cacao farmers were growing, harvesting, fermenting, and drying all of their own cacao.  This is a very laborious process.  Often times, farmers were unable to sell their finished cocoa beans because of inconsistencies in fermenting and drying- the most difficult steps in the process.  MMC’s model is framed around buying wet cacao directly from farmers before fermentation or drying.  This allows farmers to focus on growing and harvesting cacao, and allows MMC to gain control over quality by centralizing fermentation and drying.  In the end, this model benefits both MMC and the farmers because MMC can charge higher premiums for great quality cacao and as a result, pay farmers more for their wet cacao as well as provide farmers with more resources to improve their farming techniques.      

Brielle and I were lucky enough to visit Maya Mountain Cacao during their peak harvest season. This is the time of year when hundreds of pounds of fresh cacao fruit are harvested throughout the Toledo district. We set off early in the morning with MMC’s Logistics Manager Dion, one of the field managers Daniel, and the rest of the buying team to travel to local Mayan villages to purchase wet cacao.  In San Antonio, Brielle and I helped a farmer finish her harvest so that her cacao could be weighed and purchased.

 

When harvesting, sacks of fruit are first collected from cacao trees.  Cacao fruit comes in many shades of green, yellow, orange, red and even purple.  Then, the fruits are macheted open, or smashed open on rocks, and the cacao seeds are scooped out.

 

After harvesting, the buckets of wet cacao are transported to the roadside to be weighed.  The total weight is recorded and the MMC team directly pays out the farmers for their harvest.   Here, Dion, weighs wet cacao in the village of Puebla.

   

After the wet cacao is purchased, it is dumped into large burlap sacks in the back of the pick up truck.  At the end of a very long day’s work, after visiting around 30 farms, we had collected about five tons of wet cacao.

 A truck full of sacks of wet cacao, on our way to the Cacao House.

After a full day of buying, all of the collected cacao must be delivered to Maya Mountain Cacao’s centralized fermentation and drying facilities, called the Cacao House.  There, the sacks of wet cacao are allowed to ferment overnight in the bags, before being transferred into the facility’s three-tiered fermentation boxes.  

 

Cacao will ferment in these wooden boxes, covered by banana leaves, for approximately a week.  The cacao begins in the top boxes, and once it reaches 105 degrees fahrenheit, moves down to the next set of fermentation boxes.  At the height of fermentation, the cacao will reach approximately 120℉.  By the last tier of the three phase fermentation process, the color of the beans will be transformed from their original fresh, bright purple, to fully fermented  brown.  Fermentation is key in ridding cacao of its bitterness and developing complex flavor.   

Next, the fully fermented cacao is transferred to a covered drying facility where they begin to dry under indirect heat for approximately three days.  During the initial drying phase, the cacao is raked hourly to spread out the beans, encourage even drying, and release moisture to prevent molding.  Finally, the beans are transferred to a lower set of drying racks that roll out into the direct sunlight for the final phase of drying.  The MMC quality control team uses a moisture reader to detect when the beans have been perfectly dried, usually somewhere between 6-7% moisture.

The fermented and dried cacao beans are then sorted by hand, and stored in 100lb burlap sacks before they are shipped off to artisan chocolate makers all around the US!

 

Here, Brielle, and I join the entire Maya Mountain Cacao team after packing a 15 ton export of cacao! Packed with Pride, Love MMC + Raaka!


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