Specialty coffee importers tap into growing potential of fine cacao

fine cacao production el salvador
  • Historically, cacao was characterised by mass import, poor social conditions, and little attention to quality
  • The imports of fine cacao from Latin American countries grew at an average annual rate of 4.5% between 2015 and 2019. 
  • Specialty coffee importers have started applying same principles to sourcing fine cacao

Importers specialising in the trade of specialty coffee are increasingly sourcing high-quality cacao amid growing global demand for premium chocolate.

Cacao, the raw ingredient used to make chocolate, is typically grown in the same regions and under similar conditions to coffee, including in East Africa and Latin America. This makes it a viable option for traders who often have a good understanding of the land and a strong relationship with the local farmers.

However, until recently, cacao production was characterised by mass import, poor social conditions, a lack of traceability, and minimal attention to quality.

Fine cacao, on the other hand, applies the same principles to specialty coffee production, with a focus on transparency, traceability, careful cultivation techniques, and controlled post-harvesting procedures.

“Fine cacao is a cacao that balances technical specifications and a unique, identifiable sensory profile, but which is also produced and marketed under fair conditions for all involved,” says César Magaña, who is leading Belco Coffee’s cacao operations in Latin America.

“In other words, the producers are well paid and the cacao is produced in harmony with the environment, mainly in agroforestry systems, and without the use of chemicals.”

Fine cacao mainly comes from the Criollo and Trinitario varieties.

Why are specialty coffee traders turning to fine cacao?

The overall imports of fine cacao from Latin American countries increased at an average annual rate of 4.5% between 2015 and 2019.

Although it still only represents 10% of Europe’s total chocolate market and 6% of the global market, trends have seen rising consumer demand for sustainable, traceable, and high-quality chocolate. Of particular note is the interest around “single origin” chocolate made using traceable fine cacao beans grown in one area, rather than in several.

According to the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries (CBI), a strong indication of the growing demand for specialty cocoa and chocolate is the steep increase of bean-to-bar makers. Bean-to-bar makers control every step of the production process, from buying cacao to quality control.

For specialty coffee importers, the move into the fine cacao trade holds strong appeal. It opens up new revenue streams. It puts them front and centre of a burgeoning global market. And studies suggest that it could offer long-term protection against the impact of climate change on coffee production. This is because cacao is often grown in warmer temperatures and at lower altitudes than coffee, yet the cultivation and post-harvesting processes are similar.

César explains that for Belco, a strong foothold in the region established through years of coffee trading made the move into fine cacao sourcing relatively straightforward.

“We started from a labour structure with high presence at origin and with high technical capacity,” he says. “For cacao, we have designed a system that allows us to be sure of the quality of the lots. This is based on a system similar to that in coffee, such as the physical analysis and sensory analysis of a sample lot of green beans.”

“When the cacao arrives in Europe, we then analyse and compare it, while also managing analysis of Cadmium and other heavy metals. This allows us to market cocoa and offer premium quality.”

However, it’s not just about delivering higher quality to consumers. Like specialty coffee, fine cacao offers opportunities for everyone in the supply chain, not least the producers themselves.

“The profit from this cacao will benefit all those involved, from the bean to the bar,” César says. “It will have a direct impact on producers who are generally poorly paid and will also generate a notion of responsibility in consumers who are increasingly educated and in need of information.

“It is an opportunity to rewrite the history of cocoa from a fairer position for all.”