By Ann Kuffner

Fine chocolates are an up and coming niche business market here in Belize.  There are now a number of solid specialty companies that produce fine Belizean chocolates within the country.  Belize high quality cacao beans thrive under the shade of Toledo’s wild jungle canopy. The owners of Kakaw Chocolate have proven that they can coax the maximum flavor out of their Belizean cacao beans. They produce the finest gourmet chocolate currently available in the country.

I first tried Kakaw Chocolates at Wine de Vine, a specialty wine and gourmet food store on Ambergris Caye. This is also where I first met the owners of Kakaw, Jo and Chris Beaumont, who are British expats who became Belizean citizens. We often chat at the Friday night wine tasting. On several occasions they offered to give me a tour of their local chocolate production facility. It’s right here on Ambergris Caye, in the building behind their home. I finally took them up on their offer.

Although a chocoholic, I was clueless about how cacao beans are processed, or chocolate made. Chris and Jo walked us through the various steps of the cacao treatment process. Chris showed us the equipment and processes they use to transform cacao beans into fine chocolate products.

After the tour, we learned how this entrepreneurial couple got into the business of making chocolate here in Belize.

Transforming Cacao Beans into Fine Chocolate

Belize’s cacao beans are grown in the Toledo region. This is the southern most region of Belize. It’s a remote and wild region of Belize. In Toledo, pure Mayan Belizeans still live off the land, in traditional villages.

It can rain up to 120 inches a year in Toledo. That’s double the rainfall of northern Belize. But, apparently the conditions are perfect for growing fine cacao beans. The cacao plant only thrives when it grows next to tall trees whose canopy shelters the cacao from the wind and direct sun.

Chris used a plastic mock cacao bean to show us what the inside of a bean looks like. He explained how integral cacao was to the Mayan culture. Initially the Maya chewed and sucked on the pods, to extract their sweetness. It’s surmised that some of the beans fell into their fires. Most likely this is how the Maya learned that roasting the beans improves their flavor.

The first processing step is fermentation of the beans. This step is critical to developing the flavor nuances of quality chocolate. During fermentation the sugar in the pulp is converted into acids. This process changes the chemical composition of the beans.

The cacao beans are scooped from the pods. They are then fermented in a series of boxes. The beans are placed in the boxes and covered with banana leaves.  The fermentation process occurs over a two to eight day period. The beans are turned several times, which allows for even fermentation.

After fermenting, Kakaw staff carefully sort the beans by hand. The goal is to be sure that the beans they roast are of the same size. That assures that they are evenly roasted, which assures the quality and consistency of Kakaw’s chocolate.

After roasting, the cocoa beans/nibs are ground for 4-5 hours, to produce chocolate liquor. Some of the cocoa liquor is pressed, separating it into cocoa butter and cocoa powder. Some of the liquor is used directly to make chocolate.

The chocolate liquor is mixed with sugar and kneaded in a special mixing device. It is then refined in a machine with rollers. At this point additional cocoa butter may be added, for extra richness. Next the chocolate goes into the conching device. For several hours the chocolate is kneaded by the machine’s rollers. This process further develops the flavor of the chocolate.

The final treatment step is the tempering process. The chocolate is heated, cooled, and reheated. Tempering gives the chocolate its gloss and snap. The final product is classified by the % of sugar. For instance, a 70% dark chocolate bar includes 30% sugar. Milk chocolate has milk solids added.

What Makes Kakaw’s Chocolate Irresistible?

There are a variety of tasty Belizean chocolates available in the country. But Kakaw’s product is noticeably finer, and silkier than Belize’s other chocolate products. Jo and Chris are very careful about how they pick and sort their cacao beans. And they only use cocoa butter in their chocolate. Some companies substitute vegetable oil for the cocoa butter. It’s also common to add vanilla to cover the bitterness of imperfect chocolate. But not Kakaw… They do not mask the pure chocolate flavor.

Kakaw also adds delightful local products to their chocolate. This takes their products up a notch. My favorite is their chocolate with dried bits of ginger. In other versions they add mint, cocoa nibs, orange, pineapple, mango jelly, marshmallow, or cayenne. This year they are trying chocolate seafoam, as well. They only use ingredients that are native to Belize.

A Bit about the Kakaw Couple

Chris and Jo started Kakaw five years ago. They were also managing the Palms resort fulltime.  As a matter of fact, they still manage the Palms while running Kakaw. Their chocolate business is clearly a labor of love.

Kakaw is a small, artisan, chocolate company. They happily make every batch by hand in their little factory. They’ve taken their time, growing Kakaw at a measured pace.

They aren’t yet trying to sell Kakaw chocolate outside of Belize. The reality is that the supply of cacao beans in Belize is limited.  But during the last year they doubled their production. Clearly, the word is out, at least in Belize. Their chocolate products are outstanding. They are not cheap, as there’s a price to pay for exceptional quality. This chocolate appeals to the high end market here in Belize. It’s a special treat.

In order to try this delectable chocolate, you will have to visit Belize. Consider it one more reason to take a vacation in Belize!