I had the good fortune of returning to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica to enjoy the waves, sleep in an historic jungle house, and eat some fine chocolate. It was awesome to see how the local chocolate scene continues to evolve. Caribeans is a cafe and chocolate proprietor located just across from Playa Cocles. It was here that I met Caribeans owner, Paul Johnson, to talk about the burgeoning chocolate scene on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.
Paul moved to Costa Rica more than a decade ago with his wife. They left famously chilly Minnesota for a less famous slice of paradise on the Caribbean sea. Like many entrepreneurs, he spent some time exploring and tinkering with business ideas including a stint designing and welding funky art bikes. Although PV has a funky, almost edgy feel and cycling is the preferred mode of transport along the cratered dirt roads, the concept just didn’t find legs.
In those early days, he came to realize there was no internet cafe in town, so he started a simple place by the harbor where people could get a decent cup of coffee. Still, it wasn’t quite right – the locals who congregated by the harbor were less interested in coffee than more traditional cacao tea or drinking cocoa. That drove him on a search for local cacao beans and eventually into the chocolate business. Caribeans is now a place where you can get a great espresso drink, hot chocolate and single-origin chocolate bars from the region.
In the years since my first visit, he’s moved shop out of the bustling harbor streets to a more heavily-jungled area about two kilometers south. It’s here that he cobbled together a chocolate factory in the hills behind the cafe. If sourcing high-quality cacao beans in a region decimated by the monilia fungus wasn’t hard enough, getting chocolate-making equipment was even harder. He did buy a melanger, but the rest he built himself with some Rube-Goldberg-style innovation and help from experts back stateside.
Perseverance paid off. Caribeans is the first Costa Rican bean-to-bar chocolate maker in one location. In the shop, you can find a dozen or so single-origin bars many of which are single-estate bars acknowledging the contribution of the cacao growers themselves. Caribeans now has direct relationships with over 20 cacao growers along the Caribbean coast. This model not only improves bean quality though constant feedback between grower and chocolate maker, but also provides a premium price to the farmers.
After talking chocolate with Paul, I stepped into the walk-in chilled display room and selected from a couple dozen flavored and pure chocolate bars. Here’s my take on two favorites.
CHOCOLATE REVIEW – Caribeans Chocolate
WHAT: Caribeans Single-Estate Maruin Gandoca 72% Dark Chocolate. 25 g (2.1 oz). Ingredients: cacao, sugar.
Where to buy Caribeans Chocolate.
WHEN: April, 2015
OVERALL RATING: 85.
AROMA: Light tobacco, caramel, smoke, light floral – rose, ham.
INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Butter, almonds.
MIDDLE TASTE: Cherry, apple, cantaloupe.
FINISH: Fig, cashew, butter, whipped cream. Stays pleasant to the end.
TEXTURE: Looks like the melanger is working just fine.
WHAT: Caribeans Single-Estate Harta Lazo Kekoldi 72% Dark Chocolate. 25 g (2.1 oz). Ingredients: cacao, sugar.
Where to buy Caribeans Chocolate.
WHEN: February, 2015
OVERALL RATING: 82.
AROMA: Melon, banana, guava, strawberry. Overall a little subdued on the nose.
INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Apple, very slight hint of red fruit.
MIDDLE TASTE: Apple, strawberry, elusive citrus, rose.
FINISH: Banana, cafe-au-lait, tubers, some astringency towards the end. It may be that the soft aroma and slight astringent dryness towards the end has to do with the heat – both the environment that they’re made in and storage. Caribeans has a temperature controlled chocolate room in their shop and I tasted this bar within a couple of days of purchase, so it’s not so clear.
TEXTURE: Generally smooth. Some granularity towards end.
Overall, both were equally interesting bars, but I’m giving a nudge to the Maruin Gandoca for a bit more intensity and complexity.
LAST BITE: Caribeans has done an amazing job making chocolate under less than ideal conditions – the heat and humidity of the jungle for starters. Eating this stuff reminds me of my first trip to Playa Cocles where a all the chocolate seemed to exuded a certain local personality of buttery brown sugar and coffee. Now, by tasting the prolific line up at Caribeans, I’ve discovered there is more diversity in the beans of this region. Depending upon the chocolate, the flavors span the range from coffee to dried fruit to melon to bananas.
Paul Johnson has a vision for the future: Puerto Viejo could become the “Napa Valley” of chocolate. I have to agree that there is a lot of synergy in a concentrated food-tourism destination. For example, Northern California and Bordeaux attract a lot of people keen on wine who want to learn and enjoy the world of wine. Art enthusiasts go to Canyon Road in Santa Fe to peruse and buy art. The wine makers and artists in these places are, in a sense, competing with each other and benefiting from each other at the time. They’re mostly benefiting because a greater number of like-minded people are drawn to the destination.
So why not the same for chocolate? Imagine a place where you can go and see how cacao is grown, watch chocolate being made, and taste chocolate from a range of different makers – all in one stop. Unlike the wine tours, when you’re done tasting ten or fifteen different chocolates, you’re completely sober, so you can drive, walk or ride a funky bike to your next destination. It seems the vision is starting to become real. Since my last visit, they’ve held the first Puerto Viejo Chocolate Festival where for a day or two you can come together with others to explore the cacao of the region.
 I first drafted this post in 2015…I’ve been busy.