Category Archives: Talking with chocolate makers

Caribeans Single Estate Dark Chocolate

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[1].  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


AROMA:  Light tobacco, caramel, smoke, light floral – rose, ham.


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


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.


[1]  I first drafted this post in 2015…I’ve been busy.

Searching for Chocolate in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica: Day 5 – CARIBEANS

Caribeans Coffee, Chocolate and Ice Cream

Caribeans Coffee, Chocolate and Ice Cream

Update:  Caribeans has moved and reopened as a “Chocolate Tasting Lounge” in Playa Cocles just south of Puerto Viejo proper. I paid a short visit in February of 2015 and I’m pleased to report both the chocolate and the space have improved. Check it out.  I’ve since done a review of their latest chocolate from the new shop.

As the last day of our trip approached, the rain started and continued all night and into the day as if to prove beyond a doubt that we were in a real rain forest. This was our cue to find a decent coffee shop – one with an espresso machine but without the continuous party music of the popular reggae bar and grill, Tex Mex.   Caribeans is a little coffee and ice cream shop in town right near the water.  We were told it’s got the best coffee in Puerto Viejo, so with little time to spare, we went straight there.

Don’t expect air conditioning and all dangling blown-glass lights with well-coordinated furniture like Starbucks- if that’s what you need you should probably vacation in Miami instead[1].  Like so many places in Puerto Viejo, this is some kind of converted house or maybe fishshack and has taken on a sandy, organic character of its own.  You can enjoy your drink inside while surfing the web at one of the free internet computers, you can sit out in front and listen to the waves, or you can park yourself at a couple of small tables by the water and watch the surfers over at Playa Negro.

The place serves up a few of life’s basic necessities:  coffee, ice cream and chocolate.  Beyond that they also had baking bars, roasted cacao nibs, tee-shirts and other accessories.  The chocolate comes in an array of flavors including orange, cardamom and other experiments.   Since it was mid-afternoon, I decided to get something cold – an iced cappuccino and sit by the water while my son teased the waves.

But I had two missions this day – one to find some decent java and another to figure out where the chocolate in Puerto Viejo was really coming from.  Clearly the Cocoa House could only make enough for their on-site sales and a bit of rough stuff for exfoliating at the spas, while Cacao Trails couldn’t possibly grow enough cacao for all their tours and Echo Books, despite their fresh and refined results, was clearly not doing bean-to-bar in the back room.  Would the chocolate at Caribeans turn out to be identical to one of the others?  Where is the chocolate factory?

Caribeans owner

The author with beach head in full bloom talks with Caribeans owner, Kees.

To get a handle on this,  I caught up with the owner, Kees Hessels, an energetic and optimistic guy who gave me a quick tour of the place.  Kees is active in the community working on a mission to bring fairly traded goods from the indigenous people to a broader market.  Kees explained that they used to have a chocolate factory at the shop until recently when their refining machine failed in a blaze of exploding chocolate glory spewing chocolate all over the walls and ceiling. They’ve since moved the factory off site which is just as well since they have bigger equipment now and can make more chocolate [2].

Organic, Fair Trade Chocolate

It seems that the chocolate factory has eluded me once again, but the chocolate hasn’t.  With a plane to catch, there was no time for a full-on tasting, but I did take some notes on their Organic 80% Dark Chocolate bar.


Caribeans Bar

WHAT:  Caribeans Organic Fair Trade Dark Chocolate. 80% Cacao. 25g.  Ingredients: cacao organico y azucar. Where to buy:  Fly to Costa Rica and drive 4-5 hours south from San Jose to Puerto Viejo.  Take the first left over the bridge into town.   Say hi to Kees when you get there.

WHEN:  March 1, 2011

AROMA:  Oh yeah. I’m going to call this the Talamanca aroma from now on – roasted ham, leather, coffee and  tobacco out the wahzoo .  This appears to be characteristic of cacao from this region and is perhaps the best thing about it.  The scent of the stuff now brings back wonderful memories of Costa Rica.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS:  Earthy, peat, coffee.

MIDDLE TASTE:  Peat turns into cappuccino.

FINISH:  The fruit arrives early in the finish in the form of slight melon and banana.  The very end is black tea.

TEXTURE:  A bit of a crunch which is typical of the chocolate making style of this area.  You can think of it as more of a minimally processed approach or a traditional Caribbean style. Either way, if done well, you get more of the fruitiness and raw tartness of the original bean.

After tasting this chocolate, I don’t think this bar has anything  to do with any of the others – at least the factory is not the same.  As for the beans, some may be grown just a couple of miles away at Global Creek, a place where you can go for Ecological Tours, but everyone also points to the inland mountains as the source of most beans.   That makes sense since the coastal plantations were devastated by fungus a few decades ago – a tragedy whose effects are only slowly waning.

I could go for a little more sugar and vanilla in this chocolate bar, but it would also work well with coffee as is.  Yes – I’m seeing now –  like a pure chocolate biscotti.  The cardamom bar should work especially well.  Now I have a reason to go back to Caribeans and get a good hot cappuccino to enjoy next to a cardamom dark chocolate bar while sitting out by the waves.  Maybe another trip is just what’s in order to unravel the mystery of where the cacao is coming from, how the chocolate is made … and why.

If you want to try Costa Rician chocolate, but can’t get to Puerto Viejo any time soon, try Theo’s Single-Origin Costa Rica bar.

[1] I have nothing against Miami – been there, done that, but it’s miles away from Puerto Viejo, physically and culturally.  One is polished, highly developed and chic (with a bit of a dark underbelly) and another authentic, raw, real and grasping, we hope successfully, onto its roots for dear life against a steady gentle breeze of change.

[2] The shop and the factory are separately owned and operated, but work closely together.

[3] I did the tasting for review before I left Costa Rica.
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