Category Archives: Travel

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

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.

NOTES:

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

The Chocolate Forest Experience in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica – A Tour with a View

Pod on tree puerto viejo crp

…It never ceases to amaze me when I find a cacao pod growing straight out of the trunk of a tree

A few years back, I went searching for chocolate in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica and found some enjoyable and informative tours that explored chocolate making, history and ecology.  Of course, they all had some form of chocolate sampling too.  Upon my most recent return to Costa Rica, I found that a small cafe and chocolate shop, Caribeans, had moved out of the center of Puerto Viejo and closer to Playa Cocles where they started running tours through their “chocolate forest” and factory.  I’ll do a review of Caribeans chocolate later, but for now, here’s what I found on a walk among the cacao trees above Puerto Viejo.

We started off the main road across from the beach.  It was a sunny, dry day that was not so hot as to distract us with thoughts of splashing in the waves.  The first part of the tour was a slow walk alongside heirloom cacao trees hidden among the jungle vegetation.  Most of their trees are Trinatario, a fine variety that’s resistant to the “black rot” fungus that devastated the Caribbean cacao industry during the last century.  They continue to work on restoration of trees through grafting of disease-resistant varieties in a process that takes more than five years.

Carribeans tour pod

Our expert tour guide, Jeff, offers a sample from a freshly-cut Costa Rican cacao pod

Our guide explained the biology of the trees and cacao history of the area while stopping frequently to answer questions.  There was a relaxed, informal, we-have-all-day-to do-this feeling that permeates life in Puerto Viejo.  At one stop, we opened a cacao pod and ate the raw bean surrounded by its mildly sweet citrus-like pulp.  It was nothing like the chocolate that we were about to taste at the top of the hill, but still something that you need to experience if you want to understand where chocolate comes from.

I’ll avoid too many spoilers here and leave a the rest for you to discover.  Let’s just say you will learn more about how cacao is harvested and turned into chocolate both during your hike and when you visit the chocolate “lab” where the bars are produced.

A Chocolate Tasting with a View

View over sea crop

Pull up a stool, breath in the view, and taste some chocolate!

What made this tour stand out was the arresting view from high in the jungle looking out to the coastline.  What an exceptional setting to taste single-origin Costa-Rican chocolate!  Our group sat comfortably in the shade on a deck perched above the trees.  The tasting begins with several single-origin and single-estate dark chocolates.  Everyone gets a healthy-sized slab to nibble, ponder and discuss.  Caribean’s is ethically sourcing cacao from around the area and many of their bars bear the names of the cacao farmers that produced the beans.

Carribeans chocolate tasting

Pairing chocolate with foods and seasonings

The tasting also includes a shot of drinking chocolate and an exploration of flavor pairings. We stepped up to an array of herbs, spices and seasonings and combined them with tiny squares of chocolate in a fascinating exploration of flavor synergy.   This was good fun and evoked more conversation among the group.  Chocolate plus sea salt?  Done that.  Chocolate plus coriander and chili pepper?  That’s interesting.  You can take it in a familiar or strange direction, but either way, it’s a sweet exploration.

 

Is the tour suitable for kids?

IMG_3460

Poison dart frogs greeted us on the path to chocolate

I brought my almost 7 year-old chocolate connoisseur on the tour which lasts about 2-3 hours. It was a bit long for him, but he was a real good sport and was motivated by anticipation of the chocolate tasting at the end despite the somewhat sophisticated slant.   He’s no stranger to single-origin dark chocolate so the rewards at the tasting were well received indeed.

Also, the jungle life found along the trail aided his excitement including red poison dart frogs and a tree with giant thorns menacingly protruding straight out of its trunk.  The hiking is not at all strenuos with many stops along a wide path winding up the hill.  Still, good shoes are recommended – not flip-flops.

You know your kids best, so you can judge.  I would say in general, 10 and up would be a more appropriate age, but if your kids are really into chocolate – dark chocolate – then younger kids may find it enjoyable.

IMG_3483

Kai spots cacao beans drying in the sun

The Best Chocolate Tour in Puerto Viejo?

Each of the five or so chocolate tours in the area has its own merits for sure.  The Chocolate Forest Experience rises to the the top of the list of those I’ve tried so far due to the quality of the chocolate, the picturesque, relaxed setting for the tasting and the convenient location.  Most people staying in the area could easily ride their bike there if not walk.  It also doesn’t hurt that all the people in the operation are super nice.  Other tours offer a make-your-own chocolate experience and yet another is given by local people, adding a sense of authenticity and direct connection with the culture.  If you have limited time, I would place the Chocolate Forest Experience high on your list.

With a slowly evolving chocolate tourism industry in greater Puerto Viejo, the area may just be shaping up to be a sort of Napa Valley of chocolate.  This is, in fact, the vision of Caribean’s owner, Paul Johnson, something I hope to write about soon.  Until then, The Chocolate Forest Experience tour runs five days a week: Mon., Tue., Thu., Fri., Sat.  For more information, visit their website.

Note: I paid for this tour myself and was given no consideration, monetary or otherwise for the review.