Farm to Bar, Tree To Bar, Grower Made. Whatever your call it, this chocolate is win-win. Farmers earn greater profits for their cacao, and consumers experience the ultimate taste of place. 

“Six years ago my dad went crazy,” Juan Diego Suarez of Chocolate Suagu said. Justiniano Suarez ditched the plan to move the family to Miami and decided to remain in Colombia and plant cacao instead. 

The family raised cows on their farm, Finca El Carmelo, located in San Sebastian de Mariquita, Tolima. They argued with Justiniano, “We don’t know anything about cacao. We know cows!” But he insisted, “I have a feeling that we have to do this.” 

And so they did.

The Cacao and Chocolate Supply Chain

When you learn how little cacao farmers earn for their labour, you realise just how crazy this decision was. The sad truth is that the people who produce the raw materials for the items we purchase rarely make much money. Instead, the profits are made further up the supply chain, by the people who transform those raw materials into consumer goods. 

This is especially true of chocolate. Oxfam International estimated that in 2014 cacao farmers earned 3% of the sale price of the chocolate bar. To make matters worse for cacao-growing nations which are almost all developing countries, their cacao is usually exported to developed countries where first-world manufacturers make our delicious chocolate, retailers distribute it, and both companies enjoy the lion’s share of the profits. 

Producing chocolate in the country where the cacao is grown is a great way to keep the profits within that country. And if a farmer can produce chocolate from their own cacao, then those profits go directly into their pocket. 

For chocolate lovers these "farm to bar" or "single estate" chocolate bars offer an opportunity to taste the terroir of not only a region, but a single farm, its soil, its flora and fauna, its micro-climate. It is the ultimate "Taste of Place". 

Quality Cacao, Not Quantity

The chance to make chocolate from their cacao was only possible because from the outset the Suarez family did things differently. While everyone else focused on increasing yield, Finca El Carmelo focused on flavour.

The farm already had some cacao trees of the high quality Trinitario variety, but most were too old to produce fruit. Juan Diego calls them the “Fathers of the Farm”, as the family used grafts from these veteran plants to grow new Theobroma Cacao trees for their plantation. And as they learned and improved the quality of their cacao, their opportunities expanded. 

The first to take notice were cacao exporters who sell to international chocolate manufacturers. These manufacturers paid a premium for quality, unlike the local cacao buyers at the time. As they learned more about the trade in cacao, Finca El Carmelo began selling directly to these international companies, primarily the Italian chocolate manufacturer Ferrero, makers of Ferrero Rocher and Nutella. Cutting out the middle-man earned them even more for their beans. Soon buyers were fighting over their cacao, and the Suarez family realised, “we have something good here, we should make our own chocolate.” 

This might seem like an easy enough thing to do, vineyards produce wine after all. However chocolate is a foodstuff where the raw materials are grown in one part of the world and processed in another. The cacao tree will only produce fruit 20 degrees north and south of the equator, an area known as the "cacao belt", and yet chocolate is most often produced in developed countries in Europe, North America and Asia.  Only recently have cacao growing countries begun producing high quality chocolate from their own cacao, the kind you might find in fancy food stores. . 

Positioning Luxury Chocolate

That's what Juan Diego set out to do. Turning down a big promotion at the pharmaceutical company where he was working, he left and began Chocolate Suagu in late 2016. The name is a combination of “Suavidad” (smoothness) and “Gusto” (taste). 

Juan Diego wants consumers to see his single-estate chocolate as a luxury brand. Suagu’s bars are wrapped in glossy purple packaging with gold lettering, which sets them apart from the more artisanal styles of other Colombian chocolate brands. To Juan Diego, the packaging also represents the work that has gone into producing the bar. “We use cacao from our farm exclusively, we use the best practices, we offer traceability, we are focused on the flavour,” he said. “These kinds of plantations, they can’t be industrialised. There are so many people working to create the best quality cacao. I try to communicate to buyers they are paying for something which has a great value.”  

The upmarket packaging is also communicating something specifically to Colombian consumers. “In other countries people appreciate something artisanal. But here in Colombia, because we live in an artisanal society where everything is done by hand, we don’t appreciate this,” he explained. But this is a mindset he hopes to change.  

Nurturing a "Taste of Place"

Rather than make the large investment in chocolate-making machinery, he chose to work with local chocolate company Cabuyaro, who produce their own chocolate brand called Tibitó, and manufacture for other national brands. Together with Cabuyaro’s chocolate maker, Luisa Gaviria, they developed a formula to best represent Finca El Carmelo’s cacao, producing a chocolate with tropical fruit notes, aromas of almonds and wood and a medium acidity. The strict quality controls on the farm gave them freedom to play with lower roast profiles. Poorly dried and stored cacao can foster bacteria that must be killed by roasting at high temperatures. However Finca El Carmelo’s cacao is dried on raised beds, away from animals who might contaminate the beans, and is carefully stored to avoid humidity and strong smells that could be absorbed by the cacao. 

“A careful roast is the secret to good chocolate,” Juan Diego insisted.   

From Chocolate, Back to the Farm

Moving up the supply chain has definite economic advantages for cacao producers. Juan Diego believes that each step further up the chain brings more profits for less outlay. “The producers never earn much for their cacao, but they have to spend so much money [to produce it]. That is why we decided to make our own chocolate.” 

However expanding the family business was not the only motivation for beginning Chocolate Suagu. The Suarez family believe in the future of their region. “We can’t take from Tolima,” Juan Diego said, “without giving something back.” Dulce Futuro (Sweet Future) is the family’s foundation, funded by profits from cacao and chocolate sales. Its aim is to prepare the next generation of farmers to be the experts in their fields. 

“They live in the region,” Juan Diego said of the farmers. “They have worked that land for generations. They should be the experts. Instead, the experts come from countries like Norway to teach us how to grow cacao.” Juan Diego believes the major difference between the farmers of his region, and the experts from other countries, is education. “Colombia’s resource is knowledge, not technology. We should be teaching others.” For now the Dulce Futuro foundation provides educational materials and school meals which give children of the poorest families a chance to attend school. In the future they plan to open a new school in their area so the kids of their community don’t have to travel so far, and to equip the school with modern technology so students are equipped for modern farming practices.   

Fine Colombian Chocolate

With Chocolate Suagu, Juan Diego hopes to show the world the best of Colombia: generations of farming knowledge dedicated to producing the highest quality cacao, which is lovingly coaxed into a fine chocolate bar. He hopes to offer a taste of Finca El Carmelo.  

Banner image: Finca El Carmelo, photo courtesy of Chocolate Suagu. 

Suagu Chocolate can be found in Metkalü, Cra 4a #57-41, and other specialty food stores in Bogotá.