There is a revolution underway in Colombian fine chocolate, and the instigators are a company you have never heard of.
When I arrived in Colombia six years ago, the options for chocolate lovers were extremely limited. I had been living in Italy for over a year where every town, no matter the size, had a candy store which stocked at least a dozen brands of European-made chocolate bars. Colombia had no dedicated candy stores, and the supermarkets offered two brands of dark chocolate: Santander and Lindt.
Chocolate Santander is an industrially manufactured chocolate bar with cacao from the Santander department in the centre-north of Colombia, and Lindt is Lindt. Both chocolates are standardised so every bar will taste the same.
Thankfully we live in a different country today. Gourmet food stores and cafés sell Colombian chocolate bars made from cacao grown all over the country, from the Caribbean to the Pacific, from the hills of Boyacá to the jungles of the Amazon.
Viva La Revolución
It began with a few pioneering brands like Equiori, makers of certified organic chocolate, Cacao Hunters, winners of several international chocolate awards, and Manifesto Cacao, activists working to move cacao farmers up the supply chain.
Then all of a sudden, in a period of less than 18 months, the Colombian chocolate scene exploded. A raft of new brands emerged including Carlota Chocolat, Cocoa Fusion, Suagu, Tibitó and Terrasana, joined by Ecuadorian imports like Republica de Cacao, Kuna and Pacari.
As a chocolate lover I rejoiced. Thank the gods! Thank the universe! Or, perhaps more accurately, thank Cabuyaro.
The accidental revolutionaries
Who? You ask.
It's a fair question. Cabuyaro is the company behind the Colombian chocolate revolution, but it's likely you have never heard of them.
Founded by Gustavo Pradilla, Cabuyaro began producing small-batch Colombian chocolate in late 2015. After Gustavo sold his family’s car business, the one started by his grandfather when he imported Colombia’s first Model T Fords, he was looking for his next project. As both a chocolate lover and a businessman, he saw an unexplored opportunity in Colombia.
Gustavo travelled the country to learn all he could about cacao. He visited the plantations. He met the farmers. He saw an advantage that chocolate makers in the US, Europe and other countries don’t have: access to the farms and an intimate knowledge of the country.
In warehouse in the La Castellana neighbourhood of Bogota, he built a chocolate making workshop and began producing single-region chocolate bars from Colombian departments like Putomayo, Meta, Arauca and Tolima, and called his brand Tibitó.
The chocolate maker Gustavo hired is Luisa Gaviria. Like most chocolate makers she is self-taught, but a career as a pastry chef honed her palate, which, combined with her dedication to the cacao itself, is a large part of the company’s success.
When I visited she was working with two batches of cacao from the Sierra Nevada. The orange-brown beans are typical of the mountainous region, where indigenous groups have been cultivating cacao for centuries. The extreme isolation of these communities means the cacao, which requires pollen from another tree to fertilise its flowers, is a pure Colombian heirloom variety, the finest flavour beans.
Luisa was roasting the first 16kg batch of beans, smelling and tasting as she went to determine the best roast profile for the beans’ delicate flavour. She will also decide how much sugar to add, how long to grind the beans, and how many hours the resulting cacao liquor should spend in the conch to create the best possible chocolate, one that represents the hard labour of its farmers.
If you build it, they will come
Soon after launching Tibitó, Gustavo was approached by other companies who wanted to produce chocolate but didn’t have the minimum 500kg of cacao required to work with the big manufacturers, or enough money to invest in their own machines. Would he consider making small-batch chocolate for other brands, they asked. Gustavo said yes.
More companies followed. The business model may seem counterintuitive. Cabuyaro is not only helping the competition, it is creating it. But for Gustavo it makes complete sense for two reasons. The first is volume. In order to see a return on the large investment in machinery, he needs to keep those machines running. Until Tibitó’s sales increase, making chocolate for other brands is the best way to do this.
The second reason is the range and quality of Colombian cacao. In the US and Europe, where the chocolate maker is the auteur, the idea of producing bars for another brand might be an anathema. But Gustavo doesn’t see it this way. In Colombia the auteur is not the chocolate maker, he says, it’s the cacao grower.
Luisa agrees. When I asked her, as diplomatically as my Spanish allowed, if she perhaps put a little more effort and love into making bars for Tibitó than she did for other brands, she looked genuinely offended. The greatest reward of her job is seeing the smile of the face of the cacao producer when they taste chocolate made from their beans, she told me. The cacao they bring represents their hard work, their land and their region. How could Luisa do anything less than her best?
The Colombian Chocolate Revolution
Thanks to Cabuyaro, small cacao producers and organisations now have access to a small-batch chocolate workshop and a chocolate maker dedicated to coaxing the very best chocolate from their beans. The proliferation of new Cabuyaro-made chocolates in Colombia is a huge win for consumers, but also for farmers, who have a new way to access a market interested in the high quality of their beans.
However the real success of Tibito, and the other brands that Cabuyaro is producing, lies in the growing number of Colombian consumers interested in fine chocolate. While all Colombian chocolate brands have their eyes set on export, their primary market, for now, is at home. Colombians are asking for more cacao in their chocolate, Luisa says. And as consumers enter darker territory, straying from the sweet candy bars that have dominated the chocolate market, they are discovering a new way to appreciate Colombia. And there is so much to explore.
Chocolate Tasting at the Colombian Chocolate Club
In March this year I launched the Colombian Chocolate Club to celebrate this explosion in high-quality Colombian chocolate. When I arrived in 2011 I could not have started this business, there simply weren't enough Colombian chocolate brands. Now, thanks to Gustavo and Luisa, and the other pioneers, each tasting at the Colombian Chocolate Club offers a different selection of Colombian bars, because there are so many to choose from.
Join us for a tasting in our cosy space in Chapinero Alto, and discover the incredible quality and diversity of Colombia’s cacao for yourself.