Journey to Peru: On tradition, cocaine and the future of organic cocoa farming

Peru, the former realm of the Incas, situated within the geographical force field of the Andes, the Pacific Ocean and vast rain forests, counts among the top cocoa farming regions. This is not due to the quantity of the cocoa bean harvest, but because of its quality. Josef Zotter, his daughter Julia and Thomas Linshalm, the company’s head of bean-to-bar production, traveled to this magical place to visit the cocoa farmers in person.

We met indigenous tribes in the rain forest and traveled to one of the most notorious drug trafficking regions in Peru to search for fine, rare and extremely hard to find cocoa. This enabled us to develop new trends like quantity reduction and infusions and to subsequently open the new season with a range of new Peru chocolates from several different regions. It’s not just each country but also each cocoa growing region that has its own history and therefore produces its own, original and individually different cocoa.

Oro Verde Cocoa – the future of the Nativo bean

After a 14-hour flight, we land in Lima. This city has a population of 11 million and keeps growing at record speed, as many people migrate there from the country’s rural areas. We don’t see much of it though, because just the next day, we take a small plane to Tarapoto, which lies in the north of the country. That region looks quite typically South American – colourful house fronts and tricycle mopeds that speed along dusty roads. We’re almost the only ones in a car and it’s on to another 30km-trip from Tarapoto to the El Oro Verde cooperative.

 The road leads straight into the rain forest, where small farms are situated, run largely by representatives of the Chanka and Awajun tribes, who grow their cocoa beans in the middle of the rain forest and according to their indigenous traditions. They have come to the center of the cooperative today, dressed up to the nines in handmade, colorful, ribboned traditional costumes, to show us around their cocoa bean fields. They all seem very pleasantly surprised to learn that we are chocolate producers and really know our way around a cocoa bean – a novelty in Oro Verde: normally, only buyers and marketing folks show up here, but nobody with actual hands-on experience working with chocolate. The farmers tell us how proud they are of their cultural diversity and also the range of plants in their cocoa gardens. Biodiversity and growing different species of plants together is essential for a great cocoa flavor. The farmers are convinced that each plant influences the cocoa beans and contributes to a broad flavor spectrum. At Oro Verde, the spirit of the indigenous tribes, passed down through generations, is very much noticeable.

The cocoa gardens are situated at about 800 meters from sea level, which is very high for cocoa farming. The farmers make a point to show us the Nativo trees with their yellow fruit. They know we are specifically looking for fine, rare cocoa and will pay good money for extraordinary quality. You can still find it here – the real Nativo bean! But each cocoa tree that dies is immediately replaced with a CCN-51 clone. The Nativo trees are never replanted because the farmers’ first priority is a high yield and the market for generic consumer cocoa is continuously rising.

The farmers tell us that they would love to preserve the Nativo, but unfortunately there aren’t many Zotters in the world. They know that Nativo cocoa is much more aromatic and has a superior flavor by miles, but the clone is more lucrative and yields a quicker profit. The farmers are paid per kilo of wet beans and the profitable clone just earns them more money. There are also a lot of consultants lurking around, who talk the farmers into believing the clone will make them rich. But it’s also noticeable that the farmers are overjoyed to meet someone asking about flavor and old bean varieties.

We come to an agreement: Oro Verde will select and supply Nativo to Zotter at a price so competitive that it’s worth the extra work, harvest and distance to the individual trees. To be honest, I’m very worried: Peru is famous for fine cocoa, but wherever we look, we see the bright red cocoa fruit of the CCN-51 commercial cocoa bean – I ask myself whether we will be able to find the old fine flavor cocoa varieties anywhere at all in the not too distant future.

We visit the El Oro Verde lab next, and it looks extremely professionally run. Here, all the cocoa bean varieties are analyzed and the flavor profiles from all the individual growing regions are catalogued. We talk about things like ph-levels and discover that the Peruvian cocoa farmers have very impressive know-how. That’s when I have another thought: storage. Product quality generally increases with adequate storage – for crops, wood and wines, for example. Yet no one has thought about applying this rule to cocoa beans. Cocoa bearing vintage labels – now that would be something! This improves my mood considerably. In Bergl, we have now started the first test batches with vintage cocoa and are d0ing sensory tests to see whether the flavor and aroma improve over the years. We are testing our single origin Labookos „Peru 100 %“, „High-End 96 %“, „Peru Oro Verde 75 %“, „Peru 45 %“but you can even enjoy the spirit of Nativo cocoa from Oro Verde in a roasted cocoa bean snack.

A walk along the river to find Barranquita cocoa

We are on the way to Barranquita, where we buy the cocoa beans for our Labooko „Peru Barranquita 75 %“. Normally, the Barranquita farmers deliver their beans straight to the Oro Verde cooperative, but we want to take a closer look at the region, as their cocoa has a singularly amazing taste. We have a four-hour drive ahead of us, over a mountain ridge and through a rain forest cloaked in dense fog. It is breathtakingly beautiful here and I want to take a picture at every turn to capture this extraordinary landscape! It’s like paradise – quiet and peaceful – unless you know that until very recently, drug lords ruled this region with iron fists. A few years ago, you couldn’t just casually drive through this area like we are doing now.

We change from car to boat and tucker along the riverbank. I go over on my ankle and have a hard time walking for a while, but eventually, we reach the cocoa farm where the Trinitario fine cocoa bean is grown.

We are having the most awesome ceviche for dinner, using fish caught in a nearby river. This is the national dish of Peru – like the Wiener Schnitzel or the Tafelspitz in Austria. And this is the recipe: use fresh fish – an obvious requirement – and it shouldn’t be dead for more than 2 hours – also passion fruit juice, salt, chili, lots of fresh onion, top it with finely chopped cassava and of course fried sweet potato. Round it off with a handful of fresh coriander, lemon verbena or southernwood. Unbelievably delicious!

Investigating the local history of cocaine

From Tarapoto, we take a 2,5-hour drive to the ACOPAGRO cooperative in the drug-steeped San Martin region. We have been working with this cooperative for a long time and we use the supremely fine flavor cocoa they grow to make our Labooko „Peru Criollo Cuvée 82 %“, „Medium Raw 75 %“ and our latest creation, the „Peru Huallaga Nativo 75 %“.

We are accompanied by 2 armed chauffeurs and are instructed – nay, drilled – in appropriate behavior. I’ve been around the block a few times, but I’ve never experienced anything this intense before. When it comes down to it, whoever has the bigger weapon wins, the drivers explain to us. If we’re outmaneuvered, then everyone should hit the deck to avoid any bloodshed. This makes sense to me. Also, I only carry things I really don’t mind handing over.

One of the people working on the cooperative tells us absolutely horrific stories about the times when the drug cartels were the bosses in the area. He barely survived a revenge attack himself, he says. Many others weren’t so lucky. He also explains that the drug business hasn’t died entirely – the cartels have just retreated further into the rain forest.

Time and again and completely at random, the dusty country road we are on turns into a 3- or 4-lane asphalt freeway. I ask Hildebrando about the reason behind this oddity. He explains that these were the landing strips for the drug carrier planes. Peru, alongside Colombia and Bolivia, counts among one of the prime growing regions of coca and subsequently originators of cocaine. Previously, Colombia had the number one spot in coca leaf cultivation, but production there has decimated dramatically. In the meantime, Peru has moved up and is now on an equal footing with Colombia. But the UNODC, the UN’s department fighting drugs and crime, has been very successful here. They basically just bought out the farmers. The game the drug mafia played went a little like this: the cartels paid the farmers up to 3 years in advance – this money was gone pretty quickly, of course – and then the farmers sat in a trap of their own making, so to speak, because no harvest was ever plentiful enough to pay off all of the debt. But everyone played along, and whenever one of the farmers wanted to drop out, family members started going missing.

And after listening to all of this, my daughter Julia just goes for walks in this place and then out for drinks with the managers of the cooperative; I can’t really process this at all and don’t sleep a wink all night.


The next morning, both of us majorly sleep-deprived, we set out to visit four different places all located at the edge of the Huallaga river. Our goal is to contribute to a good cause by paying our farmers very fair prices for good quality product. If the farmers can live comfortably off their cocoa beans, then illegal drugs will no longer really be interesting to them. Our boat is sailing gently down the river, and the landscape is so idyllic, I keep being reminded of Austria’s Wachau region. Small, green hills are everywhere, almost glowing from the thick of the rain forest – those used to be coca plantations, and there were a lot of them. But Peru’s history isn’t just built on drugs, it’s also the home of cocoa. And organic cocoa is definitely winning against the coca leaf.
On the shores of the Huallaga river, a few farmers are still growing the Nativo fine flavor cocoa bean. The quality of origin is immediately visible as soon as you open the cocoa fruit. Among the purple-colored beans, there are also a few white ones. White cocoa beans are the hallmark of the famous Criollo variety – the finest and rarest cocoa in the world, its origin in Venezuela.

The cocoa gardens are beautiful, but even here we can see the clone planted everywhere – in between thos plants however, is the Nativo we’re looking for.
The Nativo cocoa fruit we’re holding in our hands right there is extremely rare. There aren’t many farmers left who cultivate this high-carat cocoa bean and the ones here make a bean selection especially for us. The ACOPAGRO cooperative has 1.800 members – just to illustrate its size. It covers 63 collection stations, where cocoa bean farmers drop off their wet cocoa. This means that the cocoa beans are dropped inside of the plant’s white pulp and are then centrally fermented – essential for supreme quality. If you get the fermentation process wrong, the cocoa can produce faulty flavors like ham, for example.

ACOPAGRO executes the fermentation process perfectly and measures the cocoa’s ph-levels – something I’ve never seen done anywhere else. Generic, cheap cocoa for example, has a very high acidity.

This of course is of no interest to us. We define the ph-level for our selected Nativo – reduced acidity but with a very intense aroma. This is when I have an idea about how to push the cocoa aroma a little further. We decide to infuse the Huallaga Nativo chocolate with pure cocoa mass at the very end of the process – this makes the chocolate flavor even more intense. Pure cocoa infusions – this could become a trend, as it lends these single origin chocolates an even more terroir-heavy aroma. I like this idea and the cooperative does as well.

ACOPAGRO is a model cooperative – this is what fair trade should look like. ACOPAGRO was started in 1997. Back then the farmers had about a half hectare of cocoa to work with. Today, each farmer cultivates around 3 hectares each, and there are various projects aimed at their kids, who all go to school. There are health campaigns as well as equal rights campaigns, the latter of which haven’t really caught on much, however. Rain forest reforestation programs show a much better success rate. 400 cooking stations have been financed from the fair trade premium – these are not IKEA kitchens, but simple, bricked cooking areas. Before this, the women cooked in sand pits. Fair trade has worked wonders in these areas. And for now, the big drug honcho “El Vaticano” from Campanino, the one everyone feared (and some even loved), is behind bars.

Tocache – the big hope

In hindsight, the drive to Tocache was one of the most beautiful trips we’ve taken – a journey into the heart of the people of Peru. Igor and Torito had driven an entire day through an incredibly dangerous area where constant ambushes are reported, just so they could pick us up and get us safely to Tocache. When we arrive, the entire town has congregated to welcome us – there are people literally at every corner, indigenous people sing standing in front of a hoisted Austrian flag, the mayor is there to say hello and someone symbolically hands me the key to the city so I can return any time – it is absolutely incredible! I feel like a head of state. The next day, there is of course a gigantic party. Everyone is absolutely over the moon because we are the first chocolate producers ever to find our way to Tocache.

The following few days, we are shown one cocoa plantation after the other, and they are all stunningly beautiful. We take boats across rivers and we walk a lot – nature here is completely untouched, it’s like a huge national park.
Only when we sail along the river banks can we see those lush, green hills again that once hosted the coca farms. The UNODC really did an amazing job edging out the drug cartels. After such a long time, this has given the people here hope again.

When the switch from coca to organic cocoa was made, a lot of the grant money was used to plant the profitable turbo clone bean variety. Red CCN-51 cocoa fruit as far as the eye can see. I try to subtly explain to the farmers that we are only looking for quality cocoa and are very happy to pay a lot more money for it. What else am I supposed to do?

And then I have an idea: quantity reduction. Just like they do it in vineyards. I suggest this to the farmers: harvesting half the fruit of each tree prematurely, so the plant would put all of its energy in the remaining fruit. This improves the resulting cocoa’s aroma profile considerably. A win-win situation all around. The farmers get the same profit for half the harvest and we receive a better quality product. This is probably one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. As there is practically no fine flavor cocoa left in the world, maybe this could save it. It worked for wine, didn’t it. The farmers absolutely love the idea; they think this could change the entire global cocoa trade, and if it does, I’ll be a legend 🙂

Tocache exports cocoa for the first time – directly to Zotter

I wish I could turn the atmosphere and hope I’ve experienced in Peru into a chocolate flavor – it would taste like the best chocolate in the world. As a second best option, I’ve put all my know-how into the Labooko „Peru Cacao Tocache 72 %“ because the last thing I would want is to disappoint all these people, with their faces so full of hope. I felt completely at home in Tocache, entirely among friends, even though home was thousands of miles away. I hope we were able to bottle all of these feelings and impressions and you, enjoying one of these chocolates at the other end, somehow feel that what you’re eating is very special.

And the prematurely harvested cocoa fruit we had to remove during our quantity reduction? I had an idea for those too. I experimented with roasting them a little – and it turns out this is absolutely delicious. It makes them taste like fresh vegetables, a little bit like fried okra, to be specific. No one here has done this before, either, so maybe this is a new Peruvian fine food trend in the making. It’s hard to believe, but three of the world’s best 50 restaurants are actually in Lima. Anyone would expect restaurants of this caliber in Paris or New York, but certainly not here! Peru is a surprise on so many levels, and we spend our last evening in the country at the Astrid y Gastón.

Special thanks to
Thomas Linshalm, who organized this wonderful trip for us and made sure we were safe. Thanks to Julia for coming along with her Dad and entertaining absolutely everyone in Spanish, English, German and French. She’s got her creativity from me, but certainly not her astonishing aptitude for languages…

Thank you to all Peruvians we met, who welcomed us so warmly and also to Gregor Sieböck, who visited our cocoa farmers a year ago and told us all about them.

And now we are turning all of this into something really good!

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