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Maya Mountain Cacao

Maya Mountain Cacao is a fermenter and exporter located in the Toledo District of Belize, the heart of Belizean cacao country. They have become well-known in the craft chocolate world for their unique approach and exacting quality standards. We visited them in January 2020, and General Manager Roxanna Chen gave us a tour of the nursey, fermentation house, drying sheds, and storage room, as well as an explanation of cacao grading.

The nursey currently holds hundreds of seedlings from four different types of cacao – Amelonado, Nacional, Criollo, and Upper Amazon Forastero. It is part of an initiative with the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund to make these varieties available to local farmers.

The harvest season was just getting under way, and as we walked to the fermentation house, Chen explained the buying strategy. On buying days, trucks from Maya Mountain travel throughout the region and pick up fresh beans, just out of the pod. Ideally, they will have been removed less than 24 hours before pickup, or fermentation will begin. If this happens, those beans are separated from the rest to ensure that all beans get proper fermentation times.

Buying fresh wet beans was a novel concept – often, farmers ferment the beans on farm and sell fermented, dried cacao. Aggregating fresh cacao from many farms achieves the critical mass needed for proper fermentation and allows for a more controlled approach that results in consistently high-quality beans.

In the fermentation house, beans were packed into large wooden boxes and covered with bags to keep out air. The first part of the fermentation is anaerobic, meaning that the microbes thrive in low oxygen conditions. In this case, it is yeasts that get to work first, breaking down sugars in the sweet, juicy cacao pulp and turning them into alcohol. As more of the juice drains away and conditions change, acetic acid bacteria start to dominate – often after about two days. These microbes convert the alcohol produced by yeast to acetic acid – what many people are familiar with as vinegar! Indeed, a strong tangy aroma wafted off the boxes.

As the fermentation progresses, things heat up – literally. The internal temperature reaches 45˚C/113˚F or higher! When I got close to a box full of slippery, partially fermented beans, I could feel the heat radiating out from it. The air temperature and humidity can affect fermentation significantly, so Chen and the team take those factors into account when deciding the timing.

Lactic acid bacteria are present along with the acetic acid bacteria. However, Chen explained, if the lactic acid bacteria are allowed to work for too long, off flavors can develop. So, the process is carefully monitored to avoid over-fermentation, which can result in muddy and hammy flavors. The level of fermentation is a major determinant of the final flavor profile, and different exporters and makers have different preferences. Maya Mountain aims for a moderate fermentation that gives their beans a bright, clean flavor. The process typically lasts seven days and includes turning the beans to ensure even fermentation.

Many people don’t realize that chocolate is a fermented food! But without these microbes, it would taste much different than the nuanced, pleasant flavors we are used to. The microbes perform chemical reactions that are essential for final chocolate flavor, both directly and indirectly. For example, the pleasant tanginess of many chocolates in a result of acids produced by the bacteria. The intense astringency of raw beans is also greatly reduced during fermentation. In addition, microbes create conditions that kill the seed - the combination of alcohol, acid, and high temperatures. This results in a cascade of enzyme activity that also brings about desirable flavor changes.

After fermentation is complete, beans are spread out on shaded tables to dry. The shade is important: in direct sun, beans can dry too quickly, locking in too much acid and resulting in a sour flavor. Slow drying lets the acid evaporate, producing a mellower flavor. It shouldn’t take too long, though, or mold can start to grow on the beans. A small amount of mold on the shell can sometimes be dealt with by polishing the beans, but internal mold is considered a major defect and results in a lower quality rating for the beans. Ultimately, the beans need to reach about 7% moisture so they can be stored and shipped without risk of molding in the bags. Beans may be moved to the full-sun drying area to ensure that this is achieved. Thus, drying is a key step of the cacao production process for both flavor and quality maintenance.

Once dry, the beans are bagged up and stored on site until there are enough to ship them to buyers in the United States – Uncommon Cacao is the primary buyer. Before shipping, each lot is graded for quality, dependent on a number of factors including percent fermentation and presence of mold. This is done using a cut test, the standard method for cacao quality grading. Fifty beans are placed into small depressions on a flat board with a cover. The cover fits securely and holds the beans in place while a wide blade is pushed between them, neatly slicing the beans in half. A trained cacao grader like Chen can then inspect the beans and give them a quality rating. Standards are very high at Maya Mountain Cacao, and beans that do not meet them are typically not sold to export markets. In some cases, local chocolate makers will purchase beans with minor quality defects. Each lot of beans is identified and tagged from purchase through grading, so Chen can identify the source of any problems.

The careful attention that goes into sourcing, fermenting, drying, and grading these beans results in some of the finest cacao in the world, highly sought by dozens of craft chocolate makers. You can try chocolate made from Maya Mountain’s beans from Dick Taylor, Dandelion, Letterpress, Ritual, William Marx, and many others!

To learn more about Maya Mountain Cacao, check out their Facebook page and the feature on Uncommon Cacao’s website. A huge thank you to Roxanna Chen and the team at Maya Mountain Cacao for taking the time to show us around and tell us more about the wonderful work they do!

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