The fermentation process is one key part of our sourcing model in which we are able to create lasting social impact.
Through our innovative supply chain, farmers can rely on stable and consistent pricing for their beans, which increases their quality of life.
Moreover, when farmers are not forced to spend time, money, and energy on fermentation, they can focus more on cultivating high-quality cacao AND spending more time with their families.
Although fermentation is often unknown or overlooked by consumers and the general public, it is an absolutely critical part of the cacao-making process!
In fermentation, the cacao seeds start developing the chocolate flavor that we all know and love! Without fermentation, you wouldn’t recognize the taste of cacao!
Let’s explore the cacao fermentation process and how it plays a huge role in both the farmers’ lives and the hot cacao in your cup!
The Old Fermentation Model
Until the last decade, small cacao farmers were forced to do significant post-harvest processing of their harvest before being able to sell it. They had two options: first, to ferment and dry their own cacao, or second, to "wash" the cacao.
Through fermentation, the sugary cacao pulp is digested by yeast and bacteria, and the end result is cacao beans with no white fruit on them, ready for drying.
In contrast, washing the cacao beans is a process that essentially soaks the cacao beans to remove the white fruit from them, and then dries them. Many local farmers drink cacao made from washed cacao, as it is less time intensive and also with less potency so they can drink copious amounts of it daily.
In either case, these are additional labor-intensive steps taking the farmers' attention away from growing cacao and spending time with their families.
Washed cacao receives far lower prices than fermented cacao as it has inferior flavor. And fermenting cacao is difficult, and most small farmers are not experts in fermentation nor do they have the volume of cacao (minimum several hundred pounds of wet cacao beans each week) needed to achieve quality results.
So both options do not produce premium cacao, and as a result fetches low prices, keeping farmers and their communities in a poverty-sustaining cycle.
The New "Wet Cacao" Model
Enter the wet cacao purchasing model. All our cacao is purchased from farmers “wet”, meaning that we buy the fresh fruit from the cacao farmers immediately after the cacao pods have been harvested and split open, so that no post-harvest processing is required from the farmers.
We partner with local organizations that either establish buying stations in villages to purchase wet cacao from farmers, or that drive pickup trucks all the way to the farmer’s locations, sometimes quite far out on adventurous roads to the edge of the rainforest!
Only the highest quality cacao is sold to our buyers: cacao with zero insect damage, no germination of seeds, and no mold.
On our field visits, we’ve often watched farmers sort their wet cacao into two buckets: one for Firefly's purchasing, and one sold to other less discerning buyers.
Across hundreds of farms, our partners buy enough cacao to bring back to a locally run central fermentery, that with outside expertise is able to ferment and dry the wet cacao to international “fine” and “premium” standards.
This allows the fermented and dried cacao to be sold on the premium international market to buyers like Firefly, fetching far higher prices that support the logistics of exporting cacao, operation of the fermentery by local community members, and most importantly, give our farmers a better price for their harvest.
Our farmers consistently receive some of the highest prices in their countries for cacao, and notably, they receive more for selling us wet cacao than they previously received selling washed or even fermented and dried cacao. This additional capital received and time savings allows our farmers to support their families better, and make investments back into their small farms.
All of the partners we work with have pioneered this model of buying wet cacao, often time making other buyers in the region have to adopt a similar model and raise their prices paid to farmers as well.
More Impact & Higher Quality
Proper fermentation is one of the key steps to producing the amazing flavor in our pure 100% cacao. By contrast, industry-standard fermentation can be as little as 1-2 days, resulting in poor flavor development of the cacao.
The process of fermenting cacao is very delicate and needs exacting attention to produce good results. The wet cacao is first allowed to drain excess liquid for 24 hours or so, and then it is placed in wooden fermentation boxes, approximately 3 feet on each side. About 500 lbs of wet cacao can fit in one such box. Our partners purchase cacao on a weekly or biweekly basis from farmers, to incentivize farmers to only harvest perfectly ripe pods. This ensures consistent sugar levels entering the fermentation process, which helps ensure an even fermentation process.
With this collective model, farmers can focus on farming higher quality cacao and need not worry about spending time and money developing fermentation skills. Instead, they are compensated more for their expertise while other fermentation experts can refine the quality of cacao for them post-harvest. Farmers also spend more time with their families and can enjoy a higher quality of life. Assuredly, you can feel and taste this in our ceremonial cacao!
Have You Tried These Cacaos?
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With Love, Gratitude, & Cacao,
Jonas & The Firefly Family
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