Ecuador

Chocolate from the Source (Mindo, Ecuador)

Written by Mark McElroy

Any tour that starts with a shot glass full of liquid chocolate is a good tour.

And that’s how things begin at the Mindo Chocolate Makers tour. Once we’re seated in the cheerful cafe, Jose Meza (one of two owners) brings us a brownie with a sidecar of potent liquid chocolate.

“Taste it,” he urges. “Put your spoon in and taste it.”

I do; it’s very bitter. This is unadulterated chocolate — no sugar, no milk. Jose urges us to add just a little cane sugar to the shot glass. Like magic, the chocolate becomes a thousand times yummier.

The chocolate sampling (with pepper, with ginger, with coffee) kicks things off well, but the real joy of the Mindo Chocolate Makers tour is the rare opportunity to see the chocolate-making process from bean to bar. That’s because the company isn’t just a chocolatier (using someone else’s chocolate to make candy) — they’re a source, making their own chocolate from scratch and supplying beans to chocolatiers around the world.

From the cafe, we make our way out into the cacao orchard out back. Everything starts with the cacao tree, which produces gourd-like pods the size of footballs:

cacao-pods-mindo-ecuador

Cut it open. Inside, you’ll find a milky-white, sticky goo littered with soft cacao beans:

open-cacao-pod-mindo

Raw, these beans have a citrusy, lemony flavor:

cacao-bean-raw

But after a few days in drying trays, they’re ready to be roasted:

dried-cacao

Roasted beans smell incredible, but the taste is almost unbearably bitter. The Aztecs made a high anti-oxidant beverage from the roasted beans — a bitter, peppery drink called “The Food of the Gods.” It didn’t take the Spanish long to send the stuff to Europe, where the practice of adding sugar and milk led to the creation of the kind of chocolate we enjoy today.

We’ve been on a lot of chocolate factory tours (Scharfenburger, with its unlimited free samples, is one of the very best), but this was our first visit to an actual source, where we could walk through the cacao orchard and follow the process from beginning to end.

Jose’s got a passion for growing some of the world’s finest chocolate — and adding it to surprising products, like his newly formulated barbecue sauce.

Our afternoon wandering the foggy hillside cacao orchards yields some of our favorite Ecuador memories. If you’re in Mindo, get off the zip-lines and canopy rides long enough to visit Mindo Chocolate Makers, where the tour is highly recommended. Don’t have the budget for a trip to Ecuador? No worries — you can organize your own tasting tour at home, by ordering bars, sauces, and coco nibs from Jose’s Michigan-based branch of the business!

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Mark McElroy

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