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Maranon Canyon- 12 miles on each side

How Discovered Our Rare Cacao-- Part One

Hello and good day!

How do three guys from San Diego, CA, end up in the jungle of northern Peru buying a thought to be extinct variety of cacao? It is a fair question, and one that I've asked myself quite a bit over the years. Even now, after 15 years in the chocolate business, and having worked with the same variety of cacao the entire time, the whole thing still feels farfetched.

First off, what does a thought to be extinct variety of cacao even mean?

Cacao has varieties just like wine grapes. That is a good way to think about it, and each cacao variety has its own, unique, flavors and physical characteristics. Many scientists have researched what constitutes a unique genetic variety of cacao.The most widely accepted scientific studies identify about 15 unique varieties of cacao, give or take 5-10 varieties.

Cacao is native to the Amazon jungle, so that is where most of the research has been done and that is where the 15 unique varieties can be found. There are also cacao varieties that have been bred to have certain characteristics, but those are not naturally occurring, and not what the scientific studies refer to.

Cacao grows all over the world, near the equator, but it originates in the Amazon. Similarly, coffee grows all over the world, but is native to Africa.

Anyhow, one of the varieties of cacao is called Nacional. It was famous the world over for being a cacao that made very delicious chocolate. It wasn't the only variety known for making great chocolate, but it was one of only a few that were very prized and highly sought after.

Nacional was discovered by the Swiss in the 1600's and was only known to grow in Ecuador, and Ecuador considered Nacional cacao to be a national treasure.

In the early 1900's, a disease called witch's broom swept through cacao populations in Ecuador and completely decimated the Nacional cacao plantations. Only a few remnant trees survived, and they were kept in germplasm banks for future study.

Over the years, other Ecuadorian cacaos were referred to as Nacional, but once the cacao genome could be mapped, it was found that the remaining Ecuadorian trees were not the same genetic variety as the original Nacional cacao plants.

About an hour and a half south of the Ecuadorian border, in northern Peru, there is a canyon surrounded by tall mountains.

The mountains form a triangular shaped canyon, with mountains making up two sides of the triangle and a river called the Chinchipe River constituting the third side. This canyon was populated by native roaming tribes until the 1960's.

The tribe that lived there was called the Pakamuros.

In the 1960's, as a result of national land reform, many folks started to move into the canyon and homestead on farms.The government instituted a policy of selling land in the canyon very cheap.

When folks moved in, they found many plants growing wild in the territory. One of the native plants was cacao with bright yellow pods. The farmers started to plant out cash crops, namely rice and coffee, neither of which are native to the zone. They started raising cattle, also not native to the canyon. And they started to bring the native cacao under organized cultivation.

Smash cut to 40 years later.

My dad and brother, through a series of very strange events, ended up distributing mining equipment to a big gold mine in Peru. We did that for several years and became disillusioned with it. That business required my brother Brian to commute daily to a huge maintenance garage where heavy load mining equipment was kept operational.

The garage was up in the Andes mountains at 12,500 feet. It was cold and windy up there and the commute took a couple of hours. After three years of sacrificing himself, Brian didn't want to do it anymore. Rightfully so. Our contract with the mine expired and we decided not to pursue a renewal.

We wanted to start a new business, and since we were Americans with experience in managing logistics in Peru, we figured we'd stay put and look for a new project in the northern Peruvian Andes.

We researched a lot of opportunities and ended up on some wild goose chases. Eventually, my dad and brother found themselves on a trip to the northern Peruvian jungle looking to buy fruits and vegetables to sell to the mine's cafeteria.

The company who ran the cafeteria, a big French concern named Sodexo, heard we were good at logistics, and asked us to think about doing business with them.

There was one catch though.

Sodexo only wanted to buy produce within the political boundaries of the state in which the mine was located. They thought it would be good press. That was a challenge though, because the mine is in a department that mostly sits up in the mountains. Departments in Peru are the same as states in the US.

There is only a little sliver of productive, jungle, agricultural land within department boundaries and it is located way out in a remote northeastern corner of the department of Cajamarca. Since that was the only place we could plausibly buy goods to sell to the mine, that is where my dad and brother went.

Once they got out there though, they realized that their idea was a non starter.

The big cash crops are rice, coffee, and cacao, not fruits and vegetables, which is what Sodexo was looking for. Not wanting to waste the trip, dad and Brian decided to visit farms and they became fascinated by cacao.

In particular, they became interested in cacao from the remote canyon located near the Ecuadorian border. At a networking event, the president of the canyon's local cacao growers' association pleaded with dad and Brian to come visit the canyon. He promised they wouldn't be disappointed. He told them in a mysterious way that the canyon had special cacao growing there.

Dad and Brian became intrigued and agreed to visit....

I am running out of space and steam for today. I will continue the story tomorrow!

I hope that you have a truly blessed day!