Conversation with Sarah Bharath, Cacao services provider/Theo Affairs

To say that Sarah Bharath is passionate about her fieldwork with cacao would be an understatement. This quickly became evident in the many conversations it took to prepare this interview. With a career spanning over two decades, the Trinidadian native has become an ardent advocate for cacao farmers in the region improving the quality of their output and by extension the sustainability of their livelihoods, and ultimately properly aligning themselves in relation to the value they bring to the now elevated forum that is the global premium craft chocolate business. Trading several emails in between busy schedules, we are grateful for the opportunity to capture and share this conversation with Sarah about her life and work with cacao.


 

What drew you to pursue a career in cacao?

Actually, my university student loan is what nailed it for me. I needed a job. As simple and as undramatic as that. No fancy chocolate-love-of-my-life story to tell. My undergraduate training in the plant sciences helped with my bid to be recruited as a junior technical assistant– at least I would like to think so. I have often wondered what made them take the chance on hiring me when they did…

But hire me they did, and I started earning my stripes almost immediately in the cacao space under a dynamic, young, Nigerian PhD researcher named Dr. David Iwaro. He was the principal investigator of the pathology (plant disease) section at the Cocoa Research Unit, CRU (it later was renamed the Cocoa Research Centre). Within a couple weeks of being hired, I was working crazy long hours in the lab and greenhouses testing different cacao plants for their tolerance to a particular troublesome organism that causes cacao fruits to become black and rot on the trees. It felt great to be in a research environment – like a real one – versus the little snippets I had experienced during my undergraduate research projects. I dived into the work with a level of enthusiasm (once I got the hang of things) that surprised even me, and impressed my superiors apparently. That landed even more work on my plate! So, very early on, I established a rather intense work ethic, and that has stayed with me until now. At the start of my time in the CRU, I intended to work for only 1 year and then leave to start my master’s programme. Thirteen years later was when I would really leave the Unit and go on to navigate my own way in cacao world. Fortunately for me, in those 13 years, having worked in every research section that comprised the Unit, I now had skillsets from every single aspect of research conducted at the CRU. I can say in hindsight that they helped lay a crucial foundation for me to work with cacao, literally from soil to saleable seed.

When I left the world of cacao academia however, I had zero intentions of returning to it. I wanted to change focus completely, get away from science for a while and learn completely new skillsets. It was a necessary cleansing of my system, I think. So, over a cumulative 4-year period, I left Trinidad, dived first into learning French immersion-style at school in south France, and then went on to do professional master’s level courses there in Mediterranean Agriculture and Farm Resource Management. I learnt to function in the French language at a technical level I never thought possible. As a direct result, I began to appreciate complex challenges and finding solutions in the non-tropical farming space. In hindsight, this prepared me for my return to cacao in a most unexpected way: my first recruitment on my return to Trinidad was for cacao matters, but this time by senior agricultural research staff from Martinique who spoke no English. The rest since then, as they say, is history. I am now able to marry my growing field and technical expertise with the ability to train people in 3 different languages (Spanish being the third). This has given me the opportunity to work in other Caribbean cocoa-producing islands with ease and great fulfilment well beyond the cacao science.

However, re-establishing myself in Trinidad was not easy because no one was hiring – especially not the Ministry of Agriculture with its Cocoa Research Section. It was utterly depressing. But I badly wanted to put my skills to use, so I worked part time on various plant-based projects for environmental companies, and then volunteered the rest of my time on cacao farms across the country once the farmers would allow me.

That continued for about 6 years, during which time I had the great fortune of crossing paths with Gino Dalla Gasperina of Meridian Cacao Company and Charley Wheelock of Woodblock Chocolate - both based in Portland, Oregon. They pretty much changed my life by introducing me to an enabling environment better known to most as the Meridian Cacao Trinidad Microlot Project. This work, started in 2016, has sent me deep into the labyrinth that is working with cacao at origin by providing much-needed one-one-one technical assistance to farmers and also serving a crucial role as a bean buyer in the space. No other foreign buyer of Trinidad’s beans has such deep connection and traceability to their purchases. And because of my modes of engagement alongside the farmers and the beans, coupled to Meridian’s business support, the final beans purchased are of extremely high quality from farm to final chocolate makers across the globe.

So, 22 years after my first forays into cacao research, here I am, a cacao services provider with a deep connection to the land, the people, the plants, the chocolate, the life that surrounds working with cacao at origin. It’s been, and continues to be, full of challenges and definitely quite the adventure!

You visit a lot of estates in different locations. What are some big and subtle differences you notice?

Each location brings with it its own set of benefits and challenges. It all depends on which filter(s) I am called to use in a given circumstance. Big, and especially obvious differences would include but not be limited to:

  • the farm location (as it relates to access from main roads and centres of business etc.),
  • the farm size,
  • the on-farm diversity (soil, plants, animals) and overall farm health
  • whether the farmer(s) live on the land or not
  • who leads the farm activities (male or female)
  • what infrastructure exists on the farm
  • Actual productivity of the farm plots and individual trees
  • What (if any) succession planning is in place for the farm’s personnel

Subtle differences would include things like:

  • Individual cacao tree conditions relative to location on the farm
  • Companion plants and the roles they actually serve in the on-farm environment
  • Soil variability across the farm
  • ‘Success’ of the bean processing on-farm
  • Farmer interest in the crop
  • The kinds of resources immediately available at the farm location

What are the origins of the term ‘Trinitario’?

Trinitario strictly speaking refers to the so-called ‘natural hybridization’ of cacao plants derived from 2 different groups of cacao more popularly called “Criollo” and “Forastero”. History writes that this natural hybridization occurred in Trinidad centuries ago and so was named after it.

For a very long time, the groupings Criollo, Forastero, Trinitario were considered different varieties based on physical differences that were evident among them. The groupings were largely created for ease of marketing purposes I gather, but later in-depth genetic research revealed that only Criollo is a genuine and distinct genetic group. Forastero and Trinitario are not distinct genetic groups or single varietals. They each represent a composite of genetics that are derived from many different, scientifically described genetic groups. So, to consider Trinitario or Forastero as individual varieties is not accurate. The picture is in fact more detailed and complicated than that. In the last 10 years, at least 10-12 new genetic groups have been described and that number keeps increasing as new types are found or created.

However, “Trinitario” still retains its status as a series of hybrids formed between varietals from the “Forastero group” and the “Criollo group”. Genetic super-sleuthing has unveiled for a while now that the Trinidad Trinitarios originated from the crossings between remnant Criollo types and the Lower Amazon Forastero types that were brought into Trinidad by the Spanish.

Trinitarios that have sprung up elsewhere in the producing world, are likely wider permutations and combinations of the various Forastero and Criollo types that exist. I guess this is perhaps why the “True Trinitario” branding has now arisen on the local scene in an effort to somehow differentiate it from the Trinitarios grown across the producing world. It is also to remind the cacao community of the legacy that was started in Trinidad all those centuries ago.

What is the difference to Criollo and Forastero? And what makes Trinitario such an outstanding cacao variety?

Without ‘going into the weeds’ about this from a genetic point of view, let’s focus on the physical and immediate differences that most cacao enthusiasts recognize: the seed (cotyledon) colour. The cotyledon is what remains when the shell and pulp have been removed. Criollo beans (pure and those with some low level of hybridization with the other 2 groups) range from white or cream coloured to very light pink. When fermented/dried and roasted, they do not have a typical strong chocolate flavour that we’re used to when we speak about chocolate. They instead have little to no chocolate flavour, but they do offer very delicate notes like caramel, nutty, and honey in the chocolate made from them.

Forastero beans range in colour from dark purple (some look almost black!) to medium purple in the fresh beans (however, there is one type I know of that has completely white beans due to a genetic mutation). When fermented and roasted, they give varying intensities of chocolate flavour – very typical of what we’re used to when we indulge in chocolate products. These beans generally do not offer any strong additional flavours besides the chocolate note.

Zooming out from the bean characteristics, when Criollo types are compared to Forastero types, they are seen as less vigorous types, producing fewer pods per tree, and with fewer beans per pod. Forastero types are known for their very high productivity (larger number of pods per tree, large pods, more beans per pod, bigger beans than Criollo beans) and usually more disease tolerant than Criollo types. Trinitarios, on the other hand, being hybrids of these 2 groups, have managed to present an interesting and lucrative combination of both sets of parental groups. Their high productivity combined with intriguing flavour profiles have helped to firmly establish Trinitarios on the map for both producers and chocolate makers alike.

Tell us about the different evaluation processes you applied with our cacao beans thus far and what quality improvements and checks we will be doing with you going forward based on your recommendations.

Working with your beans followed the standard sequence used for all farms that I work with:

  1. When I get a bean sample for evaluation, the first thing I instinctively do before officially starting is make a rapid overall assessment of the beans on 3 levels: their surface smell, how they feel in my hands, and how they look.
  2. Then I take moisture content measurements to see what I am starting with. The bean count is calculated (via an average of at least 3 readings of the number of beans found in at least 3 separate 100g samples), so that I have an average bean weight for the sample.
  3. A subsample of beans is used next for the dried bean cut test. This gives me a rapid look at what happened (on a physical level) to the inside of the beans. As soon as the beans are cut open, I smell each one and then scan for colour variations, as well as internal breakdown (ridging) and any infestation of the beans by pests or mould etc. Where no gaping defects (sights, smells) are found, I know that the next step of making the cocoa liquor will tell me all I need to know.
  4. The liquor is then made by first roasting the beans (using a low roast temperature and duration), then winnowing to thoroughly remove the shell. This is quickly followed by the start of the grind for 3 hours to generate a good smooth sample of 100% cacao. This is then tasted first immediately after preparation and then again within 24h.

It is important to note that unlike other entities that provide in-depth flavour profiling services that go into intricate scoring detail of taste and flavour profiles after a 2-week cold storage of the liquor sample, my work demands that I generally provide feedback to the farmers within 24-48 hours. This is because purchasing decisions must be made quickly in order to ensure that the bean lots are collected, paid for and stored safely in appropriate longer-term facilities prior to shipment to the USA.

When I perform sensory evaluation on a liquor sample, my primary aim is to identify defects or flaws in the sample e.g. over-fermentation, under-fermentation, odour contamination, mould contamination, high acidity, high bitterness, high astringency, smoky, musty etc. Anything that is detected in the liquor sample that compromises the taste and flavour means that something has gone wrong. Depending on what the nature of the defect is, it provides key insights into which stage at farm processing level the problem likely occurred. In this way, very important tweaking of the primary processing can be done to ensure that subsequent bean lots are not similarly compromised.

With Ubergreen’s 2021 harvest, I am excited to work again with large batches of Gran Couva material. It has been many years since I have had the pleasure of working with this region’s material in such volumes. The aim will be to attentively follow the current processing methods used by onsite staff, with a view to fine tuning the processes where needed. In this way, the absolute best can be derived from these beans with every batch generated this season. I am eager to work alongside the processing team to learn from them, as well as to share the lesser-known science associated with the processing parameters that they are already very familiar with. My overall goal is to teach them additional important on-site monitoring skills that they can easily develop over processing cycles, once they learn to fully engage their senses for the work at hand. In this way, the final bean product is greatly improved and the workers develop new layers of competence that gives them more control of the process. I see it happen at every location when I work with farmers, and it is extremely rewarding to experience it alongside them as the process methods evolve and improve-all due to their willingness to learn and do things differently for the final bean quality.

Sensory evaluation plays a huge role in your own work and in fine cacao evaluation in general. In a world where data plays an outsized role, what critical data points should we be paying more attention to when evaluating cacao?

Essentially the aim of the sensory evaluation is to determine if the processing and storage of the cocoa beans have collectively done justice to the bean preparation process. From a chocolate maker point of view, working with the beans is the first (and hopefully pleasurable) encounter with the material. The beans should be plump and clean. This has important implications for how much sorting work must be done before a roast is even started. Plump beans allow the chocolate maker to roast with ease because the shell puffs right up, and some in cases pops right off! This makes winnowing so much easier and ensures that costly edible material (the nibs) are not lost in the shell waste.

At the grinding stage, ultimately we want the beans (and subsequent chocolate) to not be un- or under-fermented. If they are, the chocolate will be unpleasantly bitter and astringent. If they are over-fermented we risk having awful flavours and very poor quality cocoa butter in the beans. Well-fermented and dried beans will give us the chocolate and other special notes that we seek – but to varying degrees based on the genetics and environmental factors involved.

When dealing with specialty cacao varietals like ours, we want to give them ample opportunity to express additional special flavours like fruity, floral, caramel, winey etc. and this is where the fine tuning of the fermentation and drying processes merges from science into an art. This is where diverse and considerable hands-on experience with processing become so crucial. When the so-called ‘sweet spot’ is found for the processing at a given farm location, the overall flavour of the chocolate made from its beans reveal a clean, extremely desirable flavour experience that simply leaves you wanting more!

How important is organic cocoa farming and what influence does it have on cocoa quality? I.e. no use of chemical fertilizer, pesticides and weedicides. How would this be reflected in the beans’ flavour profile?

Naturally, from a health and food safety point of view, producing cacao without harmful chemicals is highly beneficial for everyone concerned -especially the farmers and their families who must work for decades with the crop. Of course, the environment benefits considerably as well, and this is extremely important to factor in as we depend on the environment for our survival. Downstream, the consumers benefit from the fact that they are partaking of a wholesome, uncontaminated food item that they can safely and repeatedly enjoy.

However, this is a complex issue to unpack when trying to relate it directly to flavour.  And you also need to be very clear on what you/Ubergreen mean by organic farming. Because in certain contexts, organic certified products (certain types of fertilizer, pest treatment initiatives etc.) are allowed to be used on the farms. This means that external inputs (things that are not produced directly on the farm for its own benefit) are still brought into the producing space – and this means farmers need to spend more money on these items. In other organic contexts, there are absolutely zero external inputs and the system is designed to self-regulate. (Which side is Ubergreen’s operation on?)

 The flavour profile of organically produced cocoa may not be impacted in any immediately measurable way (to the human tongue at least). Qualitatively the same nutrients and flavour compounds may be in beans that have been organically grown vs those that were not. But there might be some quantitative differences between them i.e. the actual nutrient densities may be different – which could impact flavour profiles considerably. This requires further in-depth investigation.

At this point it is useful to note that in systems that use no artificial chemicals for cocoa production, the diversity of micro-organisms in the growing space is much higher. This is actually a crucial issue that is deeply relevant to the cocoa fermentation process. Only ‘wild ferments’ are currently done on local farms i.e. the micro-organisms responsible for the fermentation processes are sourced from the environment (pod walls, tools, workers’ hands, buckets, fermentation boxes etc.). No packaged product of micro-organisms is put into the fermenting bean mass to start the process. As a result of this, we are able to experience through the flavour of the chocolate what the environment’s micro-organisms were able to contribute to the overall process. This is one of the reasons why chocolate coming from different farm regions tastes so very different. Even farms that are right next to each other can have distinctly different flavour profiles even though they plant the same TSH varieties.

So to return to your question, though many people on the circuit will argue one way or another for or against ‘organic cocoa’, the benefits for it are numerous and growing daily. Whether it is ultimately reflected in the bean flavour profile to a degree that can be easily and repeatedly detected by the regular chocolate consumer remains to be determined through more rigorous evaluation globally.

What is your favourite part of the cocoa farming process?

Do I have a favourite part? I don’t know really. Some days I enjoy focusing only on the science of the process and need to be alone, while at other times I prefer to spend time with the farmers sharing ideas, challenges, solutions, tasting chocolate, drinking cocoa wine and discussing the crop situation. Just as my mood determines which kind of chocolate I want to eat, so too does my mood influence which aspect of the cacao farming process I wish to engage in at a given time.

Because I aim to use a systems-approach in everything that I do, when it comes to working with cacao, I see no true separation in aspects of the process or of the people who are a key part of the process. Yes, there are undoubtedly distinct phases that must be worked on at different times. But because every aspect of the process builds on what was contributed by earlier activities, I see only linkages. Cause and effect. And the tremendous responsibilities that lie in the hands of the producers, many of whom need proper technical support in order to improve their own processing abilities. This is what I find so fascinating with cacao: at each point in its creation story, there is so much inter-dependence and connection to everything in the environment. And its final quality is a deep reflection of the care (or lack thereof!) that has been taken from start to finish.

With my growing experience in this domain, I can make certain realistic assumptions about what happened to the beans during processing – or even what is to come – based on what is before my senses in the given moment.  Nowhere is it more real ( i.e. the impact of all that has gone into producing fermented and dried beans) than when I get to do sensory evaluations on them. So much story lies inside the bean, and with the right training, you can begin to understand certain subtle cues that tell you how the bean was handled during earlier phases of its development and processing. And this is where I think my true contributions lie in this industry as a service provider: getting farmers to see familiar terrain with new eyes, attitudes and with a level of enjoyment they never had before. It is truly fascinating and deeply relationship-based work that I do. I don’t know any other single food item that brings so much complexity to the table: from field and fresh fruit to final processed edible product. It is extremely challenging on both the bean and human level. But here we are.  My ability and desire to keep pushing the limits are what keep me committed to going deeper every day with the applied research that I continue to do alongside farmers and other industry clients.

Where to from here for fine flavour cacao? How can it improve going forward?

Fine or flavor cacao aka specialty cacao has so much value to offer to the world. Your question about where to from here really depends on where ‘here’ is. Everyone in the industry is at different stages in their understanding of how to work with specialty cacao. There is so much work to be done at field level across so many fine cacao producing regions that sometimes it is overwhelming just to think about it. But for certain, going forward, the cacao chain needs to address the issue of fully decommoditizing cacao. Farmers everywhere (whether fine or bulk cacao) are not being treated fairly (economically and otherwise). They represent the most vulnerable population in the entire chain, and they are responsible for the most perishable stage of cacao, yet they are the least compensated or cared about in the industry. It is very frustrating more often than not. But as a service provider in the cacao space, I must continue to do what I can wherever I am called to serve, in order to help farmers improve on their abilities to become more proficient at what they do for themselves, and for the rest of the industry.

Some of this work includes understanding the science associated with the sustainable production of cacao, how the beans must be processed in order to extract the most value from them, and how they must be protected during storage to ensure that the quality is maintained all the way to the chocolate maker or other value-added product maker. The work however, also includes raising farmer awareness as to the volatile nature of the wider cacao industry, the influence of external market forces on their ability to be paid well for their beans on a consistent basis, as well as giving them the tools with which to understand the language of industry – especially that of the cacao buyers. It is only through having good information about every aspect of the industry can the farmers begin to make well-informed decisions about their operations.

What’s your favorite type of chocolate? E.g. Milk? Dark? Fruits? Nuts? Spices? Truffles?

I actually don’t have a favourite kind of chocolate. What I consume really depends on my mood to be honest. As much as I work with high quality dark chocolate, there are days when I want a basic milk chocolate for the sugar hit. Imagine that! But when it comes to dark chocolate and exploring different origins and varietals, I enjoy trying new things primarily because it helps me build my flavour library which is so critical for the work that I do and love. So essentially, I’m open to them all!

What interesting projects are you currently working on and where can we find out more about your work in general?

For sure, my biggest and most interesting project continues to be the Meridian Cacao Trinidad Microlot Project. It has been and likely always will be my most intense and deepest connection to the diverse producer space. Yes, its focus is currently on Trinidad, but we truly hope to see it expand to Tobago (of course!). I have also been working diligently at building relationships through my consultancy work in other islands of the region (Jamaica, Guadeloupe, St. Vincent) in order to eventually create possibilities for microlot sourcing from these beautiful origins as well. That would be quite the accomplishment for everyone involved! How amazing would it be to have microlots coming from every cocoa-producing Caribbean country? I am thrilled at even just the thought of it!

My other projects of interest have surprisingly less to do with cacao and more to do with humans in the cacao (and wider agri-) space, and their roles in regenerative agriculture systems. I use working with cacao and chocolate as tools to get at the deeper motivations and interests of the people who work with them, and with the land as a whole. My growing involvement in permaculture and syntropic agriculture methods (thanks to Wa Samaki Ecosystems) over the last few years has helped tremendously in deepening my work with cacao and the its broader agricultural space. Some very exciting work lies ahead because of these methods, and I look forward to bringing more farmers onboard very soon.

Also, thanks to the ongoing work with Meridian Cacao, coupled to more formal sensory science training thanks to the tremendous support of Penn State University’s Food Science Department and my fellowship advisor Dr. Helene Hopfer and PhD candidate Allison Brown, I have been honing my sensory evaluation skills in the space, alongside farmers, with a view to delving deeper into the wider farm-to-table movement from an educate-via-sensory-exploration vantage point. It is abundantly clear to me that important and enjoyable awareness and deeper education can be brought to the masses via their ability to engage their senses. In so doing, we create a deeper recognition of and desire to be more mindful about where our food, flavours and good nutrition come from. It also gives us greater connection to who and what are responsible for all this goodness, and how to best care for all that sustains us and brings us great pleasure at the same time.

For those who may be interested in having a quick look at what catches my interest and which rabbit hole I might be in (on any given day), the best location is to catch up with my IG pages: sarahbharath & phytophilic. I also recently launched my own website (sarahbharath.com) where I soon hope to be doing a regular blog that provides a more in-depth look at what I do, how I do it, why I do it, and the people that I serve in the very diverse community that is crucial to producing cacao at origin. For those interested in a more tangible experience, feel free to reach out and see about learning alongside me and our farmers. It’s guaranteed to be an adventure every time!