A Conversation with Isabel Brash of Cocobel Chocolate

As if straight out of an episode of NPR’s “How I Built This with Guy Raz”, we asked Isabel Brash, founder of Cocobel Chocolate in Trinidad and Tobago to share a little bit of her story with us. The result reads like a story that seems pitch perfect for this present moment: A collectively adverse situation that helped spark an idea born out of a lingering curiosity, which with steadfast nurturing has become what the world knows today as Cocobel Chocolate. Located in Port-of-Spain’s Woodbrook neighbourhood, Isabel and her team create stunningly beautiful bonbons and other confections all with the wonderfully delicious medium that is chocolate.

What inspired you to start working with chocolate?

I like challenges, creative projects and transforming things from their beginnings. I also really love dessert!

Years before Cocobel I had tasted a highly prized chocolate named after a place in Trinidad and, not knowing anything about the chocolate or cocoa industry, assumed it was also made here. Upon reading the label I realised it was in fact made in France, but made with cocoa beans that were harvested on an estate here. I had never tasted chocolate like that before and it made me wonder why it wasn’t made in Trinidad, after all we are quite the industrial island. That was when I was still in architecture school, but I think it sort of haunted me, deep down in my subconscious, seeing that estate house beautifully placed on the cover of a bar, tasting so unique, not made in Trinidad

So fast forward to 2008, recession trickling into Trinidad, work slow in the architecture practice, my hands need to keep busy, they like to make things out of things—and cocoa was alluring—best of all, I knew absolutely nothing about it. Let’s see why no one has started making fine chocolate in Trinidad as yet…

…and here we are :)

What is the story behind your brand?

So my curiosity of the process in mid 2008 of course first led me to google and I found some information on how to make chocolate at home. I told my sweet toothed brother my latest curiosity and he said “Well, if you want I could bring some cocoa from the estate to experiment with” - To be completely honest I did not know much about my brothers business and I certainly did not know that they had purchased a piece of land in Rancho Quemado that came with cocoa shed and all. They had been maintaining the outskirts for a few years.

At the end of that week he came home with two Hi-Lo (now Massy Stores) bags of dried cocoa and plopped it on the kitchen table for me. Enter the Cocoa Jumbie that possessed me and still resides in my belly ;)

By September 2008, I had already started making my own chocolate (fuelled by google and books) and decided I wanted to take it a step further to do some fun and “pretty” things. I found an online school in chocolatiering and enrolled in it and that Christmas I gave boxed chocolates to my family. My aunt gave a friend of hers and she called me to do a job for a wedding. At that point my job in architecture was really not bringing in much so I decided to give this chocolate thing a little push. It was very scary because I had no one to emulate and really did not know what the chocolate should have tasted like. I ordered chocolates made from our cocoa from around the world so I could guide myself a bit. When you are used to eating bulk chocolate and you taste what chocolate made purely from fine/flavour cocoa is like your mind gets blown! The artisan chocolate making industry was not what it is now and I did not even know that the Cocoa Research Centre (Cocoa Research Unit it was at the time) existed.

About mid 2009, about a year after being possessed by my “Cocoa Jumbie”, the World Cocoa Foundation had their annual meeting in Trinidad. I shared a table and gave samples at that event and stuck an 8.5 x 11” sheet of paper with my initial stab at a logo drawn two days before. It was at this event, my first, that I was introduced to Trinidad’s cocoa world and the world of cocoa! I met the Cocoa Research Unit and the Cocoa and Coffee Board and many chocolate makers and farmers from different parts of the world. It was at that event that I realised that what I was doing was so much more important than I could have imagined…and I KNEW I needed to stick with it because quite a few people responded negatively to my little chocolate enterprise ;)

Bill Guyton interviewed me at that event and posted it on the WCF website and a couple articles came out in the papers and then I got a call from Ali Khan who was the general manager of Hilton Trinidad. They were having “special guests” for the upcoming Summit of the Americas and they wanted to give them something unique and totally Trinidadian. I did it. That same year was CHOGM (CARICOM Heads of Government Meeting) and I was asked to create gifts for all the spouses of the heads of government of the world. Deal sealed. Couldn’t stop now and support of my family was so great, my brothers even started rehabilitating the land and the cocoa production had tripled by 2010.

I spent a few years building the brand by word of mouth and doing the gift markets, talking a lot about what artisan chocolate is and why it is different, more expensive and tastes so much different/better than what we thought was the best. Often times I gave away more than I sold but people were always interested and always proud to talk to me about their connection with cocoa in Trinidad and Tobago, which rooted me even further into this space.

Cocobel is a very patriotic brand. She wants to communicate with every audience about how special we are as Trinidadians and Tobagonians. She is a storyteller, using the local dialect of spices, fruits and our culinary heritage. She is an ambassador. She is a healer. She is a lover. She wants to portray the best of who we are as Caribbean people.

Your biggest lesson in business?

To be honest with yourself. Saying NO is ok!

When you work hard to create a great product, many people want to do collaborations, partnerships, projects, shows etc… as selfish as it sounds now, I could have saved a lot of time, tears and good energy if I just asked myself, “How is Cocobel going to benefit from this project?” I tend to always think of accomplishing challenges and of what is possible rather than if it really is going to help us grow in one way or another. Good deeds and honest selfless contributions are meaningful, but saying “no” when you know that you are just doing something to be admired(ego) is just as powerful. Understand that by focusing on strengthening your own company you influence and inspire others and you grow within your own structure to create a robust and healthy environment for your employees and hopefully their communities.

You recently tested some of our beans and insisted on 3-4 different roasts, and still want to do other micro roasts. Tell us more about that, and why you’re so particular about these experiments?

For me, making chocolate is like learning a language. Cocoa beans, even from different estates in the same small island, carry their own dialect. The beans with specific genetics from the tree pass through the farmers hands and could be processed in varied weather conditions, that’s when I receive them. The cocoa beans already have several variables. From harvest to harvest they are going to be different. I like to find the common denominator to really be able to understand what is the best that bean has to offer. My roasting then adds another variable. Sometimes it takes more than one, two, sometimes 5 roasts to begin to unfold the beans best kept secrets :)

What do you think makes True Trinitario Chocolate different from other fine and flavor chocolate in the world?

Well first of all just knowing that we are the birthplace of Trinitario cacao is a huge deal. Every country’s cocoa is different to the other, as I said before, so many variables from the tree to consumer that contribute to the taste of the chocolate. I enjoy chocolates made from beans from many sources the world over but knowing the country and the culture and the people involved it what makes it special. We could talk about typical Trini notes such as raisin, or banana but I have made “True Trinitario” chocolate that have different notes altogether and, in my opinion,, that doesn’t make it less Trinitario. In fact it is the essence of Trinitario that the varieties are so vast because of this hybrid blend of Forestero and criollo, some take after the mother, some after the father, or grandfather etc. It is essentially who we are in Trinidad and Tobago. Hard to track down what we really supposed to look — or taste like. But I suppose I could say a general fruitiness and symphony of notes that play on your tongue long after you have tasted it would be a true Trinitario experience. Never flat and never one-noted. Never just “chocolate”.

What does it take for the local industry to raise the overall profile of Trinidad & Tobago as fine and flavor cocoa and chocolate origin?

I think the international cocoa community already knows fully well our potential and how stellar our cocoa beans are. It is for us to believe in ourselves, and to believe we are worthy of being on both ends of the line, and all in between, the value chain I mean. We must take pride in every part and that starts with teaching our youth the value of our natural resources. We should believe that it is a noble work to harvest and ferment and dry cocoa, to understand how fermentation works to make the best chocolate in the universe! Cocoa farmers are scientists, just as much or even more so than the chocolate maker. We, ourselves, need to take pride in our soil, literally!

What is your take on organic certified ingredients (I.e. chemical-free grown cocoa, sugar etc.)?

I understand the value of the certification in the marketplace, it makes people feel a sense of security about the product. However, I don’t let these labels dictate my purchase decisions as I know that there are many farms out there that are natural and organically grown but don’t have the means to market their product that way. What is more important to me is knowing the companies and people that you purchase products from, and that the product is of high quality.

What is in store for Cocobel in the future?

We are working on improving our production efficiency and web presence so we can export. We also want to provide a dine-in experience for our customers and serve our fresh baked cocoa items on a regular basis.

What makes you feel inspired or like your best self?

Bringing ideas to life, and actually getting designs built or made whether it be in chocolate or another medium.

Many things can be an inspiration - music, a dance, a piece of writing or art, or even a plant! They trigger something in the brain and the ideas start to form.

What is your biggest vice?

Dancing. Dancing works like a drug for me.

More than anything else, we think Isabel’s story gives us all a license to explore our own creativity. You can see more of Cocobel’s creations at cocobelchocolate.com and also on social media under the eponymous account name.