When you think of luxury chocolate, think Jamaica! Jamaica is a tiny dot on the map yet most people around the world have heard of this island nation. This may be due to our reggae and dancehall music, athletic prowess, infectious culture and accent, our food, rum and Blue Mountain coffee, but a lesser known attribute for which Jamaica is renowned is its premium cocoa. Fine or flavoured cocoa beans are produced from Criollo or hybrid Trinitario cocoa tree varieties, which are the main species of cocoa grown on the island. Jamaica is one of 17 countries recognized as producers of fine or flavoured cocoa by the International Cocoa Organization, and only one of 8 countries to do so exclusively. The international cocoa market distinguishes between fine or flavour cocoa beans, and bulk or ordinary cocoa beans. The difference between the two lies in the flavour of the bean. Fine flavours range from fruity, obtained from the fresh and browned, mature fruits, to floral, herbal, woody, nut and caramel notes. The cocoa tree yields approximately 20-30 pods per year. Each of the pods only contains 30-40 beans. It takes 400 beans to make one pound of chocolate, which explains why luxury chocolate commands such high prices.
Did you know that the difference between cacao and cocoa is the temperature at which the dried, fermented beans are processed? Cacao refers to the unroasted or lightly roasted bean which allows it to retain more antioxidants, while cocoa is roasted at higher temperatures. This damages its nutrients but makes it taste sweeter.Source: Healthline
The History of Cocoa in Jamaica
Cocoa was first domesticated along the Yucatán peninsula where it was regarded as “food of the gods.” For most of its 4,000-year history, it was consumed as a bitter invigorating beverage for its mood-enhancing and aphrodisiac properties, rather than as a sweet edible treat. Chocolate was reserved for warriors, priests and nobles at religious ceremonies and the Mayans worshipped a god of cacao. In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors sought precious metals in Mexico, but returned instead with chocolate. It was seen as a delectable symbol of luxury, wealth and power, but only Spanish aristocracy could afford the expensive commodity. Thus, the Spanish set up cocoa plantations throughout Mexico and the Caribbean, including Jamaica, because they recognized cocoa for its economic value as ‘liquid gold’. Its popularity eventually spread through Europe which fueled the Caribbean’s cocoa and sugar industry to satiate the European appetite for chocolate. African slaves were imported to work on the plantations and maintain the production of chocolate after Spanish diseases, cruelty and overwork decimated the Amerindian population, and when England took ownership of Jamaica in 1655, they continued cocoa production in Jamaica.
In 1850, a severe import duty imposed in England discouraged the growing of the crop except for local use. Discouraged by the fall in price and diminishing yields, many farmers abandoned their farms or switched to other crops. One century later, the Jamaican government commenced centralizing the cocoa industry. The Cocoa Industry Board was launched in 1957 and assumed complete control of the industry. The core function of the Cocoa Industry Board was the marketing of Jamaica’s fine and flavoured cocoa internationally, which involved promoting the growing of cocoa, providing technical support to farmers, purchasing and processing wet cocoa beans and selling dried fermented beans.
Did you know that chocolate milk was invented in Jamaica?
Between 1957 and 1962 the Board established four fermentaries to serve all cocoa growing areas and the Board became the sole purchasing agent for cocoa. Processing took place at two strategically located fermenteries located at Morgan’s Valley in Clarendon, and Richmond in St. Mary. They provided warehousing and sorting/packaging facilities for export. The highest production periods for cocoa took place in the late 1980’s to the mid 1990’s, during which exports measured approximately 2,000 metric tonnes annually. This period also coincided with an estimated 12,000 farmers, along with strong outside support, particularly from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). However on the turn of the century, the Government of Jamaica took a policy decision to exit the commercial operation of the Cocoa Sector and continues only with its regulatory function through the Jamaica Agricultural Commodities Regulatory Authority (JACRA) Act which came into effect on January 1, 2018.
Currently Jamaica exports 500 metric tonnes of cocoa per year, earning some $225 million, with approximately 6000 registered farmers, most of whom are small farmers and based throughout Portland, St. Mary, Clarendon and St. Catherine. We export 98 percent of our cocoa to Europe, Japan and the USA. The industry’s biggest threats are regional and foreign competition, hurricanes, droughts and of course, pests. The major diseases currently affecting cocoa in Jamaica are the Black Pod disease and the Frosty Pod Rot disease. A project to eliminate the Frosty Pod Rot disease is now being undertaken, spearheaded by the Regional Agricultural Development Agency (RADA).
We are living in exciting times. The annual Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee and Jamaica Rum Festivals, which debuted in 2018 and 2019 respectively by the Jamaica Tourism Board, ushered in an era of branding the Jamaican gastronomy scene as one to watch. Soon to join the list will be a Jamaican Chocolate Festival, as announced by Minister Edmund Bartlett at the 2020 rum festival. Jamaica is looking to set up a modern, viable cocoa industry that will flourish and enhance rural livelihoods. Locally-produced artisan chocolate is an ever-expanding industry giving rise to more female entrepreneurs. Jamaican chocolate often gets undermined as the luxury product it is, but sophisticated consumers remain willing to pay premium prices.
The Local Artisan Chocolate Industry
I don’t proclaim to be a chocolate connoisseur but I do love chocolate and am aware of several local artisan bean-to-bar companies. To date, I’ve tried two companies’ and I LOVE their chocolates. I sampled Mount Pleasant Chocolatiers first at the 2018 Blue Mountain coffee festival, and am never able to resist the sweet treat when I see their bars on store shelves. Coincidentally, just yesterday I tried the 55% milk chocolate plantain bar from Likkle More chocolates and went to foodie heaven, thanks to a giveaway from Eat with Tina Chai. Check out her YouTube page and try to catch the remainder of her 12 Days of Christmas giveaways on Instagram. Their bars are truly a work of art, and the crunchy slightly sweet plantain chips compliment the melt-in-your-mouth goodness of the milk chocolate. Also, I’d love to take the One One Cacao bean-to-bar tour. I first discovered the tour as a student, and the price at the time was out of my range on a student budget… but I’m a working gal now so I should cross this cacao bean-to-bar tour off my list, just as how I managed to cross off a Blue mountain coffee bean-to-cup tour and a sugarcane-to-cup rum tour in 2018. Their tour is currently available virtually for a reduced price of $2,214 JMD (US$15) per person, but I think I may sit out until the pandemic is over and I can experience the tour physically once more.
Please note that this post is not sponsored. I only included these brands because I’m aware of them, and I’m sharing that knowledge with you my readers so you may support Jamaican chocolatiers. If I left out any that you know of, kindly share them in the comments. For Jamaicans reading this, we need to support more of our own as well. Very few Jamaican supermarkets stock locally-made chocolate bars. Examples include Sovereign Supermarket and Loshusan in Kingston. It’s a real shame. Let’s purchase Jamaican artisan bars and show these big supermarkets and retailers that a demand for local chocolates is there!
- Likkle More Chocolate
2. One One Cacao
3. Pure Chocolate Jamaica
4. Mount Pleasant Chocolatiers
6. Cloud 9 Chocolate
It’s Day 10 of Blogmas 2020! Can you believe it? Time really flies. I hope you’ve been enjoying the series so far. Feel free to revisit any post you may have missed here, follow me on Instagram, say hi, enter my giveaway and sign up to receive new posts by email. Have a safe and blessed festive season and stay tuned for the next post on Tuesday.
Read next: The Jamaica Rum Festival
Last updated: December 22, 2020.