Getting Started: How the Re-Discovery of Ancient Cocoa in Madagascar Became an Impetus for the HCP — And How We Got Those Samples in the First Place

In early October, Madécasse Chocolate Company announced to a packed house in New York City the results of the cacao tree samples taken in Madagascar by one of the company’s founders, Brett Beach–results which became an impetus for the founding of the HCP. And those results were surely dramatic enough to warrant a standing-room-only crowd: the first pure Ancient Criollo the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) had ever put in its database as well as genetically pure Amelonado and several trees in the Trinitario cluster. The findings ensure that these cacao trees–widely considered to produce legendary, fine flavor beans–can now be preserved and grown for future generations, benefiting farmers, the environment, and chocolate lovers alike. (Below and actual picture of one of the rare trees courtesy of Madécasse.)

The story of how those samples came to be collected opens the new book, Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate, from FCIA and HCP co-founder Pam Williams of Ecole Chocolat and Jim Eber, the HCP Director of Administration and Communication. They have allowed us to excerpt part of that opening below as this month’s feature article.

Excerpt from Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate by Pam Williams and Jim Eber (Wilmor Publishing, October 2012)

Twenty Pounds of Cocaine… That’s what the white powder on Brett Beach’s desk looked like: twenty pounds of cocaine. Of course, he knew it couldn’t be cocaine. Dr. Dapeng Zhang wouldn’t ask him to transport twenty pounds of cocaine halfway around the world to Madagascar . . . would he? Sure, Dr. Zhang had never said what Brett would pack and transport the samples in, but UPS, not the FBI, had delivered the package to his San Francisco office. It sure did look like cocaine, though. Then there was the matter of the six-by-nine-inch plastic bags for holding the powder and samples. Isn’t that how cocaine gets packaged? What would the customs officials in Africa think? Of course, cocaine usually travels into the United States…

“This is so bad,” Brett thought. “I’m going to show up in a country that had a coup for two years carrying twenty pounds of white powder I can’t completely explain.” In the movie version of his life, this would be the moment things go terribly, horribly wrong.

A call to Dr. Zhang explained the sampling procedure, but Brett still had plenty of time to think about what could happen: The trip to Madagascar from San Francisco is one of the longest trips in the world–a flight to Washington, DC, another flight to Dakar, a connecting flight to Johannesburg, and finally, a puddle jumper to Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo. Twenty-six hours of flying over two days–which Brett likens to a bad college hangover multiplied by five but without any of the fun.

And that’s just the first part of the trip. To get to the sampling area, Brett would then fly north to an island off of Madagascar and haggle with the locals (all of them trying to charge him more because he is foreign and has a bag he’d prefer not to open) to take him back on a boat to the mainland. Back on the mainland, he’d take a taxi into Ambanja, a town not unlike the Wild West: one bank, one post office, and Western Union. From Ambanja, the end is in sight–just a long hike through the world’s most densely populated jungle of endemic plants and animals to get samples of one of the most treasured and increasingly rare substances in the world.

If you think all this sounds less like a story about on chocolate and more like a treatment for a movie in which an evil genius hunts the jungle for a rare ingredient to fuel his plot to bring the world to its knees, you’re right. But it’s not. For the record, Brett Beach is not an unsuspecting drug courier; he is a partner in Madécasse Chocolate. Dr. Zhang is not Dr. Evil; he is the lead research geneticist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and its Sustainable Perennial Crops Laboratory. Neither Brett nor Dr. Zhang is chasing world domination; they’re chasing flavor, specifically the DNA of cacao trees and the origin of the finest chocolate in the world–chocolate that has absolutely brought more than a few of us to our knees. And the future of that chocolate has a lot to do with the leaves Brett and a few farmers in Madagascar put in that white powder.

And no, that white powder was not cocaine; this is a story about cacao not coca–think FCIA (Fine Chocolate Industry Association), not CIA. But also think CSI: that white powder in question is a drying agent–a silica gel–forty grams of which are added to a plastic bag along with a fresh leaf from a cacao tree. The silica agent removes all of the moisture from the leaf within twelve hours, thus protecting the DNA from degrading before it reaches the lab. In that hot, sticky jungle of Madagascar in early 2011, Brett Beach was pursuing genotypic identification and its connection to fine flavor cacao. He was gathering samples on behalf of the FCIA and the USDA-ARS to help map that world of cacao flavor.

Millions and millions of us speak the “language” of chocolate and 6.5 million farmers–many for generations–make their living growing cacao, the genetics of cacao is like a modern dialect few can speak yet. It is undoubtedly an essential part of the future, but understanding and processing the torrent of information and the possibilities it offers is overwhelming and, honestly, never going to make you drool with anticipation the way unwrapping a bar or opening a box of bonbons will.

And if you think explaining this process is challenging in the space of a book, imagine doing it in Madagascar. Not easy, even if like Brett Beach you speak Malagasy, thanks to six years in the Peace Corps and international development projects. He had to explain not just the sampling, but why genotyping flavor matters for the future, and how it is going to bring value back to the farmers. “The farmers got it as much as I could convey it,” Brett says. “This is a challenging and abstract subject to distill, let alone translate to farmers, especially if you don’t have much of a clue what genetics is in English.”

Simply put, genotyping and understanding the genetics of fine flavor cacao will lead us to anticipate and better appreciate that fine flavor. But explaining genotyping and the genetics of fine flavor cacao–making them interesting or at least top of mind so that people who have a stake in the future of fine flavor cacao buy into their importance for their beans, businesses, and customers in the–is a process.

That’s the challenge for the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative in general. It is one thing to know where the world’s finest flavor beans are, tie their flavor to their genetics, and use that information to improve and help ensure fine flavor cacao quality and diversity, and preserve, protect, and propagate fine flavor beans for future generations. But it also has to be important to the day-to-day lives of growers, traders, chocolate makers, manufacturers, chocolatiers, and consumers.