Unloved by Locals in Mexico & Costa Rica, Dark Chocolate is a Bittersweet Business in Pandemic Times
In a tucked-away corner of San Miguel de Allende, Héctor Ramírez is almost certainly charging too little for his handmade chocolates, because reviewers say Fantastic – Xocolatl sells both the best AND least expensive chocolate in this swank tourist town.
He certainly hadn’t factored into his prices the prospect there would be eight months in 2020 where he didn’t see a single person puzzling over pesos or judiciously sampling bonbons before placing orders rocket-fueled by theobromine, the “love drug” that addicts chocoholics with its sensual pleasure.
And chocolate made for tourists and chocolate made for locals is often a very different thing in the American places it is grown: In South America, in Central America and in North America, in Mexico, where almost all of it is grown on small plantations in the states of Tabasco and Chiapas.
“It’s bitter” and “I don’t like it,” are typical reactions when Mexican customers try his 85% or 95% cacao chocolate, Ramírez told me on a recent visit to his shop in San Miguel. Shuttered for a year, it was reanimated with browsing tourists and expats, who make up 75 percent of his customers.
Local tastes run pretty much the same in Costa Rica, Julio Fernandez-Amon told me over coffee at Sibú Chocolate’s farm-to-table cafe in Heredia, which was selling so many dark chocolate bonbons and chocolate-making tours to US, Canadian and European visitors that when the pandemic hit, he and partner George Soriano were in the midst of a major expansion.
“Costa Ricans have a sweet tooth,” Fernandez-Amon said, gesturing to his cup of unsweetened coffee, a habit he said is practically sacrilege in a country where two to three spoonfuls of sugar is the norm.
That may be why locals didn’t know what to make of Sibú when the company pioneered locally sourced fine chocolates in Costa Rica in the early 2000’s, handing out samples at fairs and festivals to decidedly mixed reactions. Yes to the bonbons filled with caramel, passionfruit, pineapple and coffee. And puzzled looks for the dark chocolate bars, whose Spanish name, “chocolate amarga” literally translates to bitter chocolate.
When cacao beans are improperly fermented or have bad genetics, they can indeed be tannic and bitter, Fernandez-Amon said. But well-fermented beans from carefully chosen strains don’t need a lot of sugar to be pleasurable. He makes a trip into a walk-in refrigerator and presents me with a glossy tempered square from a new cacao supplier to the store. As the sample melts on my tongue it tastes of raisins, and caramel. It’s heavenly. It has been four months now, but I still think about the taste from time to time.
Some Costa Ricans have come around to enjoying fine flavor chocolates, Fernandez-Amon said. Still, the average “tico” is far more likely to buy a Snickers for a dollar than spend two on dark chocolate – especially during the kind of massive economic shock the pandemic caused.
“You know the expression ‘the US sneezes and everyone caches a cold?’ In our case, it was pneumonia,” Fernandez-Amon said.
It’s easy to understand why. U.S. tourists were 42.5 percent of Costa Rica’s visitors in 2019. Tourism makes up between 8 and 9 percent of GDP in Costa Rica counting both direct receipts, like payments to ecotourism operators, and indirect ones, like the above-export-market prices Sibú pays to local farmers who grow, ferment and dry its cacao beans.
Tourism had been on a white-hot tear, growing 64 percent between 2009 and 2019. It was booming in March of 2020 when Costa Rica suddenly closed its borders to travel March 18. They wouldn’t reopen for more than a year.
“It was wonderful in a way,” Fernandez-Amon said, gesturing to the cafe’s manicured garden grounds burbling with birdsong. “There were no planes, there were no cars. Other than the economic stress, it was a great experience.”
Other Costa Rican chocolatiers suddenly found themselves selling a product nobody was buying, including James Cameron of Rio Sierpe Chocolate Cafe and Henrik Bodholdt of Maleku Chocolate. Both expats living in rural Costa Rica, Cameron is a retired U.S. coffee roaster on the Osa Peninsula and Bodholdt is a transplant from Denmark, with a cacao plantation in Upala.
Suddenly left holding the bars, the men scrambled, going in different directions to try and revive chocolate sales.
Cameron tried formulating a sweeter chocolate bar aimed at Costa Rican preferences, which he described as “chocolate-flavored sugar,” (in much the same way, he said, that “Starbucks sells coffee-flavored milk”). But the sales didn’t justify all the effort of trying to compete with local favorite Snickers.
“I kind of came to grips with the fact that I was out of business until the tourists returned.” Cameron said.
Instead of changing his chocolate or convincing Costa Ricans, Bodholdt looked homeward for customers, to Denmark. Because tourists were no longer coming to tour the farm or taking chocolate-making classes, Maleku Chocolate took lessons – where else? – to ZOOM. When people registered, Bodholdt sent them a selection of bars through the mail and organized tasting parties where participants nibbled chocolates at home as he discussed their provenance and production.
Boldholdt didn’t stop there. Loads of people were taking up new hobbies during lockdown, so Maleku turned his customers into chocolatiers, knowing he would be their cacao supplier. He sold prosumer chocolate making equipment to Danes and others, mostly European, shipping them bags of Maleku-grown beans so they could grind and process their own chocolate at home. Some of the Zooms were in English and others in Danish. It was a hit.
Back in San Miguel, across town from Héctor Ramírez, 102-year-old chocolate institution JOHFREJ C&V had no choice but to stay open, said Ramon Patiño González.
“I have to continue with the store open,” he said, “even though the sales were very bad…I didn’t know how long it was going to continue, and yet I have to pay bills.”
When it became clear “el pandémico” was going to continue indefinitely, he said the store tried doing some online sales and delivery to regulars to supplement meager in-person sales. But coming into the shop and sampling chocolates or sitting at the cafe tables to drink coffee or chile-spiked hot chocolate is a big part of the experience, he said. When Mexicans do come in and try dark chocolate, some end up liking it, he said. But for many it is their first taste and an educational experience they wouldn’t have if not for the shop being open.
Still, on the whole, he said, most Mexicans gravitate towards milk chocolate, which can be as little as 10 percent cacao by weight, plus milk and sugar.
“That’s what most people know,” he said.
Most tourists, on the other hand, are looking to buy 70, 80 and 90 percent dark chocolate, which is healthier not just because it has less sugar, but because it’s a legitimate superfood, packed with antioxidants, significant trace minerals and fiber, and not least, mood-boosting theobromine.
As for Sibú, the tourist drought couldn’t have come at a worse time. The company had just re-invested much of the previous go-go decade’s profits in a large new production facility with a glossy storefront in trendy Escazu, quadrupling capacity. A month before the lockdown started, it opened a third location, on Valentine’s Day, in San Jose’s foodie Barrio Escalante neighborhood, an elegant kiosk in a mall it was to share with several restaurants that hadn’t yet opened before the country shut. Several of them changed their minds.
“We were left all alone,” Fernandez-Amon said, his voice rising in disbelief more than a year later. “And yet we survived.”
Things were just looking up in October when I toured the new production facility situated near a gelateria and salumeria-and-butcher shop. It bustled with workers packaging a massive order for a Japanese retailer, a full ton of dark chocolate bars to be delivered before Christmas. They unmolded glossy bars embossed with designs inspired by indigenous tattoos of Talamanca tribes, who were among the first to taste and revere chocolate in pre-Columbian times.
Tourists will always be important customers for Sibú, Fernandez-Amon said, but the company’s fondest wish is to convert Costa Ricans to appreciating the high-quality bean-to-bar chocolate grown in their own country – and not because it would diversify its customer base.
“Chocolate originated in Central America,” he said. “Not in Switzerland or Belgium.”