One of the world’s major cocoa producers, ranking as seventh largest in 2020, Brazil has a long history with cocoa, dating back thousands of years to its cultivation by indigenous people of the Amazon basin.
Nowadays, Brazilian chocolate is part of a dynamic and growing industry, recovering from a series of crises through reliance on technology, bean-to-bar and quality cocoa production, and sustainability initiatives.
In the 1980s, Brazil was the second largest worldwide cocoa exporter; from 1989, however, production in the country’s North-eastern state of Bahia fell catastrophically, from approximately 400,000 tons to just about 100,000. Within a decade, production had decreased by nearly 70%. Why? The country had been struck by a particularly virulent wave of the ‘witches’ broom disease’ (WBD), caused by a fungus coming from the Amazon region (although there were no shortage of conspiracy theories and controversies about its origins!), which still has Brazil’s chocolate industry reeling to this day.
The fungus spread and is present throughout South American and Caribbean cocoa-producing countries, but none saw effects as drastic as those in Bahia in the late 1980s and 1990s.
These challenges provided a chance for change and innovation.
Recovery started haltingly in the 2000s.
Although Bahia’s cocoa production is still well below what it once was, the state has been overtaken by Pará as Brazil’s main producer, with other small but significant cultivation taking place in states like Espirito Santo and Amazonas.
Many technological innovations have been attempted to reduce the impact and spread of WBD, with varying success. Research is ongoing and promising. Many farmers are investing in increased vigilance to detect the fungus early on and prevent it from spreading.
More importantly, many Brazilian farmers are finding a way to live with WBD: by investing in quality cocoa over quantity commodity production. This has since proved a good way to increase revenue for their crops when overall yields are subject to being curbed by the disease.
Since then, Brazil has been steadily garnering international recognition for its fine and aromatic cocoa beans, and had prize-winning participation in several international cocoa competitions since 2010.
And a lot of the promising initiatives for Brazilian cocoa come from the point of view of quality, bean-to-bar, and sustainability.
Agroforestry, including the historic technique of ‘Cabruca’ in southern Bahia, are being adopted to plant cocoa effectively, together with other native plants. This has been very helpful in revitalizing land impoverished by deforestation and by overgrazing due to cattle-ranching, helping protect local biodiversity.
The consumption of chocolate in Brazil and in the world continues to grow. With the still-extant cacao-producing infrastructure from its pre-WBD days, an expanding domestic market, and increasing international standing, Brazil is well-placed to expand its role in worldwide chocolate production: and our palates will probably thank us for it!
Flavours & Makers: Our Brazilian Chocolate
Many Brazilian craft chocolates are of the Forastero variety, which despite having received some bad press in the gourmet chocolate world as one of the varieties used in mass commodity production, is proving increasingly versatile and flavourful.
For one, Luisa Abram’s prizewinning Rio Acará bar is of the Amelonado (lower Amazonian) Forastero variety, which is characterized by an intense aroma and a chocolate-y, caramelized flavour with a nutty edge. Her chocolates, made from wild Amazonian cocoa, are dark, fudgy, and delicious.
Other bars, such as Akesson’s 75%, also from Forastero cacao, are farmed under the Mata Atlântica forest cover in Bahia, which gives it an earthen, woody and fruity flavour; while AMMA 75%, Bahian and made by Brazil’s largest homemade chocolate manufacturer, is chocolate-y and coffee-like – representing in its flavours two of Brazil’s famous and important commodities.
With so much intensity, quality, and variety, it is no wonder that Brazil is carving its name in the craft chocolate world.