The dreamy and evocative landscapes of Nicaragua inspired Belgian chocolate maker Pieter-Jan to create cacao folklore of his own, reflecting his personal adventures en route to producing top quality single origin chocolate. At the heart of this brand is a mythological creature for the age of craft chocolate, the golden Lapa-Lapa creature native to Nicaragua who roams this land of volcanoes and lakes nightly in pursuit of the best cocoa pods to fulfil his insatiable appetite for the finest cacao. With the same passion, the eponymous bean-to-bar chocolate brand Lapa-Lapa strive to bring you the best of Nicaraguan chocolate, meticulously sourcing top-quality cacao and completing production in their Granada factory. Situated in a picturesque colonial house, Lapa-Lapa’s factory warmly welcome visitors. Why not stop by on your next trip to Nicaragua?
Adventure is at the heart of Lapa-Lapa who seek to inspire the same feeling of tropical adventure in its consumers that is at the source of its Nicaraguan bean-to-bar creations. Lapa-Lapa’s chocolate concentrates solely on showcasing the natural flavours of Nicaragua’s unique beans. Bars contain just two ingredients, cacao and sugar (with the addition of cocoa butter where necessary), with flavours released and highlighted through the fermentation and drying processes alone which vary in accordance with bean variety.
Lapa-Lapa’s mission is simple: “we want to make the best chocolate we can with purely Nicaraguan cocoa in the country of origin.” Lapa-Lapa is particularly proud of their close contact with the farmers, cooperatives and cacao processors, consulting with them on a daily basis. “You feel closer, more connected to the beans and you can learn and control the process from seed to bean”, states Pieter-Jan. Their commitment to producing chocolate locally, with all stages of the process carried out in the proximity of their factory in Nicaragua, also yields a positive economic effect in the local community by creating more jobs “adding more value to the final product in the country of origin.”
HOW THEY BEGAN MAKING CHOCOLATE
Although Belgian and a “chocolate lover by birth,” Lapa-Lapa founder Pieter-Jan’s path to chocolate was not a direct one. After studying Economics, Pieter-Jan spent some years working in international sales, eventually becoming a steel trader. Fascinated by processes of production and inspired by the joy of a friend who manufactured wooden furniture, he longed to learn how to produce a tangible product. With a passion for adventure, this self-proclaimed “world explorer” met his perfect match in bean to bar chocolate production.
When Pieter-Jan discovered unique characteristics and flavour profiles of different bean varieties and their expression in the final chocolate product, it was a revelation. From his kitchen laboratory in Belgium, he ordered beans from around the world, using the same technique to craft different chocolates, unveiling an impressive spectrum of flavour notes and complexity. With more flavour compounds found in dark chocolate than in red wine or coffee, he began learning as much as possible about the process of production of pure dark chocolate and how modifications at each stage, from growth to final crafting, could be used to shine a light on an impressive range of complex flavours.
It was a “series of fortunate events” that happily conspired to bring Pieter-Jan and his girlfriend to Nicaragua. At the beginning of their chocolate making journey, from a kitchen laboratory in Belgium, they discovered a bean sourced online that was so irresistible that they just had to follow the bean to its origin in Nicaragua. It was here that they came to start their factory. Just eighteen months after producing their very first bar in their Belgian kitchen, Lapa- Lapa was born in 2017.
Much like the Lapa-Lapa of legend, its chocolatier counterparts roam Nicaragua in pursuit of the finest cacao beans. Currently, Lapa-Lapa’s beans come from the hills and jungles of the province of Matagalpa in central Nicaragua. Sourced from a cooperative of four hundred growers, beans are harvested in November to December and April to May. Lapa-Lapa’s growers expertly sort the different genetic varieties grown on their farms so that each variety can be fermented in a different way in order to highlight their unique flavour profiles. Ingemann, a family-owned and family-managed supplier of fine Nicaraguan cocoa, then carry out the fermentation process. For Lapa-Lapa this outsourcing is essential, allowing the individual attention necessary to produce single-bean chocolate whilst enabling the farmer to focus on the plantation. Ingemann have long term contracts with the farmers, giving long term stability and security through fair prices, purchasing wet mass (much heavier than the price of dry beans) and at a price much higher than the international price.
Lapa-Lapa are continuing their explorations in Nicaragua in the hope of finding new, quality beans from different plantations with varying growing and fermentation techniques in order to create more dark chocolate showcasing an exciting range of flavours.
Lapa-Lapa’s aim is to showcase the unique varietal flavours of Nicaraguan cacao, releasing all of the natural flavours that can be found in a single bean and allowing them to shine. The focus is solely on the beans, and bars are made from two ingredients, cocoa and sugar (cocoa butter if needed).
We sat down with Pieter-Jan to find out more about his passion for chocolate and the brand that he’s built.
What’s your background? Why and how did you get into chocolate?
I studied economics and have been working in international sales for some years. My last job was steel trader. Next to that I am a world explorer and travelled the world for some time.
After I saw the joy and fulfilment of a friend of mine who was manufacturing wooden furniture, I wanted to learn how to produce a product too. As a Belgian, a chocolate lover by birth, I chose chocolate. Very soon I learned that each bean has its own flavour, like grapes in wine. I really got excited about making chocolate and discovered that there was a new movement going on in the chocolate scene, the bean-to-bar movement. We got so excited that 18 months after we produced our first chocolate bar in our kitchen laboratory, my girlfriend and I found ourselves in Nicaragua with a chocolate factory in an old colonial building.
When did you start your company — and with whom? How many are there of you?
We started Lapa-Lapa in 2017. Currently it is just my girlfriend and I.
What mission have you set yourselves for making chocolate?
We want to make the best chocolate we can with purely Nicaraguan cocoa in the country of origin. We aim to discover unique beans and try to release all the natural flavours that can be found in a cacao bean.
Where do you want to go next? New bars? New beans? New markets?
We want to find new quality beans in Nicaragua to make more dark chocolate. We focus on the beans and don’t have any intention of putting anything else in the bars other than cocoa and sugar (cacao butter if needed). As we are living in a cocoa producing country we also want to learn more about the plantations, the growing techniques and the fermentation.
With regard to new markets, we just started selling our chocolate and we want to sell wherever our chocolate is needed.
What is the story behind your company name?
Lapa-Lapa is a legend of a golden creature that lives in Nicaragua. He is obsessed with cocoa. At night, Lapa-Lapa roams around the jungles and hills of Nicaragua in search of the best cocoa beans of the country. With the same passion, we make our chocolate from bean to bar in Nicaragua, the country of Lapa-Lapa!
Who designed your packaging – and what are you most proud of about your packaging?
Emily Swaeb, a Belgian friend of ours, designed the packaging. She did a very nice job. We love the Lapa-Lapa itself, the colours, the golden cocoa tree and the flavour profile of the bean. We like to offer a full experience when buying this chocolate and create a feeling that you discover our chocolate just as Lapa-Lapa discovers a new bean in the jungle.
How did you source your beans?
We found our first bean when we were still making chocolate in Belgium. As we loved this bean so much, we actually followed the bean to Nicaragua where we started our factory.
What inspired your choice of wrapper/mould design?
Lapa-Lapa and his adventures. The golden wrapper will give you the impression that you found a treasure in the jungle, just like Lapa-Lapa. When you open the wrapper, you will find the mysterious Lapa-Lapa on the bar itself, staring at you with a cocoa pod in his hands.
What innovations in tech, crafting, marketing etc. are you pursuing?
We are working on some special crafting techniques. Unfortunately, these are classified “top-secret”. Marketing wise, we like to mix adventure and style. This is how we look at chocolate and also at life in general. Dark chocolate is all about the beans. These beans are only found in tropical countries, full of adventures. You need to remind the customers that cocoa is a product that comes from the tropics. Making chocolate from bean to bar, especially in the country of origin, is an adventure and is, preferably, to be done in style.
What is your favourite food? Wine? Other chocolate makers?
My favourite food? That’s a difficult question. I like pure and strong flavours like truffles, oysters and old cheese.
Wine: Bordeaux, Barolo, Brunello or a good Argentine Malbec.
Other chocolate makers: Fruition, A. Morin, Amadei, Beau cacao, Chocolatoa and Dandeloin.
What chocolate achievement are you most proud of to date?
Our first chocolate, the Lapa-Lapa Rugoso, and our factory setup in a colonial house in Granada.
Is there anything else you want to tell us, or you think our customers should know?
Everybody is welcome to visit our chocolate factory in the beautiful city of Granada. It is worth the trip.
Who farms them? What’s their mission? How long have they been growing cacao (co-op, the farmer, bean supplier)
The beans are grown in the province of Matagalpa, in the center of Nicaragua. It is a cooperative of 400 growers that are fully aware of the genetics they are growing on their farms. They separate the different genetics and afterwards each genetic is fermented in a different way by a company named Ingemann. It’s a wonderful cooperation which makes producing single-bean chocolate possible. Ingemann focuses on the fermentation/drying and the logistics. The farmer in turn, can concentrate fully on his plantation. Furthermore, Ingemann have a contract with the farmers to buy all the cocoa they produce for 30 years at a much higher price than the international price and they pay for the wet mass!
When are the harvests?
November/December and April/May
What is the fermentation like? How long is it? What do they use?
The fermentation is done in big wooden crates. They use the cascade system. It is a purely natural fermentation. The time of fermentation, the amount of turns, the drying time depend on the bean itself. The fermentation depends on the plantation, the harvest, the climate, etc.
How are the beans dried?
In the sun.
How is the cacao transported?
As it is in our backyard, we are picking up the beans with our truck. Always a joyful ride.
How did you find them? (Sent a sample, visited them, etc.)
On the internet.
Are there any unique steps/special tweaks to this recipe? (Without revealing any secrets!)
There aren’t any really unique steps in our process, except for the roasting of course which is each chocolate maker’s secret.
What machinery has been used?
Drum roaster, home-made winnower, stone grinders, tempering machine, cooling system.
Any other notable ingredients? (e.g particular sugar, milk or additional flavour)
No, only cocoa and sugar. Until now we didn’t need to add any cocoa butter either.
Roughly how long does it take? How long is roast, conche, ageing?
In total 3 weeks, including ageing of course.