Without additives, cacao beans are bitter, but pulverized and doctored with other ingredients such as chili peppers, cinnamon or nuts, colonial producers, and indigenous tribes before them, managed to make the beans into a palatable beverage. Before the cacao beverage took off in Europe, it became a hit in the colonies of New Spain.
To satisfy colonial demand, the Spanish began harvesting cacao beans commercially on plantations in coastal Ecuador. Popularity of the product spread. By the middle of the 17th century, hot chocolate, sweetened with sugar, had become a popular beverage among the elite class of Europe. Fancy chocolate houses opened, attracting customers who wished to enjoy the company of others drinking cacao. Chocolate parties were held. Tableware designed specifically for serving and drinking cocoa came on the market. Recipes were closely guarded secrets.
By the mid-1800s, cacao comprised over half of Ecuador’s exports, spurred by the price drop in imported products and the mechanization of production that made drinking chocolate affordable to the masses. As the boom era of cacao progressed, Ecuador became the world’s largest producer of cacao beans and Europe its largest buyer. The flavorful Arriba cacao bean industry of the Guayas basin transformed the region. New towns such as Vinces in Los Rios Province emerged, and others grew. Wealthy cacao barons made the valley their home when they weren’t hobnobbing abroad with their European customers.
And then disaster struck. First in 1916 and again in 1919, two unheard of fungal diseases attacked the coastal Arriba trees. Ecuador’s crop plummeted to less than ten percent of the world’s annual production. Over time, western Ecuador’s cacao industry adjusted, but it never fully recovered. In areas once exclusively planted in Arriba cacao, producers began planting hybrid species.
To blunt the economic impact of a future weather-related catastrophe, cacao production moved into artificial shade and the sun, unnatural growing conditions that necessitated irrigation, fertilizers and herbicides. Hybrid cacao varieties could endure these shifting agricultural practices but without the forest canopy, Arriba beans could not. It was the end of the mammoth cacao hacienda-dominated industry. Cacao production became the province of small family-based farms as it remains today.
More troubles were in store. In April, 1998, El Nino caused torrential rainfall, flooding and mudslides in the coastal lowlands, wiping out trees and drastically reducing the yield of those that survived. More Arriba cacao trees here were replaced with hardier, hybrid varieties such as CCN-51.
Southern Explorations offers travel to Ecuador in various regions including Galapagos Islands tours, combinations with Machu Picchu hiking tours and Ecuador Amazon adventure vacations that will give visitors on Ecuador tours opportunities to experience Arriba chocolate.
For a detailed account of the evolution of chocolate, read The Chocolate Tree, A Natural History of Cacao by Allen M. Young; and “The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in the Early Modern World,” published in the Journal of Social History, by Ross W. Jamieson, which are among the sources for this article.