Cacao Plantations in Panama: Full Guide for Chocolate Lovers

When talking about premium chocolate, Panama is one of the best sources in the world. Almost all the cacao in the world comes from the Amazon basin and Central America. With some of the best terrain to grow cocoa beans, Panama has a rich history with this beloved foodstuff.

The history of chocolate goes as far back as the Pre-Colombian period. Panama’s history with the cocoa bean is not as defined as other places in Central America. Even then, tribes like the Ngobe people have a long tradition with the bean. Today, Panama’s fair trade cacao is among the backbones of Central American chocolate.

If you’re curious where your premium chocolate comes from, Panama is a likely source. Look at how it works. You can even start sourcing your chocolate needs from here.

Understanding the History of Chocolate

old book of history with chocolate

The history of chocolate goes as far back as a few thousand years in the old Mesoamerica. The cacao tree is native to these parts of the world, most in Mexico and Central America. Many archaeological researchers note at its presence in 11th-century vessels. They found remnants in many Mexican burial sites dating a few thousand years.

The earliest testable use of cacao goes as far back as the 3500 BC in Southeast Ecuador. Many glyphs noted to have spelled “kakaw” under rough translation. Many of the people who cultivated the cocoa bean were the Olmecs as a ritual drink.

Much of its use in olden Mesoamerica was not like the candy we know it today. As a matter of fact, the use of the chocolate drink did not involve any sweetness or sugars at all.

Many of the old native tribes processed cocoa nibs or cocoa grounds. These nibs will undergo further grinding into a paste with other spices. The resulting paste-like material will then mix with water. This method creates a sort of bitter spiced drink.

This proto-chocolate drink is xocoatl, which translates to “bitter drink.” This combined with chilis, creating a bitter but refreshing drink. Aztec royalty like Montezuma II and his cronies enjoyed such privilege.

Much of the value of cacao was from its use as a sort of proto-currency among the Mayans. Its importance was so significant that its value is reminiscent of coins. For 100 beans, for example, you can get a canoe full of fresh water or even a slave.

The Spread of Cacao To Europe

One of the most well-known stories about chocolate comes from the conquistadors. While Christopher Columbus was the first to encounter the cocoa bean, it did not catch up. It was not until Hernan Cortes saw its use in the Aztec king Montezuma II’s court.

In his exploits, chronicles list Montezuma II drinking goblets upon goblets of xocoatl. These came in big jars, and Montezuma demanded a continued supply of these beans. It was a belief that the concoction gave men virility. Montezuma believed this so much that he only gave it to himself and his military.

Once Cortes decided to invade the tribals of Mesoamerica, he also coopted the cocoa beans. At first, their use in Spain was only for their medicinal properties. People thought of using them as a remedy due to their inherent bitterness.

Once the use of sugar and honey came to pass, it became what we know these days as the cocoa drink. Sweeteners removed the inherent bitterness of the beans. Spaniards used to add spices on their cocoa drink until the habit faded into the 18th century.

Chocolate became widespread across Europe, so much so that people were crazy about it. Because of the sheer manual work that it needs, cacao became more famous in line with slavery. As most of the Mesoamerican workers perished to disease, Europe moved their plantations.

Many European countries transferred their plantations in Africa, using wage laborers and slaves. As new processes came, the Dutch discovered ways to separate cocoa butter. This allowed for a more consistent chocolate product, making the “modern” chocolate.

Cacao Farming in Panama and Central America

For a while, Central America did not have an active market for chocolate. Most of the chocolate used worldwide was from West Africa. Many came from the Ivory Coast, which was super productive. Almost two-thirds of the world’s chocolate production comes from this side of the world.

The second most significant source of cocoa beans in the world is Indonesia. They produce almost around 660,000 metric tons of cacao every year. Countries like Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru make up the top 10 cocoa bean producers.

Panama, for its size, is a prolific producer of cocoa beans. It’s well into the top 40 chocolate producing countries in the world, 662 metric tons of cacao. While this is not even 1% of what West Africa can provide, its quality is where it sets itself apart.

Panamanian chocolate is what we know as high-quality chocolate. This gourmet chocolate variety grows under excellent conditions, many of which are organic. Cocoa beans did not receive any pesticide treatments, giving them a cleaner flavor.

What also makes Panama’s chocolate superior is the fair trade quality of the cocoa farms. Fairtrade is the concept of paying the farmers more, in exchange for some quality standards. It allows farmers to get more out of cocoa bean production and cacao futures.

How did Panama restart their chocolate economy? The story is not as old as you think.

Why Did Panamanians Decide to Sell Cocoa Beans?

hands with cocoa beans

Most of the gourmet chocolate that comes out of Central America, Panama in particular, comes from the premium demand for chocolates. In 2008, the recession caused global chocolate demand to go higher than ever. The prices for chocolate went as much as double digits because of the low supply.

A significant demand for premium chocolate comes from the growing taste for dark chocolate. Much of the growing market at the time look at chocolate’s health benefits. People are starting to tout the positive effects of dark chocolate. When compared to traditional milk chocolate, dark chocolate has more benefits.

This sudden growth in taste for chocolate created a two-fold impact on the industry. First, people have an increase in demand for chocolate products. North America and Europe had a taste for it before. Now, developing nations from the Asia-Pacific region developed an appetite for it.

The other impact in the chocolate industry came from higher demand for cacao. Dark chocolate has a higher concentration of cocoa in it. This results in more cocoa beans needed per ounce of the product.

In 2008, Panamanians started to take advantage of this demand by starting their farms. It takes around five years for a cacao tree to bear fruit, with a growing period of about a decade. Many Panamanians understood years before that there was a demand for their produce.

Looking At Cacao Plantations In Panama

A good chunk of Panama’s chocolate production comes from small farms. Many small and indigenous farmers are planting cocoa in their backyards. Among these indigenous communities are the Ngäbe natives.

The Ngäbe people are a native of the Panama-Costa Rica border region. This encompasses western Panama, in Bocas Del Toro, Veraguas, and Chiriqui. Half of their lands are arable, with varying terrain types and altitudes.

The history of the Ngäbe people with the cacao tree goes as far back as the conquistadors. During the colonialization, most of the Ngäbe people went into the mountains. These mountainous areas have less arable land but more suitable for cacao trees.

The modern history of cacao with Panamanians comes as late as the 90s. During this time, many locals stopped growing cacao. A growing fungal infestation hit their cacao trees, driving prices down.

Now, Panamanian farmers are back on the market, using small farm cooperatives. These cooperatives help set prices and protect the farmers from unscrupulous buyers. They understand how strong the demand is for cocoa and the premium it commands.

Why Panamanian Chocolate Are Premium

As we said before, three keywords are dominating the value of Panamanian chocolate. These keywords are:

  • Organic
  • Fairtrade
  • Ethical

Why should you care if your chocolate is organic, fairtrade, or ethical? If you care about the quality of life of the people producing your food, these are vital.

Organic is a marketing buzzword. The word means farmers are not using harmful pesticides for their crops. There is no difference in the taste or final output of these crops.

Organic, however, prevents heavy pesticide use. The entire process is all-natural – a word whose value varies from people to people.

What we know is that organic cacao has superior value. When you compare them to non-organic crops, people are likely to buy organic. This gives Panama’s cacao farmers better chances to get more value out of their products.

Fairtrade and ethical sourcing go hand in hand. Fairtrade provides indigent cacao farmers the resources to get fair market price for their cacao. Why was there a need for fair trade policies?

For many years, the price of cacao was not competitive for many farmers. The farm gate value of cacao was not enough to sustain the amount of work and time needed for it. In many parts of the world, farm owners tried to squeeze more through unethical means.

For example, West Africa’s Ivory Coast had a history of using unethical child labor practices for their cocoa farms. This forced labor abused children for the sake of lowering the cost of cacao farming. Many questioned this unethical means of cacao farming, which affected the value of chocolate.

A movement towards ethical farming practices developed. Fairtrade policies drummed up to assure that farms follow ethical standards and keep product quality. For a better farm gate value, cacao farmers will only provide ethically-sourced products.

This movement created different benefits for farmers. First, people stopped using forced or child labor in their farms. By keeping to the standards of quality many chocolate providers ask for, farmers get to sell premium value cocoa beans.

Growing Cacao in Panama

cacao tree with a yellow cabossa fruit

Which areas in Panama grow cacao trees and produce premium chocolates? As we noted, most of Panama’s chocolates come from its western side. These are what we know as the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca, which are indigenous reserve lands.

In the Comarca, Bocas Del Toro, Veraguas, and Chiriqui. Along Bocas Del Toro, a good chunk of indigents use cacao as a cash crop alternative.

To do so, they take on different challenges to produce the chocolate that many of us take for granted.

For starters, many of the indigenous chocolate farmers in Bocas Del Toro come from hard to reach areas. They hail from areas such as Tierra Oscura, where there are no roads or any proper transportation. Many indigents come from the mountains and travel via boat or foot to move their cacao.

Many indigent men and women from the local tribes do their share of work on the cacao. The men tend to go out to the plantations to handle farming and harvesting the cacao pods. This is among the most dangerous parts of the production process itself.

Most cacao trees don’t grow in orchards, but rather in managed forest areas. These cacao trees grow with other trees in the area, within the general ecology of the forest.

This terroir, much like its value in wines and coffee, helps dictate the quality of cocoa beans. Things like proper soil, climate, fermentation, local ecology, and drying has a strong effect on cacao’s flavor. Panama provides the perfect conditions to get superior quality chocolate from these cacao trees.

Fermenting Cacao to Cocoa Beans

Once the cacao pods are ripe for harvesting, the locals will open these pods and remove the placenta. The placenta will contain valuable beans that will undergo fermentation and drying.

Most of the current cocoa farms in Panama use a fermentation box. Fermentation allows for the cocoa beans’ pulp, known as baba, will start to hydrolyze. Yeast, enzymes, and bacteria will eat this pulp, breaking into sugars and carbon dioxide.

Over time, a combination of anaerobic and aerobic processes will start an exothermic process. The beans will heat up, produce acids and alcohols, and start intensifying the flavor of the cocoa bean.

Raw cocoa beans are very bitter and harsh flavors in them. Through this fermentation process, the seed creates much of its deeper flavor profiles. We know that as much as 70% of the quality of cocoa beans come from the fermentation process itself.

Local cacao farmers in Panama rely on their fermentation boxes to improve the quality of their beans. The dry, moist air and the fair-weather in Panama are crucial in the fermentation process itself. Fermented cocoa beans, however, don’t have the right flavor similar to chocolate nibs yet.

To further develop cocoa beans into chocolate, beans need to undergo the drying process.

Drying Cocoa Beans to Chocolate Nibs

The goal of drying cocoa beans is to remove as much of the moisture out of the bean as possible. Fermented cacao starts with around 60% moisture content in the beans itself. The final goal is to reach about 6 to 7.5% moisture. Anything below 6% will make the cocoa bean dry and brittle, creating a crumbly consistency.

Cocoa beans need to dry in a prolonged process to help the fermentation process to finish. If you dry them too fast, the beans will be very bitter, resulting in low-quality cocoa beans. You want an internal bean temperature of around 149 F (65 C).

To achieve this, native cocoa farmers in Panama use the sun drying method. This involves spreading out the beans on wooden mats under the sun. Farmers rake the cacao flat, allowing for uniform drying of all beans.

Some drying beds have a moveable roof that can cover the bed. This feature lets the cacao farmers cover their beans during rains. Rains can destroy and spoil the entire process, lowering the potential quality of the cocoa.

Sun-drying varies depending on the location and the intensity of the dry season. In many areas in Central and South America, drying can last between 5 to 7 days. In Panama, the locals do the drying process for as long as 10 days.

Panama’s geography, its dense jungles, and proximity to the sea can impact the drying process. The extended days of drying can be problematic to the locals, as a single day of rain can ruin the beans.

Selling the Cocoa Beans

cocoa beans in a container

Once the beans are dry, the farmers will bring them to the cooperative. From here, they have different options to take advantage of their chocolate.

First, the cooperative will either buy the cacao from them and sell the cocoa to their buyers. This move allows the farmer to exchange their cacao and get good money from the transaction. Much of this comes from fair trade cooperation with many first-world chocolate manufacturers.

The other option is to produce premium chocolate products from their cacao. Panama’s premium chocolate has a growing reputation among tourists. Because some people don’t get enough from selling their cacao via trade, some try other ways to sell.

Many native Ngäbe people start to sell products infused with the premium chocolate locals sell. Once the locals learn steps on how to convert their cacao to chocolate, natives create unique products to market. This process includes everything from designer chocolates with plantains, coconut, and even vanilla.

By selling their products, they increase the value of their cocoa beans. Another way of selling their cacao is not via products but experiences.

Looking at Panama’s Cocoa Tours

Much of Panama’s cacao industry improves the value of their cacao with cacao tours. Bocas Del Toro is famous for its chocolate tours, allowing tourists to see how they produce their cacao.

Since much of Panamanian chocolate farms follow excellent organic farming standards, this entices many tourists. Their ethical farming practices of cacao also increases the value of their goods further.

Most of the cacao eco-tours last for around 3 to 4 hours, depending on where you are. The chocolate tour starts by letting tourists go into the tropical rainforests that contain the cacao plantations. Much of these plantations are accessible via boat travels, which also lets tourists see native wildlife.

The tour will start with a quick history of Panama chocolates, together with local flora and fauna. The journey itself has several activities, which include letting tourists open cacao pods to see raw beans. The guides will teach the tourists about their local farming methods and how they process their cacao.

Tourists will see the cacao in various stages of production, even allowing some to try traditional cacao processing methods. Some farms will also do factory tours if there is one in the area accessible for a visit. They would even allow sampling of their local produce so tourists can enjoy 100% organic chocolate.

Chocolate Manufacturing in Panama

Premium chocolates from Panama don’t only come from small farmers. There are also more prominent local chocolate manufacturers who take advantage of Panama’s high-quality cacao. One of the most prominent manufacturers is Oro Moreno.

Oro Moreno is the home branded chocolate manufacturer of Panama. Part of their pride stems from their “tree to bar” production. They use the same cacao from their farms and produce their superior quality chocolates.

Much of Oro Moreno’s work involves handling the cacao from start to finish. By working with a sustainable forest fund, they get to create a superb terroir for their cocoa to start in. They ferment and dry their beans along Bocas Del Toro. Oro Moreno then continues manufacturing in their artisanal factory.

What makes Oro Moreno a good choice for Panamanian chocolates is what they embody. Their chocolate checks all the boxes for Panama cacao. They’re organic, with most of their cacao coming from indigenous farmers. Their 150 hectares of cacao plantations have ethical sourcing, which allows for a premium chocolate bar.

Why does ethical sourcing matter these days? People now show concern where their food comes from. Because of such concerns, much of their chocolates come from cacao that does not abuse its farmers.

Much of Oro Moreno’s premium chocolates come in the form of seasonal designs. Together with their standard offerings, they also provide seasonal chocolates for different events. They offer chocolates during Christmas and Pascua (Easter) too.

The Future of Chocolates in Panama

more kinds of chocolate

What’s next for Panamanian chocolate? Panama’s cocoa farms are still on the cusp of development. Their farming techniques and facilities still need support, together with other materials for moving their cacao.

For starters, native farmers still need proper support from the government. Roads and more transportation options can help more impoverished farmers move their products. They can save more of their transportation costs and move faster than ever.

Another concern for small cacao farmers is the processing centers for their beans. Many indigenous farmers need specialized equipment in both fermentation and drying. Many of these processing facilities need custom construction, which means time and money.

Many farmers would also benefit from a better price point for their cacao. Fairtrade policies are significant for the farmers, but they need to get more out of it. Not all the chocolate they produce passes quality standards, so a better way to use such cacao will be useful.

A superior price point for their chocolate can also help them keep current ethical standards. Much of the challenge of keeping ethical standards is the need to lower costs and create more significant margins. If farmers can get a bigger margin from their crops, they not only sustain their farms but grow as a producer.

The chocolate industry in Panama still needs to grow further. Farmers would need a way to rise from farming the cacao and getting meager payments. By learning further skills, they can handle the production itself and create products on their own.

The idea is for farmers to have a way to take advantage of their chocolate. While they’re providing their cocoa beans for international manufacturers, processing it to chocolate can net them more money.

Conclusion

Cacao plantations in Panama are some of the best in the world. Premium chocolate comes from the superior beans that Panamanian farms produce. With the growing demand for top-quality chocolates, cocoa beans from Panama are there to fill it.

Panama’s history with cacao goes as far back as the ancient times, with natives working on the cacao farms. While Panamanians stopped growing cacao in the 90s, the product is making a comeback. Among the growing chocolate industry in Panama, small and big providers are there for you.

Most of the local farmers are native Ngäbe people from mountainous areas. Through fairtrade agreements, they get to produce premium cacao. Manufacturers will use these on organic, ethically-sourced chocolates for you to enjoy.

Some more prominent local chocolate producers will take care of the cacao. They will go from tree to bar, handling the entire process to create high-value Panamanian chocolates. If you love chocolate, Panama’s chocolates are among the best in the world.

If you’re a chocolate lover, you can also take advantage of local eco-tours. These tours will show you the entire process of farming cacao, from the trees to the pods, and processing them. You will be able to taste it fresh and even made with your own hands.

Modern cacao farmers in Panama would need better support and technology to go beyond farming. By giving them a method to take advantage of their produce, native Panamanians can go beyond selling their cacao beans.

Are you curious about chocolates from Panama? There’s more to it than meets the eye, so you should experience it yourself. Taste every bit and take some home, and enjoy their delicious taste with every bite.

Matt Romero

I’m Matthew Romero, one of the guys behind PanamaLifeInsider.com I am incredibly passionate about Panama, its beautiful territory, and all the incredible opportunities which offer to people coming here from all over the world both either visiting and settling. In this blog, I decided to share my passion with you!

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