Ecuadorian chocolate has been enjoying an increase in worldwide popularity over the past few years. If you talk about chocolate with any Ecuadorian worth their salt, they will quickly point out that Pacari, an Ecuadorian chocolate company, has won dozens of international awards over the past two years, beating out traditional European chocolate makers time and time again.
After decades of merely exporting their cacao internationally, entrepreneurs in Ecuador are realizing how good their cacao is and how much pride (and money) can come from producing chocolate bars from their own cacao right here in their own country.
We had to see for ourselves what distinguishes Ecuadorian chocolate from bars processed by the premier chocolatiers around the world. After a month of traveling around Ecuador, and 21 bars later, we found out.
What Makes Ecuadorian Chocolate So Special?
What's so special about Ecuadorian cacao, you might ask?
Well, only about 5% of the cacao beans grown in the world are gourmet beans, or ‘fine aroma' cacao. Impressively, about 60% of these fine cacao beans are grown in Ecuador.
Perhaps the best of the best is the Nacional bean type. Nacional beans tend to produce floral and/or fruity notes in the finished chocolate products. Also, the flavor of the beans varies depending on the environment in which the beans are grown.
There is truly something unique about this bean and the terroir in Ecuador: attempts at growing Nacional cacao in other countries, even when the plant has thrived, have failed to produce the variety of floral notes achieved in Ecuador.
I've told you all of this so that you don't think I'm a gluttonous fat kid for having eaten 21 different chocolate bars during our time in Ecuador. When you're in a specific location that makes something so unique from everything else in the world, you've got to try it, right? Right.
One Month, 21 Chocolate Bars
The following is a summary of the 21 bars we had during our stay in Ecuador. Does your favorite make the list?
Hoja Verde 72% Cacao: Surprisingly good considering we'd never read anything about this brand in our research of Ecuadorian chocolate. The texture wasn't as creamy as some of the other bars but it was decent. The flavor was sweet for a 72% bar.
La Universal: Easily the worst chocolate bar we tried in Ecuador. It was sickeningly sweet, hardly tasted like chocolate, and the texture was very chalky and not smooth or milky at all. Gross.
Valdivian Gold 72% Cacao: This bar had a very crisp snap and was relatively one-dimensional in terms of flavor. If you like really dark chocolate, you'll probably like this bar, but we felt it was missing the complexity of flavors of other bars with similar cacao content.
Republica del Cacao: The overall theme of this brand is it is expensive. We're talking $6.73 for a 70g bar (in the grocery store!), whereas most other Ecuadorian bars are $3 for 70g. We first tried the 75% bar which had a nice creamy texture but wasn't very memorable.
The second bar we tried was the 75% with coffee nibs. I did like the added crunch of the nibs, and intense coffee flavors, but even with the delicious flavor I still don't think I can justify spending this much money on a chocolate bar (in Ecuador, at least).
Republica del Cacao reached out to us after publishing this post and offered us to try more bars after we returned home.
Pacari: In general, we didn't really care for most of the flavored Pacari bars. The texture was typically chalky, crumbly, and not creamy. We kept trying bar after bar of flavored Pacari bars because we thought they were supposed to be so internationally acclaimed, but through this process I realized that I just really don't like ‘stuff' in my chocolate, and their plain bars are where it's at.
- Chili: I thought this bar was too sweet and had way too much salt, creating a really unpleasant sweet/salty effect. Jeremy really liked this bar, however.
- Lemongrass: The lemongrass flavor is very subtle and the chocolate was too sweet for my taste. The flavor grew on Jeremy, though, although the intensity of the lemongrass flavor varied from bite to bite.
- Hand-Pulled Caramel: Not really sure what the point of this bar is. The “caramel” is really more like bits of taffy, which are so small that you really can't taste them at all.
- Andean Blueberry: One of the better flavored bars, but I still don't like stuff in my chocolate.
- Cherry: The cherries are nice and sour which contrasts well with the sweeter chocolate. One of the few flavored bars that we bought more of to mail home.
- Raw 70% Cacao with Salt and Nibs: The only flavored bar that I fell absolutely in love with. The chocolate is sufficiently dark such that the salt enhances the flavor of the bar rather than creating a weird sweet/salty combo. The crunchy nibs give a nice contrast in texture to the intensely creamy chocolate.
- Raw, 70% Cacao: The bar that we should have bought over and over again instead of all the other flavored Pacari bars. The flavors were so complex and interesting that my tongue did a double take the first time I tried it. I'm not very good at identifying specific flavors when I taste chocolate, but I definitely got the fruity notes in this bar, especially berries at the front and citrus notes at the back. The creamy texture of this bar was the complete opposite of the texture of the flavored bars.
Kallari: Our overall favorite Ecuadorian chocolate brand. The quality and texture of the flavored bars was much better, in our opinion, than that of the Pacari flavored bars. But the real star was their solid chocolate bars. We also like the fact that this company is a cooperative of native Quichua people and is socially and environmentally responsible- they're Certified Organic and Rainforst Alliance Certified.
- 75% Cacao with Vanilla: Very slight vanilla flavor, very crispy snap to the bar, dark and bitter tasting with little milkiness.
- 73% Cacao with Banana Chips: Another one of those, “what were they thinking?” bars. The banana chips are really small flakes and they're not very sweet or crunchy like I was expecting, but rather mushy and salty. Skip it.
- 70% with Ginger and Salt: I do love salt in my dark chocolate bars. The ginger adds a nice spiciness, too.
- 72% Cacao with Chili and Cinnamon: Heaven. My mouth felt warm when eating this from a combination of the mild chili flavor and the smoky, spicy cinnamon flavor.
- 60% Cacao with Roasted Coffee Beans: A sweeter chocolate contrasts well with the tannic coffee bean chunks. The coffee bean pieces were smaller in this bar than in the Republica del Cacao bar and gave a more uniform coffee flavor.
- 70% Cacao: I kept going back and forth between this bar and the Pacari Raw 70% bar, trying to figure out which one I liked better. The Pacari bar definitely has more complex flavors and is more bitter, while the Kallari bar has a milkier texture. They're both fantastic so it's really hard to choose one over the other; I guess it just depends what mood you're in!
- 75% Cacao: This bar has a snappier texture and more complexity in flavor than the 70% bar. For when you're feeling sophisticated and classy.
Mindo: This small chocolate maker in Mindo is focused on high quality, innovative products. If you visit Mindo you can tour their small experimental laboratory and their small-scale garden in which they grow all the things they need to produce their chocolate bars. We tried their 67% cacao bar and the 77% cacao bar with ginger. Both of these bars tasted more bitter to us than other bars with similar cacao content, but the texture of both was nice and creamy. If you're in Michigan, look for their bars- they have a production facility there and their bars can be found in retail stores throughout the state.
It's hard work eating 21 chocolate bars in less than 30 days, but someone's gotta do it.
A Little Souvenir For Later
Of course, after going through this experiment we had to buy a few bars to ship home for later:
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