The Trinitario hybrid from Ecuador began commercial cultivation in 2008 and according to its creator George Loquvam, CEO of Cimarron Cocoa Estates, is superior to anything farmers have seen with the potential for yields of 4 MT per hectare annually.
‘Very little’ Nacional in next 10 years
Speaking to ConfectioneryNews, Loquvam said Sacha Gold is the biggest development in cocoa since CCN-51 was discovered in the 1960s and unlike its bulk cocoa counterpart can create a balanced chocolate without being blended.
He expects Sacha Gold will eventually overtake Ecuador’s prized Nacional (Arriba) variety as the nation’s top fine flavor cocoa.
According to George Loquvam, Sacha Gold was discovered at a farm in Ecuador in 2005. The Cimarron Cocoa Estates owner said the farm had 12-year old Trinitario trees that produced 1,000 pods a year due to a natural mutation. Loquvam started planting the variety – that became known as Sacha Gold – on his own farm in 2008. By 2012, he found that two of his Sacha Gold trees had stronger disease tolerance against Witch’s Broom and Frosty Pod Rot as well as a heavier pod flex than the rest. Cimarron Cocoa Estates were re-grafted in 2013. The company grows only two Sacha Gold varieties commercially, but it also cultivates some other varieties at the farm.
“In the next 10 years there will be very little Nacional available. We will replace Nacional as Ecuador’s fine flavor bean,” he claimed.
Frosty pod loss
Nacional variety Arriba Superior Época (ASE) makes up 37% of cocoa production in Ecuador, but is now followed closely by high-yielding bulk variety CCN-51, which accounts for 36%, according to a 2015 US Department of Agriculture report.
“The big problem with the slow departure of Nacional in Ecuador is it suffers from high Frosty Pod loss,” said Loquvam.
He said Nacional was hardly produced any longer in the Ecuadorian Amazon and where it is grown – mainly on the coast - it is often by multiple smallholders, whose beans are collected by exporters and mixed together, sometimes with bulk cocoa CCN-51.
These quality concerns prompted major cocoa trader Armajaro to quit its Ecuadorian operations in 2013, said Loquvam.
Ecuadorian Nacional beans today fetch around £150 ($196) per metric ton (MT) on top of the London market price, down from a premium of £500 ($652) per MT ten years ago as buyers struggle to guarantee quality, according to a previous interview with Valrhona’s procurement chief.
Loquvam said: “The exporter benefits from the premium but the farmer never sees that,” adding this has led farmers to plant CCN-51 due to limited incentives to grow Nacional.
Sacha Gold: High yield potential
Cimarron Cocoa Estates’ CEO claimed that Sacha Gold was an attractive alternative for farmers as well as chocolate makers.
The company is currently achieving annual yields of 3 MT per hectare for the oldest trees at its two 40-hectare plantations in Ecuador and expects yields to eventually rise to 4 MT per hectare when the trees reach full capacity.
Since 2010, Cimarron Cocoa Estates has sold 800,000 Sacha Gold trees across the Americas. Half were sold to a local government agency in Ecuador, while a large plantation in the country also planted 70 hectares of Sacha Gold.
The company has also exported 100,000 bud sticks to Peru and grows 35,000 Sacha Gold trees at its own plantation.
Sacha Gold has potential to yield 4 MT per hectare annually at commercial plantations and 2 MT at smallholder farms, says its creator. The global average yield for all varieties stood at 0.5 MT per hectare in 2013, according to the ICCO, while Ecuador’s average yields for 2016 are forecast at 0.58 MT per hectare, according to USDA estimates. CCN-51 yields average 0.5 to 2.5 MT for the best farmers, but is more like 0.5 MT for smallholders, says Loquvam.
A lifeline for smallholders?
“But we also sell a lot of trees to smallholder farmers, who see it as superior to anything they’ve ever seen,” said Loquvam, adding that it can grow in full sun unlike Nacional.
Cimarron Cocoa Estates is currently in talks with a large international NGO that is poised to order 700,000 trees over a four-year period.
Loquvam said a smallholder can eventually achieve 2 MT per hectare with Sacha Gold.
He said that a local Ecuadorian chocolatier is prepared to pay $500 MT above the New York cocoa price for the variety, but says $200 MT is typical premium.
Fruity notes in chocolate
Cimarron Cocoa Estates produces its own brand, which it sells in Los Angeles, US.
Loquvam said that Sacha Gold beans can be used alone to create a well-balanced chocolate with a fruity aftertaste without the need to blend with other varieties, as is common with high-yielding variety CCN-51.
The International Cocoa Organization has conferred fine flavor status for 75% of Ecuador cocoa exports, but its ad hoc panel – comprised of experts from Nestlé, Olam, Valrhona and others – has yet to evaluate Sacha Gold to Loquvam’s knowledge.
But the Cimarron Cocoa Estates owner said a top branded US chocolate firm already considers it fine flavor, while the University of Ghent is currently analyzing beans from the tree variety.
Sacha Gold has fruity notes compared to Nacional’s floral notes, according to Loquvam.
Sacha Gold raw nibs can be eaten alone or used as inclusions in desserts, smoothies or cereals, says the company.
Cimarron Cocoa Estates signed a deal with Blommer Chocolate and the Orellana provincial government to create a network of 1,000 farmers producing Sacha Gold trees. The participating farmers were given trees from Cimarron’s nursery and farmer field school training from Blommer Chocolate.
Loquvam said that Cimarron Cocoa Estates carefully ferments and dries the Sacha Gold beans at its plantations, but said smallholder often lack this capacity. He added limited funds exist to bring the beans from smallholders to a central collection facility, which could guarantee quality and consistency.
“Our volumes at present are not sufficient for a large chocolate manufacturer to have a sustained interest in it,” said the Cimarron founder.
However, he expects that to change as the recently planted Sacha Gold trees reach their full yield potential.
“A lot of the trees we sold are in the second or fourth year, so they are not yet at full capacity.”
He added that the cocoa industry is very conservative, evidenced by the almost 50 years it took from CCN-51 discovery to large scale cultivation.
Sacha Gold in Africa?
Sacha Gold has not yet been trialed outside of Central and South America.
“The problem of getting it to Africa is fear that Frosty Pod and Witch’s Broom would be imported to Africa,” said Loquvam.
He said the threat of disease transfer is a major limitation for moving cocoa varieties to new geographies.
Loquvam met with authorities in Côte D’Ivoire a few months ago, but said “they have no interest in importing different varieties due to the fear of disease”.
Loquvam accepts the risk is high – for example Witch’s Broom devastated Brazil’s cocoa production in the Eighties and Nineties – but he says there could still be a route into Africa for Sacha Gold if protocols are established.
“It’s a big risk to take but there are ways to limit that risk” he said.