Piura, northern Peru: fair trade cacao and coffee

Santiago carefully picks his way through the scattered cacao beans laid out on the table, making selections with a trained eye and placing them in a customised folding tray in front of him. The tray has placeholders for the beans and he fills it row by row. But this is not a tray for display. After it is filled, he folds the tray over, sealing the beans in place. The tray is designed to check the quality of the cacao beans, and it comes with its own built-in guillotine blade. A quick swipe downwards from Santiago and the beans have been sliced in half. He opens the tray to expose the newly-decapitated beans and examines their insides.

Checking the bean quality is an intricate process and this is just one part. The final check is a taste test, but to get to that part requires another few steps. Santiago claims to look after ‘tourism’-related activities but he’s clearly steeped in cacao knowledge. Dressed in a CEPICAFE t-shirt and light waistcoat, he walks me through the process. From the same batch of beans we took some of the ones that had survived the guillotine and placed them in a mini roaster, separate from the ones that roast the coffee. After roasting the shells need to come off and the beans ground up. Grinding is non-technical – hand power is used. Out of that come the cacao nibs. However, the next stage uses white cylindrical tubs with numerous wires and plastic protruding skywards. Looking more like they should be in a hospital, these tubs turn the nibs into cacao liquor. Then it’s poured into small tasting trays and placed in the fridge until Santiago is ready to taste test.

Into Peru
The day before visiting CEPICAFE, the co-op that Santiago works for, I arrived in Piura, northern Peru, on an overnight bus from southern Ecuador. After several weeks in the cooler mountains I was now in the hot, parched flatlands of Piura.

Piura is the main town of the Piura region and was my base for a few days, offering an opportunity to visit a couple of different fair trade co-ops. In common with Ecuador and Colombia, my first sense of Peru was a mix of the relatively affluent and modern (gated houses, a private leisure club, cafes and hotels) together with the more chaotic hustle that characterised the markets, dusty streets and unfinished or rundown buildings of poorer areas. There is a very pleasant central square, an upmarket hotel facing onto it, and it even had a vegetarian restaurant.

It was hard to believe that Piura, a dusty, hot low-lying town, could be home to a coffee co-operative. But because it is the largest town in the region, it works well as a central base for coffee and cacao producers who live in the interior. This particular co-operative, CEPICAFE (coffee producers of central Piura) is large and has a diverse range of products – coffee, cacao, panela (sugar) and fruit juices and jams.

The co-op office is located just outside of the town centre and I arrived unannounced on a hot, sunny morning. Again, I wasn’t sure what might happen – and neither were they – but after an uncertain few minutes I was given the ok for a tour.

This co-op is particularly unique, given its office (and warehouse) location, size and its products. Most producers live quite a distance away up in the high hills but this location in Piura is a step forward. They have a modern operation here and my first glimpse of it was with a young lad called Ivan, who showed all the equipment they use to make batches of fruit pulp for jams and juice. Alas it was out of season so I didn’t get to see the operation running.

The main emphasis of the co-op is in cacao and coffee. It wasn’t coffee harvest season either, so when I first saw the massive warehouse it looked noticeably empty. Only four years old, it was the largest facility I’d seen on my trip; at harvest time they process a huge amount of coffee.

But when it’s not coffee season there is the cacao. The hub of the action, and the fun, is in the quality lab. The lab is at the upstairs in the warehouse and is used for coffee and cacao tasting; today it was cacao.

Very high quality cacao is produced within the co-op. According to Santiago Paz Lopez, the co-op Manager, “we have some of the best cacao in the world”. calls it the gold of Piura, such is its quality and value. One of their varieties of cacao won 1st in a national competition. Earlier in the day that I was there one of CEPICAFE’s US clients visited – a well-known fair trade chocolate producer who have exacting quality requirements.

The warehouse was on the other side of town, so I accompanied Martin there on a tuk-tuk ride from the office. He explained to me that the co-op handles a range of different standards of coffee. Most carry an organic standard as well as one or more fair trade certifications (e.g. FLO, CLAC). Martin had been with the co-op for 12 years and as we wandered around the warehouse he was happy to talk to me for a while about the co-op. However, because my visit was outside of coffee harvest season, the warehouse had an air of slumber about it, except for when we arrived at the quality lab, which was crowded and alive with activity.

Back in the lab, I watched intently as Santiago and his team put the cacao through its paces. As well as conducting the ‘guillotine’ test the cacao needs to be given clearly it’s most important test – tasting. Who could refuse?

Santiago was ready to give the liquor a try. The chilled liquor was softened (in the microwave) and after a few seconds he handed me a little tasting spoon and I dived into the softened cacao. We tasted two varities and I was surprised how easy it was to notice the difference. Despite that, I had to make sure and I was keen to repeat the process…several times.

-created in 1995, current Piura office opened in 2001
-approx 6,700 producers, all smallholders (1-2 hectares or less)
-four different cacao varieties, including one called cacao (gran) blanco and chulucanas, both highly valued
-producers live in the Amazonas, Tumbes, Cajamarca and Piura regions
-100% fair trade, 95% organic
-well-known clients include Equal Exchange, Theo chocolate, GEPA and Ethiquable