Vintage winemaking in Belize: turning chocolate beans into wine

Did you know that the beans used to make chocolate can also be used to make a delicious wine? At Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize, Central America, we are turning cacao beans into wine every day!

Cotton Tree Lodge is an eco-lodge nestled deep in the tropical jungle of southern Belize beside the flowing Moho River, where guests can experience a unique adventure with sustainable tourism to local Mayan ruins, waterfalls, underwater caves, as well as a variety of cultural activities. Not only is Cotton Tree Lodge a destination for tourists seeking a peaceful getaway surrounded by pristine nature — it is also the site for some of the world’s most unique, locally sourced products; namely, Cotton Tree chocolate bars and a new product currently in development: cacao wine.

Cotton Tree Lodge’s sprawling hundred-acre property has dozens of mature cacao trees from which we get the beans for making our award-winning Cotton Tree chocolate.

Our experienced farmers harvest ripe pods and break them open to reveal a hidden jewel: white beans surrounded by a juicy white flesh. Historically, the ancient Maya once used these cacao beans as a currency, and today, farmers still strive to sell the best quality cacao beans for the most competitive price on the market.

The cacao beans are extracted and placed into burlap bags, delivered to our processing facility, where we collect the fruity-tasting juice. It is from this deliciously sweet, fruity juice that cacao wine is then made through a fermentation process that our resident food scientist intern, Hali, a recent graduate from Pennsylvania State University, is currently researching and developing at our processing facility at Cotton Tree Lodge.

After earning her Bachelor of Science in Food Science with a minor in International Agriculture, Hali knew she wanted to gain some valuable work experience that would set her apart from others. “I didn’t want to go get just any run-of-the-mill internship like everybody else was doing,” she related in a recent interview inside the thatched roof facility where she has been perfecting the fermentation process daily through trial and error–and a lot of patience, persistence and research.

Hali had traveled to Belize in 2014, where she bought a Cotton Tree chocolate bar in the airport. “I had to spend the rest of my Belizean dollars,” she said, “and I remember how good the chocolate was. So when I graduated, I emailed the owner and asked if he needed an intern in food science.”

It just so happened that Hali’s bold, back-door approach gained her entry into the world of bean-to-bar chocolate making in what some call the “chocolate center of the universe” — the southernmost district of Belize, Central America, where the rainfall and soil content are ideal for cultivating cacao saplings into mature, fruit-bearing trees within 3 to 6 years, depending on the variety.

Once Hali completes her three-month internship researching and developing cacao wine in Belize, she will return home to work as an assistant winemaker in Pennsylvania. “Since I interned at the winery back home,” Hali said, “I was invited to take on this project here in Belize.”

The cacao fruit juice is a by-product of chocolate making that–were it not for the creativity, resourcefulness and commitment to zero waste at Cotton Tree Lodge’s farm-to-table restaurant and resort–the cacao juice would simply drain off and go unused.

Hali works alongside a local Belizean farmer who is responsible for fermenting and drying the cacao beans, which will then be used to make Cotton Tree chocolate.

“Fermenting cacao juice into wine is like making any other fruit wine,” said Hali, who can be found avidly researching online whenever she is not busy testing out her process inside the facility. “You have to make sure the sugar is at a high enough level so you have enough alcohol for it to be classified as wine.”

Hali, with the help of her skilled assistant, a local Belizean farmer, is able to turn the cacao juice into wine through a fermentation process that takes about 4 to 6 days, depending on the ambient temperature, which is typically 85 degrees Fahrenheit or more on most days of the year. “It’s been cold here lately,” said Hali, “so some of our recent batches have been taking longer to ferment.”

The winemaking process represents Cotton Tree Chocolate company’s dedication to wise, sustainable use of local resources, because the cacao juice that is used to make the wine would otherwise go to waste.

“Normally, when farmers sell cacao, they harvest it the day before it is sold, put it into a burlap bag, and all the juice drains out,” food scientist Hali explained. “Whoever buys cacao isn’t buying the juice. They’re just buying wet cacao beans and whatever pulp is still around them.

“What we’re doing is buying wet cacao, putting wet beans into a perforated bucket and collecting the juice.”

After a month of trial and error, the process has become more productive and successful. Each week, the facility receives 30 buckets of wet cacao beans. Out of that, Hali is now able to produce about 6 buckets of cacao wine.

“By the time we get the beans here, the juice is already draining off,” Hali said, “so we get what we’re calling the first day juice. We let them sit overnight. It’s better, when you’re fermenting beans for chocolate, to have them kind of dry. You don’t want all that moisture. So we’ve been collecting the second day juice too.”

While the process is still in the research and development phase, the most recent guests at Cotton Tree Lodge who have been fortunate to taste test the first few batches of cacao wine gave it a thumbs up with helpful suggestions for improvement. Hali commented, “In the future, we hope to try and add something to sweeten the wine so it’s not quite so dry.”

“The cacao juice itself tastes sweet and slightly floral,” Hali said while the small, stingless Mayan bees hovered nearby, pollinating the nearby cacao trees and making honey. “The wine kind of carries that flavor over. Normally you want to let a white wine age 6 months to balance everything out. Right now, a lot of our batches taste acidic because the flavors haven’t had enough time to mingle. We are still trying to iron out some details about how we are going about filtering and letting things settle out.”

Good-tasting cacao wine will be a new, unique product for Belize. Some other cacao wines on the market taste too much like vinegar, according to the latest market research. “I hope that with a set process and standards of cleanliness and sanitation, we will produce a good fruit wine. It will be the first of its kind in Belize,” said Hali.

When you come stay with us at Cotton Tree Lodge, be sure to order a glass of our cacao wine from our friendly bartenders, and be on the lookout for our delicious, bottled cacao wine on the local market!

Click here to book your stay at Cotton Tree Lodge and try our new cacao wine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Moringa gets a spa treatment in Belize

Moringa goddess

This week I have enjoyed playing on the beach in Belize with my friend, the Goddess of superfood, the inspiration for this blog series, the miracle tree … Behold her natural beauty, ladies and gentlemen … Moringa.

Moringa gave birth to twin baby coconuts and just one day later went out dancing all night…. Moringa is such a high-vibe, earthy goddess: She’s naturally high in nutrients and minerals, so she always has plenty of energy for everything that’s good in life.

Today, Moringa wanted to do something special just for herself, because… Well, because she’s superhuman…. So, she deserves something extra special.

Moringa oleifera is a fairly large tree that is originally native to North India, although today it is grown and harvested in tropical regions all over the world, including my home, sweet home, Belize! I recently planted Moringa in my own backyard, so in a year or so, I will be able to harvest my very own Moringa!

moringa-oleifera-powder2

This miracle plant goes by a variety of names, such as drumstick tree, horseradish tree, or ben oil tree. Almost all parts of the Moringa oleifera tree are edible. Moringa leaves are rich in many important nutrients, including protein, vitamin B6, vitamin C, riboflavin and iron.

Being a U.S.-Certified/Licensed Massage Therapist, I had the privilege of offering my friend Moringa a luxurious spa treatment. I provided her with a full body wrap and facial proudly handmade with all-natural, locally sourced, cacao powder and honey — sustainably harvested by my friends Abelina and Juan on their very own cacao tree farm in southern Belize!

Here is what Moringa looked like with her organic cacao powder body wrap treatment:

1 bowl of moringa cacao

Ingredients:

  1. a handful of fresh moringa leaves
  2. organic cacao powder
  3. organic honey
  4. coconut oil

That’s it… Yes, really. That’s it. (Life really can be this simple.)

It’s worth noting, dear reader (Hey, thanks for reading!) that cacao is qualitatively different from cocoa:

Raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cacao beans.

cacao beans

The process keeps the living enzymes and removes the fat (cacao butter). Here is a bag of organic cacao powder from my favorite Belizean suppliers, Ixcacao in San Felipe village, southern Belize. (Thank you, Abelina and Juan, for satisfying my superfood addiction with your awesome, organic cacao powder!)

cacao powder

Cocoa powder looks the same as cacao powder, but it’s not made of the same stuff. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures, thereby denaturing the living enzymes (Ewww, you mean it’s not a raw superfood?! Hmphh.)

I consumed the entire bowlful of this sinfully delicious raw super food with sheer abandon:

2 spoonful of moringa mud bath3 after getting spoonful

… I licked the bowl clean (oooh, mmmm!)….

6 licking the bowl

… Finally, I licked my fingers….

4 finger licking

5 finger licking thinking

In case you’re wondering why I would be so amenable to voracious consumption of cacao powder, click here to learn the benefits of eating raw cacao. Basically, it’s good for you, especially when Moringa is playing along!

After eating Moringa and her cacao honey body wrap, I got an idea:

7 thinking about cacao

I’ll treat myself to a full body wrap!

cacao body wrap

Great idea! So… I gathered my materials (cacao powder, honey, and coconut oil) and mixed them together (It’s easy: You can do it yourself at home!)

cacao facial getting ready

Trust me, I’ve done this before, folks…. Here are two of my clients blissfully relaxed during a luxurious cacao powder facial treatment at our Spa and Wellness Center at Cotton Tree Lodge, a jungle lodge and adventure getaway in southern Belize:

cacao facial 3

cacao facial 1

When applied topically, cacao offers amazing skin benefits. Enriched with minerals and vitamins like Vitamin C, magnesium and omega 6 fatty acids; cacao promotes blood flow, provides hydration to the skin, and increases cellular healing to result in younger looking skin and a youthful glow (Come on, every girl out there wants all this):

  • Cacao is high in antioxidants. It blocks harmful free radicals in the body. It also protects the body against premature diseases and premature aging;
  • Cacao has good amount of vitamin C and magnesium, which helps in protecting the skin and keeping it healthy;
  • Cacao contains omega 6 fatty acids, which helps in cellular healing. It also heals wounds and scars quickly;
  • Cacao has a raw enzyme which helps in repairing the cell and its rejuvenation; and
  • With super absorbent properties, cacao protects the skin from harmful UV rays and acts as a natural sunscreen.

My client, glowing and radiant after her spa treatment, said this about her cacao honey facial:

“With traveling [from Michigan] and the change in climate [to tropical Belize], my face broke out all over my cheeks and felt very irritating. Parama gave me a cleansing facial that was made of organic cacao, honey, coconut oil, and copal essential oils. She gently massaged my face, applied the all-natural face mask, and then gave me a full-body Swedish massage while the face mask nourished and soothed my skin. After the session, my face felt so much better: It glowed and felt soft and smooth. My skin was completely cleared up by the next day.”

Well, there you have it, my Belize-bound, beach-going beauties!

If you feel so inspired, here are some videos to help you get started with your own edible cacao honey facial … (But … be forewarned: You will smell like chocolate cake, so if you have a dog or a boyfriend or a husband, they will want to eat you!)… Enjoy!