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All About Cacao Pulp: Where to Find Cacao Liquor Around the World

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I’ll never forget my first taste of fresh cacao, sour and floral and so much sweeter than I had anticipated. I was so surprised at the bitterness that leaked out when I bit down, that I nearly spit it out. I’d been reviewing bean-to-bar chocolates alone for years, but had never consumed any form of raw cacao. That experience was nearly seven years ago, at the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle. Less than a year later I was working on a cacao plantation in Ecuador, and now I’ve finally managed to make it to a cacao plantation in Asia.

But still, somehow, I wasn’t satisfied. I’d had this niggling question in my mind for years, regarding what happens to all the cacao pulp on an industrial scale. All of the juice doesn’t just disappear into thin air, yet when you receive the beans they’re (hopefully) dried to a pleasant 7% moisture content. Where did all the beautiful juice flow off to?

So I set out to uncover why the unique flavor of cacao pulp seems to get so lost in the process, and how we can access it without necessarily heading to a farm.

Cacao is the fruit chocolate is made out of, but have you ever thought about the fruit juice that comes in those pods? What does it taste like? Where can I try it? And maybe most important, what does the liquor taste like? | #cacao #cocoa #wine #liquor #liqueur #mead #chocolate #chocolat #tree #vietnam #travel #foodie #unique #brazil #ecuador #theobroma #alcohol #around #world
An open cacao pod.

What is Cacao Pulp?

If you’re reading this, hopefully you already know how chocolate is made: cacao beans are roasted and then peeled and ground, and sugar is added to sweeten the mass. Then bam! Chocolate.

However, before those critical chocolate-making steps were executed, those cacao beans came from a tree. They started off in pods, which grow every which way off of this tropical tree. After these pods were harvested, their seeds were removed, fermented, and dried before being shipped to a chocolate maker or turned directly into chocolate.

This isn’t the full story, though. Like all fruits, cacao pods are characterized by having a high sugar content, in their case stored in the sweet white pulp surrounding the seeds. When the seeds are removed in preparation for fermentation, most of the white pulp goes with them.

So cacao pulp is simply the juice & fruit solids of the tropical cacao fruit, while cacao liquor is the pure fermented alcohol made form cacao pulp.

Cacao is the fruit chocolate is made out of, but have you ever thought about the fruit juice that comes in those pods? What does it taste like? Where can I try it? And maybe most important, what does the liquor taste like? | #cacao #cocoa #wine #liquor #liqueur #mead #chocolate #chocolat #tree #vietnam #travel #foodie #unique #brazil #ecuador #theobroma #alcohol #around #world
Fermenting cacao beans. Look at all that pulp!

But unlike most fruits, the seeds of the cacao plant need to be fermented in order to achieve their characteristic chocolatey flavor. The yeasts and bacteria which aid in this fermentation feed off of the sugars in the pulp, therefore cacao pulp is a necessary ingredient in chocolate making, while also being a by-product of it. Some may argue that you could replace the pulp with other sugars for the yeast to feed off of, but not only is that unnecessary work, but it’s also less natural.

Chocolate is a perfect food as is, so why mess with a good thing?

The answer is curiosity. Recently, the general public has become more & more interested in what fresh cacao tastes like, and sharing all the flavors of cacao, as well as the uniqueness factor of the cacao fruit’s flavor. The taste is often compared to a lychee mixed with a plum, but I’ve also noted floral tones and high acidity. In the end, these unique flavors and the high sugar percentage is what has led farmers to utilize the fermented or fresh cacao pulp in a multitude of creations over the years.

Until recently, these creations (most of which are alcoholic, since alcohol is a by-product of fermentation) were almost exclusively consumed on the farm. Cacao fermentation is done by wild yeasts & bacteria found in the regions where it takes place, so there are no specific strains to isolate or name, at this time. On most farms, the scale is still too small to make enough product for market.

But with the rise of co-ops and cacao brands, there are now many more opportunities for cacao pulp products. So what are they doing about it?

Cacao is the fruit chocolate is made out of, but have you ever thought about the fruit juice that comes in those pods? What does it taste like? Where can I try it? And maybe most important, what does the liquor taste like? | #cacao #cocoa #wine #liquor #liqueur #mead #chocolate #chocolat #tree #vietnam #travel #foodie #unique #brazil #ecuador #theobroma #alcohol #around #world
Miel de Cacao or Cocoa Honey, made from the baba or cacao pulp.

Making Cacao Liquor

For years I’ve been curious about making liquor using cacao pulp. People have made vinegar and honey and dried fruit leather. But why not liquor? To be clear, cacao liquor is not the same as creme de cacao, a chocolate-flavored liquor, or the same as chocolate liquor, the unsweetened liquid chocolate made from cacao beans.

The latter is a products often bought by chocolate manufacturers, and later made into chocolate & chocolate-flavored products. The cacao liquor I’m referring to is made from the cacao pulp rather than the cacao seeds. But as delicious as it is, it’s also very hard to find. I’ve heard of people producing such a cacao liquor, usually in small amounts, but had never before seen it for sale in any of the many cacao-producing countries I’ve visited.

I’ve asked a half dozen farmers, and each one has said it’s not possible, though only a couple have offered reasons why. One said that they’d tried, but regulations in their country meant that it could not be sold without heating. But the heating process damaged the flavor, and therefore the cacao liquor wasn’t worth pursuing as a product.

Last year I asked a cocoa farmer in Taiwan about making a liquor from the pulp of his beans, and he said it just wasn’t possible. Yet just like the shells of the pods and the husks of the beans, cacao pulp is a massive by-product of cocoa processing. There’s a lot of pulp that drains off just within the first day, especially with larger batches of fermenting cacao.

Cacao is the fruit chocolate is made out of, but have you ever thought about the fruit juice that comes in those pods? What does it taste like? Where can I try it? And maybe most important, what does the liquor taste like? | #cacao #cocoa #wine #liquor #liqueur #mead #chocolate #chocolat #tree #vietnam #travel #foodie #unique #brazil #ecuador #theobroma #alcohol #around #world
Poor empty cacao pods miss their beans as much as I do.

So, similar to innovations like Coffee Flour, is it possible to have a palatable cacao liquor or wine, just as we have for other high-sugar fruits? It was always a toss-up for me, because in my experience, after just a few days of fermentation, the liquid that comes off the beans smells more like an off-chardonnay than a sweet liqueur you serve over ice.

The secret is to filter off the juice right after harvest. Fermentation starts as soon as the pods are cut off the trees, and the seeds begin to germinate and create bitter flavors, many of which are eliminated during proper fermentation. This immediate chemical reaction makes creating a truly fresh cacao juice immensely difficult. But the mix of flavors created after just a few days in the fermentation boxes means that there’s definitely a sweet spot.

The issue is that the liquid must be fermented separately from the beans, though I can’t say if this needs to happen before or after the cacao has the necessary microbes on it. One friend has noted that methanol levels during the distillation process also have to be carefully monitored in order to safely make a liquor. Due to differing ambient temperatures, humidity, bacteria/yeast types, and fermentation vessels, I can’t say for sure how long it might take you to make a palatable cacao liquor, but know that your cacao juice will need babysitting.

No matter what, due to the varying sugar content between varietals of cacao, the ABV (alcohol by volume) of this cacao liquor, liqueur, wine, mead— or whatever you want to call it— will also vary per batch, just like the flavors of the chocolate it’s companion cacao will be made out of. And isn’t that the beauty of micro-batch anything?

Cacao is the fruit chocolate is made out of, but have you ever thought about the fruit juice that comes in those pods? What does it taste like? Where can I try it? And maybe most important, what does the liquor taste like? | #cacao #cocoa #wine #liquor #liqueur #mead #chocolate #chocolat #tree #vietnam #travel #foodie #unique #brazil #ecuador #theobroma #alcohol #around #world

Finding Cacao Liquor

Just like wine, modern chocolate came about directly because of people’s desire for liquor. It’s believed that cacao was first fermented as the result of an experimental attempt to create a new alcohol using cacao fruit. And it worked. But they also found that the beans used tasted different afterwards, and eventually they decided to cook them alongside other foods.

They added them to their dishes, primarily in beverage form or as a sauce eaten with meat. There were no portable bars or chunks as we have today, yet chocolate still was & is important, eventually coming to be used as currency. But somewhere along the way, chocolate became so important that we lost the other products people made from cacao, like how the importance of chicken breast in the US pushes most other parts of the chicken away from the limelight.

On many farms, however, cacao liquor is simply one of the few perks to working in such a tough industry. “A few metres away, a group of men sit around a large pile of pods, methodically holding the pods in one hand, while slicing them open with a machete. A sweet milky juice that runs off the beans is collected. After a few days of distillation, it turns into a liquor. It is the only product cocoa farmers directly consume from the crop.” (Source: BBC)

Some farmers apparently think the cacao is used to make the imported wine they see on shelves in the market— because what else could it be making? This on-farm use of cacao pulp, plus the limited amount and seasonality of it, means that finding cacao liquor can be quite the task. You have to weed out the chocolate-flavored or -infused products, and anything artificial. But I have made some headway.

Cacao is the fruit chocolate is made out of, but have you ever thought about the fruit juice that comes in those pods? What does it taste like? Where can I try it? And maybe most important, what does the liquor taste like? | #cacao #cocoa #wine #liquor #liqueur #mead #chocolate #chocolat #tree #vietnam #travel #foodie #unique #brazil #ecuador #theobroma #alcohol #around #world

In Cuba there is a popular government-made liquor called cacao liquor, but even though it may have a cacao pulp base, it’s at least partially beefed up with pure alcohol to even out the ABV. It’s part of a line of government-regulated liqueurs, so it’s more similar to a port or sherry than the small-batch liqueur you’d get from most cacao farms. It can only be purchased in Cuba, but lucky for us it’s also only a few dollars per liter and quite widely available.

Other places in which cacao liquors or wines are being experimented upon and sold beyond the farm to some degree are:

Brazil deserves a post of its own about its cacao liquor (licor de cacau), but I’ll summarize the country’s contributions quickly here. If you’re looking to try cacao liquor somewhere, Brazil is the easiest place in the world to find it, and find quality examples of it. Since the country produces and processes so much cacao each year, they have lots of cacao pulp to use up.

Lucky for us, many producers have turned it into liquor, though much of this is consider caseiro (homemade) and therefore not for commercial sale. Some brands to keep an eye out for are: Cacauway CeresNaná, and Paratiana. Bonus: Cupuaçú Liquor from Amazônia Cacau Macapá.

If you happen to live in a country where cacao is grown, I’d highly recommend that you contact a local farmer or co-op about buying some of the liquor they make or the pulp they drain off of their beans. Then send some to me. Kidding! But seriously, if you live anywhere near the source, the best and cheapest way to buy cacao liquor is to go straight to the farmers. This not only shows that there’s demand for this product, but also that selling the beans is not the only way to make money off of cacao.

Cacao is the fruit chocolate is made out of, but have you ever thought about the fruit juice that comes in those pods? What does it taste like? Where can I try it? And maybe most important, what does the liquor taste like? | #cacao #cocoa #wine #liquor #liqueur #mead #chocolate #chocolat #tree #vietnam #travel #foodie #unique #brazil #ecuador #theobroma #alcohol #around #world

Cacao Pulp Products RTW

This or other products made from cacao pulp (both the juice and the solids) could be a useful source of supplemental income for farmers in cooperatives who practice central fermentation of beans. They could collect all the beans in one place and continue to develop the flavors their brand is known for. But beyond that they could develop other products the market is interested in seeing, such as cacao honey, cacao vinegar, or even cacao sugar (think coconut sugar, but with different nutrients). 

Ruby chocolate? Try true chocolate, made only with cacao from one cooperative, and the cacao sugar from the same batch of beans. There are lots of small farms around the world working on such a product, but for now the closest things I’ve found on the wider market are Callebaut’s WholeFruit Chocolate and the Blue Stripes Cacao collection.

The hot spots for producing cacao pulp and cacao juice to sell internationally are Ecuador and Brazil. The products coming out of Ecuador tend to be cacao juice (pasteurized) and other freshly-harvested cacao pulp products. On the other hand, Brazilian cacao juice seems to most often be sold as a freshly-frozen pulp, with much more domestic consumption than in other countries. Seeing as Brazil is said to be the origin of Forastero cacao varietals, it’s not surprising that cacao plays a large role in local cuisines.

To continue my Brazilian cacao liquor blurb from above, what is most unique about Brazil is that other fruits from the Theobroma family are also consumed domestically, as both food and drink products (including liquors). This means that cacao and other distilled fruit liquors from Brazil are more likely to be found commonly, and to be naturally integrated into cuisine & cultural practices. Recent products made from cocoa pulp include: hot cocoa sweetened with cacao juice, dried pulp added to chocolate bars, and faux-chocolate bars made from other Theobroma fruits.

Cacao is the fruit chocolate is made out of, but have you ever thought about the fruit juice that comes in those pods? What does it taste like? Where can I try it? And maybe most important, what does the liquor taste like? | #cacao #cocoa #wine #liquor #liqueur #mead #chocolate #chocolat #tree #vietnam #travel #foodie #unique #brazil #ecuador #theobroma #alcohol #around #world
A Theobroma bicolor fruit growing on a tree in Guatemala.

Cacao Products in Vietnam

Vietnam is not an obvious hub, but it’s one of the fastest-growing cocoa origins in the world. Over the last decade, a half-dozen Vietnam-based chocolate makers have popped up. Beyond that, dozens of other makers have started to use Vietnamese cacao to craft some or all of their chocolate, as both the volume and quality of Vietnam’s cacao have continued to climb. I expect this practice to continue increasing, and hope that the number of raw cacao products produced also climbs along with it.

Other than fermenting, drying, and selling cocoa beans to make into chocolate, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder, Vietnamese cacao farmers have dreamed up multiple uses for raw cacao. While you can buy chocolate and other cocoa products all around Ho Chi Minh City, and even tour cacao plantations, it’s the cacao pulp products that you should keep your eye out for. Fresh cacao juice, cocoa wine, and cacao liquor are the most enjoyable products I found during my regrettably short first visit. For insight into how these drinks actually taste, check out my video of the experience (linked below).

What Does Cacao Liquor Taste Like?

If you found this post on cacao liquor helpful, please pin it so that others can find it, too!

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Have you ever tried a cacao product other than chocolate? Did you like it?

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Interview: Megan Giller, Author of Bean To Bar & Chocolate Noise
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