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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