Posted by: Jena Davison | January 31, 2012

El Quetzal: Chocolate Tour, From Bean to Bar

Did you know that Ecuador produces about 5% of the world’s total cacao, but nearly 70% of the world’s highest-quality type of cacao? Or that cacao can only grow within 10 or 15 degrees north or south of the equator?

I didn’t.

Cacao Beans

Are you surprised to know that the Mayans and Aztecs who discovered cacao in Latin America originally ate it like a fruit? Or that they believed it was medicinal, divine and valuable, and used cacao beans as a form of currency?

I was.

Mindo Chocolate Cocoa Nibs

Have you ever actually tasted 100% pure cocoa nibs?

It’s powerful bitter flavor will set the chocolate eaters apart from the true chocolate lovers. It will also make you realize how much sugar is added to your chocolate bars, especially those with under 70% cacao content (usually the cut-off point for being considered dark chocolate).

I always knew I was a chocoholic, but this past weekend, I took a tour of a local chocolate producer here in Ecuador and the intoxicating smell of roasting cacao beans left me wanting to pursue chocolate-making myself.

Cacao Beans Roasting

Mindo Chocolate Makers is one of only a few places in the world where you can see the entire chocolate-making process. Started in 2008, the Ecuadorian-American owners came to Mindo in search of retirement property and ended up with a chocolate-making business, hotel and restaurant instead. The property is gorgeous, with spectacular views and a garden growing everything from coffee to aloe vera to stevia to guava. Mindo Chocolate Makers process the chocolate from bean to bar right there, doing everything on-site except growing the actual cacao. They buy their cacao from small organic farmers near Puerto Quito, Ecuador. It also exports coffee and cocoa nibs to its other processing plant in Michigan, USA.

Cacao Pod

Cacao, in its purest, most natural form grows in pods, which can mature to the size of a small football. Inside the pods, there are dozens (sometimes hundreds) of cacao beans. Inside the cocoa beans, there is both cocoa butter and cocoa nibs, which need to be separated out when making chocolate. The involved process includes fermenting and drying the beans, roasting the beans, breaking apart the beans, winnowing the beans in order to separate the nibs from the shells, refining and agitating the chocolate, and tempering the chocolate. Then of course, it is a matter of adding sugar and other flavorings (like chili powder, cinnamon, fruits, etc.) and solidifying it into bars. José told us that it takes nearly a month to complete the whole process.

Cacao Beans Drying, Chocolate Tour at El Quetzal

Every day at 4 p.m., the husband, José, leads an informative chocolate tour at El Quetzal Restaurant and Hotel in Mindo, Ecuador. Lasting over an hour, José starts by introducing himself and how he and his wife started Mindo Chocolate Makers, followed by a brief yet interesting history of cacao and its uses/development over time. Then, the group sets off to see the each stage of the chocolate-making process and takes a short detour to see the large garden.

The Garden at El Quetzal

At the end, each person gets a small cup of liquid 100% cacao and tries it. The taste is very bitter and most people do not like it, so everyone also gets the opportunity to add in some sugar, dried chilis and ginger honey to the chocolate to adjust it to their personal preference. Then, everyone is treated to a small square of El Quetzal’s famous brownies, which are rich and fudge-y —absolutely delicious! The tour costs $5 and includes all of the above. Of course, after the tour, many products are for sale, such as cocoa nibs, ginger honey, chocolate liquor, chocolate bars and baked goods.

Mindo Chocolate Makers Chocolate Bar

El Quetzal is also a mid-range restaurant/café and has excellent breakfasts, coffee and baked goods, as well as traditional lunches and sandwiches made with ingredients from the garden. One of the brownies costs $2.75, but is worth every cent. There are a few private rooms upstairs, which costs $22 per person per night. It has WiFi throughout and filtered water, as well as hot water for showering. It is located on Calle 9 de Octubre, following the western side of the main plaza and park.

El Quetzal: Mindo, Ecuador

Mindo is located about 2.5 hours from Quito and is in the cloud forest, which is a unique ecosystem. It is a one of the best bird-watching spots in all of South America and also a great place for hiking, tubing, zip-lining and other adventure sports. There are several butterfly gardens and orchid gardens in town as well for nature enthusiasts. A bunch of budget accommodations are scattered in the small downtown area, and some fancier lodges are located a bit out of town, on the road to the waterfalls.

Hiking in Mindo

To get to Mindo from Quito, it is easiest to take one of the Flor del Valle buses from the Ophelia bus station in the north of Quito, which is reachable by Metrobus. The bus schedule isn’t too convenient, though. On Saturdays, buses leave at 8 and 9 a.m. and then not again until after 3:30 p.m. Some buses also leave from the Carcelen station in the north, but they drop passengers off at the “Y” outside of town, where you need to catch a camioneta into town. The last return bus to Quito from town on Sundays is at 5 p.m. and it is highly recommended to book tickets in advance.

All photos were taken by Jena Davison in Mindo, Ecuador.  © All Rights Reserved 2012.

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Responses

  1. Hi, this was a great post. I didn’t know all of this about chocolate, or Mindo. I haven’t been in Mindo in a long time, maybe 13 or 14 years. It doesn’t look like it has grown much, which is nice.

    You might want to check to make sure that Mindo is really towards El Oriente. That term is usually used for the jungle in the eastern part of the country, or east of Papallacta in your last post. As I remember, Mindo is towards the coast, on the western slopes of Pichincha.

    Bob

    • Hi Bob!

      Glad to hear you liked the post. I didn’t know all that about chocolate either, so it was super interesting! Will really make me think the next time I sink my teeth into a piece of chocolate. I highly recommend taking a trip to Mindo; it is beautiful and relaxing and there is enough to keep anyone occupied for at least a weekend.

      I think you are right about Mindo being to the northwest, have changed it in the post 🙂 Thanks for the feedback, appreciate it.

      –Jena

  2. Well, I’m not in Ecuador right now, but I’ll be back in June. And Mindo will definitely be on the list! Your pictures of Mindo were beautiful.

    Your last few posts have been excellent. Thanks for sharing.

    Bob

  3. Beautiful summary of our tour!

    Barbara
    El Quetzal de Mindo
    Mindo Chocolate Makers

  4. Thanks for the great reminder of my time in Mindo and at El Quetzel in 2010. Mindo is pretty much the most perfect place on earth and Joe at El Quetzel was a great tour guide (not to mention the source of all knowledge when it comes to coffee!) I hope to get back there someday but for now will enjoy your reflections and will be following your blog. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thank you so much for the great info on cacao and El Quetzal…Joe and Barbara are the most interesting people in Mindo and everyone who visits should stop there for the best tour, the best brownies and the best capuchino and espresso ever!

  6. […] 6 Different types of chocolate barsUnique Chocolate Liquor May Be Recession-ProofTypes of ChocolatesInspiration to Libation: Hot Chocolate Liquor Cocoa BarHealth Benefits You Can Enjoy From ChocolateThe Benefits of Eating ChocolatesThe advantages of Eating ChocolatesEl Quetzal: Chocolate Tour, From Bean to Bar […]

  7. Hey Jena! Next time you’re in Mindo you should check out Chocolarte too – it’s a smaller enterprise – just a husband and wife team, but the wife makes amaaaazing chocolate cake, y sin harina! They also have a tour, which I didn’t have time to take, but I was told you get to make your own chocolate.

    • Hi Cathleen!

      Thanks for the suggestion, I’ve never heard of Chocolarte! I am actually going to Mindo within the next few weeks and will be sure to stop by…..can not pass up delicious chocolate cake 🙂 Hope you are well!

      –Jena

  8. […] “Did you know that Ecuador produces about 5% of the world’s total cacao, but nearly 70% of the world’s highest-quality type of cacao? Or that cacao can only grow within 10 or 15 degrees north or south of the equator?” (source) […]


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