By Judith S. Juntilla
Photos courtesy of www.malagoschocolate.com

Cacao beans grown by the Filipino company that makes the multi-award winning Malagos Chocolates have been designated Heirloom Cacao by the US-based Heirloom Cacao Preservation (HCP) Fund. The designation is only the 16 th granted by the HCP to cacao farms around the world.

In ceremonies held in San Francisco last January 12, 2019, the cacao beans submitted for evaluation by Puentespina Farms were officially given the designation by the HCP, an initiative of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. The farm, located in Davao in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, supplies the fine flavor beans used in making the company’s own chocolate brand, Malagos Chocolate.

Rex Puentespina.

According to the HCP, heirloom cacao are considered the diamonds of cacao. They are the foundation of great chocolate. The trees and beans are considered heirloom variety because of a combination of their historic, cultural, botanical, geographic, and flavor value.

“We’ve been working on this since last year and it is really a significant development not just for us but for the entire Philippine cacao industry,” said Rex Puentespina, sales and marketing director of Malagos Agri-Ventures Corp., the company that makes Malagos Chocolates.

Puentespina said that the Trinitario beans from their farms in Davao were submitted for evaluation of the HCP. A panel of nine chocolate experts evaluated both the cocoa liquor (the pure cocoa mass) and the chocolate itself. The panel noted the chocolate’s mostly pleasant yet slightly astringent chocolate taste with a very herbal liquor flavor. According to the HCP, the most common note commented on by the panel was “fruity.” The chocolate was further praised for its flavor notes and very smooth melt.

In addition to the taste evaluation, an extensive due diligence on-site evaluation of the trees from which the heirloom cacao were harvested, as well as the processes used in making the chocolate from the beans. “We submitted samples to the HCP and the process took nearly one year from the submission to the final certification,” said Puentespina. “The process was extensive and the site visits involved gathering material from the trees from which the beans originated, as well as verifying the processes that we use on the farm.”

With this significant designation, Puentespina Farms joins 15 other heirloom cacao farmers around the world, from Bolivia, Ecuador, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Belize, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Tanzania and Madagascar. The company started their cacao business on a leased farm in 2003, and like most Filipino farms, it produced the traditional tableyas. Later on, it received training from international organizations which helped it upgrade its processes to produce fine-flavor chocolates. Since then it has gone on to attract international attention, winning 28 International awards from various chocolate industry organizations around the world. The farm today covers 60 hectares and employs around 80 farmers.

The Puentespina Farms in Davao.

Puentespina noted the significance of the Heirloom Cacao designation for a Philippine farm. “It raises the status of the beans that are grown in the Philippines,” he said. The company started making fine flavor chocolates in 2012, becoming one of the first to shed the practices that have left Philippine cacao largely unnoticed. “Anyone with cacao beans can make chocolate. We chose to select our beans and impose on ourselves production standards that are worthy of the kind of beans that we grow here in Davao,” he said.

However, the Heirloom Cacao designation does not mean that all chocolate coming from the Philippines can lay claim to using heirloom beans. Puentespina explained that only chocolate made from the beans identified by the HCP can be called Heirloom Chocolate. “The designation is not contingent on genetics. It is contingent on the field evaluation verifying the source of the beans and the process they underwent to make the chocolate.”

He did share, however, that to celebrate the heirloom designation, the company will soon release a limited-edition bar of Malagos 72% Dark Chocolate. For now, the limited supply of the Heirloom Cacao beans used in making the product have made prices quite restrictive, but given the proper training and protection of more heirloom cacao in the Philippines, more heirloom cacao might be identified as being grown in the Philippines.

Rex and Charita Puentespina, the mother-and-son team behind Malagos Chocolates.

The HCP is an initiative of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, a non profit organization founded in collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture. It gathers chocolate farmers, chocolate makers, chocolate industry professionals and chocolate enthusiasts around the world to unite and save the vanishing Theobroma cacao trees and the farmers who still grow them. By helping small farmers scale up their operations and linking them to the fine chocolate market, HCP helps give a future to the growing and protection of these valuable cacao.

The fine flavor Theobroma cacao variety is the source of high-quality, flavorful chocolates. Sadly, they have been replaced by varieties grown mainly for their productivity and not by their flavor. Heirloom cacao is important because they are primarily grown by small-scale farms in the lowland tropical regions, where cacao is an important source of livelihood. They are also good for the ecosystem because they are grown in the shade along with other fruit trees like bananas, coconuts, or forest trees. As such, they provide much-needed habitat for both flora and fauna and are a natural solution for areas plagued by deforestation and a vanishing biodiversity.

Flavor-wise, varieties which are designated Heirloom Cacao have a balanced flavor, yet are complex and intense while also giving a long and pleasant aftertaste – a unique flavor profile that commands a premium in the world of fine foods. Helping preserve these heirloom cacao helps the livelihood of the farmers that continue to grow them.