Local restaurateur Michael Boland spends part of every year in the village of San Cristobal de las Casas, a large town in the central highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas. He and his family brought some of what they love about Chiapas home to Maine when they opened Choco-Latte, a coffee and chocolate café, last year in Bar Harbor.
“My family and I have been going to Mexico for a long time,” he said. “It’s a land of mountains, tropical rainforest and really rich agricultural production. In the highlands, they grow really good coffee. It’s not as well known as Guatemalan, but Chiapas actually used to be part of Guatemala. Ecologically, it’s basically the same place.
“A lot of places in Chiapas, there’s coffee and chocolate growing right together,” he said. “A small landowner will have a couple cacao trees and a couple coffee bushes, mango trees, maybe something else.”
Boland and his wife and daughters love the festivals that are a big part of life in the indigenous villages. “During this one festival in Chamula, they run bulls through the streets, do fire walks, it’s pretty amazing,” he said. Mayan traditions have blended with Catholicism in fascinating ways.
Boland has been inspired, he said, to learn about how profits from coffee and cacao production in the region are spread among many small growers.
“There’s not just one landowner,” he said. “The co-op culture is very strong there. The co-ops support their members by education about how to produce a better product.
“Just like any agricultural product, the ripeness of the bean really matters. You can make coffee out of green beans, it’s just not going to be specialty coffee.”
Working with the California-based rating group Fair Trade USA, Boland has made connections with Chiapas coffee co-ops Majomut, Toyol Witz and Triunfo Verde. He hopes to be serving their coffee in Bar Harbor this summer. Triunfo Verde is made up of 447 small coffee producers within the buffer zone of the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in the mountains, according to the Fair Trade USA website.
Choco-Latte has been working with Bard Coffee of Portland, Maine. Initially, Bard will roast the Chiapas beans, but Boland hopes the café can begin doing its own roasting in the future. “In Chiapas, everywhere you go has a roaster,” he said.
In addition to coffee and espresso drinks (they came up with a fantastic all-natural pumpkin spice latte in the fall), Choco-Latte serves Mexican hot chocolate, chai, aqua fresca and horchata.
The yellow cacao fruit is featured on the Choco-Latte logo. Each fruit contains 20-60 seeds or beans, which are fermented in a many-step process to make chocolate.
“They’ve been growing chocolate in Chiapas for 2,000 years,” Boland said.
Processing the cacao fruit into chocolate is much more complicated than the parallel process for coffee, he said. “With coffee, you pick the beans, you ferment them, you dry them, you roast them. Chocolate, it’s really like a seven-step process. So the reason we think of French and Belgian chocolate, even though it’s not grown there, is
that’s where a lot of the processing happens.”
In its first year, Choco-Latte has offered truffles made in-house from Belgian Callebaut chocolate. Flavors had included lavender, salt caramel, Chevre cheesecake, spicy Thai peanut butter and dolce de leche.
This summer, the café’s first batch of finished block chocolate made from Chiapas-grown cacao should arrive from a specialty processor in Florida. Further down the road, they hope to set up an artisan processing facility there in Chiapas.
“Eventually we want to be buying our own chocolate that’s made on site there, providing local jobs and be of great quality,” Boland said.