Utah businesses team up to bring wild cacao to U.S. stores — and preserve Bolivian rainforests

Caputo’s Market & Deli has partnered with Ritual Chocolate to create bars made from rare wild cacao.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matt and Yelena Caputo, standing with a display of Wild Tranquilidad chocolate bars at Caputo's Market & Deli in downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 11, 2023. The bars, produced by Caputo's and Ritual Chocolate, are made with wild cacao harvested in Bolivia.

One of Salt Lake City’s best-known food merchants and a Utah chocolatier have joined forces to create a gourmet chocolate bar using rare wild cacao from the Bolivian rainforests — with proceeds going to support sustainable farming there.

The story of Wild Tranquilidad, a dark chocolate bar produced by Heber City’s Ritual Chocolate and Salt Lake City’s Caputo’s Market & Deli, starts with a fantastic discovery by an agronomist in Bolivia.

The agronomist, Volker Lehmann, found a wild cacao strain that was found to have a genetic profile that was 97.3% Beníano cacao, which is native to Bolivia. In 2003, Lehmann started a farm, Tranquilidad Estate, in Baures, Bolivia — covering 1,297 acres, of which 864 are natural cacao stands.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) at Ritual Chocolate is Heber City on Tuesday, May 9, 2023.

Lehmann said he can harvest the wild cacao once a year, from December to the end of February, which is the end of the rainy season. Because of weather variations, it’s hard to predict when the cacao can be harvested.

“It depends entirely on the wild collection, as we do not apply any agricultural practices,” Lehmann said. “We have to be flexible and apply a wider search for cacao in bad years, which could result in traveling mainly by boat, sometimes for days, to bring in fresh beans. To manage this, we count on permanent and temporary outposts. We are ‘modern’ gatherers and hunters, so to speak.”

Typically, it takes about five years for a cacao tree to mature and start producing cacao pods. Each tree will yield between 30 and 40 pods, each with between 30 and 50 cacao beans inside. It takes about 500 beans to make one pound of chocolate — but the Bolivian beans used for Wild Traquilidad are smaller, so it takes about 750 beans per pound of chocolate.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chocolate in a melanger at Ritual Chocolate in Heber City on Tuesday, May 9, 2023.

‘At least we preserved this’

Matt Caputo, the CEO of Caputo’s Market & Deli, said it was in the late 1990s that he tasted chocolate made only with cacao and sugar. That experience, he said, led him down a rabbit hole of finding quality chocolate.

Caputo and his father, the beloved deli founder Tony Caputo, started a sister company, A Priori Speciality Foods, 16 years ago, with the goal of distributing craft chocolates nationally. The company has since expanded to sell fancy tinned seafood and cocktail bitters across North America.

“Our mission has always been: ‘Fight to preserve the food traditions of our ancestors,’” Caputo said. “We are truly trying to change the food system. We feel there is a lot wrong with the food system in the U.S., and things are being lost that we need to preserve. We want to be a catalyst for change. When my dad died [in 2021], I realized life was short, and I wanted tangible victories along the way that we could point to and say, ‘At least we preserved this.’”

(Volker Lehmann | Tranquilidad Estate) Wild cacao pods, harvested in the Bolivian rainforests, to be used in Wild Tranquilidad chocolate, made by Heber City's Ritual Chocolate in collaboration with Salt Lake City's Caputo's Market & Deli.

One of Caputo’s moves was to team with Ritual Chocolate to create unique dark chocolate bars. The process includes multiple taste tests and adjustments to get the bars just right.

The Tranquilidad bar is pure, with only two ingredients: 75% cacao and 25% sugar.

Through the partnership, a dollar from every 60-gram bar of chocolate (about 2.1 ounces) goes to Lehmann’s Tranquilidad Estate in Bolivia — and is plowed back into supporting sustainable farming, and the preservation of this type of cacao.

“We had never worked with wild beans before, so we jumped on it,” said Anna Seear, president and co-founder of Ritual Chocolate. “When Matt approached us for this special bar, we felt so honored. It is such a beautiful line, and the mission to try and keep these heirloom cacao varieties alive really fits in with our values as a company as well.”

Caputo’s hosts an annual Chocolate Festival, a community event for chocolate lovers and experts to share in tastings. Last year’s was the 11th annual event, and the first in years held in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic; a date has not yet been set for the 2023 edition.

The festival raises money for the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, which aims to protect special strains of cacao, like the Beníano. To date, the festival has raised $43,430 to the cause.

(Volker Lehmann | Tranquilidad Estate) Workers in the Bolivian rainforest harvest wild cacao pods, to be used in Wild Tranquilidad chocolate, made by Heber City's Ritual Chocolate in collaboration with Salt Lake City's Caputo's Market & Deli.

Harvesting heirloom cacao

Lehmann said his relationship with Caputo goes back to 2013, when the preservation fund came to Bolivia to look for heirloom cacao. Caputo’s support, he said, “was and is very important to sustain the cacao activities in and around Tranquilidad. … I feel rewarded and acknowledged for my over 20 years of dedication to this adventure of my life.”

Lehmann also praised the collaboration among Tranquilidad Estate, Caputo’s and Ritual Chocolate, which he called “a milestone, and I believe this is something rare in this business.”

The Wild Tranquilidad is the second chocolate bar that the Caputo’s Preservation Program (CPP) has supported. The first, Wild Juruá by Luisa Abram, was a 70% cacao bar made from rare cacao beans found along the Juruá River, in the Amazon rainforest.

Much like the Beníano, the Juruá was in danger of disappearing if people living in the area weren’t interested in preserving the cacao strain. In 2020, though, Caputo was told the Juruá would no longer be available — because the people harvesting the cacao had not been paid for the previous harvest, and would not go back to harvest again. Caputo agreed to pre-pay for the next harvest, understanding it would take a year for the next harvest to happen. Many of the stores in A Priori’s network have joined in to help with the program, he said.

“We realized we had a chance to do something that would help these people go on, and that we could make 100% of a difference, so we did it,” Caputo said. “We now guarantee and pay for the full harvest every time, and that bar is selling well enough to use the entire harvest.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Caputo’s Wild Tranquilidad 75% bar by Ritual Chocolate in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 11, 2023.