The problem with lack of vertical integration in the cacao industry, according to Daniel Prieto Preston of Cacao Prieto, is that there's "no alignment of interests." The farmers care more about disease resistance and yield than flavor, the nurseries care more about producing viable cuttings, and so on up and down the line.
By vertically integrating (owning or having an involvement in every company along the supply line) his chocolate company, Preston is able to focus on the quality and flavor of the product at every step in the process. The cacao beans come from Coralina Farms, a farm in the Dominican Republic that's been in the Prieto family for more than 100 years, the sugar comes from a nearby farm, and all manufacturing is done at the company's Red Hood factory.
One way Preston exercises control over the product is by standardizing the fermentation of the beans. "A lot of people don't realize that chocolate is a fermented food," he says, especially since "the fermenting process is often left to chance. The fruits are thrown into piles and left to rot for five days." He adds, "You wouldn't find a winemaker who treats his fruit like that. No one would stomp their grapes and then throw them in the dirt."
Speaking of wine, once they were conducting fermentation in a sterile environment and introducing the cultures of their choice, a byproduct of the process was, in fact, wine. They made some cacao-based brandy and rum under the Cacao Prieto name, then introduced Widow Jane Whiskey, the first in what Preston promises will be a long line of small-batch liquors made with heirloom grains.
The chocolate products include 72% dark chocolate bars in flavors like Sour Cherry & Pecan and Almond & Salt, bonbons, and jarred products like nut and cacao spreads and jam made from the fruit of the cacao tree, all of which are organic and single origin.
That doesn't mean Preston isn't still looking for ways to move some of the operation closer to home though. He muses, "I'm still trying to figure out if it's possible to grow sugar cane anywhere in New York State."
Learn more at cacaoprieto.com.