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Photo courtesy of Shanao Cacao

How One Boulder Chocolate Maker Is Disrupting the Industry

Shanao Cacao turns co-op farmed Peruvian cacao into Colorado craft chocolate, building a more equitable supply chain and fighting poverty in the process.

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Australian-born Michael Caines isn’t like most chocolate makers. For starters, he’s never been a chocoholic. His impetus to start Shanao Cacao, a Boulder-based bean-to-bar chocolate company and non-profit foundation, was to make the world slightly more just.

He’s doing so via his intensive bean-to-bar sourcing model. In 2013, Caines bought a cacao farm in Shanao, a small town in the Alta Mayo cloud forest of northeastern Peru. Aided by Gordon South, a Peruvian social organizer, Caines was able to convince Shanao growers to form a cooperative, implementing organic, bio-dynamic, and sustainable farming practices. When the co-op’s first harvest arrived in Colorado in 2017, Caines taught himself how to transform the raw cacao into delicious chocolate bars.

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Craft chocolate is a flourishing industry, but for Caines, most of the Fair Trade and/or single-origin sourcing practices, already light years ahead of big chocolate companies’ ethically compromised methods, didn’t go far enough. So Caines created his own certification: Regenerative Trade. He recruited Mos Hosseini, an Australian colleague, to help him build an app, tailored to Regenerative Trade, constructed specifically for chocolate makers. “We’re building a full traceability system for cacao because, as an industry, it has some of the biggest transparency problems,” Caines says. The app provides a slew of data that chocolate companies can pass on to their customers to better tell the stories of the beans.

Under the model, Shanao Cacao pays almost twice as much for cacao as the Fair Trade certification requires. Shanao tracks the cacao from the cooperative farms in Peru to Colorado to ensure transparency. The app allows Caines to collect information on things like temperature and humidity, a boon for single-origin chocolate fanatics who geek out over the way regional and environmental differences affect taste (similar to terroir with wine).

Caines found retailers willing to pay an extra 50 cents per bar; Shanao Cacao matches that 50 cents, and it’s that money that is eventually sent back to Peruvian cacao farmers outside of the harvest season (on top of the money paid for the cacao up front). “I’m a social justice activist and for me this is really about grinding poverty,” Caines says.

In Boulder, customers can buy Shanao Cacao chocolate bars at Piece, Love & Chocolate, Cured, and Le Frigo, as well as Moxie Bread Co. in Louisville. In addition to bars, Shanao Cacao sells other chocolate products including nibs, cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and even couverture (high-quality chocolate ideal for tempering and enrobing sweets).

But Caines isn’t done yet. Shanao Cacao has begun offering chocolate making classes—for children and adults—at its Boulder headquarters, as well as leading $10 tours and tastings every second Saturday from 11 a.m. to noon. During the classes, guests learn how to make, and properly taste, their very own chocolate bars.

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Caines is also prepared to offer more comprehensive, two-day, bean-to-bar classes that will cover sorting, roasting, winnowing, grinding, tempering, and producing finished chocolate products. Eventually, Shanao Cacao hopes to bring Coloradans to visit its farms in Peru so they can interact with the farmers and help with the harvest, before returning to Boulder to make chocolate.

2746 47th St., Boulder, 720-648-8815

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