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Coffee study led to Mount Pleasant award-winning chocolate brand

The story of one of Jamaica’s top chocolate makers began, not with cocoa, which is chocolate’s main ingredient, but rather with coffee – an investigation into fair trade in coffee, to be exact.

In 2006, Hellen Akiror, originally from Uganda, was on a study tour to Jamaica from the United Kingdom examining the properties of Jamaica’s Blue Mountain coffee and whether there was fair trade in the market arrangements for the world-leading premium coffee.

At the time, she was the guest of her now husband, architect Averell French, whose agronomist father had migrated to the UK in the 1960s, leaving behind a substantial coffee and cocoa farm in the hills of Mount Pleasant, in rural St Andrew. It is located on the western slopes of the Blue Mountains with views of the parish of St Mary. Access is via Golden Spring in St Andrew with a quick, steep ascent along narrow roads running through communities such as Mount James and Mount Airy.

Hellen was researching fair trade in farming for her master in business administration studies. The subject has occupied the minds of development economists and others in recent times as part of a search for solutions to reduce the disparity between the price paid to farmers for primary commodities such as coffee and cocoa, and the profits made when their processed products are sold to end-users as consumer goods such as instant coffee and chocolate bars.

While Hellen’s focus was on coffee, coming as she did from a family of chocolatiers in Uganda, she also had more than a passing interest in Mount Pleasant’s cocoa beans.

“Hellen was amazed at the quality of Jamaican chocolate. Immediately, she sent some to her father and he was amazed at the quality as well,” her husband told the Financial Gleaner in an interview.

With the closure of the Highgate Foods chocolate factory in the 1980s, there was an absence of Jamaican premium quality chocolates from the market, with lovers of the product having to get their chocolate fix from imported brands or the limited supply from a few artisanal producers.

“We made some chocolates and gave out the bars as presents to our friend. The flavour was so good that it left me wondering where had the dark chocolate in Jamaica been all this time,” Hellen recalled.

To take the product from concept to market, a company, Coldbush Organics Limited, was launched in 2013, with its flagship line of products being the Mount Pleasant Farms Chocolatiers brand of chocolates. The line includes 70 per cent dark chocolate bars – which come in several flavours, milk chocolate bars, and truffles. They also produce cocoa butter and cocoa powder.

Since inception, the company has notched up a number of awards beginning with the Jamaica Observer Food award in 2013 for its chocolate and peanut spread. There was also the Sir Arthur Guinness Trust Award in 2017. Mount Pleasant Farm was recently named among the top global food and drink producers, copping the golden star in the 2022 Great Taste awards for its 70 per cent dark bars.

The Great Taste food competition is run by the highly respected Guild of Fine Food, publisher of Fine Food Digest, a leading magazine of the world food industry.

As a start-up Coldbush Organics received US$118,000 in funding from the First Angels venture capital network in 2018. The network owns 35 per cent of the company’s 604,000 issued shares, while the Frenchs retain 65 per cent jointly. The business utilised the money to increase the acreage under cultivation from an initial five acres 20 acres. There are now 50 acres under cultivation with a projection to have a total 100 acres under cocoa, coffee and coconuts in another three to five years. The Mount Pleasant farm employs between 15 and 24 persons depending on production demand. Workers are also allowed to cultivate and reap for their own use other crops, including oranges, yams and bananas.

Mount Pleasant grows its cocoa at elevations of between 3,000 and 5,000 feet above sea level. This, the owners say, gives the consistency of flavour needed to preserve Mount Pleasant chocolate’s growing reputation. For them, the farm-to-bar concept is very important and, therefore, growing their own cocoa will always be a feature of the operations.

“We have contracts with cocoa farmers across the island but it is made difficult by the fact that over time many have given up on cocoa production,” Hellen pointed out, adding that supply certainty is critical to Mount Pleasant’s operations.

“Our focus over the last three years has been on growing the raw materials side of the business. We have also spent some time acquiring much-needed equipment to boost production which allows us to grow,” she added.

In what the entrepreneurs say is a constant effort to improve, they have, for example, made packaging adjustments to appeal to an international client?le. They also used the time provided by the COVID-19 pandemic to prepare the business for the eventual opening up of the economy. Their chocolates are distributed by JRS distributors, to hotels on Jamaica’s north coast, General Foods and Loshusan supermarkets in Kingston, and for export to Florida in the United States and London in the United Kingdom.

Production is done at Wickie Wackie, near Bull Bay in St Andrew, following fermentation and drying on the farm.

“It’s a delicate process and we start the fermentation within 24 hours after harvesting,” Averell said.

Mount Pleasant is also venturing into the production of chocolate balls. The iconic Jamaican chocolate hot beverage is traditionally prepared by grating chocolate balls, with the resulting powder boiled to extract its flavour. Mount Pleasant has further processed its chocolate balls so that all that is needed to serve up its steaming, flavourful hot chocolate is hot water.

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