Three years. It took three years for historian Julio Fernandez Amón and journalist George Soriano to take the plunge and leave their day jobs in Costa Rica to follow a dream of making chocolate. The decision would come just in time for the great recession of 2008.
Despite the odds, and ignoring the advice of friends and family, the two forged ahead with optimism and perhaps just the right amount of naiveté. And so Sibú Chocolate was born. The mantra: the chocolate had to be organic, it had to be made start-to-finish in Costa Rica, but most importantly, it had to be good enough to stand up to best chocolates in the world. If not, then why bother?
The years prior to opening their business were filled with research—seeking out and sampling some of the best chocolate from around the world, as well as studying the history of chocolate and cacao production. Intense training in the chocolate arts followed, taking them to France and Italy to practice alongside Master Chocolatiers, a title they now share with their mentors.
Upon returning to Costa Rica their quest began for the country’s finest cacao beans. While flavor and aroma were of utmost concern, the beans also had to be organically produced to adhere to their vision. They travelled to remote villages and wild lands on both coasts trying cacao and meeting with growers. And then, Eureka! On a family-owned organic plantation on Costa Rica’s Atlantic slope, they found fine cacao flourishing under the protective fronds of Laurel and plantain. The farmers were expertly fermenting, drying and roasting the beans onsite.
Julio and George’s next step would bring them back from the field and into the kitchen. With big ideas but just a marble slab donated by a friend for tempering, the two went to work.
Inspired by the idea of pairing unusual flavors, George started playing with herbs and spices and tropical fruit to make the first bonbons with surprisingly delicious results. These recipes included lime and coriander white chocolate truffles and ginger coconut milk caramels covered in dark chocolate. Inspiration also came from the fresh ingredients that were available, as well as from historic records about chocolate written at the time of the Conquest.
Meanwhile, Julio began designs for packaging. As environmentalists, it was important to make boxes that were free of plastic and bulk, and use recycled materials. His experiments would eventually lead to crafting boxes out of cacao husks and fiber that are normally discarded in the process of making chocolate. At the time, Julio was actually hand painting details on every single plain brown box — something he remembers with a mixture of fondness and dread.
As Creative Director, Julio also began applying native pre-Columbian patterns to decorate George’s creations. Every chocolate, they thought, should tell a story both in flavor and design. Today, those first signature bonbons have expanded to a line of 16 flavors, from passion fruit ganache in dark chocolate to lavender and honey truffles.
Chocolate bar making followed in 2009, which opened up the budding company to exporting chocolate. This part of the business would become especially gratifying as it helped to put Costa Rica on the chocolate map for quality. Today there are 10 bar flavors, ranging from 82% dark chocolate for purists, to wild inclusion bars like Chai Spice with chili pepper and sea salt Coffee-Toffee in milk chocolate.
Chocolate tasting tours began in 2011, growing out of an ever-present desire to share their passion for chocolate and the ideas behind their business. With candid commentary and plenty of wit, the two are quick to joke about the trials and triumphs of raising the bar. Their hope is that every guest will leave with a great experience, but more importantly, that they will think more deeply about the relationship between food and culture, food and the environment and the economics behind what we eat. The tour also aims to inspire people to be fearless and creative in whatever they do in life.
In 2014 Sibú Chocolate proudly opened its second store, selecting San José’s centrally located Sabana Norte neighborhood as the first off-site location to enjoy chocolate treats, have a quick bite to eat or shop for chocolate gifts.
That same year, Sibú opened the terrace at its San Isidro cottage workshop to the public as relaxing spot for drinking hot chocolate in the afternoon. Guests can also dive into decadent desserts and curl up with fresh home-style comfort food on the lunch menu.
In 2015 Sibú Chocolate began expanding its chocolate line, experimenting with more micro batch chocolate made with fine flavor cacao from the region at its San Isidro workshop. The mantra has stayed the same through the years, but the chocolate gets better and better.
As Sibú Chocolate grows, the company remains more dedicated than ever in its commitment to quality, fresh and organic ingredients, sourcing materials locally with the least impact on the environment, and supporting the local economy.
There may be cheaper ways to produce chocolate, but adherence to those principals, while expensive, does succeed. Sibú Chocolate has doubled the size of its artisan facility and has expanded to employ 15 people, many of whom are from nearby semi-rural communities with limited job opportunities.
If you are ever in Costa Rica, stop by the cottage workshop to try some of the latest chocolate creations, meet Julio and George, and find out what’s new at Sibú.
- 2012: Most Environmentally Friendly Business, Citigroup Costa Rica, ADRI Association, 6th Annual Small Business Awards
- 2012: Creativity & Innovation in Business: Softland Entrepreneurs Award, Ranked Top 5 businesses
- 2011: Most Innovative Product, Costa Rican Hotel and Restaurant Expo (EXPHORE), Honorable Mention
- 2010: National Prize for Innovation: Costa Rica INNOVA, First National Conference on Innovation
Sibú Chocolate in Recent News
- PBS (featured):
- CANAL 7 TELETICA
- LA NACION
- REVISTA SU CASA
Our Namesake Sibú
What’s in a name? For us, the name had to have real significance.
Because of our environmental ethics, we wanted to reflect our respect and reverence for nature. We thought of Gaia, the principle that all things are interconnected, and Mother Earth, also known as Pachamama. But we also wanted a name that would resonate with Costa Ricans and allude to our commitment to bringing about positive change in Costa Rica.
Through our readings and travels, we learned that everything good in these lands was actually created by Sibú. He gave us the forest and all its creatures. Among his most treasured gifts: Theobroma cacao, the food of the gods.
Inspired by cacao and chocolate’s importance to our cultural history, we are working to bring back the tradition of chocolate making, in the hopes that a new generation of organic agribusinesses and artisan chocolatiers will figure into Costa Rica’s future. Sometimes you have to look back to move forward.
Sibú & Sustainability
At Sibú Chocolate we believe that the idea of sustainability is woven into the fabric of a business. Sustainability involves ethics and how we use our natural resources, and mitigating our impact on the environment and on communities, all while generating opportunities in the long term.
So how do we strive to be sustainable at Sibú Chocolate? It’s in everything we do. From how we source ingredients direct from farmers, to using recycled materials for our packaging, and from staff training to waste management, sustainability is even present in our vision for growth.
Over the years, we have done a lot of specific things to show this commitment. Following are some that we feel are especially noteworthy:
Carbon Offsetting: Sibú Chocolate compensates for the carbon dioxide emissions produced in the delivery of our chocolates through the Programa Aliados Cambio Climático (ACC), a Costa Rican initiative seeking to help businesses counterbalance carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. The program allows us to calculate our carbon output and donate funds accordingly toward reforestation projects in Costa Rica. These future forests fixate or absorb carbon from the atmosphere. For more information on this program, visit http://www.programaacc.org/principal.php#principal
Packaging: Our unique boxes are made by hand using cacao fiber that is usually thrown away as a byproduct in the process of making chocolate. This gorgeous textured paper is the result of several months of development working with an artisan who is helping us show that rather than throwing things away, we should first seek to reuse or repurpose materials, sometimes with beautiful results. By making our own recycled boxers we avoid using plastic liners and paper treated with chemicals, or imported tin boxes that carry a large carbon footprint. A well written explanation of the latter is found at http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2013/04/29/the-carbon-footprint-created-by-imports/
Practices on the Plantation: Sibú Chocolate sources its chocolate and beans from a Rainforest Alliance certified farm on Costa Rica’s Atlantic slope. This seal means that farmers follow sound agricultural practices that protect forest, rivers, soils and wildlife, while being good community neighbors. It also ensures that workers have just wages, dignified living conditions and access to education and health care. Find out more about this certification at http://www.rainforest-alliance.org./about/marks/rainforest-alliance-certified-seal
Organic ingredients: Sibú Chocolate’s dark chocolate products have been certified organic by Costa Rica’s USDA affiliate Eco-LOGICA. The plantation where we source our cacao is also certified organic, which means that no chemicals have been used in farming that can seep into streams and affect the water quality of nearby communities. At Sibú, we believe that organic farming is important, not only for the impact that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides may have on the health of the consumer, but more importantly the impact that these chemicals will have on plantation workers, surrounding communities, wildlife and future generations who live and work these lands. We source organic ingredients whenever feasible. For more information about organic agriculture, visit www.usda.gov/organic-agriculture.html
- Fundación Neotropica(2012): From the sale of each chocolate bar sold at Automercado supermarkets as part of the campaign “Sweeten Your Day for a Good Cause,” one U.S. dollar was donated to Fundación Neotropica’s wetland protection program aimed at conserving precious mangrove forests on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast. The program works with communities to create awareness about the relationship between these wetlands and people’s wellbeing. Find out more at http://neotropica.org/article/carbono-azul-comunitario/
- CATIE(2010-2011): Sibú Chocolate donates one percent of earnings from its chocolate bar sales to the Cacao Development Program at CATIE, (Center for Tropical Agriculture and Higher Education). The program has done groundbreaking work in generating more resistant and productive varieties of cacao that benefit small scale cocoa producers throughout Latin America. The program is also working to protect natural habitats where cacao is grown. Based in Costa Rica, CATIE houses one of the world’s most important genetic banks for cacao, including rare and wild species. Find out more about this program at http://www.catie.ac.cr/es/productos-y-servicios/colecciones-bancos-de-germoplasmas/coleccion-internacional-de-cacao
- Corcovado Foundation(2008-present): Sibú Chocolate donates fine chocolates for the Corcovado Foundation’s annual Wine-and-Dine event, to raise money for its sea turtle protection program on the wild and beautiful Osa Peninsula. Find out more about the foundation’s programs at http://www.corcovadofoundation.org/sea-turtle-conservation.html
- Recycling and Composting: This is sort of a no brainer, and something that all businesses should do. All compostable food is converted into fertilizer that we use to feed our organic vegetable and herb garden. This allows us to use the freshest ingredients for our chocolates as well as for lunch recipes at our café. To minimize trash, we recycle plastic, aluminum and glass, as well as the paper that is blended with cacao fiber to make our unique cacao paper boxes (see above).