Arriving at Sibö Chocolate visitors are handed a mug of hot chocolate, thick with aromas of hazelnut and dried fruit. It’s the perfect way to set the tone for an afternoon of cacao discovery at this boutique bean-to-bar property on the outskirts of the Costa Rican capital, San José.
“From here, we go on to making people try slimy beans and nibs,” laughs George Soriano, Sibö’s co-founder. “The hot chocolate is a way for people to trust us – to think, wow, this is going to be really good!” And good is an understatement.
When it launched in 2007, Sibö was – remarkably – the only operation of its kind in the country. “I knew Costa Rica had good cacao,” says George. “But I didn’t know anyone locally making great chocolate with it. We studied and read and tested and tried recipes for two and a half years. We wanted to make European-quality fine chocolate at home from start to finish. “People were surprised we could get the quality of Europe, but better, because our flavors were more intense, and our local ingredients were fresher. We were small scale and farm to table, so quality was really high. We realized in that instant we could compete on the world stage if we changed the paradigm.”
It’s a warm welcome at Sibö where you’re treated to a mug of hot chocolate on arrival
“People were surprised we could get the quality of Europe, but better, because our flavors were more intense, and our local ingredients were fresher.”
Farm to table
Sibö works exclusively with four Costa Rican cacao producers, all of which use sustainable farming methods. “Not all cacao pods are the same,” says George. “Think of wine and grape styles. It’s the same with cacao. The beans we select are not as bitter as many, which not only means we use less sugar, but we get the benefit of lots of nuanced flavours. Quality cacao gives you special flavors that connoisseurs really appreciate.”
It’s an intensive process. “The farmer invests six months from flower to fruit, then there’s fermentation and drying in the sun,” says George. “We buy them at this stage. When we take ownership, we start roasting them, then shell, grind and conch them and turn them into bonbons, chocolate bars and confections.”
Sibö roasts around 220 pounds a day. “Then it’s aged for three months,” says George, “for flavor development. If you have more tannic or acidic cacao, these notes mellow with ageing, allowing you to discover flavors that might be lost if you were to use it right away.”
Fine chocolate bonbons are a favorite among Sibö’s customers
The health tick
“We found an historical document from Spain, written by a physician in the 1600s,” says George. “He published a pamphlet on the curative properties of drinking chocolate. It was considered an elixir, to heal or give energy. In one recipe, he called for cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, red chilli. We replicate this in our four-spice chocolate truffle, using Ceylon cinnamon, local cardamom and chilli pepper.”
But launching a chocolate company favoring quality over quantity has its challenges, says George. “Back in 2007 at food fairs, people would decline to try our chocolate. They’d say, ‘Oh no, that’s dark chocolate, it’s too bitter.’ But now we go to a fair and people ask, ‘Is that the darkest you have? Do you have anything 80 or 90 percent cacao, without sugar?’ People now understand chocolate can be a healthy food, and the more cacao in it, the better it is for you.”
Translation — Passion fruit caramel with tarragon
To help visitors on their cacao awareness journey when in Costa Rica, George and his team run tasting tours from the Sibö property. Guests sample various parts of the cacao fruit while hearing tales of the history of Costa Rican cacao.
“We want people to try chocolate in a different way; have time to savor and learn to recognize quality while weaving serious take-home messages about sustainability and how food arrives at your table. People want to have a good time and enjoy the food and place. At the end of the day, that means we did a good job.”
Sibö’s Chocolate Tasting Tour is an interactive tasting experience
During the tour master chocolatiers share samples of fresh cacao fruit