Inside Chocolate: Enliven Cacao
by Eric Battersby

— February 2018 Issue Free Content —

Here at Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine, back at the start of the 2017 holiday season we really wanted to find an upstanding nonprofit organization to support via our Holiday Chocolate Shop. After an extensive search and some serious serendipity (Eric Hiller at Enliven contacted us on his own, out of the blue, the exact week we were making the decision), we chose Enliven Cacao, and now it’s time to go beyond the holiday donations… and into the story behind this world-changing nonprofit organization.

Enliven Cacao actually sits under the umbrella of Enliven International, which started in February 2012 as a community development organization with one clear aim – to defeat poverty. Indeed, the short, powerful sentence at the very top of its “The Issue” page on pulls no punches –

“The pervasive cycle of poverty must be broken.”

The Right Start

The team at Enliven doesn’t seek band-aids… they don’t even seek charity… their true goal is empowerment, the kind that fosters change from within and truly makes a lasting difference over time. As someone who started his own nonprofit with a very similar aim, to fix problems, not simply ease them, I wholeheartedly appreciate what Enliven hopes to accomplish and find it inspiring, as I think you will as well.

Of course, you don’t build Rome in a day, and wisely heeding that mantra right from the start, Enliven looked to help one region of the world at a time, treading carefully so as to not bite off more than they could chew.

The team of co-founders went through an extensive process, looking for the right country to pour their hearts into and invest their resources in as well. The team sought a region filled with many untapped resources, plentiful opportunities, and a rich culture… yet one that still needed assistance.

Enliven eventually selected Nicaragua as their launchpad, based on their own personal experiences in the country and their clear focus on impoverished communities that did not want charity, but instead sought opportunity. Nicaragua… let the adventure begin!

Enliven Cacao trees in Rancho Grande, Nicaragua

During frequent research trips to the country from 2010 to 2015, the team grew much more aware of the negative impacts from the Contra War of the 1980’s, a war that ravaged Nicaragua, leaving many in need. Natural disasters (earthquakes, landslides, flooding and hurricanes) worsened the situation, devastating a once beautiful country. Don’t let the challenges fool you, however, as Eric Hiller quickly points out –

“Even after so much disaster, Nicaragua is still rich with resilient people, abundant natural resources, and is the safest country in Latin America. With a tourism industry in the South, tobacco fields occupying the center, fishing in the Northwest, and incredible coffee plantations in the mountains, Nicaragua is a small country teeming with vast natural resources.”

Exploring Nicaragua

On Enliven’s fourth research trip to Nicaragua, they were directed to Matagalpa, a mountainous region, dense with forests and rich fertile soil, perfect for growing coffee and cacao.

As Eric notes, “It feels like a hidden paradise,” where they found “ amazingly resourceful individuals farming to survive, but also witnessed extreme need.”

Enliven’s research team realized cacao had the potential to leverage generous growth, so Jonathan, the organization’s in-country Project Manager, moved his family across Nicaragua to open Enliven’s Matagalpa base office.

From that home base, Jonathan frequents the communities surrounding Matagalpa. Locals know him and his family members by name, often opening their homes to him, sometimes even for overnight lodging. Such tight-knit relationships in the Matagalpa region give Jonathan and Enliven’s whole team a unique understanding of these communities, as they immerse themselves in the lives of the locals, building a foundation of trust and confidence in one another.

The goal of course was to find the exact starting point for Enliven Cacao, and as Eric tells it –

“After spending months developing relationships with communities and familiarizing ourselves with each other’s resources and dreams, we finally narrowed our focus to Rancho Grande, a town two hours into the mountains outside Matagalpa.”

Like Coffee for Chocolate

Coffee is the primary crop grown in the region, but the majority of large scale coffee farmers in Rancho Grande also grow cacao trees on their land as a secondary crop. Although ideal land for growing cacao, Rancho Grande’s cacao crops are still largely undervalued. Recognizing this early in the game, Enliven soon fostered open conversation with the Rancho Grande residents about their livelihoods, and their ties to the cocoa crops.

“Many conversations led us to connect with several farmers that are considered experts in growing cacao; a family trade for many generations. These farmers are truly the pillars in their communities and loyally support the people around them. Although experts in growing cacao, the farmers generally had very little experience in the products that are produced from the raw cacao plant. Many of the farmers have never tasted chocolate. Due to this lack of knowledge, the farmers believed little value could be obtained from cacao.”

You can count knowledge as one of the first steps to empowerment, and imagine the surprise for Rancho Grande farmers once they realized their “secondary” crop might soon go head-to-head with their core coffee crop financially. Enliven then spent three years immersed in the La Colonia community of Rancho Grande. At the community’s request, and with help from many other professionals, Enliven taught them how to harvest, ferment and dry their own beans.

Now Jonathan visits Rancho Grande five days a week and personally oversees all aspects of not just the cacao planting, harvesting, fermentation, drying, and transportation, but also the distribution of funds, electronic banking for all farmers to prevent fraud, and community development and education programs.

To reach the end goals of boosting communities and alleviating poverty, the farmers and families actually vote on which community development projects to fund with their cacao revenue. They chose electricity, roads, and the reclamation of old deforested cattle pastures via the planting of more cacao trees.

Enliven continues to help Rancho Grande grow its community and expand into other small business ventures as well, all revolving around cacao. See this issue’s Chocolate Channel for an inspirational example that perfectly showcases Enliven’s world-changing model at work.

Enliven’s Cacao

Now that you’re acquainted with Enliven’s work, let’s dig into the cacao. First, let’s take a bird’s eye view of exactly where in the world this fine cacao originates:

As noted at –

“Enliven cacao is a varietal blend originating from the North Central Mountains of Nicaragua. They are processed with organic methods and single source beans harvested by cacao farmers in and surrounding La Colonia, whom have been growing cacao for generations.”

And make no mistake, they put a strong focus the aforementioned organic methods.

No fertilizers, only rich rainforest soil with perfect pH.

No Herbicides.

Where Rancho Grande sits within Latin America

Drying Enliven Cacao

Enliven Cacao Fermentation

No Fungicides, as “proper pruning allows the right amount of sunlight to reach the pods and prevent fungus or mold.”

No Pesticides, as “a natural mixture of native plants and fruits keep the pests in check.”

Enliven also only uses natural transport containers —

“From farm, to fermentation, to drying, to warehouse, Enliven cacao is never transported in plastic, synthetic, or metal containers. Only organic, unbleached jute sacks.”

Indeed, they go the extra mile in every single phase, as clearly espoused on their website –

Natural Fermentation Containers. All cacao is fermented in natural, untreated wood boxes with banana leaf insulation, never touching plastics or metals.

Natural Drying Area. Fermented cacao beans are laid out onto concrete and ceramic drying platforms, never touching plastics or metals.

Natural Heat and Airflow. No fires, artificially generated heat, or fans are used. Only the naturally sunny and arid lowlands surrounding the community.

Natural Storage. Dried cacao is placed in organic jute bags and stored in humidity-controlled warehouses on untreated wooden pallets.



The Enliven Flavor Profile

Proper techniques go a long way, but beans are still largely defined by the climate in which they grow, regardless of how they eventually make it from cacao pod to bar.

We’ve yet to taste any Enliven cacao for ourselves, so we’ll let Eric Hiller give us his take:

“Enliven cacao’s flavor starts in the rainforest, not some man-made plantation. Up in the mountains, these cacao trees get plenty of rain regardless of the conditions down below. Even when the rest of Nicaragua is experiencing a drought, our trees still get everything they want – rich soil with a pH of 5.5-6.5… temperatures between 18-21°C… humidity around 55-65%… rainfall average 6-8 inches per month… and protection from high winds.

Once harvested, then of course the fermentation and drying processes play a crucial role, and Enliven strives for greatness here as well –

“The unique combination of the community’s elevation, humidity, and ambient temperature provide an unparalleled environment for cacao fermentation. So much so, that techniques such as pod aging and brix testing are unnecessary, and could even be detrimental to both the yield and flavor profile.

Wet beans are inspected for acidity, then placed in 1 x 1 x 2 meter untreated wooden boxes. Banana leaves and organic jute sacks are used for insulation. Rotations are completed every 48 hours or as needed to maintain a temperature of 47-52 Celsius. This process, combined with the unique climate, allows enliven cacao to be fermented for at least seven days.”

By now you’re likely eating a chocolate bar while reading this, as I know I broke down about ten minutes ago myself while putting this article together (truth be told that is a frequent occurrence here at Chocolate Connoisseur). If reading about “chocolate done right” kicks up those chocolate cravings, we’re with you, we understand! But I digress…

Last of all, Enliven puts forth the extra effort in the drying process too –

“The ability to easily change climates by simply moving down the mountains allows the farmers to go from cacao’s perfect fermenting environment to its perfect natural drying environment – low humidity, higher temperature, and far away from contaminants like fires, smoke, fumes, tarmac and livestock.

Fermented cacao beans are spread out onto concrete and ceramic drying platforms, never touching plastic or metals, and exposed only to natural sunlight and wind. Enliven cacao is dried for about seven to eight days until reaching a 7.5% moisture content. Each batch is then sampled for flavor consistency. Finally, the dried and hand-sorted beans are placed in organic sacks and stored in humidity-controlled warehouses on untreated wooden pallets.”

Add it all up, and “the result, when properly roasted, is the perfect foundation for all of your chocolate creations: dominant cocoa, strong fruit, and floral touches. Depending on the roast and conch time, Enliven Cacao can deliver a wide range of flavor profiles from bright fruits to deep chocolate.”

Where Can You Try Enliven’s Cacao?

As you might imagine, with Enliven still such a relatively new endeavor, their cacao still only holds small market penetration. That said, you can still find it in the chocolates noted below, and you can also keep up with any new chocolate companies that use Enliven Cacao at this link:

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Eric Hiller – Enliven Cacao

Dad, entrepreneur, and co-founder of Greenstar Bikes, the innovative modern bamboo bicycle manufacturer. Firm believer in socially responsible and environmentally sustainable business models.

With over twenty-five years of business development experience, he delights in using his powers for the forces of good.

Contact him at or call at 612.568.8534