Interview with José Luis Pérez

Producer and Director of Casa Rivera del Cacao (Colombia)

José Luis Pérez

Producer and Director of Casa Rivera del Cacao (Colombia)

Lawyer from Universidad del Rosario in Bogota, MBA from Temple University in Philadelphia USA. Dedicated for more than 25 years to the financial structuring and management of real estate projects. Since 2018 manager of Casa Rivera del Cacao, colombian-french venture that produces one of the best chocolate bars in the world with cocoa in the Department of Quindio (Colombia).

How did your interest in cocoa begin and what inspired you to dedicate yourself professionally to this field?

Actually the motivation came from getting to know it a little better. I never thought of being part of a cocoa project, but when I joined this project I fell madly in love with cocoa. How much we humans love it and how little we really know about it.

We know that the Casa Rivera del Cacao project is a Colombian-French venture. How did you meet Thierry Mulhaupt and how did the idea of working together on this project come about?

It happened by chance. I met a group of Colombian-French businessmen who were linked to the organization of the Track Cycling World Cup in Cali in 2014. Through them Thierry came to us years later with the idea of Producing one of the best chocolates in the world with Colombian cocoa.

Becoming an expert in any field requires a lot of learning and experience. Could you share some of the challenges you faced on your way to becoming a cocoa expert and how you overcame them?

I think the main challenge is to understand that cocoa is a very broad and, to some extent, little explored field. The only way to overcome this difficulty is to educate yourself, in my case, with the National Apprenticeship Service, where I studied a program on establishment and maintenance of cocoa plantations. From there on it has been a self-taught process with books, videos, talks with experts from all over the world, etc. Never lose the appetite to know more about this beautiful fruit and its products.

Given Casa Rivera del Cacao's focus on tree-to-bar production, have you had to acquire specific skills or unique knowledge? How have you honed these skills over time?

Of course I have, I am fortunate to know the entire chocolate industry from the bean, to the manufacturing of cocoa by-products (nibs, cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, chocolates, chocolates, bonbons, cocoa mucilage wine etc.). I have also gained this knowledge through technical training and sharing, thanks to gastronomic tourism, with some of the best chocolatiers in the world.

Is there any significant personal experience you have had in your career that you feel has defined your approach to cocoa growing and production?

Absolutely. Discovering that cocoa is Amazonian and that the first cocoas evolved on the Colombian-Ecuadorian border. This gives our countries the greatest genetic wealth of cocoa in the world and makes us possessors of some of the best cocoa in the world. That is why I believe it is absolutely possible that through the integration of the production chain and the constant improvement of agro-industrial processes, we can produce some of the best cocoa in the world.

What are the main challenges of growing fine aroma organic cocoa in the context of the Coffee Cultural Landscape and how have you overcome them?

Actually, at the beginning we had to find the right people with the right knowledge. There are many experts in coffee, but very few or none in cocoa. This forced us, at the beginning, to look for advisors in other parts of the country and the world.

With eight varieties of Colombian cocoa, how do you decide which varieties to grow and what characteristics do you look for in them to determine their potential to produce high quality chocolate?

It was a long process. But it was always clear to us that we wanted the best quality possible. Thanks to the work of Fedecacao, Colombia currently has different varieties of cocoa that have been recognized as the best in the world (Cocoa of excellence). That was one of the criteria we took into account, we also took into account the self-compatibility and sexual intercompatibility of the different varieties and their ability to adapt to the different microclimates present on our farm.

Could you explain more about the "tree to bar" process and how you ensure the quality and traceability of the chocolate produced at Casa Rivera del Cacao?

Chocolate is a food that comes to us after many processes. Before all these processes we ensure the genetic traceability of each of the varieties planted. After harvesting the fruit, the beans undergo two natural fermentation processes (anaerobic and aerobic) and a natural drying process (up to this point we could call it the tree to bean). 

Only at this point do the chocolate making processes begin: roasting, hulling, manual selection of nibs, grinding, formulating, refining, sieving, tempering, molding and crystallization of the chocolate (bean to bar). 

Documenting and improving each process while tracking the entire chain has allowed us to find places where there will always be room for improvement. This allows us to produce micro batches of the highest quality chocolate.

José Luis Pérez, accompanied by his wife; José Cimadevilla, president of the Quindío Convention Bureau; Amora Carbajal, president of the World Cocoa and Cocoa Tourism Destinations Network; Dr. Felix España, legal representative of the Tourism and Society Think Tank and Antonio Santos, president of the TSTT 

Sustainability is a crucial issue in modern agriculture. What sustainable practices have you implemented on your farm to ensure the health of the ecosystem and the well-being of the local community?

Our project has been developed in a holistic manner. We try not to neglect any of its aspects. At the agricultural level, we only use organic inputs and we even manufacture our own efficient microorganisms to control pathogens. Weed control is also done mechanically to avoid the use of herbicides. We promote the protection of soil microbiota and pollinator populations. This has led as a natural consequence to the improvement of biological indicators, particularly in terms of biodiversity. At the tourism level, we record our guests' use of resources such as water and electricity. We also have a solid waste and leachate management program that has led us to be recognized as "zero waste" by the CRQ (environmental authority of the Department of Quindío).

Casa Rivera del Cacao has managed to recover the Monsalve variety, which had become extinct in Quindío. How was this recovery process and what is the importance of this variety for you and for the biodiversity of Colombian cocoa?

It is a beautiful story. Monsalve cocoa (MON1) is the only variety registered by Fedecacao as native to Quindío. This is because Quindío was an important cocoa producer until the middle of the last century. At that time Mr. Iván Vélez, owner of the La Rivera Farm in the Vereda la Argentina in the Municipality of La Tebaida, with the help of the agronomist Antonio José Monsalve, managed to register this variety, which was named in honor of the engineer. I learned about this story thanks to a conversation with Alberto Velez, son of Mr. Ivan Velez. However, the cultivation of cocoa disappeared in Quindío in the 70's, this together with the policies of coffee cultivation at full exposure promoted by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia with which the protective forests of coffee crops were eradicated, led to the eradication of Monsalve from the Department.

However, thanks to the genetic records of the nurseries certified by the Colombian Agricultural Institute, we found small plants of this variety in La Gamarra, in the Department of Cesar (700 kilometers away) and from there we brought them. At present we are the only farm in the department with a small population of its native variety.

The tourism experiences they offer, such as lodging and spa therapies with products from the farm, are unique. How do these experiences complement Casa Rivera del Cacao's message and mission?

There is a very important task of educating the chocolate consumer, particularly in a market of large industries that offer, in many cases, chocolate substitutes. We seek to teach our visitors about the great health benefits of real chocolate, as well as to update their knowledge about the biology and history of cocoa. 

We believe that an educated consumer will demand the highest quality products. Products like the ones we manufacture and offer at Casa Rivera del Cacao.

Regarding the recognition of your cocoa varieties as Cocoa of Excellence at the Grand Salon du Chocolat in Paris, what does this achievement mean for Casa Rivera del Cacao and for Colombian cocoa in general?

Just as we seek to educate our general customers about cocoa, we seek to educate our national customers about how cocoa has been linked to our culture for millennia. We also teach them about this incredible richness, about how Colombian varieties from different regions of the country have been recognized on multiple occasions as the best in the world. 

There are records in chronicles from the time of the conquest that show that cocoa was planted in almost all the national territory and that some natives even prepared different types of beverages with its beans. We believe that Colombia must once again tie cocoa to its identity, as it has been for millennia.

What are your future plans to expand or diversify the activities of Casa Rivera del Cacao, both in the production of cocoa and in the tourist experiences that you offer?

We are aware that more than an experiential hotel we promote an emerging destination within the Colombian coffee cultural landscape. The Quindio mountain range. A destination that has incredible treasures of nature, adventure, history, culture and gastronomy. We seek to position this destination as one of the main cocoa and coffee destinations in the world. 

In terms of cocoa production, we explore other cocoa by-products through the use of mucilage, for example. We also work with other products associated with cocoa production, such as vanilla, cinnamon, macadamia, cashew and tonka nut.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in cocoa cultivation and production, based on your personal and professional experience?

Understand that any agribusiness project requires great efforts and sacrifices, but also brings great rewards of many kinds. The important thing is not to give up and trust in the nobility of a product that has accompanied man for millennia and that every day is more demanded and scarce.

As we conclude this fascinating interview with José Luis Pérez, we would like to express our sincere appreciation for sharing not only his deep knowledge and passion for cocoa, but also for revealing to us the intricate layers of dedication and love that permeate every aspect of Casa Rivera del Cacao. 

His personal and professional journey towards becoming a leading cocoa expert is truly inspiring, and the vision he has brought to life alongside Thierry Mulhaupt in this Colombian-French venture is a testament to excellence, sustainability and innovation.

Casa Rivera del Cacao, more than a producer of premium "tree-to-bar" chocolate, plays an essential role in global cocoa tourism and culture, being a key member of the World Cocoa and Cocoa Derivatives Tourism Destinations Network

This interview leaves us with a greater appreciation of cocoa, not only as an ingredient but as a cultural connector. We sincerely thank Jose Luis Perez and his wife for their participation and are excited to see the future impact of Casa Rivera del Cacao on the world of cocoa and chocolate. 

Their story is an invitation to participate in this meaningful and delicious journey - thank you for inspiring us all!

The authors are responsible for the choice and presentation of the facts contained in this document and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of Tourism and Society Think Tank and do not commit the Organization, and should not be attributed to TSTT or its members.

This site uses cookies from Google to deliver its services and to analyze traffic. Information about your use of this site is shared with Google. By using this site, you agree to its use of cookies.