WHY WE ADMIRE BELÚ CACAO CHOCOLATE ARTISANS
I first “met” Emily Urías from Belú Cacao when Valerie Beck of Chocolate Uplift invited me to an online tasting with Yahara Chocolate in June 2020. As of January 2021, Belú is the only woman-owned and led bean-to-bar chocolate maker in El Salvador. Emily has pioneered the lost art of award-winning chocolate and tablilla making, provided meaningful employment for an all-woman team, and traded directly with Salvadorian cacao farmers and a local cane sugar refinery. All while raising three kids with her husband, Carlos. Anyone else feeling like an underachiever after reading all this?
As I proceed with this series, I am both reminded of: 1) how many deeply held values we share around the world, and at the same time 2) how vastly different our cultures can be. What struck me most from Emily's experience was not who she now empowers, but how she herself has been empowered. Be sure to read all the way to the end to find out!
Now, her story in her own words…
What started off as a desire to make tasty Salvadoran chocolate for presents to our friends around the world has become our cause. We've been able to create jobs that provide income to single mothers who live under very difficult circumstances directly affected by gang violence. Through training and seminars, they have acquired skills and knowledge in food safety, prevention of health risks through cooking, food production in general and chocolate confections. This education is not only important to become more efficient in their current professional roles, but are also very useful in their everyday life at home. A few examples -
Over time, Reina’s fulltime work in our home has gradually transitioned to fulltime managerial work with benefits making chocolate with me in the factory!
Additionally, Nancy (who had worked summers with us many years prior) joined us to help in the store and in production when needed; during her spare time she's taking English lessons that we're able to sponsor.
Outsourcing to Women
As the business has grown we have been able to subcontract part of our process in a chocolate lab run by two women who are part of a cooperative that helps small batch chocolate makers produce chocolate.
An All-Women Team
I believe this trait in our identity make us unique, more efficient, resilient and motivated. We are all mothers, sisters, daughters or wives and we now how difficult being a woman can sometimes be in a traditional society. So, the awareness of this creates a very strong bond among us. We are a tight knit group that supports each other with no questioning when we have a sick child at home, when we need to take time to go a parent meeting at school, when we need to go to a medical checkup, etc. We are women and we understand. We know our time is precious because we have to go back and tend to our families, so we get the job done. We work as a team, we thrive as a team, we lift each other as a team.
HOW EMILY WAS AND IS EMPOWERED
Breaking Boundaries as a Child
Empowerment to me has come from different people in different moments of my life. I was empowered from very early on in life by my parents. They both come from low income households, but with strong independent mothers that worked hard to provide for their children. So, for them, there was nothing a woman couldn’t do. As I child I was a very quiet and shy, but I was always encouraged by both of my parents to challenge myself and step out of my comfort zone. For example, I remember when I was in sixth grade there wasn’t any girl volleyball team at school it was just for boys up until 8th grade. I decided to enter for tryouts and surprisingly enough, I got in! For my parents there was never any doubt that I could do this and train along with boys. By the end of the year the school gave me a ¨rookie of the year award¨. At the time in El Salvador, having a girl do this was far less usual than what it is today.
Fast forward many years later I decided to do an MBA in the US. Here, the sole experience of class participation was a life changing experience. I was in awe of how attentively professors listened to female opinions just the same way they did to our male peers. As a young woman professional in El Salvador standing your ground was still very nerve-racking. So, believing in myself just like anybody else in the room when I gave my opinion was a boost of confidence like no other.
Courage for Today
Finally, in this new journey of cacao I’ve encountered resistance and rejection from many parties who find it unusual for a woman going into the fields to buy a crop and then process it. Not only that, but requesting higher levels of quality in order to purchase. Yet again, there are always people that surround you that gives you the courage to keep on going. In my case, one of the strongest allies and support is my husband. He keeps reminding me that this is like a ¨marathon, not a sprint¨ so I can shake it off when it’s not going my way and keep moving. And then, like in a blink of an eye, you just need one person to believe in you and everything starts falling in to place. I just needed one cacao grower to sell me for the first time in order to find many others who were willing.
We pride ourselves of taking thorough care on the selection of cacao we use to produce our chocolates. By meeting with our farming partners monthly, our team has become expert in this process, by practice and training. When a whole team is able to detect cacao quality it serves as a screening process for the best beans that start from the cacao tree all the way to entering our premises to the final product. This knowledge has been shared and passed on to our all women Belú team.
Factory Location: Santa Tecla, La Libertad, El Salvador
Award Winning Chocolate:
- 70% Coffee Dark Roast – Silver – Academy of Chocolate, London
- Tablilla – Silver – International Chocolate Awards, Germany
- 70% Panela – Bronze – International Chocolate Awards, Central America
Now, grab some Belú. I've had the chance to taste most of her line (because she makes a tasting pack - hooray!) and it's all great - extremely balanced and approachable. My favorite is the Panela because you can taste subtle malty and fruity notes with the local, unrefined cane sugar. AND - there's a reason they got started with tablilla. It's sweeter than her bars and the spices are a taste of heaven, so that authentic drink is not to be missed!
THE HISTORY OF BELÚ CACAO
Tablilla - The Failure before the Start
In the early 2000´s, my now-husband, Carlos, was living abroad and wanted to take a unique Salvadoran present to his friends. We decided to try to make our own ¨Tablilla¨ (chocolate disc for drinking chocolate made in the traditional way of many Latin-American countries, using ground cacao bean, sugar, coriander seeds, cinnamon and nutmeg). It was a total failure. Yet, the idea was left in our minds. Learn how to make tablilla from their short video!
El Salvador Reactivates Cacao Production
Fast forward 10 years, I was a stay-at-home mom with three kids and noticed that the government of El Salvador wanted to reactivate the cacao production in the country. El Salvador had for many years been an excellent cacao producer with a mix of premium Trinitario and Criollo varieties. But, due to many historical and unfortunate events the crop had been left behind.
Rooted in Tradition
So, alongside Reina (our home helper), we started the process of learning how to make Tablillas in a very traditional way, grinding beans in our town's community mill, molding them by hand and using only natural ingredients. After a year of hard work and lots of learning, the Tablilla would eventually become a delicious chocolate bar and we entered the bean-to-bar world.
Behind The Name
At this point, my five year old daughter was starting to read and write and to impress me she wrote her name for the first time and said: ¨look mama, I can spell my name: ISABELU¨. She had joined her name with the first letter of her last name. And that's how the name Belú came about.