Have your chocolate and drink it: one Irish company's vision for cacao beans

Try cacao tea, and cacao as a healthy alternative to sweet Easter eggs 
Have your chocolate and drink it: one Irish company's vision for cacao beans

Anna O'Sullivan and Lisa Kleiner from Nibbed

Easter doesn't have to be about consuming a surfeit of bland, sweet Easter eggs - there are other ways of getting your chocolate fix without compromising a healthy diet. Drinking it in the form of cacao tea or a cacao beverage ticks lots of great dietary boxes while still letting you enjoy the familiar flavour of really good chocolate.

Cacao, the name for the unprocessed beans, is the source of all this goodness and cacao tea is what started Lisa Kleiner on her bean-to-beverage journey. Together with her niece Anna O'Sullivan, she co-founded the Wicklow-based Nibbed last year, a company that calls itself "the home of cacao brews and treats". 

 A chef with a long-standing interest in nutrition - she has a diploma in nutritional therapy and a masters degree in sport and exercise nutrition-  lockdown gave her the time and opportunity to look outside the kitchen.

 "I always wanted to do something with chocolate," Kleiner says. When she discovered that the outer shell of the cacao bean, the fibre-rich cacao husks, contain an array of minerals and vitamins, including magnesium, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin A and B vitamins, it was a lightbulb moment. "I wanted to make teas from cacao husks, this beautiful waste product, which is not being used or appreciated. I had tea in my head, a new version of tea that people weren't familiar with." 

Armed with a dehydrator, she started developing zero-waste cacao teas. Now available in orange and cardamom and cacao and coconut versions, they can be brewed like normal tea, albeit without the caffeine, and served with milk - or an oat version - for an extra creamy flavour.

Anna O'Sullivan, who has a background in design and wellness marketing, came on board at an early stage. "We bounced lots of ideas off each other," said Kleiner. "I had all the cacao nibs left from making tea mixes, and Anna said, 'why not make a 100% cacao bar that could be used in a drink?'" 

Nibbed's melting spoons - a good source of cacao
Nibbed's melting spoons - a good source of cacao

Cacao as a beverage, made by whisking chunks of 100% cacao with hot water and, sometimes, spices, was already something that O'Sullivan was familiar with: "I'm obsessed with chocolate. I used to drink cacao tea and cacao - I'm very sensitive to caffeine, it gives me the jitters - so I was always trying to do tastings when Lisa started making her teas." 

Cacao tea and cacao contain theobromine, a natural stimulant that gives a gentler, longer-lasting energy boost, without the energy spike and crash associated with caffeine. The knowledge of this health benefit was lost somewhere on chocolate's journey from healthy drink to sweet treat. Chocolate is an agricultural product made from the beans or seeds of the cacao tree, native to the Amazon rainforest.

First domesticated in South America, it was an important commodity there and in Central America long before colonisation, and was consumed in the form of a bitter beverage. The Spanish brought cacao as a drink back to Europe in the 1500s where, over time, it became transformed by adding sugar or honey.

In the mid-1800s, the invention of the chocolate bar brought chocolate to the masses and then Cadbury is credited with manufacturing the first chocolate Easter egg in 1875. It unleashed a deluge of sweetness that hasn't stopped since.

It was back to that naturally bitter beverage that Kleiner and O'Sullivan looked for inspiration as they sourced their raw organic cacao beans from the Öko-Carib social enterprise in the Dominican Republic.

Kleiner's job is to make sure that the intense fruity flavours of these top-quality beans are showcased in the products made at their Wicklow manufacturing unit. O'Sullivan is the evangelist, telling people all about the benefits of the teas and cacao: "I'm all for the 100% cacao block. I love it really bitter, no sweetener, just oat milk. I drink it every day after my sea swim." 

You don't need a dip in the briny sea to appreciate these beverages: a pot of cacao tea in the morning, or a mug of frothy spiced cacao, can be the healthy way to have your chocolate, and drink it too.

  • Find Nibbed cacao teas, cacao blocks and more at stockists nationwide and online at nibbed.ie

Irish bean-to-bar beverages 

Exploding Tree: Canadian Allison Roberts came to Clonakilty in 1988 and started making chocolate, focusing on Fairtrade ingredients, concentrating on bean to bar production from 2013. Exploding Tree was the winner of the 2020 Irish Food Writers' Guild Environmental Award for its high ethical and environmental standards - all packaging is biodegradable, only natural sweeteners are used and deliveries are made by bike or post. Its loose-leaf cocoa husk tea continues the no-waste trend, making full use of all parts of the cacao beans. explodingtree.com 

Hazel Mountain Chocolate: this bean-to-bar factory was founded by John and Kasha Connolly at his family farm in the Burren in 2014. Constantly innovating, they were the first chocolatiers to produce a bean-to-milk chocolate bar using Irish milk. Their cacao tea is made from organic cacao shells, lightly roasted and combined with rose petals and spices, including cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and vanilla. www.hazelmountainchocolate.com 

NearyNógs Stoneground Chocolate Makers: a family business set up by Shane and Dorothy Neary in 2005, NearyNógs was the first bean-to-bar stoneground chocolate maker in Northern Ireland. Based on the Mourne Coast, the Nearys source their single-origin cacao beans ethically and sustainably, practising direct trade where possible. They recommend that you make their cacao brew in a French press, the same way you make coffee. www.nearynogs.com

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