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Sarah M Bharath, Cacao Scientist

Where are you based and what do you do?
I’m based on the island of Trinidad, which is home soil for me, as I was born and grown in Trinidad & Tobago. I spend a good chunk of my time traveling to the US and within the Caribbean region as I’m an independent cacao services provider. That title just means I actively work, wherever needed, alongside cacao producers to help bring the best out of their crop, from soil to final saleable seed, that’s then used by worldwide chocolate makers who pay a higher price for this quality.

What does a day in your work life look like?
Depends on the day and time of year. My best days are those when I’m doing fieldwork and LOTS of it! When I’m not out in the field, I’m in my home-based bean lab. For example, since 2016 I’ve been doing this very cool collaboration with Portland, OR-based Meridian Cacao. We’ve got a project going here, and a huge part involves testing the beans I’m hoping to buy for Meridian. That means grind time in my little bean lab, leading to loads of chocolate that must then be tasted and assessed in order to make a thumbs up or down decision.

Home-based bean lab? Tell us more.
It started with a roaster, grinder, and winnower on a corner table (classic low budget stuff that just got the job done). That has since grown into full dedication of the room to bean/chocolate analysis. This means bean piles and machinery everywhere, and freezers loaded with chocolate samples from all over Trinidad, as well as from around the world.

Is tasting chocolate the yummiest part of your job? Or do you get sick of it because it’s your job?
I actually don't get sick of it—but it is exhausting. Tasting for analysis uses your tongue and other senses intensely. Being a very specialized muscle, the tongue gets fatigued fairly quickly.

Do you have a favorite chocolate?
I don't, because my mission (both personal and professional) is to embrace diversity and showcase it so that others can understand and appreciate it. But with the nature of my work in the craft chocolate industry, I’m after showcasing the real deal that starts on-farm i.e. the unadulterated version of chocolate that allows the bean to speak of its origins and the people who have cared enough to work with it with tremendous respect. I choose that over a Twix bar any day.

How did you get into working with one of the greatest plants of all?
Straight up, I got into cacao and chocolate not because of some passionate love affair for chocolate, but because I needed a job: a hefty undergrad student loan had to be repaid, and the job ad came to my attention. What I thought would be a 1-year grow-up-and-figure-your-life-out-Sarah, turned into 13 years of crazy research, learning about a plant that would change my life forever. But even within those hallowed research walls, I could not imagine the exponential changes and true learning I would go through when I took a leap of faith and left academia. Everything changed. I felt as if I was seeing this plant-of-my-life for the first time at a level that academics had never even hinted at. I was finally learning the lay of the incredible lands beneath my feet, and communing with its plant companions and its human stewards in a way that no research paper, conference, or PhD project could ever capture. I fell in love, and I dare say it has loved me right back!

What do you have to sacrifice to be good at what you do?
I don’t view what I do as work. Everything I engage in teaches me something about my chosen path. But I will admit that harvest season ruins what little social life I pretend to have, because the beans are my babies once the farmers hand them over to me—and they sure as heck demand attention accordingly. So when farmers call for technical help, or are ready to get the bean lots off their hands, I have to be on the move to ensure those babies are safely moved and stored until I can ship them to the US.

What does your collaboration with farmers typically look like?
I love demystifying science for myself and others—especially farmers who have to wear multiple hats and figure things out every single day, in order to keep their operations alive. I love being able to help others see beautiful links between local knowledge, and what science is only beginning to understand. Thanks to the incredible learning ground that farmers have given me when they allow me to work alongside them, we collaborate on solutions that no one can take from them. It is extremely empowering for us all. My daily adventures with them show me clearly why I was brought to this space 23 years ago, and why I will serve in it for a very long time to come.

Tell us something dirty.
Hands-down, my nastiest project happened many years ago when I was working on an assignment for a company that wanted to find an industrial way to ferment cacao beans. What they asked me to do generated some of the most disgusting-smelling beans ever. I literally had to spend days (I barely slept during the experiments) stirring goopy bubbling mini-tanks of cacao beans that smelled increasingly (and looked like) baby vomit… an enclosed facility. Let that sink in. Egad. I questioned my life’s choices with every passing hour, believe me.

What are the top five things that are always in your pockets?
Numero uno: My KNIFE! I feel naked without it. Then notebook, writing instrument, beans (ha!), my phone (maybe!), my sunglasses.

Tell us something surprising about you.
Most people (gender irrespective) don’t believe how physically strong I am (for a tiny person, they say) until they see me work. Many don’t expect me to be a good driver of manual vehicles (especially 4x4s) either—because in their minds, uhhh, most women can’t/don’t/won’t. That just makes me shake my head and carry on with my business. Many also can’t believe how much I eat, considering how small a stature they say I have. That’s always a kicker at the farm table 😂.

What does workwear designed for women mean to you?
Fieldwork is long, messy, tiring, and full of drama, out there with the elements. Most of the time I work alone, spending countless hours in clothing that needs to comfortably carry essentials, get very dirty and be super easy to move about in—and power-nap in too! My earlier fieldwork saw me going to the men’s section of the clothing department to source their smallest-sized cargo pants and field shirts… Now, with my growing stash of Dovetail Workwear (especially my massive weakness for overalls, God help me, it’s really bad 😂), fieldwork days and admin just got more delightful and functional! Yay! With Dovetail on my rack, there's zero going back!

How can we learn more about women in the chocolate industry?
For me via IG, the easiest way is to search #womenincacao and #womeninchocolate to connect with women in this global industry. It’s truly phenomenal the amount of diverse talent we have in the cacao-chocolate chain. Deeply inspiring!

Follow Sarah on Instagram. | Photos by Vishal Rangersammy.

Dovetail Workwear Disclaimer: We are not the boss of our Women At Work! They say it their way and wear it their way.