When you first bite into a Taza Chocolate Mexicano disk, you immediately realize that you have not bitten into any ordinary piece of chocolate. Rather, the particularly granulated and grainy texture that you feel in your mouth, along with the raw and vibrant taste of stone ground cacao temporarily bring you to the Latin and South American origins of the beans that went into this bar. Indeed, Taza Chocolate likes to describe their chocolate making process as “bean to bar”, meaning that the entirety of the chocolate, starting from the raw whole cacao beans to the final product, is made in their Somerville, Massachusetts factory. In an ethnographic analysis of this bean-to-bar company, Taza Chocolate proves itself to be a chocolate maker that adheres to principles of promoting high quality and authentic taste, a transparent process, and a fair supply chain, all of which bring a needed focus and appreciation back to the origins of the chocolate we consume. For this reason, Taza Chocolate is a company that one can consider to be a part of the solution to a problem that exists in today’s chocolate industry: forgetting the hard work of those that provide the foundation for our chocolate.
Taza Chocolate was founded in 2010 by Alex Whitmore, who on a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico in 2005, fell in love with the culture of stone ground chocolate that he found there. Watching the skilled workers “stone-grinding cacao for chocolate in a tradition that had been handed down for generations”, Whitmore was inspired to bring that tradition to America (Rooney). He apprenticed under a molinero, or miller, in Oaxaca and learned to hand-carve the granite mill stones that are now the special part of the Taza chocolate making process. Meanwhile, his wife and co-founder, Kathleen Fulton, began designing the wrapper that would represent and hold Taza Chocolate (seen below). Five busy years later, Taza Chocolate was born and became the only producer of 100% stone ground, organic chocolate in the United States.
(The Emily Rooney Show – Production of WGBH) http://www.wgbh.org/media/player.swf
The mission of Taza Chocolate is “To make and share stone ground chocolate that is seriously good and fair for all” (Taza). In the dual parts of their mission: “seriously good” and “fair for all”, Taza has become a leader in using the quality and ethicality of their products to empower and respect those often overlooked workers at the very front of the supply chain. Looking first at quality, Taza has seen success as a maker of “seriously good” chocolate (Taza). Their products are now available all over the country and internationally, in specialty, natural and gift stores. Fine restaurants have used Taza Chocolate in their kitchens and numerous major food publications have featured the company. But these are just outward indicators of what goes on behind the scenes. For one thing, their “seriously good” chocolate seeks to remain true to its cacao origins and acknowledge where it comes from through proper and authentic taste. While other chocolate makers may do as they please to conform to the tastes of the consumer masses, Taza Chocolate caters to the genuine recipes and processes of the geography and culture within which it was conceived, and as seen above, does not come at the expense of consumer satisfaction.
Within their set of core values that come below the overall mission, Taza Chocolate’s first value is: “Keep the bean in the bar – Let each ingredient speak loud and proud” (Taza).
Their own website elaborates on this the best, “Cacao is so complex in flavor that we want to let it speak loud and proud. That is why we do less to bring you more. We stone grind organic cacao beans into perfectly unrefined, minimally processed chocolate with bold flavor and texture” (Taza). In many ways, by not letting too much human intervention get in the way of the cacao, we are taken a few steps closer to the actual cacao beans and better able to appreciate all of its natural qualities and surroundings. One way of describing this kind of appreciation is terroir. As written by Bill Nesto, the author of the journal article Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate, terroir is “the web that connects and unifies raw materials, their growing conditions, production processes, and the moment of product appreciation” (Nesto 131). Factors like geography and climate play a role in expressing this quality of terroir in agricultural products such as cacao. In the beginning of his article, Nesto criticizes chocolate makers for not better understanding terroir: “He had lost faith in the business of chocolate. When he purchased cacao – the raw material – from merchants and even from individual farmers, he had no assurance of provenance or quality” (Nesto 131).
This is precisely the problem of lacking awareness and appreciation for the origins of chocolate that Taza Chocolate is working to solve. They do so through both a rigorous and transparent sourcing process. As written on the company website, “Before we can make delicious stone ground chocolate, we need to source superior cacao beans. We couldn’t do what we do best without cacao farmer partners who do what they do best: grow exceptional organic cacao” (Taza). Thus, Taza Chocolate set up their own model called “Taza Direct Trade”. Through this model, Taza Chocolate maintains a direct relationship with each of their cacao farmers. According to Taza Chocolate’s Five Direct Trade Principles, they “work exclusively with USDA certified Organic cacao farms that practice sustainable agriculture” and “physically visit each cacao farmer cooperative at least once a year to build long-term sustainable relationships” (Taza). In 2010, the company decided to develop the Taza Chocolate Direct Trade Certified Cacao program, which takes their own trade practices and makes them third party verified, further showing their commitment to their farmers and customers. In this annual certification process, Quality Certification Services (USDA-accredited organic certifier) checks to make sure that Taza Chocolate is maintaining their direct relationships with its farmers and also purchasing high quality cacao beans. Specifically, Taza Chocolate sources “only the highest quality of cacao beans – 95% fermentation rates or more and dried to 7% moisture or less” (Taza). Additionally, Taza Chocolate is also very transparent about where their cacao comes from. They currently source from three countries, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and Belize. Within these countries, Taza has defined relationships with six suppliers, including a cooperative of small scale cacao producers, an independent organic farm, and a newly formed rural economic development enterprise. Taza Chocolate even goes as far as to publish an annual Taza Cacao Sourcing Transparency Report, which presents very detailed information and metrics about all of their cacao sources. As Alex Whitmore puts it in the video below, “This is something that not everyone does, we don’t have to do it, it’s not necessarily part of our program, but it’s something that we like to do as an organization so that we can continue to have a very meaningful dialogue about your trade relationships with our community and theirs”.
Looking at all of these different initiatives, it becomes clear that Taza Chocolate is making huge improvements in elevating those that work at the source of our chocolate, shining a light on both the quality of their work and the quality of the cacao they farm.
Not to mention, all of this not only allows the consumer to appreciate the terroir of the chocolate, but also the fundamental Mexican culture that inspired Taza Chocolate. In an increasingly globalized society of rising big businesses, it is a problem that culture can actually be slowly forgotten. Biting into a chocolate bar can either illuminate us to its cultural origins, or blind us to the important customs and traditions from which that food sprung. History is a great place to start. Marcy Norton, in her paper Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics, talks about the transfer of chocolate tastes from one culture to another. Although she is primarily arguing against this perspective, she does point out that “a significant claim made in the cultural-functionalist vein is that Europeans initially found chocolate repugnant, so they doctored it until it matched the sensibilities of their palate” (Norton 669). Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe also talk about how Europeans removed parts of the culture behind Mesoamerican chocolate. Some examples include: “whites insisted on taking chocolate hot rather than cold or at room temperature, as had been the custom among the Aztecs…Old World spices more familiar to the invaders, such as cinnamon, anise seed, and black pepper, began to be substituted for native flavorings” (Coe and Coe 115). Rather than allowing this kind of cultural callousness persist, Taza is a forerunner in upholding cultural sensitivity and respect. Rather than taking the process he experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico and appropriating it into something of his own, Alex Whitmore kept the process of Taza Chocolate authentic to the people that initially taught him the trade. In describing the stone ground chocolate making process, Whitmore’s company states that they use “authentic Oaxacan stone mills called molinos to grind our cacao, with granite millstones hand carved by co-founder Alex. These stones minimally refine the cacao beans, capturing all their vibrant flavors and allowing tiny bits of cacao and organic cane sugar to remain in the finished chocolate” (Taza).
By adhering to principles of promoting authentic and high quality tasting chocolate, as well as being very transparent with their sourcing and production process, Taza Chocolate brings the focus back to the typically forgotten farmers and culture where chocolate begins its journey. However, the company does not stop there. In addition to making consumers more aware and appreciative of these aspects of chocolate, Taza Chocolate also treats their cacao suppliers fairly and supports those suppliers that treat their workers fairly. Going back to their Five Direct Trade Principles, Taza Chocolate takes action to promote fair and ethical treatment of their supply chain. In terms of compensating their farmers, Taza Chocolate pays “a premium of at least $500 USD per metric ton above the New York International Commodities Exchange (NY ICE) price on the date of invoice directly to cacao farmers” (Taza). As pointed out by Carol Off in her book Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s most seductive sweet, cacao producers that sell to the commodity markets are often subject to the whims of the boom and bust cycle: “cacao values rode the market roller coaster will little regard for economic reality…commodities exchanges in London and New York became the custodians of lives of Ivorian cacao producers thousands of miles away” (Off 117). As such, farmers who have little education and no access to the financial markets are tossed around and lose large sums of money. With these strains, they then resort to unethical practices such as child and slave labor to make ends meet. By paying a premium price above fluctuating commodity prices, Taza Chocolate ensures that these farmers are able to make a living wage to support their families. Along with compensating their suppliers appropriately, Taza Chocolate only buys cacao from farmers that “ensure fair and humane work practices” and never buys cacao from farmers that engage in any form of child or slave labor (Taza).
Taza Chocolate is undoubtedly making large efforts to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem that we see in today’s chocolate industry. Rather than allowing consumers to blindly focus on the end product of the chocolate itself, Taza Chocolate pushes consumers to acknowledge the environment and culture from which the chocolate has come. Often forgotten farmers and food artisans are brought to the forefront instead of being relegated to the archives of unseen histories. Their work is respected and appreciated. Indeed, Taza Chocolate gives growers “an alternative to producing low quality cacao for unsustainable wages” (Taza). This alternative is a win-win strategy, one that gives growers the opportunity to produce top quality cacao at sustainable wages, all the while leading to delicious, authentic tasting chocolate. And it tastes even better knowing that the farmers whose hands grew the cacao are being treated with fairness. Taza Chocolate’s operations may still be in its nascent stages, but it is exciting to see even a small company lead the entire chocolate industry towards a more ethical, and might we say, delectable future.
“About | Taza Chocolate.” N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2015. Accessed at: <http://www.tazachocolate.com/About/>
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
Nesto, Bill. “Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 10.1 (201): 131-35. Web.
Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111.3 (2006): 660-91. Web.
Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: New, 2008. Print.