Potomac Chocolate: a Closer Look at the Ethics, Marketing, and Intentions of Craft Chocolate Makers

Potomac Chocolate is a craft chocolate maker based in Woodbridge, Virginia. Ben Rasmussen is an award-winning chocolate maker who founded Potomac in 2010 and now has chocolate bars for sale across the country.  Potomac is often described as an “absurdly small” chocolate company, as it is truly a one-man show.  As I read more articles and blog posts from Ben Rasmussen, I quickly learned the truth behind that statement.  One blog post from June of 2013 simply said “Just a quick note that I’ll be traveling with my family from today until July 21st. Any orders placed will go out when I return” (Rasmussen, 2013).  Moreover, Rasmussen also wrote that he probably spends over half of the time that he is making chocolate on matters that have nothing to do with chocolate; he is everything from a “designer, custodian, accountant, salesman…and on and on.”  While he doesn’t love all of the these roles, they enable him to do what he loves, which is making great chocolate.  However, Rasmussen should be praised for far more than the taste of his chocolate. I have found that Potomac Chocolate is ethically sourced, modestly marketed, intended for all to enjoy, and made with a passion for great chocolate.

Sources of Cacao

The first thing I noticed when I looked at the catalog of Potomac bars was the variety of cacao sources.  Each Potomac bar is a single-origin bar, meaning the cacao beans used for each bar are from one particular region of a country.  Origin is particularly significant for chocolate production, as there is a long history of unethical cacao farming: some of which continues to this day.  In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie Coe writes:

“The gravest and most troubling issue confronting practically all of the major players in the chocolate business concerns child labor—usually unpaid—on the great West African cacao plantations. The countries most involved in this shameful practice are the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) and Ghana. The former alone produces nearly 40 percent of the world’s supply of forastero cacao, the mainstay of the chocolate giants. Several million African children, many of them trafficked from neighboring countries such as Mali, work under terrible conditions throughout the year…” (Coe, 2013).

Moreover, Carla Martin, a leading expert on chocolate, explains that even in the 21st century there is still prominent evidence of the worst forms of child labor on various cocoa farms in West Africa (Martin, 2017).  As a result of this troubling issue, I wanted to take a closer look at Potomac’s cacao sources.  According to Potomac’s website, Ben is currently sourcing cacao from four locations.  However, at various times in Potomac’s short history, Ben has tested cacao beans from a wider variety of sources— he said no to some of these sources altogether, while others he adopted for a short while before moving on to sources he liked better.  Here are the current cacao sources used by Potomac:

Upala, Costa Rica (3 bars): Potomac offers three different bars using cacao from Upala, Costa Rica.  This is also the first source of cacao that Ben Rasmussen ever used in his marketed chocolate bars.  The 70% dark and 85% dark bars are both comprised of simply organic Costa Rican cacao and organic sugar.  The description found on the packaging for both of these bars says: “Pure dark chocolate made from cacao grown by Finca La Amistad, a small farm in northern Costa Rica. Rich and earthy with notes of caramel, cream, nut, and red fruit.”  Potomac also offers a 70% dark bar using the same cacao beans but with the addition of cacao nibs (nibs are the most raw, pure form of chocolate).  I took a closer look at Finca La Amistad to find that the farm prides itself on having “Best quality, fair working conditions, responsible management of natural resources and long-term partnerships based on mutual trust” (Amistad, 2017).

San Martin, Peru (3 bars): Next, Potomac offers three different bars sourced from San Martin, Peru.  However, there is a discrepancy between the bars in terms of the farms within San Martin providing the cacao.  The 70% dark bar as well as the same bar with the addition of salt are grown by the same farmers.  The description on the packaging for both of these bars says: ”Pure dark chocolate made from cacao grown by the Acopagro Cacao Cooperative in the Amazonian highlands of Peru. Bright and fruity with notes of banana, raisin and apricot.”  The Acopagro Cacao Cooperative sought Fair Trade Certification in order to meet important needs like raising income levels, educational opportunities for children, and adequate healthcare for employees (Acopagro, 2017).  The third bar from this source, the 65% dark milk bar, sources cacao from a different farm.  The description on the packaging for this bar says: ”Pure dark milk chocolate made from cacao grown by the Oro Verde Cooperative in the Amazonian highlands of Peru. Rich and creamy with notes of berries and caramel.”  I found that the Oro Verde Cooperative is so small that they explicitly mention each team member’s name and credentials on their website. Moreover, they pride themselves on healthy living conditions, quality, and transparency (Oro, 2017)

Duarte, Dominican Republic (2 bars): Rasmussen also offers two bars sourced from Duarte, Dominican Republic.  The 70% dark bar was my first encounter with Potomac Chocolate.  I said something to myself like, “that’s the best chocolate I have ever had,” and quickly became interested in learning more.  The packaging description for this bar says: ”Pure dark chocolate made from cacao grown in the Duarte province of the Dominican Republic by a collection of small producers and then carefully fermented and dried by ÖKO-Caribe. Rich cocoa with notes of red fruit.”  Potomac also offers a bar from Duarte with the addition of coconut.  This description presented the biggest challenge in determining ethical sourcing, but after more research, it seems that the ÖKO-Caribe provide transparent trade and high quality (Oko, 2017).

Cuyagua, Venezuela (1 bar): Lastly, Rassmussen’s most recent addition to his list of sourced cacao is his single bar from Cuyagua, Venezuela.  The packaging description for this bar says: ”Pure dark chocolate made from cacao grown by a small cooperative in Cuyagua, located on the northern coast of Venezuela. Deep cocoa notes with subtle citrus and spice.”  In The New Taste of Chocolate by Maricel Presilla, there is an entire page about Cuyagua.  Presilla writes:

“As on other cacao plantations, black ex-slaves eventually acquired the rights to the land. Today tourism is the main industry of Cuyagua, and it is hard to get people to work the farm. But a small cooperative still works a remnant of the old farm, carrying out fermentation and drying next to an old colonial house. The day-to-day work falls on only six men and eight women” (Presilla, 2000).

What I’ve gathered from taking a closer look at these sources is that while Rasmussen does not go into too much detail on his website about the cooperatives and farms he works with, he nonetheless explicitly mentions the farming sources for his cacao.  In general, there is a clear emphasis on cacao origin for Potomac bars, which seems to suggest that Rasmussen has given the topic fair thought.  Unfortunately, this can’t be said for the chocolate world at large.  Lastly, when asked about Fair Trade Certification on Potomac’s Kickstarter page, Rasmussen responded:

“All of my cacao is currently fair trade certified, although I pay a good deal more than the fair trade price…I am also working towards doing more direct trade with the farmers who grow the cacao I use, which results in the farmers making a lot more for their cacao than they would with only fair trade” (Kickstarter, 2017).

 

Marketing

Next, I have found that Potomac chocolate is modestly marketed.  To understand the marketing behind Potomac Chocolate better, I took a trip to three different retailers in the Boston area to see Potomac on the shelves.  My first stop was Formaggio Kitchen in West Cambridge, MA.

Formaggio Kitchen in West Cambridge, MA
IMG_2432Storefront of Formaggio Kitchen in West Cambridge, MA. Personal photo.

While Potomac Chocolate was first on the shelves at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge as early as June, 2011, Dan Rasmussen was finally able to visit the shop in March, 2017.  He wrote on an Instagram post:

“I finally got to visit Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge MA and see my bars on their shelf! Best of all, I got to meet and chat with Julia Hallman who curates their chocolate selection. Julia and Formaggio have been great supporters of Potomac for a long time. They were one of the earliest shops to carry my bars” (Instagram, 2017).

Formaggio Kitchen responded to the post and said: “It was so great to finally meet you in person after all of these years! We love your chocolates and can’t wait to see what comes next!”

IMG_2439A section of the chocolate selection you can find at Formaggio Kitchen.  Personal photo. 

I was able to take a look at this chocolate curation for myself, and I then understood why there was a need for a “chocolate curator” in the first place.  Formaggio Kitchen had the largest chocolate selection of any of the specialty shops I visited.

IMG_2436Potomac Chocolate on the shelves at Formaggio Kitchen. Personal photo.

A closer look at Potomac’s packaging shows the simplicity in its marketing strategy.  Ben Rasmussen has always stood by the statement, “it’s all about the chocolate,” and this is evermore clear in his packaging.  Potomac Chocolate’s packaging is actually in fairly stark contrast to the packaging of other chocolates that you will find on the same shelves. Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate, for example, has a flashier marketing strategy on multiple levels.

IMG_2438A Potomac Chocolate bar next to a Dick Taylor bar in Formaggio Kitchen. Personal photo.

One of the most obvious differences between these two bars is the size.  After taking a measurement of the surface area of covers of each of these bars, I found that the Dick Taylor bar is approximately 47% bigger than the Potomac bar.  However, in terms of actual chocolate content, these bars are much closer to the same size than they appear. The Dick Taylor bar is 57 grams while Potomac bars are just 50 grams, a twelve percent difference.  The Dick Taylor bar obviously must compensate by being thinner than Potomac bars, which gives it the larger appearance.  This is not to say that Dick Taylor is attempting to falsely advertise to their advantage, but it shows that Ben Rasmussen is not concerned with the flashiness of his chocolate.  His initial goal is always to make chocolate that tastes the best, not make the chocolate that sells the best.  Furthermore, Potomac’s design is much simpler than Dick Taylor’s as well as many of the other chocolates found at Formaggio.  Rasmussen has changed his design over time, but it has always been minimal and clean, enough to represent the brand and the origin of the cacao.

potomacpackagingThe five-year evolution of packaging of Potomac’s 70% dark Upala bar. From http://www.potomacchocolate.com

Intended Audience

Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, MA

IMG_2516Storefront of Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, MA. Personal photo.

Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, MA is a specialty food, wine, and cheese shop that primarily specializes in their homemade pasta.  While not quite as glamorous as Formaggio Kitchen’s chocolate section, Dave’s chocolate selection is one of the first things you notice upon entering the shop.  I found many of the same chocolates at Dave’s that I did at Formaggio like Taza and Dick Taylor Chocolate.  However, Dave’s Fresh Pasta also included a wide variety of candy chocolates that I did not find at Formaggio.  As I looked more into Potomac’s marketing, this observation got me thinking about the intended audience for Potomac Chocolate.

IMG_2512The chocolate selection at Dave’s Fresh Pasta, where Potomac can be found in the upper right. Personal photo.

IMG_2546More chocolate found at Dave’s Fresh Pasta. Personal photo.

Potomac Chocolate is a craft chocolate.  This means that it is made on a smaller scale and is handmade from the bean to the bar.  Therefore, Potomac is automatically placed into a different category than the candy chocolates we are all familiar with like Snickers and Milky Way.  Who is Potomac for then?  I answer this question by taking a deeper look at Ben Rasmussen’s own story.  In a blog post from 2010, Rasmussen describes how he once ate almost exclusively Mars’ 3-Musketeers bar (Rasmussen, 2010).  He speculates that he has enjoyed hundreds, maybe even thousands of these bars, and he even remembers strongly disliking dark chocolate. One day, his family decided to have a fine chocolate tasting. Rasmussen realized that his preconception of dark chocolate was quite wrong.  After tasting a variety of dark chocolates, he tried a Hershey bar only to find that it “bore almost no resemblance to chocolate and tasted mostly like a chemical marshmallow.” Rasmussen was, as he put it, “converted to the dark side” from that point on.

Through this juxtaposition, Potomac’s presence in Dave’s Fresh Pasta feels just right. Potomac does not exist in spaces exclusive to craft chocolates, rather it can be found within a few feet of chocolates like the 3-Musketeers at shops like Dave’s.  This observation has salient implications for Potomac Chocolate’s target audience.  Perhaps someone will go to Dave’s Fresh Pasta with the intention of buying a box of Pocky and instead walk out with a Potomac bar, inspired and changed like Ben Rasmussen.  As Potomac was just getting off the ground in 2010, Rasmussen invites anyone to enjoy Potomac chocolate— he wrote:

“We’re really trying to build up a community around Potomac Chocolate Co. of friends and fellow chocolate lovers. We really want you to be a part of this crazy thing.”

Price

Wine Gallery in Brookline, MA

IMG_2535Storefront of Wine Gallery in Brookline, MA. Personal photo.

Wine Gallery in Brookline, MA is a shop for wine, beer, and spirits that strives to have something for everyone.  While 99% of the store is comprised of alcohol, it is hard to miss their Bean-to-Bar section at the checkout counter.

IMG_2532Checkout counter at Wine Gallery in Brookline, MA where Potomac Chocolate can be found in the upper right shelf. Personal photo.

IMG_2534Potomac Chocolate on the shelf at Wine Gallery in Brookline, MA. Personal photo.

At this point, I had seen Potomac Chocolate in three different shops and began to think more about the pricing at these different retail shops.  While there were discrepancies in the prices, Potomac Chocolate was always $8-$9 per bar:

Online price: $9.00 per bar, though there are savings if bought in bulk

Formaggio Kitchen: $8.95 per bar

Dave’s Fresh Pasta: $7.99 per bar

Wine Gallery: $8.50 – $9.00 per bar (as seen above)

Suppose we use the online price of nine dollars, for example.  At 1.76 ounces per bar, buying a bar of Potomac Chocolate costs over five dollars per ounce.  That’s some pretty expensive chocolate— is Ben Rasmussen just trying to make money?  Jennifer Rader with Prince William Living Magazine conducted an interview with Rasmussen, which cleared this question right up (Rader, 2013).  Not only is Potomac Chocolate Rasmussen’s second job, but he explains that finances, time, and production space have all presented challenges for the company.  The company originally got started using Kickstarter, a creative project funding mechanism that allowed supporters to help Rasmussen acquire the necessary equipment to make great chocolate.  Ben Rasmussen does want the company to grow, but he stated in the interview: “I will never allow it to grow too big that I am not involved in at least the flavor development steps…I don’t foresee a time that I’m not doing the roasting.”

In conclusion, I have found that Potomac Chocolate is a great example of a chocolate maker with ethical sourcing, modest marketing, and good intentions. It is my hope that Potomac can be a model for existing and future craft chocolate makers, as this can contribute to a bigger focus on the chocolate itself and a more ethical world.

Works Cited

Acopagro Cooperative. “ACOPAGRO – COOPERATIVA AGRARIA CACAOTERA ACOPAGRO LTDA.” Fair Trade USA. Web. 02 May 2017.

Amistad, Finca La. “Finca La Amistad.” 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.

Coe, Sophie. Micheal D. Coe. “The True History of Chocolate 3rd edition.” 2013. iBooks. 02 May 2017.

Instagram. “Potomac Chocolate.” 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.

Kickstarter. “Potomac Chocolate — Handcrafted bean-to-bar chocolate!” Kickstarter. 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.

Martin, Carla. “Modern Day Slavery.” Lecture. 2017. 02 May 2017.

Oko Caribe. “OKO Caribe, DR – 2016 Harvest.” Uncommon Cacao. 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.

Oro Verde Cooperative. “Mission and vision.” Oro Verde Cooperative. Web. 2017. 02 May 2017.

Presilla, Maricell. “The New Taste of Chocolate.” Hardcover. 2000. Revised Edition. 02 May. 2017.

Rasmussen, Ben. “Potomac Chocolate.” Potomac Chocolate. 2010-2017. Web. 02 May 2017.

Rader, Jennifer. “BEN RASMUSSEN: POTOMAC CHOCOLATE.” Prince William Living Magazine. 2013. Web. 02 May 2017.

 

 

 

 

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