it’s 10 pm. do you know where your chocolate came from?
Compared to other popular luxury food products – wine, coffee, cheese – most consumers know little about the origin of the chocolate they eat. Often, chocolate is referred to by its place of production rather than its place of origin; there is an assumption of quality inherent in saying that a chocolate confection was made in Belgium, Switzerland, or France. Chocolate is different than wine and cheese in this way. Many vineyards bottle their own wines, using grapes that were grown, crushed, fermented, and aged at the same geographic location.
The team at Naggiar Vineyards in Grass Valley, CA, explain their vine-to-wine approach to winemaking. [i]
A bottle of wine has a self-contained sense of place, and that sense of place is typically featured prominently on the label for the consumer. This guide to reading a French wine label illustrates just how much information about origin and production is typically packed onto a wine label, made readily available for consumers [ii].
Few chocolate companies attempt to control the entire means of production, from cacao bean to chocolate bar, in the way that many vineyards follow their grapes from vine to bottle. Most cacao is grown in East African countries and in South and Latin America. These countries often lack a strong industrial tradition or the economic strength and stability to rapidly transform their trade patterns; thus, much of the cacao is shipped to the United States and several European nations, where it is turned into chocolate (Presilla). Regulations in the chocolate industry are lax or non-existent, and the geographic path that a particular chocolate bar has undertaken is rarely made clear to the consumer, if it is even clear to the manufacturer (Nesto). Thus a gap exists between the geographic origins and genetic history of a chocolate bar and the consumer; this creates a problem that Deshpandé refers to as the provenance paradox.
Cacao originates, genetically, from Latin America, and yet when most people think of chocolate and the makers of the best chocolate in the world, Europe is far more likely to spring to mind than Ecuador. Consumers believe that the best chocolate in the world comes from Europe, and they are generally willing to pay more for it. As a result, South American chocolate companies, even if they are using superior beans and producing superior chocolate, struggle to price their product competitively for a global market. These lower prices in turn lead consumers to believe that the product is less valuable, and the South American chocolate companies are unable to develop a reputation based on the quality of their chocolate (Deshpandé).
At odds with the overwhelming faith of consumers in European-made chocolate is the understanding among practically all chocolate makers that different genetic strands of cacao produce different quality beans. The light, delicate flavors of Criollo beans are generally favored over more hardy Amelonados and other Forasteros (Presilla). Just as different grape varietals produce different flavor notes in wine, the differing chemical profiles of varying cacao trees can create chocolate that is earthy, nutty, fruity, or creamy, with notes of honey, coffee, oak, or tobacco. The various flavor notes in cacao are determined by myriad factors that differ from growing region to growing region; the French term terroir describes this regional variation. Terroir encompasses and complicates “raw materials, their growing conditions, production processes, and the moment of product appreciation” (Nesto). All these factors – regional genetic variation, soil quality, growing environment and climate, different harvesting practices – contribute to the “sense of place” realized in the final product.
Fine chocolate makers have an incentive to produce chocolate with a taste that consumers will enjoy, and as such, have always paid attention to where their cacao originated. That information is not always communicated to consumers, though; it would be very unusual for the origin of the cacao beans used in a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar, for example, to be published on the label – or anywhere. Several case studies will demonstrate different approaches by contemporary chocolate companies and institutions to emphasize terroir in their chocolate products, and will explore the ways that this focus can be constructive – or problematic.
case 1. chuao chocolatier & spicy maya chocolate
Cacao originates from Latin America, but few consumers are aware of this history. More believe, or assume, that chocolate is of European origin, as most chocolate available on the market is from European manufacturers. Chuao Chocolatier, based in Southern California, has taken multiple steps to attempt to strengthen the associations between chocolate and Latin America.
The company itself is named after the cacao-producing region of Chuao in central Venezuela. Chuao Chocolatier’s website reports that the founders’ decision in naming the company “was a reflection of their commitment to both high quality and their Venezuelan family heritage. Chocolate is part of their roots, as their ancestors once ran a small family farm that was an important part of the criollo cacao plantation industry” [iv]. The decision to name the company after this particular region is interestingly misleading: none of the cacao used in their chocolate bars is actually from Chuao. The Chuao region has an exclusive trade relationship with Amedei, an Italian chocolate company, under which no cacao from the Chuao cooperative can be sold to any other chocolatier [v]. Founder Michael Antonorsi asserts that Chuao’s chocolate “is a 60 percent mix of Latin American cacaos with the core hailing from Venezuela,” combining “a wide array of unique criollo, trinitario, and forastero beans” (Denis).
The use of Chuao in the company’s name – and marked in large letters on every chocolate bar – clearly implies that the chocolate is from Chuao, and while Antonorsi may indeed use some Venezuelan cacao in his creations, it is not Chuao cacao. The choice of name might have positive implications, such as emphasizing the associations between chocolate and Venezuela in the minds of consumers. It might also have negative implications: consumers cannot develop a sense of taste for a particular region’s cacao if they are incorrectly informed as to what they are tasting. This prevents the development of consumer understanding of terroir.
A second notable decision made by Chuao Chocolatier is the naming and development of their Spicy Maya line of chocolate. The Chuao website describes the Spicy Maya flavor as “a modern twist on the Mayan’s [sic] ancient drinking chocolate recipe, infused with cinnamon, pasilla chile and cayenne pepper” [vii]. The Spicy Maya bar is very far from any substance that Mayan women would have prepared using cacao. Mayans typically consumed chocolate in liquid form; chocolate beverages were often gruel-like drinks prepared by dissolving a ground cacao-and-corn paste in warm water (Presilla). They did use chile and cayenne as flavoring, but also flavors such as honey, vanilla, ear flower, and allspice (Presilla). Does the name “Spicy Maya” mislead in the same way as the company’s name?
The founders of Chuao Chocolatier have made decisions in the way they named their company and their products that appropriate associations with Mayan and Latin American culture. These appropriative acts may not be harmful to the long-gone Ancient Maya, but they have the potential to mislead consumers into buying a product that is not quite what it appears.
case 2. república del cacao
Several chocolatiers have focused production on “single-origin” or “exclusive-derivation” chocolates, which are made entirely from cacao grown in the same region (Presilla). These chocolates typically still contain a blend of various genetic strains, as many types of cacao trees usually grow together; what distinguishes single-origin chocolates from one another “is a matter of the local soil and environment bringing out inherent genetic characteristics, as well as the way in which particular styles of drying and fermentation have distinct effects on overall flavor and aroma” (Presilla). The flavor and nuances brought out by a particular region’s climate and production practices will register in the taste of the chocolate.
República del Cacao is a chocolate company that grew out of the desire to protect a particular variety of cacao: Cacao Arriba, a Fine Aroma Cocoa from Ecuador [viii]. Their website explains that they are working to search for new and forgotten varieties of cacao from across South and Central America. The company also researches traditional production methods, and claims to “care for the traditions of Fine Aroma Cocoa, as well as its culture and inheritance” [ix]. Explicitly, República is concerned with retracing cacao to its origins:
“Cocoa was born in our continent and here is where chocolate should be at its best. We take pride in our local staff, their efforts and the place we have chosen to open our new factory, Quito-Ecuador, just a few miles away from the ancient birthplace of cocoa… República del Cacao is in fact the first major chocolatier to bring chocolate production back to where it rightfully belongs.” [x]
Unlike Chuao, República’s name does not refer to one particular cacao-producing village; instead, the name implies a republic made up of many united chocolate-producing regions, without losing the focus on chocolate’s Latin American origins.
República produces several single-origin chocolate bars from different cocoa provinces, primarily Ecuadorian and Peruvian. Each bar has the province from which the cacao was harvested clearly marked on the packaging, as well as a notice that it was harvested and produced in Ecuador. República manages, in its marketing and packaging, to emphasize terroir and the geographic origin of each particular bar of chocolate without hinging on cultural appropriation or untruthful associations with Ancient Mayan chocolate recipes. While Chuao Chocolatier references the Chuao region primarily as a marketing ploy, República uses single-origin denominations to reference particular flavor profiles, and allows consumers to develop their own understanding of terroir.
case 3. appellations of origin: chuao, venezuela
Appellations of origin recognize a product as being from a specific geographic location and directly connect the product to the terroir of that region and the “human factors of work, creativity, and specific knowledge that are to be found” there [xii]. Marking the products of a region with the appellation of origin of that region allows producers there to protect and acknowledge regional history and characteristics.
Appellations, or denominations, of origin are generally taken far more seriously for wine and cheese and a few other food items than for cacao. Though many contemporary chocolate companies label their products with the region of origin, it is uncommon for a region to be protected under copyright law from other companies wishing to sell cacao labeled with its name. Champagne, for example, can only legally be used in the packaging and marketing materials for sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region; Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese can only be labelled as such if it is indeed from the Province of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna, Modena, or Mantua (Olmsted).
The only region that has such protection for cacao is the Chuao region in Venezuela, mentioned earlier as the namesake of Southern California’s Chuao Chocolatier. After the growers’ cooperative in Chuao, Venezuela reached the agreement with Amedei Chocolatier wherein Amedei asserted “exclusive rights to use the Chuao name,” the cooperative also filed an application for recognition of Chuao as an appellation of origin under Venezuelan law (Presilla; WIPO). Recognition was granted, and the Chuao name became protected under Venzuelan law. The name “Chuao” is legally restricted to use only on cacao beans and cocoa products from that geographic region. This, in theory, would generate higher demand for Chuao cacao, allowing growers from Chuao to demand higher prices for their beans and allowing local buyers to benefit from their relationships to the plantation.
This further complicates the story of Chuao Chocolatier. The Chuao name is protected under intellectual property law; because their chocolate is not composed solely of cacao from the Chuao region, Chuao Chocolatier is in violation of this law. The legal recognition of Chuao as an appellation of origin, in theory, is meant to handle exactly this sort of situation. The growers’ cooperative at Chuao could take legal action toward Chuao Chocolatier, and therefore regain control of the associations consumers draw to the name Chuao.
case 4. heirloom cacao
The mission of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund is to “identify and preserve fine flavor (“heirloom”) cacao varieties for the conservation of biological diversity and the empowerment of farming communities” [xiii]. The goal of the HCP is to protect the natural varieties of Theobroma cacao that are diminishing in the wild in the face of environmental change, deforestation, and economic upheaval.
The recognition of the great genetic diversity of cacao is important, and serves a different goal than those discussed so far. Individual chocolate companies, however wholehearted their goals, are generally still working in their own best interests. The HCP was founded by a group of chocolate enthusiasts and scientists in order to serve the interests of the entire cacao-chocolate industry, and to preserve the genetic diversity of cacao for future generations of environmentalists – and chocolate consumers.
There are, perhaps, some unintended consequences to the denominations offered by the HCP, however. As with the denominations offered through Fair Trade or UTZ or Rainforest Alliance, the HCP denomination can be pricy. Having the denomination may allow growers to achieve higher market prices, but it only helps those growers who can afford the cost of application. Additionally, the denomination has resulted in a boom in American and European chocolate companies that offer wildly expensive “heirloom chocolate bars” [xiv]. The companies that benefit from the denomination are not the small chocolate companies who work locally near growers; instead, those companies become pushed out of the market by larger firms and European companies that can afford to pay a higher premium once a cacao variety is classified as “heirloom.”
Many contemporary chocolate companies are adopting new approaches to marketing that emphasizes terroir. If chocolate can reach a place like that of wine or cheese in our society’s culinary consciousness, where the origin of the product is of equal or greater importance than the way it is prepared, the benefits for growers and small buyers will be myriad. Ideally, more companies will model their marketing and advertising endeavors after companies like República del Cacao, with a focus on appellations of origin and elevating multiple regions to popularity. And the more efforts that can be taken by others in the cacao-to-chocolate industry to emphasize terroir, the better – but care must be taken to ensure those efforts benefit the growers and companies that need it most.
Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2007). The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson.
Denis, N. P. (2011). Chuao Chocolatier. Specialty Food. Web. Accessed 4 May 2016.
Deshpandé, R. (2010). Why you aren’t eating venezuelan chocolate. Harvard Business Review, 88(12), 25–28.
Nesto, B. (2010). Discovering terroir in the world of chocolate. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 10(1), 131–135.
Olmsted, L. (2012). Most Parmesan cheeses in America are fake, here’s why. Forbes. Web. Accessed 4 May 2016.
Presilla, M. E. (2009). The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House LLC.
Wells, P. (2006). The World’s Best Chocolate. Food & Wine. Web. Accessed 4 May 2016.
World Intellectual Property Organization (N. D.). Branding matters: the success of Chuao cocoa bean. WIPO Case Studies. Web. Accessed 4 May 2o16.
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