Tag Archives: single origin

HEXX Chocolate – A Super. Natural. Story on the Las Vegas Strip

Situated in the shadow of a half-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower, amidst the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas Strip, we find the unlikely presence of Nevada’s sole bean-to-bar chocolate concept called HEXX Chocolate (Feldberg). In a city where audacious and artificial are the norm – HEXX’s authentic approach to chocolate they call “Super. Natural.” is breaking the mold of industry paradigms and bridging the huge chasm between chocolate’s primary consumers in the global north and cacao producers in the global south (“Authentic”). In HEXX’s unique approach, they are taking on one of the most pressing social and ethical challenges facing the chocolate industry today – the plight of farmers in cacao producing nations and the general lack of awareness amongst consumers. By examining four key aspects of HEXX: The unique DNA of its leadership; the original way it is presenting its chocolate story to customers; its intentional cultivation of long-term, ethical relationship with its farmers; and its unique challenges, we will see HEXX molding chocolate’s present and future for the better.

HEXX’s Founders and Chocolate Makers – As Unique as Its Brand

As unique as HEXX’s presence is on the Las Vegas Strip, equally as original are its founders and chocolate makers. In the emerging craft chocolate space that has grown from a single company to 200 in the past two decades (Leissle 3; Giller), one might imagine a chocolate maker as a geeky chocolate scientist perfecting chocolate for other geeks (Giller) or perhaps a hipster with a cause (“MAST”). However, at HEXX, we find something quite different. The brain-trust and chocolate makers at HEXX are Matthew Silverman and Matthew Piekarski – established, culinary heavyweights in the Las Vegas dining scene who also lead HEXX’s 24×7 restaurant operation, which shares the same space and name (“Meet Our Chefs”).

Silverman and Piekarski
Chefs Matthew Silverman and Matthew Piekarski head up HEXX’s Restaurant and Chocolate Operations in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip (Morris).

In a town chock-full of celebrities, one could argue Silverman and Piekarski are celebrities in their own right. Silverman traces his culinary roots to the acclaimed Wolfgang Puck (Leach). Piekarski’s resume not only includes an Executive Chef stint working with Eva Longoria Parker but he has the distinction of being named “Las Vegas’ Hottest Chef” (“Chef Matt Piekarski”; Stapleton). Silverman and Piekarski’s culinary chops and earned reputations provide them a perfect platform to share HEXX’s chocolate story from their headquarters on the Las Vegas Strip, which they have been doing since 2015. In doing so, they are not only sharing the story of HEXX, but also the unique locales where its chocolate originates from and the oft-untold stories of farmers who cultivate and harvest cacao – the raw materials from which chocolate is made.

Engaging, Educating, and Expanding Chocolate’s Consumer Base

It is impossible to step-off of Las Vegas Boulevard, into HEXX’s 30,000 square foot restaurant and chocolate factory and not leave with a better appreciation for its chocolate and its origin stories (Womack).

HEXX's Logo
HEXX’s logo highlights the story of cacao farmers 20 degrees north and south of the equator (“HEXX Logo”).

That is exactly Silverman and Piekarski’s intent. From HEXX’s name and chocolate packaging to how it creatively engages customers throughout their restaurant dining experience, HEXX is educating its customers and changing their perceptions about chocolate (Piekarski). Says Silverman about the name HEXX, “The XX represents Roman numerals and speaks to the farms we source our cacao beans from, all of which are located 20 degrees above or below the equator” (Vintage View). Before unwrapping any of HEXX’s 2-oz, single-origin chocolate bars, one learns about the country and farm its cacao is sourced from and the unique flavors and terroir of the region (“Product”).

HEXX Chocoate Bars
HEXX’s single-orgin bars from different regions around the world (from left to right): Venezuela, Tanzania, Peru, Ecuador, and Madagascar (not pictured: Dominican Republic) (“About Our Chocolate”).
HEXX Dark Chocolate - Ecuador, Camino Verde Farm
HEXX’s most popular bar from the Camino Verde Farm in Ecuador (Vintage View). Its flavorings are “well-rounded with sweet marzipan and floral notes” (“Product Catalog”. It contains 73% cacao content (“HEXX Chocolate – Camino Verde Bar”).
Venezuelan Milk Chocolate Cheesecake
Venezuelan Milk Chocolate Cheesecake – one of the ways HEXX highlights chocolate throughout its menu (“Venezuelan Cheesecake”).

HEXX also sprinkles in subtle chocolate highlights throughout its restaurant dining experience – from its use of cocoa nibs as a nut replacement in muffins and salads to its use of Venezuelan Milk Chocolate in a luxurious cheesecake (Piekarski; That’s So Vegas). At the end of each meal, diners are given a petit four, which offers a taste of one of HEXX’s six single-origin chocolates. This end-of-meal ceremony not only serves as a decadent way to culminate one’s gastronomic experience but is an invitation to its patrons to learn more about HEXX’s chocolate story and more importantly connect with its cacao farmers – 20 degrees above and below the equator. 

Petit Four
A petit four, emblazoned with HEXX’s signature XX, and accompanied by a “spell-binding” message similar to those inscribed on the back of HEXX’s chocolate bars (HEXX Chocolate).

While HEXX’s chocolate message to its customers is subtle and sophisticated, its commitment to its farmers is clear and direct and can be traced to Silverman and Piekarski’s own personal culinary backgrounds: “Coming from our roots as chefs we have an appreciation for the farmers and purveyors who grow and raise our food. Developing relationships with the people who grow and import our ingredients is the most important thing that we do. Knowing who grows the ingredients, how they are grown and ensuring that the people growing them are paid a fair price is at the core of our beliefs as chefs and chocolate makers” (“Direct Trade”). It is HEXX’s relationship with its cacao farmers and how it is addressing current labor issues in the chocolate industry that we will explore next.

Cultivating Long-Term, Ethical Trade Relationships

One of the most pressing issues facing the chocolate industry today is the dichotomy between the wealth generated by big chocolate companies in the global north and the extremely low and inconsistent wages of cacao farmers in the global south (Martin “Introduction”). In 2014, the chocolate industry registered over $100 billion dollars in worldwide sales (“Cocoa Prices”). At the same time, in the two highest producing cacao nations of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana – responsible for 60 percent of world cacao production – farmers are paid on average $.50 and $.84 a day, respectively (Martin “Introduction”). This is far below the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.90 per day and well below other global minimum wage standards (“FAQs: Global Poverty”; Martin “Introduction”).

Cocoa Barometer
Cacao farmers in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana make $0.50 and $0.84 a day on average. Additionally wages are often irregular, creating other challenges for farmers (“Cocoa Barometer”; Martin “Introduction”).
Cocoa Barometer
While chocolate is a $100 billion dollar industry, just a small percentage of it makes its way back to farmers in cacao producing nations (“Real Cost”).

In response to this disparity, over the years a number of solutions have been developed including coalitions, government initiatives, civil society organizations and ethical trade models (Martin “Introduction”). The most recognizable of these today are the certifications emblazoned on the front of chocolate bars and other food products like Fair-Trade, UTZ, USDA Organic, and Rainforest Alliance (Martin and Sampeck 51; Martin “Alternative Trade”). While HEXX does purchase certified beans from at least two of its six cacao suppliers, in its choice not to exclusively source certified beans, HEXX is highlighting the limitations and critiques leveled against the certification model itself – that it is not always most beneficial to farmers (“About Our Chocolate”; Martin and Sampeck 52). While certifications generate big dollars – over $3 billion in revenue worldwide – very little of it makes its way back to producers (Martin “Alternative Trade”). By some estimations, for every dollar an American consumer pays for a Fair Trade product, a meager $.03 makes its way back to farmers (Sylla 125). Of its decision not to solely purchase certified organic beans in particular, HEXX states, “Not all of our cacao beans are certified organic, because certifications can be a costly expense for our farmers, but all are produced to the same standards that organic certifiers adhere to” (“Direct Trade”). Thus, while quality is of great importance to HEXX, consideration for its farmers is paramount.

Certifications
Certifications generate big dollars but by some estimations, for every dollar an American consumer pays for a Fair Trade product, just $.03 trickles down to farmers (Sylla 125; Martin “Alternative Trade”).

HEXX’s answer to the social and economic conditions of its farmers and the less-than-effective certification model is clear: the cultivation of long-term, direct trade relationships (“Direct Trade”). Advocates of direct trade, including HEXX, argue three primary benefits: first, it enables farmers to negotiate price, resulting in generally higher premiums. Second, it incentivizes farmers to produce higher-quality beans. Lastly and most importantly, it eliminates the layers of middlemen that have historically been a part of the chocolate trade. This fosters learning and mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and chocolate makers (“Direct Trade”; Martin “Alternative Trade”).

Conventional Cocoa Value Chain
Direct trade eliminates the layers of middlemen historically a part of the chocolate supply chain (Phillips).

Their relationships with cacao farmers is something Piekarski and Silverman take very personally. While potential partners are first identified by friend and “Chocolate Sourcerer,” Greg D’Alesandre of Dandelion Chocolate, Piekarski and Silverman take it from there (Piekarski). They travel to each country to meet and establish relationships with potential partners, and see the conditions farmers work under. Piekarski describes these trips as “life changing experiences” that have altered both his business and personal perspectives. Silverman adds, “When we form a partnership with a cacao farm, we are looking to build a long-term relationship with them. There’s no way to do that without going to the farm, trying and testing their cacao beans, and getting to know the owners and operators. Plus, we need to feel good about the culture of the cacao farm. Establishing a business relationship . . . is like getting to know extended family” (“Behind the Scenes”). HEXX’s verbal commitment translates into action. While the global commodity price for cacao has hovered around $1 a pound in recent years, HEXX pays its farmers between $5 and $10 a pound, according to Piekarski.

Silverman and Piekarski - Camino Verde
Piekarski (second from right) and Silverman (far right) visiting Camino Verde in Ecuador – one of the farms HEXX sources its cacao from (“Camino Verde”).

Direct trade is not without its limitations and critiques as well. Critics, particularly as it relates to craft chocolate, point to at least three limitations: first, its reach is very limited. For instance, of the 4.8 million metric tons of cacao purchased each year, HEXX purchases just 30 tons of it (Martin “Alternative Trade”; Martin and Sampeck 55; Piekarski). Second, direct trade partnerships tend to be devoid of farms in West African countries which account for 70 percent of the world’s cacao production (Martin and Sampeck 55; Wessel and Quist-Wessel). This is true of HEXX’s partnerships as well, which are in Madagascar, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Tanzania, and the Dominican Republic (“Product”). Lastly, direct trade relationships can be fragile, in part, because craft chocolate companies that favor these relationships may lack industry experience, financial stability, and face steep learning-curves (Martin and Sampeck 55). To this final critique, HEXX’s response is strong. Silverman and Piekarski’s culinary pedigree and HEXX’s business model set them apart from other craft chocolate companies. While chocolate will always be the foundation and cornerstone on which HEXX is built, its sales account for just $1 million of HEXX’s $30 million in annual combined revenue (Piekarski). This fact puts HEXX in an extremely strong position and affords them creative liberties to take risks with its chocolate brand – a luxury most craft chocolate companies do not have.

When one looks at the entirety of HEXX: The culinary and celebrity gravitas of its two chocolate makers, a $30 million restaurant behind it, and its prime location on the Las Vegas Strip, it is easy to assume HEXX holds the perfect hand in the burgeoning craft chocolate market. However, HEXX is not without its challenges. The very things that make HEXX distinct, also contribute to its biggest challenges. We will close by exploring these challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead for HEXX.

HEXX’s Challenges and Its Future

With its prime location and Silverman and Piekarski at the helm, HEXX has unrivaled access to two atypical markets for a craft chocolate company: the casual consumer dining at its restaurant and the vast number of restaurateurs in Las Vegas, whom HEXX could source its chocolate to. However, in its outreach to both groups, HEXX has faced some resistance. While chocolate is featured throughout HEXX’s menu, Piekarski said they have scaled back use particularly in some of its main dishes. While chocolate connoisseurs might swoon over a chicken mole or steak finished-off with condensed cocoa butter, not all of HEXX’s customers have taken to these flavors. Further, Piekarski said they have reached out to “every casino in town” to offer their chocolate as a source ingredient that could potentially be incorporated into other restaurants’ dishes. This has also been met with resistance. Piekarski states, “We want people to incorporate our chocolate in everything they do not necessarily because we want our brand out there but we want to supply people with a superior quality product at a cheaper price. We understand, as chefs, restaurants operate on very thin margins and this is as important for [other restaurants] as it is for us.”

Alexxa
HEXX’s Book of Chocolate Stories features Alexxa, HEXX’s “mystical muse” who is featured prominently throughout its brand. While appealing to mainstream customers, Alexxa’s presence as well as the absence of certification labels on HEXX’s products may be a hurdle for gourmet grocery stores (“Alexxa”).

HEXX’s location and popular appeal has also proved perplexingly problematic to a typical craft chocolate ally: gourmet grocery stores like Whole Foods. While HEXX has been well-received at events like the Fancy Food Show – the largest food show on the West Coast – it has faced a vexing, uphill battle with gourmet grocery stores precisely because of its mainstream appeal and Las Vegas Strip location (That’s So Vegas; Piekarski). Piekarski explains, “It took us a year and a half to get into Whole Foods in Las Vegas. And we only got there because we are [local].” He continues, “Everything about what we do is not what they look for in terms of craft chocolate. People ask, ‘Where do you produce? On the Las Vegas Strip?’ And that can be the end of the conversation 7 times out of 10.” In just its third year of operations, as the only craft chocolate producer in Nevada, challenges such as these should not come as a total surprise.  And as HEXX steps out further to explore new territory, its opportunities for growth are abundant.

HEXX’s future plans include developing its restaurant presence locally, growing retail sales nationally, and forming new cacao partnerships internationally. After recent renovations to its dining facilities, HEXX is purposefully reintegrating chocolate into its food program in a distinct way, says Piekarski. Weekend diners will now find a cart-wheeling Chocolate Sommelier offering up chocolate for guests to sample, adding another chocolate connection point for its customers. HEXX also recently hired a former Mars and Hershey employee tasked with expanding its retail presence in the Northwest and Midwest, in addition to Central Markets in Texas and Carr Valley Cheese Stores in Wisconsin where HEXX is currently sold (Piekarski; “Where to Find”). Finally, HEXX is looking to extend its international reach to cacao farmers in two additional countries – Trinidad and Granada (Piekarski).

HEXX - James Beard Foundation
Piekarski (third from left) and Silverman (far right) with fellow chefs and friends presenting a 6-course Chocolate Themed Valentine’s Eve Dinner at the historic James Beard Foundation House in New York City (“James Beard”).

Conclusion

In HEXX, we see an immensely compelling craft chocolate concept, connecting multitudes of atypical consumers to the story of its cacao farmers – 20 degrees above and below the equator. Through its authentic message to its customers and ethical relationships with farmers, HEXX is artfully bringing two worlds together that could not be further apart. While HEXX has faced challenges on multiple fronts during its first years, it is impossible not to be incredibly optimistic about HEXX’s industry-altering potential. With two talented and resolute chefs at the helm of its $30 million restaurant and chocolate operations, HEXX has both the gastronomic and financial chops to challenge the chocolate industry’s status-quo, transforming the way consumers see chocolate, and elevating the plight of cacao farmers in the process. In a city built on big wagers, perhaps there is none bigger and more important to chocolate’s sustainable future than HEXX.

Works Cited

“About Our Chocolate” HEXX Chocolate, 13 Jan. 2017, www.hexxchocolate.com/our-chocolate/#prettyPhoto/31/.

“Alexxa.” HEXX Chocolate, shop.hexxchocolate.com/products/alexxa-book-sample-pack-4-2-12-oz-milk-bars.

“Authentic. Handcrafted. Bean-to-Bar.” HEXX Chocolate, 27 Nov. 2017, www.hexxchocolate.com/.

“Behind the Scenes of Hexx’s Beans.” Vegas Seven, Dec. 2016, vegasseven.com/2016/12/06/behind-beans-hexx-chocolate-confexxions/.

“Camino Verde.” HEXX Chocolate, www.hexxchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Hexx-Chefs-in-Ecuador-with-Keith-from-High-Road-Ice-Cream.jpg.

“Chef Matt Piekarski – A Celebrity Chef among Celebrities.” Haute Living, 16 Aug. 2010, hauteliving.com/2010/08/chef-matt-piekarski-%E2%80%94-a-celebrity-chef-among-celebrities/76371/.

“Cocoa Barometer.” Green America, https://www.greenamerica.org/sites/default/files/styles/frontpageslideshow1382/public/2017-04/cocobarom.png?itok=mzOq8F1y.

“Cocoa Prices and Income of Farmers.” Make Chocolate Fair!, 16 Aug. 2017, makechocolatefair.org/issues/cocoa-prices-and-income-farmers-0.

“Direct Trade.” HEXX Chocolate, 9 July 2016, www.hexxchocolate.com/direct-trade/.

“FAQs: Global Poverty Line Update.” World Bank, www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/brief/global-poverty-line-faq.

Feldberg, Sarah. “Hexx Debuts New Chocolate Tour and Tasting: Travel Weekly.” Travel Weekly- The Travel Industry’s Trusted Voice, 12 Dec. 2016, www.travelweekly.com/North-America-Travel/Hexx-debuts-new-chocolate-tour-and-tasting.

Giller, Megan. “Geeks Are Using Science to Make the Best Chocolate Ever.” Engadget, 17 Jan. 2018, www.engadget.com/2017/12/19/bean-to-bar-chocolate-tech/.

HEXX. “Venezuelan Cheesecake.” Yelp, 8 Sept. 2016, www.yelp.com/biz_photos/hexx-kitchen-bar-las-vegas-2?select=XwvqAqiHkq5E9kth5ewVGg.

HEXX Chocolate. “Petit Four.” Facebook, facebook.com/hexxchocolate/.

“HEXX Chocolate – Camino Verde Bar.” HEXX Chocolate, HEXX Chocolate, www.hexxchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/product_20.jpg.

“HEXX Chocolates.” HEXX Chocolate, www.hexxchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/chocolate_2.jpg.

“HEXX Exterior.” Splash Magazines | Los Angeles, www.lasplash.com/uploads//4be6/598cc629ae581-hexx-kitchen-bar-review-2.jpg.

“HEXX Logo.” HEXX Chocolate, https://www.hexxchocolate.com.

“HEXX Restaurant Eiffel Tower.” TripAdvisor, www.tripadvisor.ca/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g45963-d7892832-i152216425-Hexx_kitchen_bar-Las_Vegas_Nevada.html.

“James Beard.” HEXX Chocolate, http://www.hexxlasvegas.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/JBF-2-13-2016-All-the-Chefs-in-the-Kitchen-01.png.

“Kitchen.” HEXX Chocolate, www.hexxchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/DSC_2749-e1429702796581.jpg.

Leach, Robin. “Mark Andelbradt Is New Chef at Spago; Chef-Chocolatier Matthew Silverman Sweetens Hexx at Paris Las Vegas.” Las Vegas Review-Journal, 19 Feb. 2017, www.reviewjournal.com/entertainment/entertainment-columns/robin-leach/mark-andelbradt-is-new-chef-at-spago-chef-chocolatier-matthew-silverman-sweetens-hexx-at-paris-las-vegas/.

Leissle, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 13, no. 3, 2013, pp. 22–31., doi:10.1525/gfc.2013.13.3.22.

Mair, Anthony. “HEXX Restaurant Interior.” Las Vegas Review Journal, 18 July 2017, www.reviewjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/8914853_web1_4-credit-anthony-mair-hexx_dining-room.jpg.

Martin, Carla D. “Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 04 Apr. 2018. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Introduction.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 24 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. and Sampek, Kathryn E., The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe. 2016 Jan., DoI: 10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

“MAST Brothers, the Most Hipster Chocolate Company Ever, Is Coming to LA next Month.” Time Out Chicago, 23 Mar. 2016, www.timeout.com/los-angeles/blog/mast-brothers-the-most-hipster-chocolate-company-ever-is-coming-to-la-next-month-032316.

“Meet Our Chefs.” HEXX Chocolate, 18 Oct. 2017, www.hexxchocolate.com/chefs/.

Morris, Sam. “Silverman and Piekarski”. Las Vegas Review-Journal, 3 Apr. 2014, www.reviewjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/9851452_web1_newfoods_040315sm_014.jpg.

Phillips, D.; Tallontire, A. Drivers and Barriers to Sustainable Purchasing in the Cocoa Sector; NRET Working Paper; Department of Geography, University of Newcastle: Tyne and Wear, UK, 2007; pp. 1–8.

Piekarski, Matthew. Phone Interview. 30 Apr.2018

“Product Catalog.” HEXX Chocolate, Jan. 2017, https://www.hexxchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/HEXX_00037_ProductCatalog_BR_LoRes.pdf.

“Real Cost” Raisetrade, www.raisetrade.com/real-cost-of-a-chocolate-bar.html.

“Sorting Beans.” HEXX Chocolate, www.hexxchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/DSC_2761.jpg.

Stapleton, Susan. “Matt Piekarski Is Las Vegas’ Hottest Chef.” Eater Vegas, Eater Vegas, 14 Feb. 2013, vegas.eater.com/2013/2/14/6479591/matt-piekarski-is-las-vegas-hottest-chef.

Sylla, Ndongo Samba. The Fair Trade Scandal Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Ohio University Press, 2014.

That’s So Vegas. HEXXY Valentine’s Day. YouTube, YouTube, 9 Feb. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gS36E7ttE4Y.

Vintage View. “HEXX Chocolate & Confexxions and HEXX Kitchen + Bar.” VintageView, 24 July 2015, vintageview.com/blog/hexx-chocolate-confexxions-and-hexx-kitchen-bar/.

Wessel, Marius, and Quist-Wessel, P.M. Foluke. “Cocoa Production in West Africa, a Review and Analysis of Recent Developments.” NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, vol. 74-75, 2015, pp. 1–7., doi:10.1016/j.njas.2015.09.001.

What future for the Arriba terroir?

In the primary chocolate consumption markets, the demand for mainstream milk chocolate bars has stagnated amid health concerns from consumers. This new market behavior has in turn been boosting the fine or flavor cacao segment, whose beans are used to produce a less fat, high-end, more expensive chocolate. Ecuador is the first exporter of fine or flavor cacao in the world and his star cacao, internationally renowned for his specific flavor, is the Arriba cacao. This leaves us to wonder what is so specific about the Arriba Terroir? What is the country doing to preserve its traditional beans? And what developments can we expect in the production of chocolate from those beans?

Overview of the cacao industry in Ecuador

There are two varieties of cacao currently produced in Ecuador: the Nacional (fine or flavour cacao, “FFC”) and Colección Castro Naranjal 51, “CCN-51” (a bulk or ordinary cacao).

The CCN-51 was created by the Ecuadorian agronomist Homero Castro who grafted in 1965 few strains of cacao to fight against the plagues that were destroying the traditional cacao cultures. The result is a clone resistant to diseases created from the Iquitos (Ecuadorean- Peruvian 45.4%); Criollo (Amazon, 22.2%) and Amelonado (Ghana and Central America 21.5%) strains. For many years the cacao industry marginalized this variety for its acidity and astringency. The following article provides additional information on the CCN-51 origins and its current recognition on the international cocoa market : www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/negocios/cacao-ccn-51-paso-de.html

On the other hand, the Nacional has been cultivated for centuries in the areas of the upper basin of the Guayas river in which estuary the city of Guayaquil can be found. Guayaquil is still today the main export port in Ecuador in which all exports of cacao are being made. Since this time, the Nacional was known as Arriba cacao (“the cacao from above/up the river”). It is known for being exclusively produced in Ecuador, for having a very short fermentation and for producing a chocolate that is soft, with an intense savor that provides complex aromas. It is described as having « a floral profile with blackcurrants and spice» by Sarah Jane Evans, founding member of the Academy of Chocolate, in her book “Chocolate Unwrapped” (2010).

Both the cultivated area for cacao and the cacao production have increased in the past 10 years reaching 388,000 Ha [1] and 260,000 MT in 2015 [2]. Approximately 600,000 people are involved directly in the cacao production chain (4% of the economically active population and 12.5% of the agri EAP) [3]. In 2015, 87% of the total cacao exports were beans’ exports (raw product), 30% of which from the CCN-51 type, 47% from the Arriba type of less quality ASE (mainly to the USA), 23% of the Arriba types of better quality ASS and ASSS (mainly to Europe and Japan) [4].

http://www.anecacao.com/index.php/en/estadisticas/estadisticas-actuales.html

Fig. 1

The FFC market represents 6 to 8% of the total world production of cacao, and Ecuador, leader in this sector, produces 54% of this segment [5]. In 2015, the FFC Panel of the ICCO reviewed the Annex « C » of the International Cocoa Agreement 2001 and confirmed Ecuador as a 75% partial exporter of fine and flavor cacao:Fig 2Fig. 2

 The production of Arriba cacao throughout history

The Nacional cacao has been cultivated at least since the 1600s along the Daule and Babahoyo rivers’ shores when it was already known in international markets for its strong and distinctive floral aroma. Until 1890 it was the only strain cultivated in the coastal region of Ecuador (with the exception of Esmeraldas province) [6] when pods from Trinidad called « Venezuela » were introduced. Following the frosty pod and witches’ broom diseases, foreign strains were introduced in a larger quantity in Ecuador. More than 95% of the original area previously planted with Nacional cacao had been replaced by hybrid material involving foreign clones, particularly of the Trinitario types[7]. This has led to the dilution of the Arriba flavor in the Nacional cacao population.

According to Cristian Melo, Researcher Universidad San Francisco, Quito, 2011, in an interview with the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (“HCP”): “In 1997-98 El Niño event, wiped out most of the Nacional crop and prompted many growers to switch to CCN-51”.

Multiple genetic analysis and research have been conducted in the 2000s in privately-owned plantations or national parks and forests by organisations such as the HCP or the Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (“INIAP”) National Institute for Agri-fishing Investigations to identify trees of the Nacional strain[8] [9]. In 2009, INIAP collected DNA samples from cacao trees throughout Ecuador, and only 6 trees (out of 11,000 samples) were genetically pure Nacional. That’s a mere 0.05% of the cacao trees that were analysed [10]. Those studies have proven that most of the Nacional cacao today is genetically a mix between many different varieties with the original Nacional strain. To highlight this diversity, a classification system of the Ecuadorian Nacional cacao has been proposed [11]:

  • Ancient Nacional (aka Antigüo Nacional): genetically pure Nacional cacao tree
  • Landrace Nacional: young plantings of genetically pure Nacional cacao
  • Heirloom Nacional: open-pollinated coastal Ecuadorian cacao trees whose DNA is at least 80% Nacional
  • Complejo Nacional: trees that are at least 50% Nacional but does not include CCN-51
  • Modern Nacional: Nacional-based clones and hybrids, as well as descendants therefrom, developed by INIAP or other agricultural institutes in the interest of increasing yields for commercial production, excluding CCN-51

The characteristics of these Nacional hybrids differ from those of the Ancient Nacional – the most visible differences being the pods’ color and shape as highlighted by the pictures below:

Fig 3Fig. 3

Differentiation of the Arriba Cacao

More generally, there are many factors that make the Arriba cacao from the Nacional hybrids differ from other types of cacao and define the Arriba Terroir, unique to Ecuador [12]:

  • Polycultures is required
  • High sensitivity to climatic changes
  • Specific soil composition (volcanic close to the Andes becoming more alluvial close to the ocean)
  • Longer Maturation period
  • Beans of bigger size
  • Less fat (for example the Complejo Nacional is assumed to have less than 48% fat while Forasteros have more than 50%)
  • Human factors during harvest have a bigger impact on the yields and quality of the beans: the Arriba beans have to be harvested in the morning and opened latest on the following day to not harm the fermentation process
  • The post-harvesting process requires natural tools such as wooden tools, jute bags, natural light to not risk alteration of the Arriba savour
  • Short fermentation period: 1-2 days of fermentation when other types of cacao require on average 6 days

Although the Arriba taste is unique and distinctive, there is much more to this product than meets the eye (the tongue?): multiple genetic passports impacting on the size and the weight of the beans, soil compositions, harvest and post-harvest processes even within the same country that constitute the complex Arriba Terroir. As explained by Prof. Carla D. Martin, Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University in her interview for Formaggio Kitchen “Chocolate and the Cost of Terroir” (2014): « To put it simply, there are many complicating variables – climate, soil type, bean variety, post-harvest conditions, chocolate manufacturing, etc. – that play into the expression of flavor from a variety of cacao of a certain origin ». It is thus impossible to propose a single quality definition (and price premium) for the Arriba cacao and the ICCO had to classify it as below (from the highest to the lowest quality).

  • ASSPS Arriba Superior Summer Plantation Selecta
  • ASSS Arriba Superior Summer Selecto
  • ASS Arriba Superior Selecto
  • ASN Arriba Superior Navidad
  • ASE Arriba Superior Epoca

All these qualities are recognised and dictate a premium on the NY and London stock exchanges.

Fig 4Fig. 4

As we can observe on this chart, the higher Arriba qualities (ASS & ASSS) have always managed to attract a premium above the CCN-51 in the past five years.

Government support for the Arriba cacao

As explained above, the Arriba cacao in Ecuador faces many challenges : scarcity of genetic content, high sensitivity to climate changes and diseases, low production rate etc. which made it difficult for small producers (49% of the cacao producers in Ecuador cultivate less than 10 Ha [13]) to sustain its production, switching to CCN-51 or other crops and putting the country at risk of losing its competitive advantage and leadership in the international cacao market for FFC. As highlighted by Susanne van der Kooij in her “Market study of fine flavour cocoa in 11 selected countries – revised version”, Royal Tropical Institute (2013): « In 2005, the ICCO downgraded Ecuador’s cocoa from being rated as 100% fine aroma to 75%, due to the introduction of- and problems with the CCN-51 variety, especially the mixing of CCN-51 with the Nacional ».

Thereafter the Ecuadorian government decided to work on the revalorisation of the Arriba Cacao and that same year the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fishing (“MAGAP”) signed the Ministerial Decree No. 70 which declares cacao as a Symbol Product of Ecuador (highlighting its importance in the history of the country, and in its social, economic and political development as well as for its unique qualities recognized internationally). Again in 2005, the MAGAP signed the Ministerial Decree No. 60 in which it is declared that the Nacional and CCN-51 beans cannot be mixed and appointing the ANECACAO as responsible body for issuing the Certificates of Commercial Quality for Cacao Export [14].

Fig 5Fig. 5

In 2012, the MAGAP launched another project of « Reactivation of National Fine and Flavor Coffee and Cacao» with the primary objective of boosting the Nacional cacao production. The project’s timeline is of 10 years with the first focus 2012-2016 being on the promotion of the cultivation and the second focus 2017-2021 being on the other segments of the value chain (such as transformation). For the first phase, the government has committed on the rehabilitation of 150,000 Ha and to increase the production from 5 to 25 qq/ha/year in order to reach a total export volume of 700,000 MT/year. The project will provide plants, technical tools, pruning to plantations older than 10 years (50% of the plantations), and promotion of cloning gardens with a total investment of 66.8 millions USD [15]. The government has made a video to promote this initiative:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKT1bfD952c

In 2014, the Ecuadorian Institute of Intellectual Property (“IEPI”) approved the first use of denomination of origin (“DO”) for the Arriba cacao as detailed in the following publication from the Institute: https://www.propiedadintelectual.gob.ec/iepi-entrega-primera-autorizacion-de-uso-de-la-do-cacao-arrib/

The government also declared an agricultural emergency in 2015 due to the unusual excessive humidity of the dry season (due to el Niño) which created an explosion of Monilla (cacao disease). The MAGAP implemented a plan that allowed the recovery of the whole country’s production particularly through distribution of kits to fight against Monilla. The ministry also started a campaign of information directed to 200,000 families of producers providing free input and technical training.

As explained above, in 2015 the government has also managed the renewal of the classification of Ecuador by the ICCO as a 75% partial exporter of fine and flavor cacao and has now the objective of achieving 85%.

Through all these actions, the Ecuadorian government have provided a strong support to the Arriba Terroir and is not only providing confidence to the small farmers to invest in further production but also to the international markets (ICCO, buyers etc) that the country will maintain its level of Arriba exports while preserving the quality of the product. Its efforts to reverse the trend that the Arriba cacao would disappear by 2025 have been working so far as described in the following article: https://www.eltelegrafo.com.ec/noticias/economia/8/ecuador-vendio-usd-750-millones-en-cacao-en-2015

 Demand for FFC

Defining the demand for FFC is a difficult task particularly « due to the niche character of craft chocolate and specialty cacao » as described by Prof. Carla D. Martin, Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, in her article “Sizing the Craft Chocolate Market”, Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (“FCCI”).

The demand for FFC is multiple:

  • From the big traditional chocolate-makers which have some Premium quality products (well established for many) and that need FFC from specific origins to maintain the distinctive savour or colour of their chocolate.
  • From the craft chocolate-makers, a smaller segment that is however growing, who create gourmet chocolate for which they almost uniquely use FFC.
  • From the direct trade chocolate-makers that work directly with producers of FFC.

In general, the chocolate consumers’ demand has changed in the past years with the following criteria becoming more important:

  • The quality of the product with consumers looking for stronger or specific flavours
  • The health and nutritional properties of the aliments
  • The origin, traceability and production process (and to a certain extent the sustainability and impact on the environment)

Chocolate consumers require thus a higher content of cacao with specific origins and terroirs (where the savour and quality of the grains are critical) [16].

This extract from the article “Premium chocolate ‘leg up’: how to win fine flavor cocoa status “ by Olivier Nieburg, 2016, Confectionarynews.com summarizes the FFC market mood today:

Laurent Pipitone, director of the ICCO economic division, said at the Cocoa Revolution conference there was « strong growth in demand » for fine flavour cacao. It comes amid premiumization in chocolate within developed markets as manufacturers experience growth in dark chocolate tablets with high cocoa percentages. « We have more and more chocolate tablets and consumers willing to pay a higher price for chocolate tablets » said Pipitone. « We are far from the wine market but the wine market can be an example on how the trade can develop in future years ».

The demand for cacao in general is also expected to grow with the increase of the world population, particularly in emerging countries where the chocolate consumption is still low today[17]. This might not however benefit directly the FFC market but will certainly put pressure on bulk cacao production and prices. What is unclear at this stage is whether this effect will push all cacao prices upwards or reduce the spread between bulk and FFC, which could lead to more farmers switching to CCN-51 in Ecuador (which might consequently create a bull market for FFC too as it becomes scarcer).

Domestic transformation industry

Only 10% of the cacao beans produced in Ecuador are actually processed locally, even for semi-transformed products (butter, liquor etc). Only 1% are processed into chocolate (Bars, powder etc) [18]. These new chocolate-makers are creating a trend in the country and are led by groups such as:

As mentioned by Paul Richardson in his article « The choc of the new », The Economist 1843 (2017): «We are not talking mass-market slabs: these are chocolates that take you on a journey, carrying the palate on intense flavour-waves of citrus and red berries punctuated with earthy notes of walnuts, cedar and tobacco»

Such a culinary journey that travelling bloggers dedicated they blog on Ecuador to the tasting of 21 local bars : https://www.livingthedreamrtw.com/2014/07/the-21-chocolate-bars-we-ate-in-ecuador_14.html

Arriba cacao SWOT analysis

Fig 6

Conclusion

With a flavour appreciated by all cacao connoisseurs around the world, the Arriba cacao presents many opportunities for Ecuador (the only country in which it grows with this distinctive flavour and quality), as long as the local regulatory bodies and the main actors of the cocoa value chain maintain their current efforts of preserving the Nacional genetics and quality while increasing its production and productivity in a sustainable and environmental manner. The government intervention through its Arriba Rehabilitation Program and potentially the implementation of technology for quality control will in that respect be crucial to the future of the Arriba cacao in the world. Still very under-developed is the local transformation industry that has however started to gain ground with award-winning chocolate such as Pacari bars. If more investments are made into this industry domestically, developing more Ecuadorian high-end single origin bars, it seems safe to predict that the Arriba Terroir will soon become to chocolate what the Bourgogne is to wine: a classic!

 

Sources and References:

Fig. 1: ANECACAO website

Fig. 2: ICCO website

Fig. 3: www.nacionalcacaoconservation.org

Fig. 4: M. Acebo Plaza, Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral ESPOL, « Industria de Cacao », Apr. 2016

Fig. 5: FAO, IICA

[1] Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos (“INEC”) National Institute of Statistics and Census

[2] Asociación Nacional de Exportadores de Cacao – Ecuador (“ANECACAO”) National Association of Cacao Exporters

[3] Ramírez, Pedro: “Estructura y dinámica de la cadena de cacao en el Ecuador: sistematización de información y procesos en marcha”, GTZ (2006)

[4] ANECACAO

[5] The International Cocoa Organisation (“ICCO”)

[6] Van Hall, (1932)

[7] Loor et al. (2002)

[8] Loor & Risterucci & Fouet & Courtois & Amores & Suarez & Jimenez & Saltos & Cros & Rosenquist & Vasco & Medina & Lanaud: “Genetic diversity and possible origin of the Nacional cacao type from Ecuador”, CIRAD, INIAP, USDA, UTEQ (2010)

[9] Loor & Risterucci & Courtois & Fouet & Jeanneau & Rosenquist & Amores & Vasco & Medina & Lanaud: “Tracing the native ancestors of the modern Theobroma cacao L. population in Ecuador”, Tree Genetics & Genomes (2009)

[10] Christian, The Mother ‘F’ Tree (2012)

[11] Nacionalcacaoconservation.org

[12] E. Quingaísa: “Estudio de caso: Denominacion de Origen “Cacao Arriba””, Instituto InterAmericano de Cooperacion para la Agricultura « ICCA » (2007) InterAmerican Institute of Cooperation for the Agriculture

[13] National Census for Agriculture and Livestock 2000, Ecuador

[14] E. Quingaísa: “Estudio de caso: Denominacion de Origen “Cacao Arriba””, ICCA (2007)

[15] ICCO & MAGAP, update presentation Sept 2013 Wembley

[16] Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (“CBI”) & Euromonitor & https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cocoa-demand-innovation/chocolate-makers-innovate-to-entice-health-conscious-consumers-idUSKBN1ED1PZ

[17] M. Acebo Plaza: « Industria de Cacao », Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (“ESPOL”) (2016)

[18] ANECACAO

Tracing Terroir: Unpacking Taste, Identity, and Origins in Chocolate

Terroir in Chocolate
Terroir is a quality in a food product that synthesizes genetics, location, and human intervention to evoke a “sense of place.” This blog post discusses the notions of terroir in chocolate and the multiple layers of chocolate origins, as well as explores the concepts firsthand with a chocolate tasting that tests whether these factors are discernible to the average consumer in the final product.

To describe terroir in chocolate is to recognize the interconnected web of relationships that produce chocolate: from its raw state and growing conditions to the manufacturing process and final moment of consumption and appreciation (Nesto 131). Flavor begins with the genetics of cacao and its precursors are “translated” during the fermentation process into distinguishable characteristics (Presilla 117). Environmental conditions—climate, soil type, topography, surrounding plants—and the chocolate-making process further affects how this cacao flavor is expressed (Martin 2018). In addition, human interaction with cacao influences how terroir is expressed. The final chocolate product embodies a series of actions that shape the final flavor: from deciding when to harvest and choosing certain cacao pods to balancing mucilage-to-seed ratios during the fermentation process and manipulating texture and aroma with roasting and grinding (Nesto 134). For instance, in areas where cacao is harvested during the rainy season, drying the seeds in the sun is not a reliable option. Artificial drying methods, such as over wood fires, infuse smoky and deeply-roasted flavors into the cacao beans, which would not appear in cacao beans from other places where harvest occurs in a warmer, sunnier climate (Presilla 117). Essentially, terroir reflects the identity of the chocolate and its origins.

Exploring terroir in chocolate starts with examining the place where cacao beans originate.

While terroir in chocolate is an emerging concept, the notion is well-established and widely recognized in the world of viticulture. Like wine grapes, cocoa beans exhibit detectable and distinct flavors between different types and terroirs (Leissle 23). Yet, while parallels can be drawn between the two agricultural products, the comparisons are only useful to a certain point (Presilla 126). The differences between viticulture and enology with cacao cultivation and chocolate-making highlight why terroir is more difficult to express in the latter field. Firstly, concerning genetics, the form of grapevines reflects inherent genetic qualities and each grape is genetically identical to each other. In contrast, the exact connection is tenuous between gene markers and physical morphology in cacao pods. Moreover, in a single cacao tree, cacao pods are not genetically identical to each other (Nesto 133). Secondly, the system of regulation and labeling of raw-material origin is more consistent and widespread for wine-producing grapes than it is for chocolate-producing cacao (Nesto 134). Lastly, growing grapes and producing wine are often done in close proximity to each other, allowing for more control throughout the process. This is certainly not the case with chocolate.

Parallels are often drawn between viticulture and enology with cacao cultivation and chocolate-making, but the comparisons are only analogous to a certain point.

There is a physical and figurative divide “between tree and mouth” that obstructs the expression of terroir in chocolate (Leissle 22).  As cacao travels thousands of miles from tropical growing zones to factories in Europe and North America, the ability to reflect cacao’s origin in the final chocolate product becomes increasingly difficult (Nesto 132; Leissle 22). The place of manufacture often subsumes the place of bean origin (Leissle 23). Closer proximity between cultivation and manufacturing, in addition to fewer transfers of ownership, would begin to narrow this gap (Nesto 132). With more control throughout the entire cacao-to-chocolate chain, terroir—or the “sense of place” of chocolate—can be better preserved (Nesto 135).

Chocolate Origins
Chocolate reflecting its cacao bean origins is a relatively new topic of collective interest. Historically, chocolatiers believed blending beans from many different places yielded a more desirable chocolate. In addition, in the past, consumers did not express interest in origin-labeled chocolate. “Single-origin” chocolates began to appear in the U.S. market in 1984 during the growing food movement of eating local and learning about food provenance (Leissle 23; Netso 134). To illustrate the nascent bean-to-bar craft: in 1997, there was only one artisanal chocolate maker selling commercial bean-to-bar chocolate in the U.S. (Leissle 23). Today, twenty years later, there are nearly 200 chocolate makers in this category, demonstrating a continued growing interest in where the beans in chocolate come from (Wiley 2017).

“Single-origin” is the name applied to chocolate made solely with beans from a particular plantation, area, or country (Leissle 23). Other terms include “exclusive-derivation,” “single variety,” “grand cru,” and “estate grown” (Presilla 126; Leissle 23). To the experienced taster, the advantage of a single-origin chocolate is that all the subtleties of its terroir will be distinct. Yet, it is important to note that, single-variety chocolate does not necessarily mean higher quality. No matter the origin, if the beans are of poor quality, the chocolate will be too (Presilla 128).

In contrast to single-origin bars is chocolate made with blends of cacao beans of different types or from different geographical areas. While blending is often associated with anonymous chocolate of corporate mass-producers, the craft of blending is pre-Columbian and does not necessarily have to be “anonymous” or of low quality (Presilla 126). Both single-origin and blended cacao beans are legitimate approaches to chocolate-making—neither method is necessarily better than the other. Yet, across both chocolate-making processes, there is a dearth of labeling of the cacao’s origins—whether a single area or multiple (Presilla 128).

Cacao beans vary by strain–such as Criollo, Forastero, or Trinitario–or geographic area.

Chocolate Tasting: A Sense of Place
A chocolate tasting seemed like an apt opportunity to further explore terroir and bean origins in chocolate. The chocolate availability at Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe in Harvard Square, a purveyor of specialty foods, had the most impact on the final sample selections. There were not enough bars produced in the same area as the bean origin to conduct a tasting. In addition, the store only displayed one chocolate bar made with West African cacao beans and was out of stock at the time of purchase. The majority of the world’s cacao supply comes from West Africa, but the average consumer would not realize this simply by surveying the chocolate bars on the store shelves. The limited availability of West African sourced chocolate appears to reflect larger trends of exclusion in trade logistics, purchasing power, bean type, and politics (Leissle 23).

In the end, the tasting was organized around four chocolate bars with different origins and, hopefully, terroirs. The selection began with three dark chocolate bars made with single-origin beans from three different places, with similar cacao content and minimal added ingredients. The last chocolate was a milk chocolate bar made from blended cacao beans, for the purpose of comparing cocoa content, texture, and taste.

Participating tasters conducted a sensory evaluation, consumed the chocolate, and ranked the overall appeal on a numerical scale.

The chocolate tasting consisted of seven participants sampling the different chocolates sans packaging. Initially, tasters shared their chocolate preferences and consumption habits. The majority enjoyed chocolate on a daily or weekly basis in the form of dark chocolate. Three people were familiar with the concept of terroir, often mentioning wine at the same time, while four had not previously known about it. The actual tasting consisted of a sensory evaluation, with each taster writing down notes about the chocolate’s appearance, smell, “snapping” sound, taste, and texture (Stuckey 135). After finishing the sample, each taster rated how much they liked a product on a scale of one—“strong dislike, would not eat again”—to five—“great appreciation, would purchase and eat again.”

The first sample—labeled “Chocolate A” —was Chocolat Bonnat’s Madagascar bar. While the packaging boasts that the beans are from a carefully selected cocoa grands crus in Madagascar, the chocolate itself is produced in France. The bar is 75% cacao and the listed ingredients in order are cocoa beans, cocoa butter, and sugar. This bar was selected as the first sample because its flavor profile promises “blond cocoa and sweet Indian Ocean, fruity, well balanced.” The aim was to begin with a chocolate bar that was not too overpowering in terms of flavor and texture.

This bar held true to its promise of balance. The tasters’ observations were not particularly specific, simply noticing that the taste was both sweet and bitter. The average ranking for the chocolate was 3.92 and was the crowd favorite for its evenness. Participants noted that there was nothing too strong about it, either in aroma or taste, and therefore, they would be more likely to consume the whole bar or buy it again.

Goodnow Farms Chocolate’s Esmeraldas was selected for the second sample, “Chocolate B.” This “premium dark chocolate” bar highlights that the cacao beans are “single origin” from the Salazar family farm in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas region. The chocolate is part of a “small batch” production process in Sudbury, Massachusetts, with this particular bar from batch number 1,046. The bar is 70% cacao and the listed ingredients in order are cacao beans, organic sugar, and cocoa butter. The packaging describes the flavors within as “intense,” “berry jam,” and a “long, pleasantly tannic finish.” This bar was selected to be tasted second in the sequence because of its promise of bold, fruity flavors.

Even though the bar does not contain fruit additives, the “berry jam” description seemed very apt when tasters commented on the chocolate’s color and taste. The color of the chocolate was described as so dark that it had a purple or even black hue. The flavor was described as “fruity” with elements of coffee or a stout beer. These specific descriptors immediately set the reactions apart from the first bar even though the listed ingredients are the same and the cacao content is even slightly less. While my hypothesis was that the difference was due to terroir—the combination of genetics, location, and human intervention—the tasters were more convinced that it was the manufacturing process alone, such as how long the cacao beans were roasted, that accounted for the taste differences. The average ranking was 3.85, but with more varying opinions than the previous sample.

The third sample, “Chocolate C,” was Taza Chocolate’s 80% Dark Dominican Republic. This bar is part of Taza Chocolate’s “Origin Bar” series where the packaging advertises that the chocolate is “made from bean to bar” in Somerville, Massachusetts. The ingredients are all labeled as organic—cacao beans, cane sugar, and cocoa butter—except for the vanilla beans. This bar was selected for its texture; the stone ground technique would provide a comparison for mouthfeel for the tasters when compared to the other chocolate bars. While the chocolate wrapping does not describe the flavor profile beyond its boldness, the online description describes the tasting experience as starting “with a burst of ripe strawberry fruit, then mellows into coffee and smoky notes” (Taza Chocolate). This chocolate bar was third in the sequence and last for the dark chocolate selections because it contained both the highest cacao content and the most powerful flavors.

This sample elicited the strongest reactions from the group and received the lowest average rating of 1.93. Those who had never tasted stone ground chocolate were surprised and unreceptive to the gritty, “sandy” texture. For those who were familiar with Taza Chocolate and did not mind the texture, commented on the strong flavor, describing it as “blueberry,” “cherry,” and “chipotle, without the spice.” The robust flavors and descriptions may be attributed to the use of vanilla beans in the chocolate, which is typically used to intensify and highlight other present flavors in chocolate (Presilla 138).

Chocolove’s Milk Chocolate bar, containing 33% cocoa, was the last sample: “Chocolate D.” This sample was last, for it had the most additives—cocoa butter, milk, cocoa liquor, soy lecithin, and vanilla—and was predicted to be the sweetest tasting. Instead of a single cacao bean origin, this bar is made from “a blend of Javanese and African cocoa beans” with “caramel-like flavors.” Rather than drawing on the lexicon associated with origins and traditional chocolate-making techniques, Chocolove references luxury and a historical tradition by mentioning that this bar is “Belgian milk chocolate” in several places on the front and back of the packaging. Like the other chocolate bars, this bar is not made in the place of origin, but in Boulder, Colorado.

Every single taster described this sample as “sweet” and some further elaborated with descriptions of “caramel,” “vanilla,” and “creamy.” A few tasters referenced a sentiment of artifice or a lack of perceived chocolate authenticity, mentioning the flavor tasted “cheap,” “fake,” “processed,” or like it was made with “condensed milk.” These reactions are appropriate when scanning this chocolate bar’s ingredients: sugar is listed first. Despite the consensus that the chocolate bar was overly sweet, the chocolate was still perceived as relatively favorable with an average rating of 3.36. While all the tasters are self-professed dark chocolate lovers, they shared that the saccharine taste of the Chocolove would appeal to them for the times when they do want a milk chocolate bar. The addition of sugar appeared to overpower any display of terroir and the discussion gravitated towards texture. As a group, we discussed whether we are socially conditioned to perceive “smooth” chocolate as “good” chocolate. So, even though the milk chocolate flavor was not necessarily better than the that of the Taza Stone Ground chocolate, this sample was more well-received because of its silky texture.

The packaging of the chocolate samples were revealed at the end to facilitate a discussion about tasting terroir.

Overall, the chocolate tasting was an insightful experience into terroir and bean origins of chocolate. All the tasters agreed that they could taste distinct differences between all the chocolate samples. While the group thought that some of the differences could be attributed to the place origin and plant genetics, they ultimately believed that human intervention was the largest influence on the final chocolate taste.

With so many factors to consider when choosing the samples of chocolate, it would be interesting to host another tasting with the same group of people but with different selection criteria. For instance, many chocolatiers argue against the use of percentages in chocolate advertising, saying that high cacao content does not necessarily reflect good flavor (Williams and Eber 170). A future tasting could test chocolates of different cacao content, but all from the same origin.

Terroir is a quality in a food product that synthesizes genetics, location, and human interactions to evoke a “sense of place.” The participants in the chocolate tasting believed that human intervention was the most dominant factor in affecting how terroir is perceived in the final product.

Future of Terroir in Chocolate
To investigate terroir in chocolate is to inquire into a chocolate bar’s origins. Regardless of a single origin or multiple origins, labeling a chocolate bar’s beginnings invites curiosity about its origins and what makes its taste distinct. Doing so paves the way for more socially responsible chocolate. For instance, an excellent chocolate bar labeled with its origins from a less-publicized chocolate-producing regions, such as those in West Africa, could be a positive representation (Leissle 30). As consumers become more interested in where their chocolate comes from, chocolate makers gain incentive to move closer to the cultivation process (Nesto 135). Combined with further research into different bean strains and place distinctions, there is much to look forward to the future of terroir in chocolate.

Works Cited
Leissle, Kristy. 2013. “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. 13 (3): 22-31.

Martin, Carla D. “Health, nutrition, and the politics of food & Psychology, terroir, and taste.” 11 April 2018. AAAS 119x, Harvard University.

Nesto, Bill. “Discovering terroir in the world of chocolate.” Gastronomica 10, no. 1 (2010): 131-135.

Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes.

Stuckey, Barb. 2012. Taste: What You’re Missing. pp. 132-156.

“80% Dark Dominican Republic.” Taza Chocolate. https://www.tazachocolate.com/products/dominican-80

Wiley, Carol. 2017. 198 U.S. Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Makers: A State-by-State Guide.

Williams, Pam and Jim Eber. 2012. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. pp. 141-209.

Image Sources
Image 1: “Discover Real Chocolate.” By Everjean is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Image 2: “Autour du vin: printemps (basin d’orange).” By Jean-Louis Zimmermann is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Image 3: Rice, Sarah. “At Dandelion Chocolate in S.F., cocoa beans are sorted by hand.” In “Bean-to-bar chocolates: Bay Area’s edgy sweets,” by Tara Duggan. 7 November 2014. https://www.sfgate.com/food/article/Bean-to-bar-chocolates-Bay-Area-s-edgy-sweets-5879261.php

Images 4-5 by author

Image 6: Morejón, César. “A farmer extracts the seed of cacao…” The Wall Street Journal. In “A Tasting Tour of Ecuador, Chocolate’s Birthplace,” by Adam H. Gram. 13 September 2013. https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-tasting-tour-of-ecuador-chocolates-birthplace-1379108319

Chocolate Lessons: Knowledge Gleaned from Chocolate Bars Sold in the Natural Foods Aisle

On average, Americans consume 12 pounds of chocolate per person each year or a little less than a quarter pound of chocolate per week. A typical chocolate bar ranges from 1.5-3.5 ounces. Therefore, 12 pounds of chocolate equates to enjoying 55-128 chocolate bars (depending on its size) per year! It is safe to say, for better or for worse, chocolate has become an integral part of the American diet.

Historically, chocolate was consumed for medicinal purposes, primarily as a source of nourishment and energy. Today, the developed world struggles with being simultaneously over nourished and malnourished from an imbalanced diet. Nevertheless, chocolate health claims persist, usually in reference to darker chocolates. Beneficial properties of cocoa include antioxidant, cardiovascular, and psychological enhancement, which are linked to its polyphenol, flavanol, and caffeine content (Castell, Pérez-Cano, and Bisson, 2013). These health claims are not present on chocolate bar labels, though.

In the last couple of decades, food packaging has actually become quite informationally dense. How can you sift through all of the information on chocolate labels to know what’s really important? Additionally, what can we learn from a chocolate bar’s packaging, besides its nutritional content? The goal of this blog post is to help decipher the various symbols, certification meanings, and key words that appear on chocolate wrappers.

Ultimately, you, as the consumer, have to decide what is important to you and what you are looking for in your chocolate purchases, not only in terms of taste but also social responsibility. Equipping yourself with the knowledge to know what to look for, and what symbols, certifications, and other words on chocolate packages mean, makes informed chocolate purchases a much smoother process and ensures you have the best chocolate buying experience possible. Before chocolate tasting can become embodied knowledge, it requires repetition in order to pick up on flavor nuances of single origin chocolate or to be able to tell if a chocolate bar was made with over-roasted cacao beans. In the same way, learning the stories and processes behind the chocolate you are eating requires some research, occasionally beyond the label itself.

I studied the chocolate bars in the natural foods aisle of a Stop & Shop grocery store in the greater Boston area to see what information could be gleaned from the chocolate labels within this section. I did not include enrobed chocolate candies within this aisle, “regular” chocolate bars (i.e., Hershey’s) in the main candy aisle or those present in the checkout lanes. I chose to focus on the chocolate bars within the natural foods aisle because, typically, these brands offer more information and stories about cacao procurement, processing, and its impact on people or the environment, whereas chocolate produced by most Big Five brands only provide nutritional information on the back of the wrapper. The Big Five chocolate brands include well-known companies: Hershey, Mars, Cadbury, Nestle, and Ferrero (Allen, 2010).

The type of consumer who shops for chocolate in the natural foods aisle is most likely not just looking for a sugar fix because there are cheaper ways to meet that need. The intended audience includes individuals who may be interested in supporting social or environmental causes, and who are probably health conscious, even though it is still chocolate. Additionally, he or she may have a sophisticated or informed palate, and prefer quality chocolate with nuanced flavors. The natural foods aisle typically offers products that are slightly more expensive than its conventional counterparts, so the consumer is not making his or her choice of chocolate based solely on price point. Rather, the consumer possibly has a higher disposable income and is able to spend two or three times as much money on a chocolate bar from this section than on chocolate from one of the large chocolate corporations previously mentioned.

The natural foods aisle in Stop & Shop offers eight different brands of chocolate bars: Chocolove XOXOX, Green & Black’s, Divine, Theo, TCHO, LILY’s, Endangered Species Chocolate, and Alter Eco. These bars are being sold for $2.50-$3.99, with Chocolove XOXOX being the cheapest because it was on sale. Divine, LILY’s, and Alter Eco lands at the upper end of the options. The TCHO 70% dark chocolate bar usually retails for $4.29, but happened to be on sale. Still, these are moderately priced “good” chocolate bars compared to other specialty chocolate companies and retailers who sell their bars for about double the price. The juxtaposition of these brands, with a $1.00 (or less) Hershey’s chocolate bar, provides an interesting comparison in both price and taste.

The eight brands offer bars in a variety of flavors ranging from 34% milk chocolate to 85% dark chocolate with the option of added fruit or nut pieces. The white chocolate selection was nonexistent in this section at this particular grocery store. However, just for informational purposes, one brand (outside of the eight focused on here) does contribute a white chocolate peanut butter cup.

Just a few of the brands provide chocolate bars made from single origin cacao, which might be a more common provision at specialty retail stores. Both TCHO and Divine use Ghanaian cacao, and Alter Eco sources its cacao beans from Ecuador. Chocolove XOXOX states on the back of the wrapper that their Belgian chocolate bars are crafted with African cocoa beans. This somewhat vague statement only alludes to the fact that their beans do not come from Central or South America, or Southeast Asia but could be sourced from one or more of the cacao producing countries within the large continent of Africa. Additionally, Green & Black’s credits Trinitario cacao beans for giving their chocolate a rich and unique flavor profile. Trinitario cacao beans are thought to embody the best qualities of its genetic parents, the Criollo and Forastero varieties, with the hybrid cacao being both hardy and possessing a nice flavor profile (Prisilla, 2009). Likewise, the purpose of brands specifying single origin or the use of a single cacao variety suggests an increase in quality or flavor characteristics that add value to the end product. Thus, the price of these types of bars is usually slightly higher compared to mixed bean origin or variety, and especially compared to bulk cacao.

There are a few things that stand out upon taking a closer look at the packages. First, Alter Eco is the only brand that uses a cardboard packaging to house its chocolate. All of the other brands wrap their bars in a glossy paper. In both cases, the chocolate is likely sealed in foil before receiving either the glossy paper or cardboard outer wrapper. While the outer cardboard layer looks visually appealing and feels nice to the touch, it also makes the bar appear larger than it actually is. The 2.8 ounce Alter Eco chocolate bar looks bigger than the 3 ounce LILY’S bar sitting next to it on the shelf, as the image shows below. Thus, most consumers probably believe they are purchasing a larger chocolate bar if they do not read the front of the package and realize the chocolate bar is smaller by weight than some other options.

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Alter Eco 2.8 ounce chocolate bar

Like several other brands, Theo includes a brief description about the company and their procurement and processing practices on the back of the package. Here, Theo shares it is a bean to bar chocolate company, which means the company purchases the fermented and dried cacao beans, and then carries out each of the remaining processing steps (about 10) from roasting to packaging, according to their unique preferences. Thus, the company oversees the entire chocolate making process and can tweak each batch according to its needs and the desired outcome, making it a true craft.

Green & Black’s label does not readily offer information about the company’s processing practices other than it uses fair trade and organic ingredients. Interestingly, the backside of the label does say Mondelez Global LLC distributes Green & Black’s chocolate bars. Mondelez is one of the largest global snack food companies and now owns Cadbury, one of the Big Five chocolate companies. Last year, Mondelez even attempted to acquire the Hershey Company, but Hershey declined the offer (Bukhari, 2017). Thus, Mondelez is a significant player within the global food system. This association alone may deter some consumers from purchasing Green & Black’s chocolate.

Another unexpected but perhaps pioneering find is LILY’s, whose chocolate bars are sweetened with the natural sweetener, Stevia, and erythritol, a sugar alcohol. Additionally, LILY’s adds inulin, a fiber commonly used as a bulking agent. These are not traditional chocolate bar ingredients, but perhaps the fewer calories and grams of sugar allow individuals with specific dietary restrictions to still purchase fair trade chocolate. The bar also boasts that it is still “100% indulgent.”

Before dissecting the chocolate bars’ various certifications, I want to look at Divine’s commitment to its producers. In the West, chocolate consumption has long been feminized, associated with temptation and indulgence (Robertson, 2009). Women are important as both chocolate consumers and producers, something Divine has recognized. The two images above depict Divine’s pledge to support the female cacao farmers within Kuapa Kokoo (cocoa co-operative) in Ghana and make sure their voices are heard. In doing so, these female business owners are positioned as powerful actors within the cacao and chocolate industries, rather than being viewed as exploited workers in an underdeveloped country (Leissle, 2012). This has significant implications not only for the female producers, but also culturally, and for future standards within the chocolate industry.

This final section includes a brief discussion on food certifications. Fair trade certification is the most popular certification that the eight brands feature. Other certifications that appear on the chocolate wrappers include USDA Organic, Non-GMO Verified, Certified Gluten-Free, Certified Vegan, Kosher (dairy), Fair for Life, and rBST free. I was surprised I did not find the UTZ Certified symbol on any of the chocolate bars, since UTZ is the most common cacao certification related to sustainable farming practices.

Fair trade certifications can be represented in a variety of ways depending on the party providing the certification. The images above show several different certifications present on the different brands’ packaging that symbolize the employment of fair trade practices. In order for a product to be labeled “fair trade,” all members of the processing chain (including producers) must pay into the fair trade system. As a result, producers are promised better trading conditions including long term relationships with buyers, garner presumably higher wages, have better working conditions, and live overall improved lives. However, many question whether this system is as transformative as it claims to be. The terms “fair trade” and “sustainable” have become ubiquitous, and the commodification of the terms also threatens their legitimacy (Sylla, 2014).

When thinking about food certifications, it is important to remember these certifications are neither all encompassing nor meant to solve all social or environmental issues with one label. Companies are now starting to launch their own certifications rather than going through a third party certification. It will be up to the individual company to define the criteria for “fair” or “sustainable,” or any new term it deems important. Whole Foods already uses its “Whole Trade Certified” label. Consequently, continuing to be an educated consumer will be extremely imperative in order to know what the certifications represent and what the companies stand for. It is unclear whether these self-certifications will be viewed as legitimate certifications or just add to the confusion many consumers feel when reading food labels.

While the objective of self-certification is to offer more affordable fair trade items to consumers, it raises the question of whether that should be the ultimate goal of selling fair trade products, and what the tradeoffs are for making fair trade more affordable and part of the mainstream? If large food conglomerates begin to self-regulate certifications, rather than paying third party companies, who is to say the consumer will actual benefit from the money saved? Historically, when the price of goods has dropped, large corporations scoop up the difference and pocket the extra profits, rather than decreasing the cost for the consumer (Albrittion, 2013). However, consumers still have the power to vote with their dollars.

The next time you peruse the chocolate selection within a store, feel empowered to study the information provided on the packaging (and conduct further research if needed) rather than being overwhelmed by various symbols and industry jargon.

 

**All images were taken by the author

 

Works Cited

Albritton, Robert. 2013. “Between Obesity And Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry”. In Food And Culture: A Reader, 3rd ed., 342-352. New York: Routledge.

Allen, Lawrence L. 2010. Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle For The Hearts, Minds, And Wallets Of China’s Consumers. New York: American Management Association.

Bukhari, Jeff. 2017. “Why Investors Are Bingeing On Snack-Maker Mondelez”. Fortune.Com. http://fortune.com/2017/02/22/why-investors-are-bingeing-on-snack-maker-mondelez/.

Castell, Margarida, Francisco Jose Pérez-Cano, and Jean-François Bisson. 2013. “Clinical Benefits Of Cocoa: A Review”. In Chocolate In Health And Nutrition, 1st ed., 265-276. Humana Press.

Leissle, Kristy. 2012. “Cosmopolitan Cocoa Farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate Advertisements.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 24 (2): 121-139. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13696815.2012.736194

Prisilla, Maricel E. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. 1st ed. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Robertson, Emma. 2009. Chocolate, Women, and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Sylla, Ndongo Samba. 2014. The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty To Benefit The Rich. 1st ed. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Down to the Details: Dissecting the Intended Audience of Two NYC Chocolate Shops

New York City is constantly brimming with new additions to the food scene, and when it comes to chocolate, The Meadow and Chelsea Market Baskets are two specialty shops that aim to enhance one’s sensory and social experience. Closer comparison between these stores also yields distinct differences in their intended audience and marketing incentive. Whereas Chelsea Market Baskets has a more pronounced focus on gift purchasing and impulse buying, The Meadow offers a more well-rounded selection of origins and varieties, establishing itself as a solid destination for connoisseurs and consumers who place a greater priority on food product transparency.

Chelsea Market Baskets 

Chelsea Market Baskets (CMB) is located inside Chelsea Market, which boasts about 6 million visitors annually (Chelsea Market). The chocolate selection here is divided into three sections: Popular Chocolates, Specialty Chocolates (a sign reads “Chocolates that are not found in many places and we think are worth a bit of effort to find”), and Connoisseurs Chocolates (“Top quality chocolates that we are especially proud of and have sought out from smaller manufacturers”). The prices vary from around $3 to $11 per product.

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CMB’s three sections of chocolate (shot with iPhone)

Selection

Whereas mass manufacturers rely on wholesale companies to ensure lower costs, bean-to-bar makers take pride in carefully sourcing higher quality beans through a more collaborative environment with farmers and aim to increase product transparency (Dandelion Chocolate). Many bean-to-bar goods are offered here, and while most of the single origin bars only designate the country of origin, Dandelion Chocolate and Sol Cacao specify the estate where their beans come from: Akesson’s Farm in Madagascar.

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Bean-to-bar makers Sol Cacao and Dandelion specify the estate from which their beans are sourced (shot with iPhone). 

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On the other hand, CMB also offers an equal amount of mass-produced chocolate by major European manufacturers (e.g. Cote d’Or). At least five brands represented at CMB incorporate more typical “Big Chocolate” ingredients: more refined sugar and emulsifiers (e.g. soy lecithin) to substitute for more expensive cocoa butter (Albader 55). This not only reduces production costs but also reduces the number of polyphenols (which can help reduce LDL cholesterol and raise HDL concentrations) naturally found in cocoa butter (Watson et al. 267). The homogenization of these sweeter, more artificially flavored products with the all-natural and single origin bars implies that the larger focus of CMB may be on the overall appeal of the product, rather than the nutritional value or manner of production.

Examination of packaging and flavor selection also furthers my impression that CMB greatest motive is to attract the gift-giving or impulse buyer. Several eye-catching packaging labels showcase cartooned creatures, which have been shown to specifically attract children (Shekhar and Raveendran 57). Makers such as Vintage Plantations showcase vibrant colors or paintings of exotic habitats; the dimension of packaging design that most significantly predicts impulsive buying is visual design (Cahyorini and Rusfian 17). Selling more visually attractive products is a particularly beneficial marketing strategy, because the more exposure to visual cues in packaging, the higher the probability of buying chocolates (Shekhar and Raveendran 60). Certainly, customers may come with a particular product in mind, but for those more impulse-driven visitors, CMB offers several choices that facilitate purchasing through graphic appeal. Another effective marketing strategy here is catering to the traditional “American” appetite. Many flavored chocolates are fused with bacon, caramel, cookies, or other familiar flavors; culturally, we are psychologically attracted to foods that are both sweet and high in fat (Benton 214). By offering a mixture of single-origin and mass-manufactured chocolate, visually attractive products, and both familiar and novel flavors, CMB accommodates all ages and flavor preferences.The primary goal is to retail “premium chocolates,” value-added products not just in terms of quality but also “taste and texture, packaging, image and perception, and communication” (Linemayr 13).

Visually appealing products (shot with iPhone)

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Fusing bacon with chocolate

Ethical Concerns

CMB offers a number of Fair Trade products, which are based on a collective effort to justly compensate farmers. However, many of the label’s claims are not accomplished, and a very small proportion of money reaches the poverty-stricken farmers at the base of the production chain (Martin). The growing ubiquitousness of Fair Trade has led to a dilution of its label, with some companies merely using it to enhance their public image (Sylla 133). For more knowledgable consumers, CMB offers several Direct Trade goods by makers who offer more substantial premiums to farmers. Taza, which created the “chocolate industry’s first third-party certified Direct Trade cacao sourcing program,” publishes an annual cacao sourcing transparency report, listing in detail the premiums paid to their farmers (Taza Chocolate). Over fifteen of Taza’s products are sold at CMB, all of them in the “Popular Chocolates” selection, thereby facilitating an outlet by which visitors can enjoy the unique taste of their stone-ground chocolate but also learn about their socially responsible practices. By representing several companies that work beyond simply paying Fair Trade premiums, CMB offers potential for spreading more awareness about the more grassroots approach to relieving ethical issues in chocolate production.

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A shot from Taza’s annual sourcing transparency report (Taza Chocolate)

 

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Taza selection at CMB (shot with iPhone)

Taste

I purchased a few bars from each store to share some interesting flavors and textures unique to each location. From CMB, I purchased Taza’s Cinnamon Stone Ground Chocolate Mexicano Discs. Taza is known for their unique processing technique where traditional Mexican style stone mills, or molinos, are used to grind the beans. This accentuates the bold flavors of the unconched chocolate, producing a rustic, gritty texture that lingers on the tongue. Taza allows the consumer to harken back to historical Mesoamerican chocolate traditions through the similar process of grinding cacao on a stone, or metate (Presilla 26). I loved the biscuit-like texture because it allowed me to taste the bold cacao, sugar, and warm cinnamon individually.

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I was first drawn to the artwork on Amano’s package and after turning it over, I found that Amano is the most highly awarded chocolate maker in America, which piqued my interest in its taste. Madagascar cacao is known for being fruity, and this tastes very smooth with clean raspberry, black currant, and cherry notes (Presilla 139).

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The Meadow

The Meadow is located in the West Village, and pricing is significantly on the higher end, ranging from around $6 to $22 per bar. Like CMB, the chocolate selection is divided into three sections, albeit for different categories: the first section comprises flavored chocolates, the second comprising single-origin bars and bean-to-bar makers, and the third for dark chocolate (85% cacao content or higher).

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The Meadow’s three sections of chocolate (shot with iPhone)

Selection

Unlike CMB, the vast majority of products here are by small batch craft makers, and one instantly notices the emphasis on minimal and natural ingredients. The flavored chocolates here rarely consist of emulsifiers or artificial sweeteners, and the associate can name several products with higher amounts of non-deodorized cocoa butter. The samples offered were only from 100% cacao bars, which may be a more unconventional choice for tasting. Some individuals may not be familiar with such astringent, potent flavors, but The Meadow urges one to stay true to the the pure experience of cacao. These factors all lead to marketing more health-conscious products; 100% cacao bars contain no sugar, and dark chocolate contains the most significant levels of antioxidant polyphenols and flavonoids, which have beneficial effects on hypertension and vascular disorders (Haber and Gallus 1287).

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Tasting samples (shot with iPhone)

A thorough understanding of the selection is largely dependent on the visitor’s level of understanding of origin and terroir. There are significantly more single origin countries presented here; the Francois Pralus single origin bars span eight countries. Whereas CMB retails Madagascar chocolate bars which source beans from a single farm (Akesson’s), actual chocolate bars made by Akesson’s are sold here. Akesson’s is a family-owned heritage plantation, which provides beans for many U.S. based chocolate companies, such as Dick Taylor, Patric, and Woodblock, all of which can be found at The Meadow (Carla Martin, personal communication, May 2 2017). This selection offers a dynamic medium for tasting and comparing flavors made from varying partners within the supply chain.

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Francois Pralus selection (shot with iPhone)
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Akesson’s single plantation chocolate

The Francois Pralus bars list not only the country of origin but also the cacao variety used. Other bars state “Porcelana” on the front, a criollo variety that is prized for its nuttiness and low astringency (Presilla 67). Those who are familiar with or are in favor of a specific cacao variety will find the detail-oriented selection at The Meadow particularly accommodating.

Several bars are labeled “Chuao,” one of the most coveted type of criollo beans. Today, the Chuao plantation in Chuao, Venezuela is run by a small community that adheres to a centuries-long tradition of processing and operations (Presilla 77). The narrow valley yields a very limited space for cultivating cacao, producing only about 16 to 17 metric tons annually, but the beans are highly coveted for their taste and quality (White). The reputation of Chuao has led some makers to misappropriate its name and branding significance to mimic the terroir effect of the Chuao geographical region (Giovannucci et al. xv). This controversy itself is implicated at The Meadow, where I found two “Chuao” bars: one from Francois Pralus and the other by Domori. Although the Francois Pralus bar sources specifically from the Chuao village, the Domori bar is made from beans in a different region of Venezuela where the genetics of the Chuao strain have been implanted (The Meadow). This “Chuao” labeling despite it being produced outside of the valued village raises questions of legitimacy and violations of terroir, which places a strong emphasis on geographical origin, specifically, the “link between the product and the production area, depending on natural and climate conditions in the region” (Aurier et al.). The Domori bar also distances itself from the cultural and historical prestige associated with terroir. The Francois Pralus Chuao bar ($14) is more popular than the Domori Chuao bar ($8), perhaps due to an understanding of the terroir complications at hand, again likening consumer knowledge as an important factor for visitors.

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This is a cacao pod in the Chuao region, lauded for its terroir and superior criollo beans (Wikimedia Commons). 

 

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The Francois Pralus and Domori “Chuao” bars (shot with iPhone)

Domori

Ethical Concerns

The Meadow represents a nice selection of Fair Trade and Direct Trade goods, and the sales associate is also fairly knowledgable about the downsides of the Fair Trade label. He pinpointed a few companies working more directly with their farmers, such as Madécasse. Madécasse, which makes their chocolate directly in Madagascar, pays farmers 10% higher than the maximum price for dry superior cacao and 55% higher than the median price for all cacao (Madécasse Social Impact Report).

He also told me about Askinosie, one of The Meadow’s top-selling companies, which places photos of their farmers, a map of their estate, and twine from their cacao bags on their packaging, attempting to secure a bridge of transparency with the consumer. Askinosie also pays a significantly higher premium than the Fair Trade market price, supports nutritional programs for children in underdeveloped countries, and shares a percentage of its profits through their “A Stake in the Outcome” program, incentivizing farmers to constantly improve methods to ensure better quality (Askinosie Chocolate). The selection at The Meadow, in addition to the knowledge of its sales associates, is better marketed towards spreading awareness of ethical issues and their relation to small batch makers.

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Askinosie shares and explains financial statements with their farmers (Askinosie).
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Askinosie goods at The Meadow (shot with iPhone)

Taste

Bertil Akesson’s plantation in the Sambirano Valley of Madagascar is divided into four smaller estates: Madirofolo, Menavava, Bejofo, and Ambolikapiky, but only the latter two provide the beans for Akesson’s own chocolate bars (Cocoa Runners). I wanted to compare an Akesson’s Chocolate with another maker who sources from Akesson’s Farm (e.g. Dick Taylor).

The Dick Taylor chocolate was very tart with cranberry and orange notes. The potent astringency significantly differed from the more sweet, berry-flavored Amano Madagascar bar. It finished off with a slightly overroasted taste, which made me experience firsthand how different bars sourcing from the same geographical region can yield differing flavors based on each company’s processing methods.

Dick Taylor

My second purchase was an Akesson’s 75% Criollo Bejofo Estate bar. Every Akesson’s bar shows not only which of the 4 smaller estates the cacao comes from but also the variety of beans used. According to the package, 300 tons of trinitario cacao are produced on Akesson’s Farm, but a limited 2 tons of criollo cacao are harvested separately to make this specific chocolate. As criollo varieties are generally perceived as the most mellow and refined in flavor, I compared the taste of this bar with the more trinitario-based Dick Taylor bar (Presilla 36). The Akesson’s bar has a familiar chocolatey aroma and significantly more refined taste with soft, tropical notes (papaya or peach) that balanced well with a very mild tartness. It has a much longer mouthfeel with a velvety texture. Of all the three Madagascar bars I purchased, this had the most delicate nuttiness and creaminess. Originally, I had thought the Amano, Dick Taylor, and Akesson’s bars would be difficult to differentiate in flavor as they all originate in Madagascar, but I was able to experience the complexities of terroir and processing techniques.

Akesson's criollo chocolate

 

Conclusion

Both CMB and The Meadow are valuable to the NYC food scene and heighten one’s experience with chocolate. Housed inside a bustling tourist attraction, CMB appeals to a wider audience, making it highly adapted to the marketplace. One can find goods that are suitable for the entire family, which relates to the store’s motto of gift-giving to share both popular and novel tastes. The Meadow caters to a smaller niche, one that requires a greater deal of knowledge. The high prices here can pose as a drawback, and had I visited The Meadow prior to taking Dr. Martin’s course, I would have had great trouble understanding the significance of “porcelana” or “single estate.” The Meadow’s selection is meticulously curated, just like the companies it represents direct great attention to their chocolate sourcing and production. The Meadow’s focus on minimal ingredients and terroir enhanced my affinity for chocolate, because I was able to apply my knowledge to various social, cultural, and ethical factors implicated by the selection. The Meadow’s greatest asset may be that it challenges traditional notions of what chocolate is and hones in on the complexities of food product transparency. By offering a more detailed rundown of production, sourcing, and cacao varieties, The Meadow works towards developing a more intimate connection of trust, reliability, and transparency between brand and consumer.

Works Cited

“About Chelsea Market.” Chelsea Market, http://www.chelseamarket.com/index.php/About/contact/about-chelsea-market. Accessed 29 April 2017.

“Akesson’s.” Cocoa Runners, https://cocoarunners.com/maker/akessons/. Accessed 3 May 2017.

Albader, Kawther. “Can you believe it’s not (cocoa) butter?”. Candy Industry, July 2012, 54-55.

Askinosie, Shawn. Direct Trade. Photograph. Askinosie Chocolate. https://www.askinosie.com/learn/direct-trade.html. Accessed 3 May 2017.

Aurier, Philippe et al. “Exploring Terroir Product Meanings For the Consumer.” Anthropology of Food, 1 May 2005.

Benton, David. “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving.” Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain, edited by Astrid Nehlig, CRC Press, 2004, 205-218.

Cacao en Chuao. Reg2bug. Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacao_en_Chuao.jpg. Accessed 2 May 2017.

Cahyorini, Astri, and Effy Zalfiana Rusfian. “The Effect of Packaging Design on Impulsive Buying.” Journal of Administrative Science & Organization, Jan. 2011, 11-21.

“Domori Chuao 70% Dark Chocolate.” The Meadow, https://themeadow.com/products/domori-chuao-70-dark-chocolate. Accessed 2 May 2017.

Giovannucci, Daniele, et al. Guide to Geographical Indications: Linking Products and Their Origins. International Trade Center, 2009.

Haber, Stacy, and Karen Gallus. “Effects of Dark Chocolate on Blood Pressure in Patients With Hypertension.” American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, 1 Aug. 2012, 1287-1293.

“How We Make Chocolate.” Dandelion Chocolate, https://www.dandelionchocolate.com/process/#anchor. Accessed 29 April 2017.

Linemayr, Thomas. “Establishing Premium Chocolate in the U.S. Mass Market.” The Manufacturing Confectioner, June 2011, 13-16.

“Madécasse Social Impact Report.” Madécasse LLC and Wildlife Returns, April 2017, 1-9.

Martin, Carla. “Lecture 10: Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization/Globalization.” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 5 April 2017. Lecture.

Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Shekhar, Suraj Kushe, and P.T Raveendran. “The Power of Sensation Transference: Chocolate Packages & Impulse Purchases.” Indian Institute of management Indore, April 2013, 55-64.

Sylla, Ndongo. The Fair Trade Scandal. Ohio University Press, 2014.

“Taza Direct Trade.” Taza Chocolate. https://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/taza-direct-trade. Accessed 29 April 2017.

White, April. “The Potential and Pitfalls of Geographical Indications for Cacao.” Chocolate Class, 11 May 2016, https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/the-potential-and-pitfalls-of-geographical-indications-for-cacao/. Accessed 2 May 2017.

 

 

How You Choose Your Chocolate

Chocolate has been a staple of Western culture since the time that it was brought over from Mesoamerica by the Europeans. Big Chocolate companies like Cadbury, Hershey, Mars, Nestle, and Ferrero Rocher now control over 99% of this market (Martin, “The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market”). On the other hand, single origin chocolate companies make up a much smaller margin of this market. Now that there are so many options – including brand, flavor, and texture to choose from – how does one make their ultimate decision? Factors like consumer awareness of production methods, the way that it is marketed, and convenience play crucial roles in the kind of chocolate people choose to consume.

“Fair” Trade

To begin, it’s important to illustrate what Fair Trade is and who exactly it affects. Making chocolate is a ten-step process, and most of those steps are conducted by people in places like West Africa, specifically in Cote de’Ivoire and Ghana (Martin, “Modern Day Slavery”). In addition to the big companies controlling the vast majority of the market, Big Chocolate also retains over 90% of the money from the sale of the chocolate, while the actual producers are left with what little remains (Martin, “The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market”). This is one of the many problems in the relationships between Big Chocolate and their African farmers, as will soon be further illustrated.

Fair Trade Certifications and other labels indicating positive labor treatment are becoming more sought-after by consumers to the point where companies are creating labels of their own (cite – lecture). The goal of Fair Trade is to help farmers build sustainable businesses that can continue to prosper and be beneficial benefit all parties involved (Martin, “Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization/Globalization”). Since the conditions in other countries aren’t being monitored by their government, it is important for them to be monitored by some sort of organization to ensure ethical treatment. However, the goals of Fair Trade are often far from what is actually achieved. While they’re trying to invest in the local communities, Fair Trade can lead to an inefficient marketing system where corruption flourishes (Martin, “Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization/Globalization”). It’s also been known to hurt the non-certified farmer (Martin, “Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization/Globalization”) because a positive addition to the circumstances in Africa shouldn’t be a negative one for those that aren’t able to be a part of it. In order to have a Fair Trade Certification label on a product, only 20% of the ingredients have to be produced under the specified conditions (Fair Trade USA), which can be incredibly misleading for the people who aren’t aware of this. The Fair Trade system, while it does have positive goals and some positive outcomes, can’t necessarily be relied on for regulating the labor conditions under which chocolate is produced.

Who Cares about Fair?

Consumers today are becoming more aware of ethically sourced chocolate, which Maricel Presilla talks about in New Taste of Chocolate: “Many consumers today share such concerns about cacao farming. They are starting to ask questions about farming methods and the well-being of farmers. There are people who as a matter of principle won’t buy anything produced without Fair Trade or organic certification” (133). This definitely doesn’t represent all consumers, however, a trend has begun in this direction as it hasn’t before – the consumer is being made aware of the conditions of the producer. Although these certifications are marked on many items and are advertised for their positive regulation of conditions, disregarding the efficacy of the certification, the fact that not all ingredients have to be ethically sourced goes entirely unpublished to the general consumer. If searched for, the companies’ websites will generally provide all information, but that isn’t accomplished without significant individual time and effort.

“In its press release announcing the launch, the Co-op indicated that it wished to ‘start a race amongst major UK supermarket groups anxious to demonstrate that they care and are eager to establish their ethical credentials’” (Nicholls & Opal, 101). This trend was also seen across the world as Starbucks changed all of its own-brand chocolate to Fair Trade Certified in 2002 (Nicholls & Opal, 101). While Starbucks is generally known to be a socially conscious brand in America and its consumers are a wide range, they still reach a huge number of people with their positive message of certification. When people are aware of why certain products are Free Trade certified, it is generally assumed that some of them would take that into account when making a purchase. However, it can be difficult to rely on consumers for such a task since Big Chocolate companies, which often aren’t certified, produce such large quantities for such an inexpensive price.

Big Chocolate

Mass production of any goods tends to lower the quality, whether in regard to cars, clothing, or chocolate. Yet affordability is such an important aspect when buying a treat on the way out of the store – a tendency that is specific to Americans (Martin, ““The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market”). Rosie Wigglesworth, a sophomore at Harvard University, said that she never spends the money required to purchase a single origin chocolate bar from a specialty shop when she can spend a fraction of that money to buy the same amount or more chocolate from CVS.

In addition to being less expensive, Big Chocolate companies get their customers to keep coming back by marketing to what we celebrate most – holidays. So often, the marketing insinuates all that will come out of giving chocolate as a gift, like falling in love on Valentine’s Day. Consumers have been conditioned to accept chocolate as such an important aspect of many holidays that intrinsically have nothing to do with it. As soon as Valentine’s Day is over, being inside a CVS can be both a sad and exciting thing. For chocolate lovers, it is a great day since all of the themed candy is now 50% off, but it is generally a mess and broken. Next to the Valentine’s Day themed candy shoved in the corner is all of the fresh Easter candy that has just been shelved and waiting for Easter to come in order for it to reach its many consumers. Since much of the candy that is bought is done so for the sake of festiveness and quantity, the general consumer wouldn’t even consider buying it at a specialty shop that likely wouldn’t attend to the holiday in such a dedicated way. This form of specialized advertising can be seen multiple times throughout the year, and is one of the ways that Big Chocolate companies retain its customers.

cadbury-2

This Cadbury product represents how the Big Chocolate companies advertise and market their chocolate specifically for holidays.

Another strong reason for so much popularity of the cheap chocolate is its convenience. Located next to every CVS register, it is incredibly easy for a consumer to just grab it on his way out, even if he wasn’t originally planning on getting any. In The Economics of Chocolate, Squicciarini and Swinnen talk about nudging, which can get someone to make one decision over another due to convenience (161). Given the observation that food decisions are often made relatively mindlessly and the environmental cues can therefore play a large part in steering these decisions, we explore the possibility that nudging is a potentially powerful technique to trigger behavioral change” (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 161). People go to CVS every day for things that meet their needs for medicine, beauty, and school. Sometimes they probably have chocolate in mind when they come in, but regardless, it definitely is when they are heading out. This kind of store, where almost all shopping needs can be met, is an excellent place for such an easy temptation to be stored. Big Chocolate knows this, and they can afford to acquire the shelf space and deliver the profit margins to stores like CVS that keep this cycle going.

Single Origin Chocolate

Unlike Big Chocolate, single origin brands pride themselves on the way that their chocolate is produced. While companies like Cadbury are incredibly secretive and have very rarely given the world insight on their chocolate-making process, these single origin businesses tend to be incredibly upfront about their production methods and values. They use this fact as a marketing alternative to that of Big Chocolate. These can easily be found on their websites, which is not what one would find on Hershey’s. This chocolate is made in small batches, so the quality is significantly higher.

These companies are known for outsourcing in ways that allow for ethical treatment in the production process, and therefore, many of them are Fair Trade Certified. Small chocolate companies tend to be founded for reasons other than mass expansion and market takeover in the way that the Big Chocolate companies currently dominate, such as passion or happening to be in the right situation.

Single origin companies advertise, but in a way much different than Big Chocolate does. Of course there is the difference of scale to which they are able to market but also the chocolate they choose to display. Instead of it being about what chocolate can do for you, as is the case for some Big Chocolate marketing, they focus more on its origin and quality. It’s not about the big events going on that it is a gift for, but rather appeal to consumers to make the ethical and environmentally sound choice when choosing to buy chocolate.

green_and_blacks_05

Green & Black’s Fair Trade Certified company focuses on the natural elements of the chocolate in their marketing.

A major difference in terms of convenience of the products, is that these are much more difficult to find in a price-conscious store like CVS. The small batches with attention to detail plus the Fair Trade prices result in a single specialty bar commonly reaching about $9. This is not the kind of thoughtless purchase one generally makes at the register.

Public Awareness

Most people have a general knowledge of Fair Trade Certification’s existence and the fact that it benefits people at the bottom of the production ladder. Many people don’t know the details, especially the negative aspects that can be so severe that struggling groups of farmers in other countries make the choice to not be a part of it. The general public consensus right now, from the people I spoke to about it, is that Fair Trade is an overall positive certification and group to be a part of.

I decided to test how much of an effect on taste preference this knowledge of Fair Trade had on consumers. I did this by recruiting people I know and asking how much they knew about Fair Trade. I then divided them into three groups – one that knew almost nothing but assumed that it was good; one that knew some details about the way that it operated; and one that was fully aware of both the goals and consequences since two of them are also in the class. All three groups were part of trials conducted separately, but they all received the same chocolate in the same order. The only difference is what I said about each piece they were about to eat. All four pieces were from Potomac’s 70% dark chocolate, including bars with cacao beans from Costa Rica, Peru, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. Each trial I changed which ones I said were from Fair Trade Certified companies, always changing the two I said that were and the two I said that weren’t. I then asked everybody to rank the four chocolates in order of the favorite.

IMG_6075

Kristen and Christina tasting the different kinds of chocolate during our taste test.

The results showed that everyone always had at least one of the “Fair Trade Certified” bars in their top two preferences. While these four bars did vary slightly in flavor, I still conclude that people were affected by the knowledge of where the chocolate came from and how it was made.

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 2.14.33 AM

These 70% dark Potomac chocolates were being tasted in order to determine preference in relation to Fair Trade Certification.

A lack of awareness can play a huge role in the conditions that still exist for chocolate producers today. Millions of children are involved in child labor today, specifically to produce chocolate, by being trafficked mostly from Mali to Cote de’Ivoire and Ghana (Coe & Coe, 263-264). Blatant racism is also unrecognized because people miss the subtly that exists now as a byproduct of the extremely long history connecting chocolate and slavery. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Oompa Loompas, Spanish Conguitos, and Belgian chocolate hands have all been discreetly displaying racism in a way that few perceive. These “cultural blindspots” show the gaps that exist in knowledge about where such images and concepts came from (Martin, “Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class in Chocolate Advertisements”), which holds us back as a whole.

Conclusion

While not everybody can be convinced to spend more money to buy Fair Trade Certified chocolate bars, many more people could be swayed against buying chocolate that depicts slavery in such a way. Not everyone knows about the way that chocolate is made, and that along with how it’s marketed and convenience of consumption is how people make the decision of what chocolate to buy.

 

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

2Collier, Dan. “Green & Black’s.” Dan Collier. Green & Black’s, n.d. Web. 01 May 2017.

1“EXCLUSIVE: Cadbury’s Tapping the Specific Occasional Gifting Opportunity: Anil Viswanathan.” Pitchonet. Pitch Magazine India, n.d. Web. 02 May 2017.

3Friends trying different types of chocolate, Cambridge. Personal photograph by author. 2017.

Martin, Carla. “Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization/Globalization.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University, Cambridge. 5 Apr. 2017. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “Modern Day Slavery.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University, Cambridge. 22 Mar. 2017. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class in Chocolate Advertisements.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University, Cambridge. 29 Mar. 2017. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University, Cambridge. 15 Mar. 2017. Lecture.

“Multiple Ingredients Product Policy.” Fair Trade USA. Fair Trade USA, 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.

Nichollis, Alex, and Charlotte Opal. Fair Trade: Market Driven Ethical Consumption. London: Sage, 2011. Google Books. Google. Web. 1 May 2017.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

4“Shop.” Potomac Chocolate. Potomac Chocolate, 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.

Squicciarini, Mara P. and Johan Swinnen. The Economics of Chocolate. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Google Books. Google. Web. 1 May 2017.

Selling Terroir: Case Studies

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].

reading-a-french-wine-label-terms-folly

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.

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A selection of chocolate bars from Chuao Chocolatier [iii].
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.

spicy_maya_master_final_bar_flat_sharpened_
Image from Chuao’s Spicy Maya Bar packaging [vi].
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.

how-to-taste-dark-chocolate
A selection of several República del Cacao chocolate bars [xi].
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.

hcp-process-detail

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.”

so?

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.

works cited

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2007[1996]). 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.

media & references

[i] http://naggiarvineyards.com/

[ii] http://winefolly.com/review/french-wine-labels-and-terms/

[iii] http://www.montecitoshopping.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/IMG_1438.jpg

[iv] http://chuaochocolatier.com/about/

[v] http://www.wipo.int/ipadvantage/en/details.jsp?id=2618

[vi] http://chuaochocolatier.com/spicy-maya.html

[vii] http://chuaochocolatier.com/about/

[viii] http://www.republicadelcacao.com/how-it-started/

[ix] http://www.republicadelcacao.com/the-expansion/

[x] http://www.republicadelcacao.com/ecuadorian-chocolatiers/

[xi] http://2qn4774cz98e17p2h549htbt.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/how-to-taste-dark-chocolate.jpg

[xii] http://www.republicadelcacao.com/appellation-of-origin/

[xiii] http://hcpcacao.org/

[xiv] https://www.c-spot.com/shop/chocolate/heirloom-chocolate-series

 

 

Can You Taste the Terroir? Sampling Single Origin Chocolates for a Sense of Place

The French term terroir can be described as “the web that connects and unifies raw materials, their growing conditions, production processes, and the moment of product appreciation” (Nesto, 131).  This sense of place that can be discerned in a final product is most often associated with wine, an industry in which there is much stricter regulation of geographic labeling of the origin of raw materials and a longer history of vineyard differentiation (Nesto, 134).  In the chocolate industry, single origin generally refers to chocolate made only from cacao grown in one region.  Chocolate produced from cacao from different regions varies in taste due to “the local soil and environment bringing out inherent genetic characteristics” and “the way in which particular styles of drying and fermentation have distinct effects on overall flavor and aroma” (Presilla, 126).

Nineteenth-century advertisement for chocolate that emphasizes the cacao’s Caracas, Venezuela origins, equating origins with quality. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13177/13177-h/images/caracas.jpg

Since cacao began to be exported to Europe, cacao origins have varied in importance.  Cacao has always been sold to merchants based on its origins, whether the origin is defined as the plantation on which it was grown, the region in which it was produced, or the port from which it was shipped (Nesto, 134).  At different points in history, cacao from certain regions was prized due to its high quality, with cacao from particular parts of Mexico, Venezuela, or Colombia advertised and favored by consumers for periods during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Presilla, 124; Leissle, 22).  The advertisement above shows how cacao origins (in this case, Caracas) were used to market chocolate to consumers as high quality.

World map highlighting cacao growing countries, including Trinidad, Venezuela, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Madagascar. All of the highlighted countries fall within 20 degrees of the equator. http://www.kemeh.com/images/worldmap-new.jpg

Over the last century or so, cacao origins became more obscured, as production shifted to other parts of the globe, with the vast majority of cacao now grown in West Africa, and with chocolatiers producing chocolate by blending cacao of various origins (Nesto, 134).  The map above illustrates how cacao production has shifted far beyond its Central and South American origins.  Both the artisanal chocolate makers and the corporate giants, such as Hershey and Cadbury, blend cacao beans from different places and different strains in an attempt to produce a more balanced, consistent chocolate and to distance the final product from its controversial origins in West Africa (Presilla, 126; Leissle, 23).

Single origin chocolate did not start making a comeback until the 1980s, with the resurgence of artisans and the rising interest in food origins (Leissle, 23).  While single origin chocolate still represents a tiny fraction of the world chocolate industry, there are myriad artisanal chocolatiers today producing bars highlighting the distinct, unexpected regional flavors of cacao — its terroir (Leissle, 23; Williams and Eber, 167).

Four single origin Francois Pralus bars, purchased at Cardullo's.  Photo is my own.
Four single origin Francois Pralus bars, purchased at Cardullo’s. Photo is my own.

In order to further explore terroir and to see if differences in place truly translated into recognizable differences in taste, I decided to host a single origin chocolate tasting for my friends.  I chose four single origin bars from the French chocolatier Francois Pralus: Trinidad, Venezuela, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Madagascar, as pictured above.  The choice of chocolatier was influenced by my wish to choose a variety of bars from different regions of the world made by the same chocolatier and with the same ingredients and percentage of cacao (75% for the Pralus bars), in order to minimize flavor discrepancies from factors other than region.  Of course, one confounding factor that I found impossible to avoid was bean type, since different varieties of cacao are much more commonly grown in certain regions.  The Trinidad and Venezuela bars were both made with Trinitario cacao, while the São Tomé and Príncipe bar derived from Forastero beans and the Madagascar bar contained Criollo cacao.  As a point of comparison for the single origin bars and to practice tasting chocolate, I also provided my friends with Dove milk and dark chocolate, which are blended bars at a much lower price point.  The entire selection of chocolates that we tasted is pictured below.

Four single origin Pralus bars with Dove milk and dark chocolate bars. Photo is my own.
Four single origin Pralus bars with Dove milk and dark chocolate bars. Photo is my own.

For the single origin bars, we tasted them as a group, moving from west to east through the different origins.  All of the Pralus bars had a hard snap and dark brown color, but some of them differed quite a bit in other ways.  The Trinidad bar had a smooth, matte exterior and smelled bitter and smoky with some citrus and coffee notes.  The taste of the Trinidad bar was similar: bitter, astringent, and charred with only a hint of citrus.  While the bar was praised for its smooth texture, and slow, clean melt, almost all of my friends disliked the burnt aftertaste and astringent finish.  The Venezuela bar (also made from Trinitario cacao) had a very faint citrus scent, as well as a more subdued taste, with an arc from bitter to sweet with notes of citrus and earthiness.  The Venezuela bar had a matte exterior and melted more quickly, with a creamier and sweeter finish.

While the genetics of cacao are actually quite complicated, varieties have historically been classed as Criollo, Forastero, or Trinitario (with Trinitarios representing a cross between the other two). http://bloguldeciocolata.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/types_of_cocoa.png

After the Trinidad and Venezuela bars, we switched to African island origins and different cacao varieties.  The São Tomé and Príncipe bar (Forastero cacao) was much shinier and had a mild smell, with hints of bitterness, earthiness, and citrus.  Its taste arc went from sweet and citrusy to bitter, salty, and earthy.  The Madagascar bar (Criollo cacao) had a very light scent, with mild fruity and bitter notes.  However, the taste of the Madagascar bar was strong and varied, with creamy, buttery, earthy, smoky, fruity and citrusy elements.  The Madagascar bar, with its sweeter, fruitier notes and comparative lack of bitterness, was the overall favorite of the four Pralus bars we tasted.  A quote by Chloé Doutre-Roussel in Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate accurately encompasses the chocolate tasting: “You have to give the flavor notes of chocolate many tastes and chances.  It doesn’t mean you’ll actually like the chocolates but you may and you certainly will appreciate them” (Williams and Eber, 144).  While my friends may not have particularly enjoyed many of the Pralus bars, they could appreciate the complexity and diversity of flavors.

Pralus Madagascar Plantation Video

Francois Pralus at his cacao plantation in Madagascar. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/img_droite/plantation8_0.jpg

The single origin bars we tried at my chocolate tasting were all produced by Francois Pralus, a French chocolatier who sources beans from many different countries in order to produce 15 single origin bars, as well as some blended bars (http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en).  Pralus also owns and operates his own plantation in Madagascar, as seen in the video and photograph above, so the Madagascar bar is even single plantation chocolate (http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en).  Both on his website and on the packaging, Pralus emphasizes the regional differences and unique flavors of the cacao from each origin, even specifically speaking of terroir and comparing cacao vintages to great wines (http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en).  One of things that sets Pralus apart from many other single origin chocolate producers is his willingness to create single origin bars with cacao from African countries, including Ghana (bar shown below) and São Tomé and Príncipe (pictured earlier) in West Africa, instead of just focusing on more traditionally prized chocolate regions in the Americas (Leissle, 23).

Pralus single origin Ghana bar. Few chocolatiers create single origin bars highlighting West African chocolate, even though the vast majority of cacao is grown in the region. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/sites/default/files/gahna-copie.png

While some chocolatiers such as Francois Pralus believe in the importance of terroir and are committed to producing at least some single origin bars, single origin chocolate is not without its problems and detractors.  The first complaint about single origin chocolate is that there are no official or industry definitions of many terms associated with such chocolate and “origin” can refer to areas as a large as an entire country (Nesto, 134).  The lack of agreement over what constitutes single origin chocolate means there can be major discrepancies between what chocolatiers consider to be a region and that references to origins are sometimes more of a marketing tool than a signifier of quality or flavor profile (Williams and Eber, 173).  Even with the Pralus single origin bars, some are produced with cacao from a single plantation, while others use cacao from a certain part of the country, a cacao cooperative, or from the country as a whole.  Another contentious aspect of the lack of regulation is that single origin chocolate is often associated with higher quality beans and ingredients, especially given its generally higher price point, but there are no rules regarding the quality or type of beans used in single origin bars (Williams and Eber, 168-71).

The Pralus Djakarta bar, which blends Indonesian and Ghanaian cacao. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/sites/default/files/djakarta-copie.png

The second major issue with single origin chocolate is taste.  While some praise the unique flavors associated with cacao from specific regions and the variation between harvests, others argue that blending can produce a more consistent, better tasting chocolate.  Throughout history, chocolatiers have blended cacao from different origins or varieties in order to enhance the flavor, creating a chocolate with “a total effect greater than the sum of its parts” (Presilla, 126).  Even Francois Pralus produces some blended bars, including the Djakarta and Caracas bars shown above and below, which incorporate some Ghanaian cacao to balance the flavor.  Both of these bars are somewhat problematic, since the packaging makes them look like single origin chocolates, but the fine print on the back and the information on the Pralus website do acknowledge that they are blended bars.  Blending also allows chocolate makers to concoct flavors that vary less from year to year, providing a more uniform product for consumers, who often desire the same experience every time, and chefs, who need consistency for their confections (Williams and Eber, 177-8).  Another reason some chocolate companies practice blending is also cost: by using cheaper cacao as the base and only using small quantities of high-quality beans for flavor, producers can create a chocolate that tastes better for less money (Presilla, 126; Williams and Eber, 180-3).

The Pralus Caracas bar, which incorporates Venezuelan and Ghanaian cacao. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/sites/default/files/caracas-copie.png

At the end of the day, chocolate consumption is primarily about taste: consumers seek an enjoyable experience and chocolate that tastes good.  Personally, I love trying different types of chocolate and experiencing unique flavors, and I appreciate the vast range of tastes that can be experienced through single origin chocolates.  I also think it is important not to completely sever areas of cacao production from the finished product: single origin bars and the associated terroir are one way to retain an essence of the place of production in the consumption experience, and by emphasizing the origins over the country of manufacture, focus is partially shifted back to the oft-forgotten plantations and growers.   However, I also only truly enjoy and would spend money on tastes that I find pleasant.  While my friends and I had fun tasting single origin chocolate bars and distinguishing the different characteristics connected with cacao from particular regions, none of us particularly enjoyed the Pralus bars and I would not buy them again given the high price point ($10 and up for a 3.5 ounce bar).  For me, an ideal chocolate balances concerns for price, taste, and terroir.

Works Cited

Leissle, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.”  Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. 13:3 (2013): 22-31.

Nesto, Bill. “Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 10:1 (2010): 131–135.

Pralus, Francois.  “Francois Pralus: Maitre Chocolatier.” Accessed May 4, 2014. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en

Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Williams, Pam and Eber, Jim. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver: Wilmor Publishing Corporation, 2012.