It is ironic indeed that West Africa, the land from which innumerable people were stolen from, enslaved, and eventually forced to work on foreign cacao plantations, would one day become the world’s leading producer of cacao (1). The reasons for this shift are myriad and complex, but one piece of the puzzle, at least, is clear. The various subtle differences in chocolate breeds around the world played a significant role in the shift from Mexico to Africa when it came to cacao production. The fact that West Africa is geographically closer to Europe than South America no doubt also had an impact because of the steep cost of transporting goods across the Atlantic Ocean, as likely did the massacre of and widespread death in indigenous South American populations—which of course affected the amount of local free labor and the ease of acquiring it. However, it seems that it is the diversity of cacao breeds themselves that is often underestimated (1, 2).
It is crucial to first firmly establish that this change was brought about by European colonization. In the first half of the 18th century, Portuguese colonizers transplanted forastero (“foreign”) cuttings from Brazil to São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea in Central Africa. That cacao soon became one of the island’s principal exports, up until the end of the following century (1). Then, in the 1850s, cacao cuttings were taken from São Tomé to Bioko, an island off the west coast of Equatorial Guinea. Bioko soon began exporting forastero, which was by that point quite pervasive (1). From these Portuguese colonies in Africa, Theobroma cacao spread to Ghana (the Gold Coast); then to Nigeria; and then, in 1905, to the Ivory Coast (1). And Portugal was not alone; near the end of the century, German colonizers began planting cacao in the Cameroons (1).
Still, it was not mere colonial pressure in West Africa that brought about the massive rise in cocoa production outside Mexico. Driven by the preferences of the elite, European colonizers brought specific chocolate breeds to their African colonies. When forastero seedlings were brought to Trinidad, they hybridized with what remained of the local criollo trees, producing the new variety trinitario. The quality of criollo is arguably superior to all other varieties; the flavor and aroma of forastero, which is hardier and more fruitful, cannot compare. Indeed, criollo was the “prerogative of the rulers and warriors of ancient Mesoamerica” and “seduced” the European aristocracies of the 17th and 18th centuries (1). Trinitario combined the unique taste qualities of criollo with the “vigor, hardiness, and high yields” of forastero (1). Thus, when trinitario—with its wonderful blend of attributes—was born, the strain soon came to dominate the cacao trade, fueling cultivation around the globe. Today, there are at least eleven commercial varieties of trinitario grown in Trinidad alone(7).
The role of the elite in these happenings cannot be underestimated. It was the aristocracy of old that defined refinement, and in the extremely stratified socioeconomic pyramids of many pre-19th century European nations, there was a marked desire by the common people to imitate the nobility. As chocolate addition swept their ranks, European elites ushered in the spread of cocoa “downward…to the urban working classes, then outward to the countryside” (1).
As cacao spread from Mesoamerica to the Caribbean to sub-Saharan Africa to Asia (2), unavoidable differences in breeds led to differences in preference. At least ten genetically distinct cacao varieties have been recognized (4), some of which were rediscovered as recently as 2011. Though the cacao breeds grown in colonies might have originally been genetically identical, growing method and environment play a significant role in taste and texture. Terroir is defined as “the unique flavours and quality associated with the manner of production and almost ineffable qualities of genetics, climate, soil, and place” (3). In other words, terroir is “the sense of a place” (3).
Above: components of terroir (8)
Ancient Mayan royal scribes recorded recipes that included particular types of cacao from particular regions (3), making it clear that that even genetically identical cacao grown in adjoining territories can be differentiated by taste and other attributes. It follows that such a trend would be mirrored in the aristocracy of Europe, with nobles determining and declaring their favorite cacao (ostensibly from the appropriate colony) in order to boast not only their wealth but their sophistication. Indeed, as Martin and Sampeck assert, “Europeans truly embraced cacao as a way to define distinct tastes” (3).
Above: terroir map showing the overall taste descriptions of cacao around the world (8)
This phenomenon is further supported by the contemporary chocolate market, the direct descendant of late 18th, 19th, and early 20th century trends. A simple internet search reveals a vast array of sampler chocolate collections available for purchase—the majority of which contain confections produced with cacao grown in different countries. Bar & Cocoa, for example, sells a “Chocolate Bars of the World” gift box. The accompanying description differentiates cocoa from Madagascar, Vietnam, and Venezuela by aroma, richness, flavor notes, and even “spice” (5). Another company, Tabal Chocolate, offers an assortment of Costa Rican, Bolivian, and Peruvian chocolate (6).
Above: Bar & Cacao’s“Chocolate Bars of the World” gift box (5)
It is perhaps wrong, then, to state that cacao circumnavigated the globe. Cacao conquered it.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.
Motamayor, Juan C., et al. “Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree (Theobroma Cacao L).” PLoS ONE, vol. 3, no. 10, 1 Oct. 2008, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003311.
“Chocolate Bars of the World Gift Box.” Bar & Cocoa, Bar & Cocoa, barandcocoa.com/products/chocolate-bars-of-the-world-gift-box?variant=19094053879862&utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=google&utm_campaign=Google Shopping&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIrtmF4p-26AIVwx-tBh1Ydg4iEAQYASABEgJcvvD_BwE.
“Three Bar World Sampler.” Tabal Chocolate, Tabal Chocolate, tabalchocolate.com/world-samplers/three-bar-world-sampler.
When we take a first bite into a chocolate bar, what information can we glean? We can probably determine whether it is milk, dark, or white chocolate. We might even know what brand of chocolate it is. Yet, our information about the geographical origin of the cacao contained in that chocolate bar is quite limited. This geographical information, known as terroir, includes the growing conditions, such as climate and terrain, and cultivation of the cacao (Nesto 2010). The word, terroir, comes from the French word for land.
Depending upon its genetic makeup and geographical origin, cacao has distinct tastes. Agronomists originally thought that cacao had only two separate genetic groups, Criollo and Forastero. However, upon further examination, scientists recently discovered that there are actually ten separate genetic groups of cacao (Motamayor et al. 2008). This explains the diversity of taste in cacao beans among different varieties of cacao trees. Beginning with the ancient Mesoamericans, consumers of chocolate could determine the terroir of their chocolate based on its taste. However, globalization and industrialization have stripped chocolate of its terroir as cacao became an undifferentiated commodity. Despite this disappearance of terroir in mass produced chocolate, there has been a resurgence of terroir in artisanal chocolate in recent years.
Beginning around 1500 BCE, the Olmecs cultivated and harvested cacao in Mesoamerica (Watson 2013). The chocolate-making process originated in Mesoamerica with the Olmec civilization and it continued later on with the Mayas and the Aztecs. Mesoamericans grew, harvested, fermented, dried, and made cacao beans into chocolate liquor on the cacao farms. That is, the entirety of the production took place in the same location. Due to the small-scale and local production and processing, the final product exhibited the taste of a specific cacao flavor, known as terroir. Up until the industrialization of chocolate in the late nineteenth century, terroir remained tastable in chocolate.
In the sixteenth century, the Spanish came to Mesoamerica. Over time, the indigenous people died due to European-introduced diseases and the harsh conditions of enslavement. Subsequently, Europeans looked for other sources of slave labor to work on plantations. This search for labor led to Africa, where Europeans bought and sold Africans as false commodities in the Transatlantic Trade between Europe, Africa, and the New World. Europeans shipped the slaves under brutal conditions from Africa to plantations in the New World. In turn, people in the New World shipped cacao and chocolate back to Europe. Thus began the globalization of cacao.
Eventually, large-scale cacao farming moved to West Africa. This led to the mass production of cacao as opposed to the smaller scale, more local production in Mesoamerica of earlier times. Ultimately, industrialization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to the establishment of big chocolate companies, such as Hershey’s, Mars, and Cadbury. Additionally, industrialization and globalization allowed these big companies to separate the chocolate-making process and spread it out among numerous locations. In order to produce enormous quantities of chocolate, large chocolate companies purchase cacao in bulk. As a consequence of the great expansion of the chocolate production process, the cacao farmers and producers of the raw materials became more and more distanced from the final product. On large plantations, farmers receive incentives to produce large quantities of cacao regardless of its quality. Their profit is based on the quantity of cacao they produce. Often, plantation farmers send cacao to a regulatory board, which combines it with cacao from other plantations (Leissle 2013). The big chocolate companies then purchase the cacao in bulk from the regulatory board. Hence, there is no way to know exactly what cacao is in the mixture or specifically where the cacao is from in each batch of chocolate.
Aside from the mixing of cacao in a central location, the actual process of preparing the cacao to make mass-produced chocolate involves stripping the cacao of its unique taste. The taste of the cacao associated with its geographic origin is lost. In fact, the large companies desire a product that possesses a homogenous taste among all batches. Thus, during the drying and fermenting processes, producers intentionally remove the unique flavors of the cacao beans to standardize the taste (Leissle 2013). Significantly, the taste of the mass-produced chocolate does not reflect any place of origin. The terroir is absent.
Until recently, this lack of terroir was omnipresent in modern chocolate. Beginning in the late twentieth century, artisanal companies began producing single-origin chocolate. As opposed to large chocolate companies, small, artisanal companies are more interested in the quality of their cacao and the unique taste of their cacao rather than the uniformity of each batch of chocolate (Leissle 2013). Hence, the taste of artisanal chocolate may vary from batch to batch depending upon the season or the year, and especially revolving around the geographical origin of the cacao and the type of cacao tree. Furthermore, the small-scale production allows farmers and workers to be more involved in the process and see it through from “bean to bar”. Thus, the farmers and producers are more invested in the quality of the beans and not just the quantity of the beans. Furthermore, certain organizations, such as the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, educate farmers on the chocolate-making process through various programs (“Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute” 2019). This helps to ensure that the cacao beans are of good quality and they will create unique flavors in the final chocolate product. Artisanal companies who process the beans and produce the chocolate buy the cacao beans directly from the farmers and producers of the raw materials. Artisanal production allows one to be able to taste the terroir in the chocolate.
Many factors contributed to this resurgence of terroir via small-scale artisanal chocolate companies. Numerous reports on child labor in the cacao cultivation process have inspired businesspeople to start smaller companies with a mission to promote fair trade with just labor practices (“Food Empowerment Project” 2019). Small-scale production of chocolate enables more control over the various steps in the chocolate-making process, which in turn allows for better labor practices and the avoidance of child labor and slave labor.
In ancient Mesoamerica, when chocolate production began, chocolate possessed flavors unique to its geographic origin and the variety of cacao. Ultimately, cacao and chocolate production became a world-wide operation. Mass-produced chocolate lost its terroir. However, in the last few decades, artisanal chocolate companies have restored terroir in chocolate. It will be interesting to see, as the artisanal companies become more profitable, if the larger companies will begin to instill terroir in their chocolate products. As chocolate consumers become more sophisticated, they might look for terroir to impart a unique taste to the chocolate that the consumer can relate back to the source of the cacao.
There is a revolution going on in America. It exists as almost a counter to the industrial revolution that drove this country forward a hundred years before it. Craft artisans are taking over in the wake of a society that has been built by mass production. As this revolution moves across foodstuffs, it is of no surprise that craft chocolate is currently on the rise. However, it is important to understand why this revolution is taking place now, and some of the hurdles it must overcome to continue its success.
The Lay of the Land
Currently two chocolate companies, Hershey’s and Mars, account for over 50% of chocolate sales in the U.S. (Euromonitor, 2017). It should be of no surprise that these two particular companies own so much of the market share. They were both founded on the idea of bringing chocolate, which was previously a luxury treat, to the masses. Milton Hershey was a pioneer in mass production, revolutionizing and streamlining much of the industrial process. Hershey’s team discovered that by using condensed sweetened skim milk they could create a product with longer shelf life and that blended easily with cocoa powder. This meant that not only could he ship his chocolate bars further, but lasting longer on the shelf meant less profit losses due to spoilage. Hershey also looked at supply chain optimizations, investing in his own dairy farms and even building a sugar mill operation in Cuba, complete with its own railroad. This allowed Hershey to control both the costs of commodities for his chocolate bar and the quality. Mars, on the other hand, was more successful due to marketing than anything else. His Milky Way bar (which originally sourced chocolate from Hershey) was more nougat than chocolate, making it larger on shelf and seem a comparatively good value to the Hershey bar. That said, both had the same result, taking an indulgence that was once almost exclusive to the wealthy and middle classes and democratizing it for every day enjoyment.
Mass production allowed for chocolate to be produced cheaper, allowing those savings to be passed on to the consumer – or more importantly, from a marketing sense, for them to outprice their competitors. But while price is important, so are the products themselves. While it may have taken a while for consumers to acclimate to the flavor of Hershey’s and Mars bars when they first came on the market, the particular blend of milk, sugar and other ingredients insured that they were universally palatable and they now exist as the template for what we expect chocolate to taste like. Similarly, both companies have hero products that are specifically designed for easy consumption. Both Hershey’s Kisses and M&Ms were made for portability (individually wrapped/ melts in your mouth, not in your hand) and their small, poppable size makes it easy for consumers to lose track of mindfulness and eat large quantities in one sitting. These products have other advantages, as they are easily adaptable to innovation. As consumers are desiring more variety and novelty across the board, these products have proven to be the most flexible in introducing new flavors – and easily acceptable to consumers who are familiar with their form and have built brand trust. These companies have leveraged seasonality, larger cultural trends, and limited time offers to drive new product news and sales.
(wait. Is she wearing an infinity scarf and hipster glasses?)
So, if big chocolate is designed for palatability and companies are responding to consumers desires for more interesting, topical flavors, why are we seeing a proliferation of craft chocolate providers? When we look at the numbers, the story becomes more telling. When looking at sales growth, mass chocolate has remained flat year over year (CSP daily news, 2016). This despite their innovation and the fact that chocolate consumption overall is growing. Instead, the growth seems to be predominantly driven by premium and craft chocolates, suggesting not just changing tastes, but a changing attitude about where our food is actually coming from.
Big Food Backlash
There is growing negativity towards giant corporations and conglomerates, particularly when it comes to food. From an economic standpoint, consumers have watched as these corporations get massive tax breaks which have translated into bonuses for the executive suite, while the working class continues to struggle. While this issue impacts most major corporations, it is of particular concern when it comes to the chocolate industry and growing awareness around fair labor practices, forced labor, child labor and the ethical price people pay for their chocolate. There is a lot of skepticism that these companies will make ethical choices when given the opportunity, particularly when people see so many examples in the news of them pursuing profits over people, such as Nestle bottling drinkable water in the middle of the Flint, Michigan water crisis (the guardian, 2017). More and more often, buying in to big brands feels like an investment against your own interests.
The Big Middle creates more space for differentiation
The sheer nature of big brands as they fold in to one another may be working against them. “When you have increasing concentration of producers in the center, you leave room on the periphery for specialization,” says Elizabeth G. Pontikes, associate professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. (Shanker, 2017) In other words, these multinational conglomerates are creating their own sea of sameness. In a society that is increasingly valuing individuality, particularly when it comes to the millennial and younger generations, brands and products that lack differentiation also lack appeal. We can see this even in the most famous of branding cases, Coke vs. Pepsi with beverage drinkers now migrating to new choices like LaCroix and energy drinks.
The obvious choice might be for these mass chocolate brands to create verticals that touch these periphery spaces, but they have struggled breaking in. Hershey’s introduced their Cacao Reserve premium line in 2006. The brand lasted three years, suffered several price drops and the need for mass market advertising support, before they dropped it from store shelves. (Thompson, 2007) Their next move was to build their premium line using borrowed equity. At the same time they launched Cacao Reserve, they purchased Scharfeen Berger, a premium line of chocolates out of California. As they pushed to mass market the brand, they switched suppliers, using cheaper beans from West Africa. The result was severed relationships with brands like Whole Foods, who were concerned that Hershey’s could not guarantee that the beans weren’t sourced through child labor (Bloomberg, 2017). The brand has somewhat rebounded, but the initial loss is still being recovered, and leaves the question as to whether or not big brands can ever play credibly in the premium/ craft space.
A wake up call for food
The obesity crisis in America was a wake up call about the food we consume and how it is being produced. A series of films, articles and exposes, while at times misleading and ignores the true labor of food, caused people to rethink what they are getting out of processed food. The consumer take-away was that mass produced food lacks quality and nutritional value, is predominantly artificial fillers, and is potentially detrimental to your overall health. Quality, whole ingredients, and care has become increasingly synonymous with healthfulness, regardless of traditional markers like fat and calories.
While all of these things make craft chocolate more appealing, it still has hurdles to overcome to convince people to pay the enormous price tag that comes along with it.
As noted, industrial chocolate is the baseline for people’s orientation to what chocolate should look and taste like, as well as what it should cost. For Craft chocolate to succeed, they don’t just need to overcome the shift to premium pricing, they need to overcome expectations set by mass market chocolate. There is a need to educate people on to the true value of the chocolate they are consuming and the difference that craft chocolate provides. There are four key ways in which craft offers a point of difference that both provides a difference that supports craft’s value proposition and requires consumer education: process, taste, ingredients and sourcing and ethics.
Understanding the process
Over time, manufactures have swapped out real ingredients for cheaper artificial substitutes such as vanillin instead of vanilla. (Martin-Sampeck, 2016). This has impact on the flavor, consistency and mouthfeel of the chocolate itself. Craft chocolate’s smaller production model in of itself creates a different end product, but some companies have gone further, focusing on minimizing the process.
Taza chocolate, a bean to bar company located in Somerville, MA, takes great pains to educate consumers as to their process. They describe their bars as “chocolate with true grit.” Their mission is to return chocolate to its pre-industrial roots. They believe that less processing allows for more complexity in flavors. Their chocolate is stone ground on hand carved molinos (mill stones) with little refinement between that and the end product. The result is, to their description, a chocolate bar that lacks the smoothness that consumers have come to expect, but with a stronger chocolate flavor and more complexity in experience overall.
Expanding your palate
“When most people eat a piece of chocolate we want that pleasure immediately: boom! That’s the music of mass-market chocolate.” (Williams, 2012)
Historians have theorized (incorrectly) that when chocolate came to the old world, that it was appropriated to suit Europeans’ tastes (Norton, 2016). In fact, chocolate’s evolution from its new world form to the substance we know today was a process that took over a century of innovation. The chocolate that Europeans first enjoyed was a fairly close recreation of how it was consumed in Mesoamerica. The Europeans had just acquired a taste for it. That said, they had a lot of motivation to do so – chocolate was seen as exotic, a luxury (due to both its scarcity and use as currency), and had potential new health benefits. Additionally, unlike today, there was no basis for comparison. For today’s consumers, their palates have been educated in the world of mass produced chocolate – and what they have come to expect is a very sweet, creamy, almost single note experience. Craft chocolate, on the other hand, leans in to chocolate’s bitter notes, and offers way more complexity. Not only do consumers need to adjust to the new flavor profile, but they need help recognizing the flavor notes to truly appreciate the difference they are getting from craft.
Dick Taylor chocolates started in a small factory in Eureka, California by Adam Dick and Dustin Taylor. They started their factory out of a love of craftsmanship and making things with their hands (both worked in woodworking and boat building). In addition to educating consumers on the sourcing of their beans, they seek to educate consumers on how craft processing changes the flavor and experience of their chocolate. From their website “by not cutting corners or taking shortcuts in our process we are able to leave out vanilla, additional cocoa butter or other emulsifiers, in hopes of capturing and highlighting the subtle flavor nuances in the cacao we source from around the world.”
In this they set expectations that their chocolate will be less sweet and have more complexity of flavors. To further support that, their packaging calls out the specific flavor notes that the chocolate bar offers, much in the way that wine and craft beers call out tasting notes.
XOCOLATL, a “micro-factory” chocolatier out of Atlanta similarly looks to highlight chocolate’s natural flavors. Their bars are blended with spices and other elements that call out chocolate’s flavor components. For example, their Americana bar contains no apples, but uses familiar pie spices to highlight that quality within the chocolate.
While mass chocolate uses the blending of not only several different types of beans, but beans from multiple locations, there is a rising trend in single origin chocolate. This has arisen both out of an increased interest in food provenance and small chocolate purveyors interest in highlighting the different unique flavor profiles of the beans. (Norton, 2013) By doing so, they are able to not only show off the different flavor varietals, but capitalize on the exotic locales to add a sense of rarity and uniqueness to their product lines.
Amedei Chocolates, a craft company out of Tuscany, Italy, builds their sourcing education in to their product offerings. Each of their bar product lines serves as an exploration in the difference that cacao content, origin and the beans themselves can make. Their Toscano Black line offers three different (though relatively close) percentages of dark chocolate – 63%, 66%, and 70%. Their cru product line is all single origin dark chocolate – allowing consumers to taste the subtle differences between each region. But where they go one step further than many bars is to focus and educate consumers on the strains of cacao available. They offer both a Blanco de Criollo and a Porcelana bar. The external packaging on each features a botanical drawing of the bean. The inside explains the history, origin and flavor notes. For the Porcelana bar, it notes the Venuzuela plantation, it’s small production of only 3,000 kilos of beans, and the rarity of this particular strain. Tasting notes are described as “toasted almonds that alternates with pressed olives.” This reinforces the specialness of the bar and the unique experience that it offers, while simultaneously pushing the consumer’s palate to recognize more subtleties in flavor.
One of the major challenges in the chocolate industry overall is the issue of labor practices and sourcing. Even setting aside the more dire problems of forced and child labor, very little of the profits made from chocolate sales actually makes its way back to the farmers that grow it. While there are a variety of certification schemes (i.e. Fair Trade, UTZ Certified, IMO Fair for Life), the cost of participating is high, and consumer demand has yet to drive a higher price in goods that can be translated back to the farmer. (Martin-Sampeck, 2016) Additionally, there are those who don’t think that programs like Fair Trade go far enough, and result in a minimal profit increase for the farmer.
Companies like Taza and Askinosie chocolates instead have focused on direct trade, which cuts out middlemen and insures that more profits go back to the hands of the farmers. Askinosie notes on their website “we hold the craft and quality of our chocolate in almost equal balance with doing as much good as we can in the world.” As part of educating consumers at to the importance of direct trade, their bars feature the actual farmers that they work with on the front. The back label tells that person’s story, how they became acquainted with Askinosie chocolate, and how their contribution insured the quality of the product you are holding. It also features the following guarantee: A stake in the Outcome. We guarantee to our farmers more than fair prices, open books and a share in our success. In the way that they tell the story of their trade relationships, Askinosie doesn’t just insure the consumer of the ethics of their bar, they humanize it and translate that in to a real value to the consumer in the quality and craft of the final product itself.
The future of craft
Craft still has some educational and orientation challenges to overcome, but as more and more people migrate away from big food and big chocolate, the opportunity to create a wider variety of chocolates leveraging ethical sourcing and quality ingredients remains as promising and sweet as the product itself.
Brenner, Joel. 2000. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007 (1996) The True History of Chocolate.
HEXX Chocolate – Located in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip (“HEXX Exterior”).
HEXX Chocolate – At the Paris Hotel and Casino in the shadow of a replica of the Eiffel Tower (“HEXX Restaurant Eiffel Tower”).
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”).
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
Interior of HEXX’s 30,000 square-foot restaurant (Mair).
Silverman and Piekarski sorting cacao beans (“Sorting Beans”).
HEXX’s transparent chocolate operations which shares the same space as its restaurant (“Kitchen”).
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).
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 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.
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.
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”).
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.
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”).
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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  and 260,000 MT in 2015 . 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) . 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) .
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 . 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. 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)  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. 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. 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 . 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 :
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:
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 :
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.
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 ) 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 .
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 . The government has made a video to promote this initiative:
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) .
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. 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) . 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»
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!
 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)
 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)
 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
 National Census for Agriculture and Livestock 2000, Ecuador
 E. Quingaísa: “Estudio de caso: Denominacion de Origen “Cacao Arriba””, ICCA (2007)
A few months back my aunt Bazat Saifiyyah made a chocolate sauce that everyone in my family went completely crazy over. We would eat it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With many different foods such as ice-cream, strawberries when they were in season, spread over toast or just eaten plain.
For my blog post I want to explore within the context of my aunt’s recipe, the ingredients that go into it, where does the chocolate come from, the historical backing and also the perception of chocolate and its health benefits.
The ingredients that go into the chocolate sauce are butter, dark chocolate compound, Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa, Hershey’s caramel syrup, icing sugar, milk and fresh cream.
The chocolate sauce is made by melting butter over a low heat flame, then add the dark chocolate compound broken up into many pieces. Then after this has melted the milk and fresh cream are added and then whisked until fully mixed. Then after this, the Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa powder is added with the icing sugar. After this, the caramel syrup is added. Then the whole mixture is to be whisked over a low flame for two minutes, then it is ready to be eaten.
This is a short video that I have taken during the making of the chocolate sauce.
What is the history behind the recipe?
Cacao first came to be cultivated agriculturally by the Olmecs in the lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast ( C ) It was picked up by the Mayans and then from them the Aztecs. In this time the way that they processed the cacao bean was very different then how it is processed today. The cacao pod would be harvested and then its beans would be dried, roasted, shelled and then ground on a metate to make a paste, this paste could have other flavoring additions to it depending on the culture that it was made in. This paste was then made into balls from which a hot foamy chocolate drink was made, this seems to have been the primary way in which the Mesoamericans consumed their cacao. However, there are mentions of it being used in other food items. ( C )
This is a video that demonstrates the Mesoamerican chocolate making practices.
This cacao consumption was picked up by the Spanish during their colonization period. It became an extremely important part of their culture and practices. Then it was picked up by the European colonizers and it became joined with sugar that was also being produced in the colonies. Then came the inventions that changed how chocolate was produced such as conching by Rudolph Lindt in Switzerland, this made the chocolate smooth by breaking down the large particles in a machine. ( P ) Also, the addition of dairy products like milk and cream to chocolate changed drastically how chocolate was enjoyed by many people.
Where does the cacao come from?
The two chocolate products that go into making this compound are Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa and Mordes dark compound chocolate ( CD D16 ). Both these ingredients are processed differently to reach the state that they are in.
Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa-
The processing of cacao to reach cocoa powder was invented by Coenerad Van Houten in the Netherlands. He developed a technique which processed cacao beans in such a way that they separated into two compounds, cacao butter, and a solid cake. ( P ) The cacao butter was the more prized of the two compounds and often it was sold by companies and not used with the solids of the beans that it came from. The solid cocoa cake that was made was then ground up into a fine powder and it is used in chocolate drinks and baking. Another process that also goes behind the cocoa powder made today is the dutch processing technique which is a treatment done by adding alkaline salts to neutralize the bitter taste and also to have a darker colored chocolate. ( P )
There is no mention of the product about where the cacao that goes into this process comes from. This makes the cacao completely anonymous.
This anonymity of chocolate shows a shift in the attitudes of people towards cacao beans and their sourcing. In the past centuries, before the manufacturing of chocolate became so connected to the industrialized process, the sourcing of the cacao bean was of utmost importance. The criollo pods were counted as the best type of cacao, it has the sweetest flavor and the richest taste ( P), the finding of this pod is extremely rare nowadays and many expert chocolatiers try with great difficulty to get a hold of this criollo pod to make their chocolate. This pod was mainly used by the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs and then it was transported to Hispanic plantations such as Venezuela during their period of colonization. ( P ) The most common type of cacao in use today is the forastero variety, this is purple and of a darker color then the criollo variety, it is also extremely bitter however the multiple industrial processes that cacao beans go through these days balance out the bitterness. Then there is also the Trinitario variety, this is a cross breed between the criollo and forastero, it was developed in Trinidad, this is the most resilient variety and it has a more pleasant taste than the foraestro. ( P )
The other factor that matters a lot in the sourcing of cacao is where is it grown, this contains the Terrior of the landscape and also carries a lot of history and chocolate traditions and culture with it. Chocolate has a dark history intertwined with the slave trade and abuse of peoples in plantations. In the modern day, the roots of colonization, the booming cacao trade, and European chocolate culture has led to established cacao farming in many parts of the world that were colonized such as Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Ecuador and West Africa. Today West Africa produces 75% of the worlds cacao and most of this cacao is exported for production abroad, only 4% of the worlds chocolate is consumed by its people. West Africa collectively produces 3 million metric tonnes of cacao in a year( L 8)
There is a lot that goes into the cacao bean and if it is made so anonymous its history is wiped away and its variety and subtleties are emitted out of the chocolate making process as nobody knows where it originates from.
Mordes dark compound chocolate ( CD D16 )
This chocolate is also another example of the anonymity of the cacao bean today. The ingredients that go into making this bar are as follows, Sugar, Edible Vegetable fats, Cocoa Solids and Emulsifiers ( 492, 322 ) CONTAINS ADDED NATURAL (VANILLA) FLAVOURING SUBSTANCES, Hydrogenated Vegetable Fat Used- Contains Trans Fats.
This bar does not have a cacao percentage in it however it has cocoa solids, so it does not have cacao butter in it.
This is a video that demonstrates how chocolate bars are made today.
A look into Hershey’s
Hershey’s was founded in 1903 by Milton S. Hershey, it came to be known as Americans most iconic chocolate. It had a great influence on American business and taste. ( L 11 )
The two struggles that this company faced and managed to overcome were, one, the struggle to develop milk chocolate, so they made their own dairy farms and sourced their milk from there. Two, the struggle to control the sugar supply chain. Sugar used to come from Cuba and during the period of 1916-46 there was a highly volatile situation and this affected the sugar supply chain. To face this problem Hershey brought land in Cuba where he established his own sugar plantations, for the transportation of this sugar he also built some connecting railways. ( L 12 )
This is a video that demonstrates the history and founding of Hershey’s chocolates.
The potential health risks in consuming chocolate are environmental factors of polluted soil and water, problems in other ingredients such as milk, sugar, soy lecithin, inclusions, manufacturing issues, allergy or sensitivity to certain ingredients mixed with the cacao or to the caffeine, and a very high sugar and saturated fat content and a very high calorie content. ( L 12 )
There has also been a lot of contemporary research on the health benefits of chocolate. These are Antioxidant, Cardioprotective, Psychoactive, Anti-inflammatory, Anti-allergy and Anti-tumoral properties ( L 12 )
After knowing some of the history behind chocolate and everything that has gone into making it, one can eat the chocolate sauce with more understanding of what actually goes on in the making of it.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013 – ( C)
Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009. – ( P )
Chocolate class lectures, Carla Martin, Harvard Extension School, Spring 2018 – ( L )
History of Hershey’s chocolate, Charles Dean Archive, Published on Jan 9, 2014 on Youtube
Milk Chocolate from Scratch How it is made, Science Channel, Published on Oct 30, 2016 on Youtube
Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate Making, National Geographic, Published on Oct 13, 2017 on Youtube
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 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.
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.
For this blogpost, I was curious to explore the idea of terroir as it pertains to chocolate. “Terroir” is, literally, the French word for soil or land and can be defined as “the conditions in which a food is grown or produced and that give the food its unique characteristics.” [i] According to Kristy Leissle, “cocoa beans, like wine grapes, produce distinct flavors depending on strain and terroir, and showcasing that flavor is the goal of single origin chocolate.” [ii]
Of course, as discussed throughout our chocolate class (Karla Martin, personal communication) the final taste of chocolate is determined by many factors. The taste can be influenced by the type of cacao and where it is grown but can also be influenced by the type of cacao tree, how the cacao beans are fermented and dried and how it is processed. How is it roasted? Is it conched and for how long? Are other ingredients added? A description of the kinds of factors that influence chocolate flavor can be found here: [iii] But despite those questions, I was curious to explore what differences we would taste in chocolate bars whose beans were sourced from different countries.
So I took myself off to Whole Foods in Dedham – one of the largest Whole Foods I have ever visited. There I faced an enormous and bewildering display of chocolate: 3 full banks of shelves – ½ of an entire aisle – entirely devoted to chocolate, none of it mass market. I employed the following criteria to restrict my choices:
Must be at least 70% chocolate
No added ingredients other than sweetener, vanilla, emulsifier
Package must state the cacao is sourced from a certain geographic area.
I ended up with 7 bars of chocolate to taste, from 6 different areas: Ghana, Dominican Republic Madegascar, Tanzania, Haiti, and Ecuador. Only one was made in the country of origin. The others were produced in Germany, Massachusetts, Belgium, and Switzerland.
What I found at Whole Foods bears out Leissle’s statement that even though the majority of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa, most single single origin chocolate bars are sourced from other regions. She suggests that this is likely because the quality of West African chocolate is often not high. The one bar I found from West Africa was from Ghana. Ghanaian chocolate, which is regulated by a national Cocoa Board is considered the best of the West African chocolate. (Leissle). Tight regulation may be the reason that it is higher quality, but it can also make it difficult for manufacturers to source enough chocolate from Ghana to create single-origin bars. Another issue with West African chocolate is that it is often tainted in the public mind by allegations of child and slave labor, which could affect sales.
Interestingly, all of these chocolates bore a special certification of one kind or another, indicating that the buyer was not just buying chocolate to eat, but also contributing to social good with the purchase. Certifications included Fair trade, Fair for life, direct trade, whole trade. As Ndongo S. Sylla suggests in his critique of Fair Trade, it is as if “poverty itself has become a commodity. Through this label, it is the idea and the approach that are being sold…The irony is that the new advocates of the poor unknowingly work for the rich, being themselves part of this category.” [iv] The packaging suggests that with your purchase you have become a “compassionate consumer” as Martin and Sampeck [v] label it, and so you can feel good about yourself because you are meeting the needs of others when you spend your money, often justifying a higher price. Of course, one doesn’t know how much of that premium actually reaches the farmer. It’s almost a side benefit to one’s good work in buying the chocolate, that it may also be delicious.
All but two of the bars were organic, and this also seems to play into the idea of doing good with your dollars. The packaging materials themselves are organic-looking/earthy-crunchy with non-shiny paper and arty graphics. Julie Guthman, in her history of the development of organic salad mix (“yuppie chow”), says “eating organic salad mix connoted a political action in its own right, legitimizing a practice that few could afford.”[vi] This notion of eating as a political action could also be applied to organic chocolate. However, as Williams and Eber point out in Raising the Bar [vii], organic chocolate isn’t necessarily the best chocolate. Furthermore, organic certification is an expensive proposition for a small cocoa farmer because the land must come out of production for 3 years and getting a certificate costs money. The premium that organic chocolate can demand tends not to come to the farmer. Furthermore, much cocoa actually is in essence organic, though not certified as such, because many farmers cannot afford pesticides. So how much good are you really doing by buying organic chocolate?
For this project, I convened an after-dinner tasting panel of 3 foodies: myself (a prolific cook-gardener), my friend Emily (an artist/social worker who generally prefers milk chocolate to dark chocolate), and my husband John (a field engineer by day and musician/poet in the off hours). We discussed a common convention of tasting, guided by Barb Stuckey’s article on How the Pros Taste. [viii] She suggests the importance of using other senses in tasting, such as sight, smell, taste, and texture or mouth feel. We placed each sample on a white plate to judge the the color, slowly sniffed it to sense the aroma, snapped it with our teeth to judge crispness, and then placed it on our tongue to savor slowly and see what flavors emerged. We sampled in order of lightest (70%) to darkest (85%). After sampling each, we took a look at the package to see what information we could glean. Our method of palate cleansing after each taste was perhaps unorthodox, but delicious: water, plain crackers, and red wine that had been aged in bourbon barrels.
Divine 70% “Intensely Rich” chocolate. Ghana
Color: very dark brown. Aroma: rich and lovely. Snap: Nice, crisp.
Savoring notes: we found it sweet but not overly so. Delicious. You could taste the vanilla. It melted slowly with a lingering flavor and was very smooth. John, our poet, said he could taste the savannah. The finish was very earthy. However, at the end it felt a bit chalky and dry, as if it sucked the moisture out of one’s mouth. We decided to call this kind of finish “sere.” “Sere” is defined as dry or arid. [ix]
Judgment: We all liked this chocolate very much at first taste, though we weren’t fond of the sere finish.
Other Notes: Divine is made with cocoa beans from a co-op of small-holder farmers in Ghana and is produced in Germany. The package is decorated with Adinkra symbols which are traditional West African motifs. The inside of the package congratulates the buyer for supporting cocoa farmers and displays the photograph of an individual cocoa farmer and tells her story. It also displays the AYA symbol, representing Endurance and Peaceful Coexistence. It feels like you are invited into the community of cocoa farmers by purchasing this chocolate.
Taza Chocolates 70% stone ground chocolate. “perfectly unrefined” Dominican Republic
Color: less dark and rich looking than the Divine. Aroma: less intense than Divine, but nice. Less crisp than Divine.
Savoring notes: Tasted sweeter than Divine and the initial taste was less intense at the start. Not buttery and smooth but textural, (unsurprising since it is stone ground and unconched.) Very pleasant to savor, though the texture was distracting. Overall a simpler taste than the Divine. The finish was also less dry (sere) at the end.
Judgment: We all thought this chocolate was o.k., but not a favorite, mostly because of the grittiness and lack of complexity.
Other notes: Packaging is simple non glossy paper, quite attractive. It makes a big point of being unrefined and minimally processed with bold flavor and texture. It is made in Somerville, MA
Madecasse, Madagascar. 70% heirloom Madagascar cocoa, “bright with a fruity finish.”
Color: not as dark as the first two. Aroma: strong, rich and deep. You could almost taste the chocolate as you smelled it. A reasonable snap.
Savoring notes: A bit granular. Not as smooth as the divine. Lingering, complex flavor. Our poet musician called it “beautiful birds” and then described the taste as “symphonic” and “well-orchestrated.” The finish had a little vanilla, it was luscious all the way through, and there was no chalky dryness or “sere” quality at the end.
Other notes: The packaging is lovely. Simple yet colorful with a drawing of an opened cocoa pod (revealing the white flesh and the cocoa beans), nestled with leaves, cocoa beans and pieces of chocolate bar. On the back, a map of Africa/Madagascar and the story of the chocolate. Madecasse was started by peace corps volunteers in Madagascar who decided to make chocolate “as a vehicle for social impact.” This bar is not only sourced from Madegascar, it is made there. More than some of the other packaging, this bar seemed to stress the deliciousness of the chocolate, as much as their mission.
Other notes: Somehow we didn’t expect this to taste good – perhaps because it seemed to be more about supporting Tanzanian schoolhouses and doing “good works” and less about the chocolate. And perhaps because it was made by the big business of Whole Foods. The packaging wasn’t as appealingly earthy/arty as the others. It was glossier, with photographs of Tanzanian people and cocoa trees rather than compelling graphics. This bar is made in Belgium. We were also surprised to find that we didn’t miss the vanilla in this bar. Interestingly, the Tanzania schoolhouse Project website link which describes their charitable projects makes no mention of this chocolate. The packaging also doesn’t indicate what amount of proceeds are donated to the project. My cynical side thinks Whole Foods may be using the Tanzanian project as a marketing tool, since there is so little transparency about what they are really doing in Tanzania.
Color: This chocolate was the darkest so far. Aroma: wonderful – very rich. Bite: very soft.
Savoring notes: The honey taste was predominant at first and the chocolate tasted very different from the other ones. Although the texture was not smooth, it was enjoyable, more so than the grittiness of the Taza. The taste felt slow to open up, perhaps because it was less sweet, but when it did open was nice. The honey taste lingered throughout and the finish had no “sere” at all. This was definitely a different kind of chocolate and we found it enjoyable.
Ingredient %: 18 g fat, 6g of sugar. Ingredients: Organic Cacao liquor, organic cacao butter, organic raw honey, sunflower lecithin, organic vanilla beans.
Certifications and claims: direct trade, family owned, gluten, dairy and soy free, single origin, biodynamic, hand-crafted.
Other notes: The package graphics and the name hint at being like something from an apothecary or a general store, like it might be good for you. It has an old-fashioned, early 20 century look that might draw you in on the basis of sentimentality. It also proclaims in large letters that it is organic raw honey sweetened – so it can draw in people who are drawn to health foods. This bar is made in Dorchester, MA by a husband/wife team who also make soaps, hot cocoa, and bee-sweetened mallows. This was our second bar made with Dominican cocoa and quite different from the first.
Taza “perfectly unrefined” 84% Dark chocolate, sourced from Haiti.
Color: quite dark. Aroma: very earthy and perhaps a little sharp. Bite: hard but not crisp
Savoring notes: Like the other Taza bar, this was granular, but the texture was almost sandy. It had a very earthy taste, very simple, almost primitive. Emily commented that it was more like a food than a dessert. It finished with a fruity taste.
Judgment: We loved the flavor that opened when we savored a piece of this bar, but we were put off by the grittiness.
Ingredient %: 13 g fat, 6 g sugar. Ingredients: cacao beans and cane sugar
Certifications and claims: organic direct trade, non gmo, gluten free, dairy soy and vegan free
Other notes: the packaging of this bar is similar to that of the Taza Dominican bar. It is also made in Somerville. The package makes note that Taza is the first U.S. chocolate maker to source certified USDA organic cacao from Haiti.
Alter Eco, “dark blackout” 85% dark chocolate, from Peru.
Color: quite dark. Aroma: strong and vegetal, reminiscent of tobacco. Snap: crisp.
Savoring notes: The flavor was very slow to open – perhaps because it had less sugar. The taste was a little acidic. The texture was smooth, waxy at the start. It had a chalky, “sere” finish.
Judgment: Meh. We didn’t care for this chocolate very much.
Ingredient %: 22 g fat, 6 g sugar. Ingredients: cacao beans, cocoa butter, raw sugar, vanilla beans
Certifications: USDA Organic, Fair trade, gluten free, non gmo.
Other notes: packaging is the least glossy of all – very recycled looking. There is a lot of comment on the inside of the packaging about their mission: sustainability, replacing coca crops with cacao crops and the importance of cocoa cooperatives and a Carbon Zero reforestation project, along with photographs of people who are presumably cacao farmers. Clearly the intent is to let you know that by buying this chocolate you are doing good. Too bad we didn’t like the taste of it.
Last thoughts on this experience
We were all surprised by how interesting – and enjoyable – it was to use so many senses in experiencing each chocolate bar. Taking the time to savor revealed so many nuances. Emily, who prefers milk chocolate, actually enjoyed most of the bars when she took the time to smell and consider each sample and slowly let it melt in her mouth. We found ourselves with questions about the reasons for the differences in taste: what was due to how the chocolate was processed, how much was terroir, how much was the power of suggestion in packaging, how much was due to the percentage – or type – of ingredients.
There are many avenues for further investigation. For instance, we could compare a number of different chocolates sourced from one region (if we could find them). We could compare chocolates produced with different methods – for instance a variety of unconched chocolates. We could investigate the claims different companies make about bettering the lives of farmers or the environment or contributing to other good causes. How much do they actually do and contribute and how much of the lingo is an attempt to reel in the compassionate consumer by convincing them they are doing good with their consumer dollars? I look forward to exploring these ideas in future tastings with friends.
it’s 10 pm. do you know where your chocolate came from?
Compared to other popular luxury food products – wine, coffee, cheese – most consumers know little about the origin of the chocolate they eat. Often, chocolate is referred to by its place of production rather than its place of origin; there is an assumption of quality inherent in saying that a chocolate confection was made in Belgium, Switzerland, or France. Chocolate is different than wine and cheese in this way. Many vineyards bottle their own wines, using grapes that were grown, crushed, fermented, and aged at the same geographic location.
The team at Naggiar Vineyards in Grass Valley, CA, explain their vine-to-wine approach to winemaking. [i]
A bottle of wine has a self-contained sense of place, and that sense of place is typically featured prominently on the label for the consumer. This guide to reading a French wine label illustrates just how much information about origin and production is typically packed onto a wine label, made readily available for consumers [ii].
Few chocolate companies attempt to control the entire means of production, from cacao bean to chocolate bar, in the way that many vineyards follow their grapes from vine to bottle. Most cacao is grown in East African countries and in South and Latin America. These countries often lack a strong industrial tradition or the economic strength and stability to rapidly transform their trade patterns; thus, much of the cacao is shipped to the United States and several European nations, where it is turned into chocolate (Presilla). Regulations in the chocolate industry are lax or non-existent, and the geographic path that a particular chocolate bar has undertaken is rarely made clear to the consumer, if it is even clear to the manufacturer (Nesto). Thus a gap exists between the geographic origins and genetic history of a chocolate bar and the consumer; this creates a problem that Deshpandé refers to as the provenance paradox.
Cacao originates, genetically, from Latin America, and yet when most people think of chocolate and the makers of the best chocolate in the world, Europe is far more likely to spring to mind than Ecuador. Consumers believe that the best chocolate in the world comes from Europe, and they are generally willing to pay more for it. As a result, South American chocolate companies, even if they are using superior beans and producing superior chocolate, struggle to price their product competitively for a global market. These lower prices in turn lead consumers to believe that the product is less valuable, and the South American chocolate companies are unable to develop a reputation based on the quality of their chocolate (Deshpandé).
At odds with the overwhelming faith of consumers in European-made chocolate is the understanding among practically all chocolate makers that different genetic strands of cacao produce different quality beans. The light, delicate flavors of Criollo beans are generally favored over more hardy Amelonados and other Forasteros (Presilla). Just as different grape varietals produce different flavor notes in wine, the differing chemical profiles of varying cacao trees can create chocolate that is earthy, nutty, fruity, or creamy, with notes of honey, coffee, oak, or tobacco. The various flavor notes in cacao are determined by myriad factors that differ from growing region to growing region; the French term terroir describes this regional variation. Terroir encompasses and complicates “raw materials, their growing conditions, production processes, and the moment of product appreciation” (Nesto). All these factors – regional genetic variation, soil quality, growing environment and climate, different harvesting practices – contribute to the “sense of place” realized in the final product.
Fine chocolate makers have an incentive to produce chocolate with a taste that consumers will enjoy, and as such, have always paid attention to where their cacao originated. That information is not always communicated to consumers, though; it would be very unusual for the origin of the cacao beans used in a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar, for example, to be published on the label – or anywhere. Several case studies will demonstrate different approaches by contemporary chocolate companies and institutions to emphasize terroir in their chocolate products, and will explore the ways that this focus can be constructive – or problematic.
case 1. chuao chocolatier & spicy maya chocolate
Cacao originates from Latin America, but few consumers are aware of this history. More believe, or assume, that chocolate is of European origin, as most chocolate available on the market is from European manufacturers. Chuao Chocolatier, based in Southern California, has taken multiple steps to attempt to strengthen the associations between chocolate and Latin America.
The company itself is named after the cacao-producing region of Chuao in central Venezuela. Chuao Chocolatier’s website reports that the founders’ decision in naming the company “was a reflection of their commitment to both high quality and their Venezuelan family heritage. Chocolate is part of their roots, as their ancestors once ran a small family farm that was an important part of the criollo cacao plantation industry” [iv]. The decision to name the company after this particular region is interestingly misleading: none of the cacao used in their chocolate bars is actually from Chuao. The Chuao region has an exclusive trade relationship with Amedei, an Italian chocolate company, under which no cacao from the Chuao cooperative can be sold to any other chocolatier [v]. Founder Michael Antonorsi asserts that Chuao’s chocolate “is a 60 percent mix of Latin American cacaos with the core hailing from Venezuela,” combining “a wide array of unique criollo, trinitario, and forastero beans” (Denis).
The use of Chuao in the company’s name – and marked in large letters on every chocolate bar – clearly implies that the chocolate is from Chuao, and while Antonorsi may indeed use some Venezuelan cacao in his creations, it is not Chuao cacao. The choice of name might have positive implications, such as emphasizing the associations between chocolate and Venezuela in the minds of consumers. It might also have negative implications: consumers cannot develop a sense of taste for a particular region’s cacao if they are incorrectly informed as to what they are tasting. This prevents the development of consumer understanding of terroir.
A second notable decision made by Chuao Chocolatier is the naming and development of their Spicy Maya line of chocolate. The Chuao website describes the Spicy Maya flavor as “a modern twist on the Mayan’s [sic] ancient drinking chocolate recipe, infused with cinnamon, pasilla chile and cayenne pepper” [vii]. The Spicy Maya bar is very far from any substance that Mayan women would have prepared using cacao. Mayans typically consumed chocolate in liquid form; chocolate beverages were often gruel-like drinks prepared by dissolving a ground cacao-and-corn paste in warm water (Presilla). They did use chile and cayenne as flavoring, but also flavors such as honey, vanilla, ear flower, and allspice (Presilla). Does the name “Spicy Maya” mislead in the same way as the company’s name?
The founders of Chuao Chocolatier have made decisions in the way they named their company and their products that appropriate associations with Mayan and Latin American culture. These appropriative acts may not be harmful to the long-gone Ancient Maya, but they have the potential to mislead consumers into buying a product that is not quite what it appears.
case 2. república del cacao
Several chocolatiers have focused production on “single-origin” or “exclusive-derivation” chocolates, which are made entirely from cacao grown in the same region (Presilla). These chocolates typically still contain a blend of various genetic strains, as many types of cacao trees usually grow together; what distinguishes single-origin chocolates from one another “is a matter of the local soil and environment bringing out inherent genetic characteristics, as well as the way in which particular styles of drying and fermentation have distinct effects on overall flavor and aroma” (Presilla). The flavor and nuances brought out by a particular region’s climate and production practices will register in the taste of the chocolate.
República del Cacao is a chocolate company that grew out of the desire to protect a particular variety of cacao: Cacao Arriba, a Fine Aroma Cocoa from Ecuador [viii]. Their website explains that they are working to search for new and forgotten varieties of cacao from across South and Central America. The company also researches traditional production methods, and claims to “care for the traditions of Fine Aroma Cocoa, as well as its culture and inheritance” [ix]. Explicitly, República is concerned with retracing cacao to its origins:
“Cocoa was born in our continent and here is where chocolate should be at its best. We take pride in our local staff, their efforts and the place we have chosen to open our new factory, Quito-Ecuador, just a few miles away from the ancient birthplace of cocoa… República del Cacao is in fact the first major chocolatier to bring chocolate production back to where it rightfully belongs.” [x]
Unlike Chuao, República’s name does not refer to one particular cacao-producing village; instead, the name implies a republic made up of many united chocolate-producing regions, without losing the focus on chocolate’s Latin American origins.
República produces several single-origin chocolate bars from different cocoa provinces, primarily Ecuadorian and Peruvian. Each bar has the province from which the cacao was harvested clearly marked on the packaging, as well as a notice that it was harvested and produced in Ecuador. República manages, in its marketing and packaging, to emphasize terroir and the geographic origin of each particular bar of chocolate without hinging on cultural appropriation or untruthful associations with Ancient Mayan chocolate recipes. While Chuao Chocolatier references the Chuao region primarily as a marketing ploy, República uses single-origin denominations to reference particular flavor profiles, and allows consumers to develop their own understanding of terroir.
case 3. appellations of origin: chuao, venezuela
Appellations of origin recognize a product as being from a specific geographic location and directly connect the product to the terroir of that region and the “human factors of work, creativity, and specific knowledge that are to be found” there [xii]. Marking the products of a region with the appellation of origin of that region allows producers there to protect and acknowledge regional history and characteristics.
Appellations, or denominations, of origin are generally taken far more seriously for wine and cheese and a few other food items than for cacao. Though many contemporary chocolate companies label their products with the region of origin, it is uncommon for a region to be protected under copyright law from other companies wishing to sell cacao labeled with its name. Champagne, for example, can only legally be used in the packaging and marketing materials for sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region; Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese can only be labelled as such if it is indeed from the Province of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna, Modena, or Mantua (Olmsted).
The only region that has such protection for cacao is the Chuao region in Venezuela, mentioned earlier as the namesake of Southern California’s Chuao Chocolatier. After the growers’ cooperative in Chuao, Venezuela reached the agreement with Amedei Chocolatier wherein Amedei asserted “exclusive rights to use the Chuao name,” the cooperative also filed an application for recognition of Chuao as an appellation of origin under Venezuelan law (Presilla; WIPO). Recognition was granted, and the Chuao name became protected under Venzuelan law. The name “Chuao” is legally restricted to use only on cacao beans and cocoa products from that geographic region. This, in theory, would generate higher demand for Chuao cacao, allowing growers from Chuao to demand higher prices for their beans and allowing local buyers to benefit from their relationships to the plantation.
This further complicates the story of Chuao Chocolatier. The Chuao name is protected under intellectual property law; because their chocolate is not composed solely of cacao from the Chuao region, Chuao Chocolatier is in violation of this law. The legal recognition of Chuao as an appellation of origin, in theory, is meant to handle exactly this sort of situation. The growers’ cooperative at Chuao could take legal action toward Chuao Chocolatier, and therefore regain control of the associations consumers draw to the name Chuao.
case 4. heirloom cacao
The mission of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund is to “identify and preserve fine flavor (“heirloom”) cacao varieties for the conservation of biological diversity and the empowerment of farming communities” [xiii]. The goal of the HCP is to protect the natural varieties of Theobroma cacao that are diminishing in the wild in the face of environmental change, deforestation, and economic upheaval.
The recognition of the great genetic diversity of cacao is important, and serves a different goal than those discussed so far. Individual chocolate companies, however wholehearted their goals, are generally still working in their own best interests. The HCP was founded by a group of chocolate enthusiasts and scientists in order to serve the interests of the entire cacao-chocolate industry, and to preserve the genetic diversity of cacao for future generations of environmentalists – and chocolate consumers.
There are, perhaps, some unintended consequences to the denominations offered by the HCP, however. As with the denominations offered through Fair Trade or UTZ or Rainforest Alliance, the HCP denomination can be pricy. Having the denomination may allow growers to achieve higher market prices, but it only helps those growers who can afford the cost of application. Additionally, the denomination has resulted in a boom in American and European chocolate companies that offer wildly expensive “heirloom chocolate bars” [xiv]. The companies that benefit from the denomination are not the small chocolate companies who work locally near growers; instead, those companies become pushed out of the market by larger firms and European companies that can afford to pay a higher premium once a cacao variety is classified as “heirloom.”
Many contemporary chocolate companies are adopting new approaches to marketing that emphasizes terroir. If chocolate can reach a place like that of wine or cheese in our society’s culinary consciousness, where the origin of the product is of equal or greater importance than the way it is prepared, the benefits for growers and small buyers will be myriad. Ideally, more companies will model their marketing and advertising endeavors after companies like República del Cacao, with a focus on appellations of origin and elevating multiple regions to popularity. And the more efforts that can be taken by others in the cacao-to-chocolate industry to emphasize terroir, the better– but care must be taken to ensure those efforts benefit the growers and companies that need it most.
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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.
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Fine cacao production is estimated to account for less than 5 percent of the global market. Criollo variety, the ancestor to a number of contemporary cultivars accounting for the majority of this thin market, is believed to be domesticated by the Mayans during the Classic Period around 900 AD (Penn). While Criollo cultivars are relatively scarce in the contemporary cacao cultivation, they have accounted for the majority of cacao cultivation for most of its history.
Although a number of different factors ranging from the introduction of hybridized varieties across new territories to mass production of chocolate have all contributed to the current preference of Forastero over Criollo, the decline of Criollo is predominantly due to substandard yield and high susceptibility to diseases like witches broom, water-pod disease and brown pod rot. Of the numerous Criollo varieties, the so-called “purest” are in fact the most vulnerable to these diseases.
One of the most sought after varieties, Porcelano, known for the white beans and it’s translucent white juvenile pods is infamously fragile, hard to cultivate, and susceptible to all three diseases. (Ciferri, 387) Porcelano is a non-botanical common name describing the white bean sub-variety of Criollo cultivars in Venezuela, south of Lake Maracaibo. (Presilla, 65) A variety similar to this cultivar is also found in the Peruvian Nacional varieties with appearance similar to the Venezuelan Porcelano. Although many of the specialty cacao cultivars have low disease resistance, the substantial premium they could account for in comparison with bulk cacao may be a source of increased income and quality of life in an industry where the average farmer makes approximately $2 per day depending on region and quality of production. (Penn state)
Genetic sequencing results published by Penn State on a number of Criollo varieties have shown that due to the intrinsic self-pollinating characteristics of Criollo as a dioecious plant – a plant that has both male and female organs – Criollo cultivars are uniquely homozygous; their genome contains duplicates of the same gene.(Penn State) This condition, although does not directly cause a disease, is well studied in humans and mammals where genetic conditions, such as lower resistance to disease and autoimmune disorders, may be caused by a pair of recessive alleles. Although this is not entirely studied in the cacao plant, given that the genome itself was sequenced just recently, it is likely that similar duplicate genes may result in lower disease resistance characteristics among Criollo cultivars in comparison to Forastero cultivars.
Genetically modified disease resistant Criollo varieties may be the future of saving this seemingly endangered plant.(Penn State) However, that will further neutralize the gene pool as it will favor the propagation of a single “breed” over a range of available genetic diversity within Criollo varieties. A similar situation in coffee, specifically in the more fragile and lower yielding Caffea arabica, has led to the introduction of a single disease resistant variety that is threatening to neutralize the diversity of Arabica, most notably in the Colombian market. An alternative solution is to promote cross-breeding of varieties within the Criollo family in order to increase the diversity. In turn, specialty cacao, much like wine and specialty coffee can focus on designation of origin, not only in regard to plant variety, but more importantly in relation to terroir.
Quality and taste profile of cacao beans have as much to do with the specifics of a place as it does with the particularity of the plant variety. Cacao prefers shade, yearly temperature of around 21 to 32 degrees Celsius. It prefers high humidity that is consistent across the year with no droughts and monsoons. The preferred soil is relatively sandy, nutrient rich, slightly acidic and well-drained with substantial depth that allows for the growth of cacao’s tap root. Cacao has an unusually deep root system for a tropical plant, because it naturally grows in well-drained riparian-zones. All of the above characteristics mean that cacao is highly particular, but as the cacao industry has shown, Theobroma cacao can tolerate conditions different from those listed above. The varying conditions are likely to – as of in the case of coffee and wine – contribute to place-specific taste profiles that may be marketed under specific designation of origin, much like the concept of Appellation in the French wine industry.
The argument here is to suggest that specialty could be different from the Eurocentric notion of purity; purity as it was found in a seemingly static state in one moment in time and history. Perhaps the cacao plant could cross-breed across different varieties with more attention given to particulars of “place” as opposed to specificity of cultivars.