After a couple of years being based in Farringdon, we’ve moved our London office to Old Street. We
are now even closer to Borough Market and Shoreditch – and the achingly “cool” environment
where so many craft movements have incubated and blossomed. James Hoffman set up his Penny University for filter coffee here over a decade ago, Craft Beer was already present when I was last here (with
Last.fm in the early 2000s). Neal’s Yard has been in Borough Market for over a decade, promoting
artisanal cheese. And every bar around Old Street competes on Natural Wine, Craft Gin and
Whisky novelties. So it seemed a good time to reflect on the factors that craft movements
need to succeed – and see how craft chocolate compares to other industries.
Before diving in, it’s perhaps worth comparing overall market sizes and what share craft has of
different categories – and to show how much upside there is in Craft Chocolate (note: these stats are
At a high level, in addition to becoming “cool”, craft food and drink movements have (at least) six common characteristics:
What follows below is an attempt to explain each of these characteristics and a comparison to craft chocolate, starting with a high level summary
|CRAFT CHARACTERISTIC / PILLAR||
WHERE IS CRAFT CHOCOLATE?
|Demonstrably “better” – either in terms of taste, ethics, environment credentials and/or health||
Argument easy to make for craft chocolate on all fronts – tastes better, better for you (minimal ingredients, you’ll eat less, etc.) and better for farmers, rainforest and the planet
|They are an easy “upgrade”. They appeal to an existing vice or habit||
Speciality Coffee and Craft Beers are an obvious, direct upgrade. Craft Chocolate is an obvious upgrade for those already enjoying chocolate e.g., in the evening with a partner as a treat, or for millennials, etc.
|They have some relatively clear and accepted definitions||
Should be doable … but no standards (yet!) – no green cap, no Q graders, no “minimal” interest!
|The differences are easy to explain and/or are well explained||
Not enough craft chocolate “barista” DJs or “sommeliers” … but invariably, tonnes of interest!
|They have a space to experience and purchase (which ideally should be cool)||
Craft Chocolateneeds more environments like Zotter, Dandelion, Chocolarder, etc. – and to be in more speciality coffee stores and independent wine stores so that it can benefit from the “osmosis” of speciality coffee stores, etc. where you can “feel” the difference
|They have cool kit, rituals and vocabulary to enjoy the product||
Are chocolate boards and craft chocolate tasting flights our equivalent to spcial wine glasses, latte art, aeropresses and the like? And always encourage “savour don’t scoff”
The common first appeal here is taste. But it’s not the only one. For example, for speciality coffee aficionados taste is clearly super important. And in most UK speciality coffee stores over 75% of most of the coffees sold are milk based. Tasting those speciality beans through this milk is hard — even when you are using milk from Estate Dairy (an amazing dairy whose milks have super high fat content that makes great lattes etc.). Above and beyond taste, speciality coffee focuses on how it’s “better” for coffee farmers, it expresses great concern about the impact of global warming on coffee futures, etc. The stress on ingredients and direct trade also often lends to the argument that craft foods and drinks are healthier as they are less processed, have higher quality ingredients, less additives, etc. For example, natural wine pushes its credentials of “minimal” intervention as being healthier and better for farmers and the farm. Bread makers are also keen to stress how their grains, seeds and crafting create not just more delicious sourdoughs and breads but are also better for you and the planet. Craft Chocolate clearly tastes better, is better for your and better for farmers and the planet. At all our tastings we’re always delighted by guests’ reactions to the myriad flavours, tastes and sensations craft chocolate offers – and customers are also delighted that these bars satiate appetites with less (so they are arguably healthier as you’ll eat less) – and by craft chocolate’s focus on direct trade and its benefits for the farmers and planet.
If you want to be “cool”, you now order a craft beer when you head to the pub after work (and this now extends beyond Old Street, Shoreditch, Brooklyn and San Francisco). Mass produced beers just don’t cut it if you want to be “cool”. Similarly if you are having a meeting in Old Street during the morning you are spoilt for choice with achingly trendy staff. Serving cheese from La Fromagerie or Neal’s Yard etc. is a great way of ending any dinner party and reaffirming your “foodie” credentials. And you obviously want a lovely sourdough from E5 Bakery, Little Bread Pedlar, etc. to go with these cheeses. Ordering a craft gin based cocktail (and in Old Street an English Whiskey (yes really)) shows you are ahead of the curve. All of these are easy, and cool, “upgrades” to existing habits.
Craft Chocolate can also be an easy upgrade. For those already having a couple of squares of chocolate at the end of an evening, trading up to a craft chocolate bar is a relatively easy sale. For the most part, chocolate is either consumed in confectionery, cakes, biscuits etc. and/or as a “reward” or “reenergiser” earlier in the day. And even though a craft chocolate bar isn’t (YET) seen as an obvious alternative to a mid afternoon snack of a biscuit or mass produced chocolate bar (the “reward” or “pick me up”), craft chocolates can, and are, eaten at all times of the day. It may be difficult to “upgrade” an older generation who’ve become habituated to sweet confectionery. But it’s really easy to enthuse and delight millennials, generation X, Y, Z etc. with the taste and ethical credentials of craft chocolate.
Craft chocolate can also be used to create new habits – a small square complementing a morning coffee, sharing some bars at the end of a meal in addition/ instead of a cheese board, etc. Craft chocolate is a fantastic as a shared experience, comparing and contrasting different bars, makers and beans at one sitting. You can sort of do this with wine if you go to a wine tasting, but most of us only open 1 bottle at a time. Similarly, it’s not that common to drink 3+ espressos. By contrast, it’s easy to try 3-4 different craft chocolates in one sitting (although you may not always finish all the bar …). This sort of “savouring and celebrating” should work especially well in geographies where there is less of a tradition of chocolate and e.g., desserts.
Speciality Coffee has Q graders and a clear “grading” system for what beans can count as speciality grade. The wine industry (and a bunch of other European foods including everything from Parmesan cheese to Melton Mowbray Pork pies) have done a great job of using the likes of DOC and region to claim out their distinctiveness. Craft Beer in the USA has clearly articulated definitions for everything from size through ingredients and ownership. This is clearly possible for Craft Chocolate given its focus on direct trade with individual farms, small batch processing, focus on ethics, taste and environment, etc.). To date Craft Chocolate hasn’t yet established a clear definition internally or in its communication with consumers. We don’t (yet) have the equivalent of Craft Beers’ green cap and mark. We ought to be able to do this. An easy first step is to follow some simple labelling approaches (see separate blog on this — ). It’s also worth stressing that the key to all these definitions is to focus on the highest possible ingredients — and this is something that craft chocolate has built into its DNA with its focus on heirloom and high quality beans from a specific farm or co-operative (not just a region, country or continent)
If you walk into a store selling natural wines by the bottle to take home and/or glass to drink there and then, more often than not, you will be regaled with the merits of their wines. Similarly a bartender will proffer stories about their craft gins (and hats off to Maxwell at Colonna Coffee who has crafted a special line of speciality coffee capsules for bartenders to use and showcase for their cocktails). Whisky bars are popping up with eyeboggling selections of whiskies (for example BlackRock for the 800 plus whiskies all of which Thom has tasted and can tell you about), etc. Speciality coffee is really clear that a great cup of coffee needs i) great farmer to grow great beans, ii) great roasters to roast the coffee and iii) great baristas to make your speciality coffee. And baristas know that a key part of their job is the theatre of what they do (latte art, pour over stirring, etc.) and communicating how “special” their coffee really is. Going to Neal’s Yard or La Fromagerie is like having your own personal shopper or cheese DJ who will insist you to taste a range of artisanal cheeses so they can find a selection that work perfectly for you/your needs. And the Napa wine industry has explained to a generation of Californian Wine makers why their wines are different to mass produced wines – and built a tourist industry second only to Disney in terms of consumer spend.
One point to stress – this is not about forced education. This is education by doing, seeing, smelling, tasting and experiencing. It’s often a process of osmosis. It’s the chats with your friendly wine maker; it’s seeing the barista grind the beans and pour the filter coffee; it’s admiring the way a bartender carefully mixes your drink and tells you about the “ingredients” (aka spirits) they are combining; it’s the stories about the cows and sheep who provide your cheeses. It’s about the trendy publications (online and offline) like Courier who advise on what’s hot – and why. It’s all about the flow — and more like e.g., learning to dance on the dance floor with a great partner who knows their moves. It’s not about forced learning; that isn’t cool. No one wants to feel they are going back to school and learning biology or latin.
Most people’s first experience of speciality coffee is a speciality coffee store. And then, over time, people build the confidence and comfort to purchase speciality coffee at home (Maxwell Colonna has a great phrase here “B2B2C” which he has used to great effect with both his Bath coffee store and his capsules). Wine in the UK was first sold in pubs and restaurants – and then the “off trade” emerged with the likes of Oddbins; and now more and more wine bars are combining “on” and “off” premises purchase (cf 10 cases in London, Cambridge Wine Merchants, etc.). Neal’s Yard really took off when it started to sell its cheeses as part of cheese boards served in restaurants. These out of home experiences also help with the “explanation” (see above) as well as providing a place to purchase craft products. Having an approachable expert on site should take the “hit and miss” out of your first experience of a new craft food and drink. It reduces the ‘risk’ and increases the chance of you finding the perfect iteration of this craft expression for you.
For the most part, Craft Chocolate hasn’t yet been easily able to showcase the farming and crafting that underpins farmers’ and makers’ work. The “flow” is really hard to communicate via a label on a supermarket shelf. However there are a number of operations that show what can be done. Zotter does an amazing job in its Austrian Factory to enthuse, educate and sell. Dandelion’s stores in Japan, Pump Streets Orford café, Mirzam’s factory/café in Dubai and Omnom’s factory in Iceland also do great jobs of showing why their craft chocolate is different by letting you look ‘behind the scenes’ to understand the crafting involved. You literally can “smell the cacao”. There are a few great craft chocolate stores in Europe and the US, and thanks to all our Craft Chocolate DJs in speciality coffee and wine who are selling craft chocolate here in the UK. Going forward we need to be more here so that consumers look beyond the surface packaging (and at least read the label, check the source of beans and location of maker).
It’s also worth thinking about how this has worked in other regions. For example, “dessert bars” have been phenomenally successful as a means of growing the tradition of cakes and desserts in Singapore, Hong Kong and all of SE Asia. Similarly speciality coffee bars are converting China to coffee drinking with over 400 (TBC) shops opening in Shanghai in the last year.
As anyone who has to buy gifts for a fan of coffee, wine, whisky, cheese etc. knows, there is a LOT of great kit to purchase when you want to make the leap to enjoying craft food and drink at home. Coffee starts with scales, V60 filters, special kettles, grinders (the latest here is a burr, as opposed to a blade grinder – cf Wilfa), and now water (Maxwell). And if that is too much there are even some “simplified” bits of kit to create great coffee at home – for example the Aeropress or fine flavour capsules that have the finest coffee. Wine has decanters and glasses (just listen to wine aficionados was lyrical over their Riedels or Zsalto), Coravins (to enable you to have one or two glasses from a class wine), fridges, circular cellars and a host of apps to photo and store your favourites. Even cheese has special boards and all sorts of knives, brushes and other kit.
There are also rituals around each of these craft products which help both physically and psychologically improve the experience. Taking your cheese out an hour before you eat it. Decanting and swilling your wine in its glass to admire colour, aroma and “legs” (yes, really). And then there is the vocab that you can study in courses from the WSET and all the flavour wheels created by UC Davies, the SCA for coffee etc.
Craft Chocolate, possibly because it’s still developing daily habits and occasions, hasn’t yet developed a super wide range of kits, courses and rituals. Martin Christy has the beginnings of a WSET-like training for chocolate. We’ve a couple of restaurants doing craft chocolate tasting boards (thank you 67 Pall Mall and Andrew Edmunds). We know that our own craft chocolate tasting boards go down a treat. We’ve also some tasting pouches, copied from Pump Street’s. And there are clearly many more opportunities we can, should and will develop. For starters, “savour don’t scoff” and “melt before munching” should be common mantras.
On first inspection, you can either argue “glass half full” or “glass half empty”. Craft Chocolate, along some dimensions, seems less developed than other craft food and drink categories in building core craft “pillars”. But we clearly see this is a “glass half full”. On the most important aspect of craft – having a better product – craft chocolate clearly wins out. Everyone who tries craft chocolate agrees it tastes far better. And everyone who hears the story grasps that it is both better for them and better for farmers and the planet. So we start from a strong position. And the first step to solving any problem is to figure out the key questions – which in this case are around rituals, habits, kit, etc.
And there are a lot of obvious first steps we can start to take
I) Celebrate the way that Craft Chocolate not only tastes better but is better for you and better for the farmers and the planet, and remember that this is because Craft Chocolate is based around the finest possible beans
II) Continue to learn from our colleagues in other craft industries
III) … become far clearer about what makes craft chocolate distinct, stressing the importance of unique terroir and beans, etc. And let’s start with better labelling of craft chocolate (see Lizzie’s separate work)
IV) Show when, how and why Craft Chocolate can be a simple upgrade. In addition, seek out new habits and rituals. Neal’s Yard proudly refers to how it re-introduced Cheese Boards to the UK with Sally Clarke in the 80’s. Len Evans used to wax lyrical how he redesigned Australian wines to be “quaffable” without food so as to work for Brit’s in the 60s and 70s when we only used to drink in pubs. Indeed before salted caramels in the 2000’s bringing chocolate to a dinner party was (at best) pretty much a super cool joke where the box of “Black Magic” were almost retro enough to be cool. Long live craft chocolate boards – and ideally some craft chocolate tasting sets (one of the great delights of craft chocolate is comparing different bars and experiencing how different beans, conches, roasts, fermentations, terroir, etc. impact the experience). Celebrate how well craft chocolate goes with wine, whisky, coffee, etc. Delight in savouring different craft bars as special shared moments.
V) Double down on finding ways to explain and experience the magic and flow of Craft Chocolate. Find more ways and more places where people can enjoy (and purchase) craft chocolate and meet fellow Craft Chocolate Evangelists, Enthusiasts and DJs
Wishing you more craft chocolate crafted from the finest single estate beans in small batches to share and savour with friends.