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Water and Chocolate

By Cocoa Runners  ·  29th May 2020  ·  Environment

Photo by Javier Rejon on Unsplash

This weekend was meant to be about Cocoa Swimmers.  Cocoa Runners had planned to swim “Castle to Castle” with the wonderful Mike, Becca and Chocolarder team in Cornwall to raise money for the RNLI.  This sadly isn’t happening (next year!).

Instead we are going to explore the links between chocolate and water.

For most of recorded history we’ve drunk chocolate by mixing it with water.  This is ironic, as chocolate doesn’t mix well with water. It’s even more poignant  given the amount of water that is required to grow and make a chocolate bar — approximately 2,000 litres (or about 25 full baths) per 100g.  Fortunately, by savouring craft chocolate and by encouraging farmers to preserve the rainforest, there is a way to both save water and eat better.

A Brief History of Water and Chocolate

The history of drinking chocolate can be traced back 4-5,000 years ago (about the same time as people started to drink wine). There is pottery evidence that the Olmecs in Mexico were drinking chocolate around 1900 BCE. More recently, some archaeological finds in modern-day Ecuador suggest the Mayo-Chinchipe were drinking chocolate even earlier – around 3,500 BCE.

Columbus brought some cocoa beans back with him after his third voyage to the “New World”.  After a shaky start, once Europeans worked out how to combine cocoa with spices and sugar, chocolate became a popular drink within aristocratic and wealthy merchant circles. Indeed, Tosier Chocolate, soon to be featured in one of our upcoming monthly boxes, takes its name from Thomas Tosier – King George I’s personal chocolate maker.

But chocolate and water really don’t mix that well.  If water creeps into the chocolate making process it effectively ruins the batch (the water activates various enzymes in the beans which turn them into a sticky paste). In addition, “finished” chocolate doesn’t dissolve very well into water (or milk); it rapidly congeals and the cocoa butter separates out.

In 18th- and 19th-century Netherlands, this congealing drinking chocolate created major problems. Cold winters meant that the cocoa butter separated out even faster, and, given Dutch men’s predilection for fine beards, this meant that they covered their facial hair with glutinous cocoa butter.

In the 1820s the father and son team of Van Houten came up with a partial solution: the cocoa press. This invention “pressed out” much of the cocoa butter, leaving less of it to congeal in their fellow Dutchmen’s beards. They also realised that by “dutching” the remaining chocolate cake (i.e. washing it in an alkali solution) they could reduce some astringency and bitterness.

The next innovation was in Bristol, England. Joseph Fry took this excess cocoa butter and discovered that by combining it with ground cocoa beans he could create a stable chocolate block. Armed with this innovation, in 1847 he launched the world’s first chocolate bar, setting off a revolution in which we now eat chocolate, rather than drink it.

Chocolate, Water, and the Environment

As we’ve eaten more and more chocolate, a series of unplanned, uncontrolled and undesirable issues related to chocolate and water have emerged.

To grow the cocoa and run the machines needed to make a 100g mass-produced chocolate bar requires between 1,500-2,000 litres of water (a bath contains 60-80 litres). Indeed, chocolate needs more water than almost any other crop – and by some measures even more than cattle. For more on this, please see these articles:

If the cocoa is grown in a sustainable rainforest, much of this water comes from natural precipitation. Mass-produced cocoa, however, is often grown by destroying the rainforest. For example, the Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana have seen their rainforest canopy shrink from over 35% to under 4% since 1990 (source: Mighty Earth). Much of this deforestation is caused by cocoa farmers encroaching on the rainforest, destroying it and planting fast-growing “cloned” cocoa trees, which are designed to grow quickly rather than provide depth and complexity of flavour.

For the environment it’s a double whammy. These cloned cocoa varietals need more water than almost any other crop and their cultivation all too often involves destroying the rainforest.

By contrast, heirloom cocoa and craft chocolate are all about preserving the rainforest and not wasting water. For example Original Beans pledges to plant a tree every time it sells a bar. Bertil Akesson plants pepper plants next to his cocoa trees to provide shade and minimise the need for extra irrigation. Manabi Province in Ecuador has created sophisticated irrigation systems in its rainforest and cocoa farms to recycle the water (check out Conexion’s bar here).

So, for delicious chocolate that does not destroy our only planet, have a look at some of our craft chocolate partners.

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