Untangling Organic and Craft Chocolate

By Cocoa Runners  ·  23rd June 2020  ·  The Science of Chocolate

During our Virtual Tastings one of the most common questions is “what about organic chocolate?”

It’s a great question.  But answering it is complicated and confusing.  Here’s why

  • Craft chocolate is all about bars that taste better, are better for you, and better for farmers and for the planet. 
  • Organic farming, fruit, vegetables, meats and other products have the same aspirations.  Organic certification is all about avoiding artificial chemicals and environmentally destructive practises.
  • Yet most craft chocolate isn’t organic.

As I said, it’s complex.  Below, and on the blog, is an attempt to explain. And also below are some Craft Chocolate Bars for this weekend.  Some are “Organically Certified”.  Others are “effectively organic”.   All are great.

Craft Chocolate and Direct Trade

Craft Chocolate is based on the belief that you need great beans, and the best crafting of these beans, to make great chocolate.  And it recognises that we need to preserve the rainforest to grow these beans, and that you impair the flavour of the beans if you add pesticides, industrial chemicals, etc.  As a consequence, Craft Chocolate has developed a “Direct Trade” Model.  That is to say, the maker works as closely, and directly, as possible with the farmers and co-operatives from where they’re sourcing their beans. They pay a premium for a long term relationship that avoids damaging practises and pesticides.

For this reason, at CocoaRunners we only sell bars when we know both the way the bar is crafted and the source of the beans.  We have met, mainly in person and at a minimum over Skype/Zoom, all 100+ makers that we directly purchase from.  And we’ve visited, and spoken to, many of the 70+ farmers and cooperatives where the majority of our maker’s source the majority of their beans from.  And indeed it’s thanks to many of these growers, especially Bertil Akesson (Akesson) and Simran Bindra (of Kokoa Kamili) that we find new craft makers.

Organic and Craft Chocolate

Overall sales of organic chocolate is still incredibly niche — less than 0.5% of total chocolate sales and even less of  world cocoa harvested.  By comparison, organic fruit and vegetable sales in the US account for around 5% of total sales.

Almost all organic chocolate is also “mass produced”.  That is to say it’s made to create a consistent, uniform taste and most often will have flavourings added (e.g., vanilin etc.).  And in most cases it’s made by makers purchasing “couverture” (i.e. already processed chocolate) rather than making directly from the bean.  By contrast, craft chocolate is all about coaxing different flavours from different beans, terroirs, vintages, fermentations and working directly with the farmers.

We do have some makers who are certified as “organic” — for example, Original Beans, Taza, Tcho, Georgia Ramon, Conexions, Zotter and Standout to name just a few. Some of these makers only sell Organic bars (e.g., Original Beans and Taza).  And they are great.

But it’s not always clear cut. Some makers who are certified “Organic” sell some bars that are organic.  But then they also sell some bars that are crafted from beans that aren’t organic (e.g., Conexions and Georgian Ramon).  And they are great too.

And overall the majority of craft chocolate makers, and a large number of craft chocolate heirloom cocoa growers, are not organic certified.  

One major reason here is that the cost of organic certification is too high for smaller makers and growers. But there are many other factors that make organic tricky.

The Challenge of Organic for Small Farmers

Organic certification was originally developed, and awarded to, crops and products that had some “scale” (for example, bananas, sugar or cows and milk).  But whereas bananas and sugar are largely farmed largely on big plantations and at scale, the vast majority of cocoa, including in particular heirloom cocoa, is grown by farmers with less than 10 hectares of cocoa trees. And these cocoa farmers lack the budget and economics to afford certification.  The potential cost of organic certification is literally more than their annual income.

Some innovative ways have been found to address this problem of affordability and scale.  For example in Peru the Ashaninka have secured funding for organic certification for a large swathe of cocoa farms via the Kemito Ene and Rainforest UK NGOs.  Kokoa Kamili has decided to certify some of the beans its partner farmer harvest.  But the majority of heirloom and fine quality craft cocoa beans aren’t formally certified as organic.

At the same time ALL our partner craft chocolate makers will go to great lengths to make sure farmers aren’t using chemicals or pesticides. They know that pesticides and chemicals can impair the flavour potential of the cocoa bean and potentially harm the farmers’ health.  So for example, Askinosie Chocolate asks all the cocoa farmers they source from to sign a contract promising to adhere to “organic like” practices.  And Askinosie regularly visits the farms to oversee this. But they don’t force the farmers to pay for organic certification.  So whilst the farmers may be following organic like practises, they aren’t technically certified as organic farmers.  

… The Challenge of Organic for Small Chocolate Makers

In countries where organic has achieved customer support, organic certification has clear business benefits for makers.  For example in Germany and Denmark (the biggest European markets for organic in respectively overall and per capita sales) there are dedicated organic stores.  So in these countries being certified organic offers an interesting sales channel, and a clear consumer segment, especially for local makers like Georgia Ramon and Original Beans.  And these are markets where customers realise that it’s not all about paying the lowest possible price and treating chocolate as a “commodity” product.

By contrast in many other countries organic sales lag  — including our home market of the UK.  Unlike Germany, the UK has few organic retailers. And the organic message is clouded by many supermarkets having their own certification schemes (over at least 10 at the last count).  In addition mass market brands and retailers focus primarily on price in their marketing and sales strategies. Consumers are almost “trained” to expect a weekly offer “2 bars for £4”.  Mass market chocolate relies heavily on impulse buys from checkout aisles, “endcaps” and vending machines.

This makes it really hard for Organic (and indeed all) Craft Chocolate.  Even customers who visit the likes of Planet Organic in the UK can’t find a £3.95 Original Beans Bars listed for sale as consumers see these bars as “too expensive” — despite Original Beans winning “Organic Chocolate Maker of the Year” for multiple years in a row.  And this creates a vicious circle.  Customers can’t find craft chocolate in the vast majority of UK organic retailers and supermarkets.  Consequently consumers can’t easily pick up and try a craft chocolate bar when they are out and about, and so they think that chocolate is all about added flavours and simple percentages.  And this means customers carry on seeing chocolate as a commodity, mass produced snack and treat where it’s all about paying the lowest possible price.

The Answer and Potential Solution

Craft chocolate has an ethos and set of objectives that have much in common with the organic movement.  Both strive to grow and offer products that taste better, are better for you, better for farmers and better for the planet by eschewing some of the worst practices of commodity, mass production and industrial agriculture.  

But in many cases craft chocolate makers and craft chocolate farmers aren’t at a scale to afford, and justify, organic certification.  And the answer isn’t to try and simply “scale up”.  Nor is it to focus on yet another certification or label.  The packaging for bars already has all you need to know. Just read the ingredients (anything listed that your grandmother doesn’t recognise is best left).  Then check the name of the farm / cooperative where the beans are grown and also where the bar has been crafted (note: these two “details” are often not printed on mass produced bars’ packaging).

We need to stop regarding chocolate bars as a commodity snack where it’s all about paying the lowest price. Then we can stay true, but also go beyond, simple organic certification.  You do need to pay a little more.  But we have to go beyond the “2 for £4” offer for bars (even if they are “organic”).  And if you do pay £3.95 (and a little more) for a GREAT craft chocolate bar you really can “taste the difference”. And the bar will be better for you and better for the farmers and the planet.