What Craft Chocolate can Learn from Specialty Coffee

By Richard Morris  ·  1st August 2020  ·  The World of Chocolate

Coffee and Chocolate

Craft Chocolate aspires to enjoy the spectacular success story of Specialty Coffee.  The number of Craft Chocolate Makers over the globe has exploded in the last few years from less than couple of dozen to over a thousand (and the UK now has over fifty, up from less than five when we started CocoaRunners six years ago). 

But whereas Specialty Coffee generates over 10% of all coffee sales in the US and the UK, Craft Chocolate still only accounts for less than one tenth of a percent of the total chocolate sales in the UK and the US.

To understand specialty Coffee’s success, and in an attempt to learn from them, we’ve spent many hours with our friends in the coffee world.  And now we’re delighted to announce a “Craft Chocolate Conversation” with the superstar weightlifter, distinguished portraitist, and coffee supremo, Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood on two Sunday mornings, firstly the 9th August and then the 20th September.

We will be tasting (and brewing with him) a variety of his favourite coffees and bars.  And we will also be discussing the similarities and differences between the worlds of Craft Chocolate and Specialty Coffee.

Please sign up (for free) to join the Tastings here – and purchase your kits here.  And please see below for some of the topics we’ll be discussing.  As you’ll see, there is a LOT to explore


There are many similarities between Specialty Coffee and Craft Chocolate.  They’ve similar histories and face similar challenges, and opportunities, on the farm and to explain the difference to the consumer.


Although chocolate’s history is a few thousand years longer than coffee, both were drunk for most of their history.  And both emerged into the European mainstream in the mid-17th century as people sought out non-alcoholic drinks (the first UK coffee house was set up in Oxford in 1651, the first recorded Chocolate House was in 1657, in Bishopsgate, London)


Today even though coffee continues to be drunk whilst chocolate is mainly eaten, consumers clearly understand the quality differences between mass-produced, instant products on the one hand and ethically sourced, fine-flavour products on the other.  You can literally taste the difference.

Both are all about the beans. To make great coffee or great chocolate you need to start with great beans.  And to get great beans you need high quality varietals, small-batch fermentation, drying, and careful roasting (many chocolate makers even use coffee roasters for their roasting).


Both also suffer from opaque supply chains, deforestation, and underpaid farmers.  And these issues are compounded by treating “coffee” and “chocolate” as commodities where price, not quality, is all important.Specialty Coffee has shown a way to address the plight of farmers and the environment by showing that it really is worth paying a (small) premium for great beans that are well crafted.  It tastes better, it’s better for farmers, and better for the planet. And Craft Chocolate is following a similar model of “direct” trade to support farmers and the environment.  

Both crops are also great alternatives to growing another crop starting with a C (Cocaine).  And indeed the US DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) works with both crops to help Cocoa and Coffee farmers improve fermentation and overall quality to encourage them as alternative high income crops and livelihoods.


… But there are also many important differences between Specialty Coffee and Craft Chocolate which help explain Specialty Coffee’s success. Some of these are relatively easy for Craft Chocolate to learn from and “fix”.  Others are harder, but they offer some important insights for Craft Chocolate.  Given the number of these we’ve separated them out (and see the blog, and join our Conversation with Maxwell, for more on these)


Chocolate is no longer consumed primarily as a drink — it first became a bar thanks to the pioneering work of Joseph Fry, Rodolphe Lindt, Henri Nestle and Daniel Peter in the 1840s and then 1880s (for more on this, please do join a virtual tasting).  This move to pre-packaged bars has created a few challenges.

It’s far easier for specialty coffee to explain how the magic created by a proper Barista is different from instant chocolate. It happens right in front of you as most people drink specialty coffee in specialty coffee stores (over 80% of UK specialty coffee consumption is estimated to happen in specialty coffee stores).  And everyone can see (and smell) the difference between the magic of a barista in a coffee shop versus a jar of instant coffee.

By contrast when you buy a bar of chocolate you almost always purchase the finished product off a retailers shelf (or in an online box). You don’t get to see the magic that goes on behind the scenes to craft a bar.  It’s more like trying to tell the difference between different jars of instant coffee.  It’s not obvious by looking at the front of a bar of chocolate how it’s been made.

If you turn the bar over, you can tell a LOT more about the bar.  And in our Virtual Tastings we explain what to look for in the ingredients, sourcing and crafting. 

In addition whereas every capital city in Europe has hundreds, if not thousands of Specialty Coffee stores, the number of places you can see chocolate being crafted in the US or Europe in many cities can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  But if you are interested, as we come out of lockdown do get in contact there are now a few Craft Chocolate  facilities you can visit (we hope to arrange tours of these facilities for our subscribers, including the likes of Dormouse in Manchester, Plaq in Paris, Friis Holm in Copenhagen or Pump Street in Orford..  


Specialty Coffee a far easier “upgrade”. If you want to impress, show how cool you are, etc. you’ll pick a specialty Coffee Store over a chain.  Specialty coffee is lucky here — it fits with the zeitgeist.  In the days when we could go to the office, and especially if you worked in a startup, the coffee shop was THE place to meet with your colleagues, hold an interview, etc. 

Similarly it’s relatively easy to switch from “instant” to awesome beans for your morning cup of coffee at home (and even easier now that Maxwell is producing awesome capsules too. specialty Coffee doesn’t require new habits — it replaces and, see below, even upgrades existing rituals

Craft Chocolate is a tougher “upgrade”.  Much mass produced chocolate is consumed as a mid morning or mid afternoon “pick me up” or “reward”, and easily purchased from a vending machine or local convenience store.  By contrast Craft Chocolate is regularly savoured in the evening, post dinner along side or instead of desert, etc.  And it’s hard to find Craft Chocolate bars in physical retail (although a few Specialty Coffee stores are now selling Craft Chocolate bars)


Specialty Coffee also has far more fairs, kits, rituals and hobbies. They’ve HUGE fairs (far bigger than our Craft Chocolate Takeovers at Canopy Market).  Indeed we once shared a stand with Maxwell at the London Coffee Festival; it was like being at a rock festival with people literally queuing up for selfies with him, his signature, etc.  

Specialty coffee also has way more “rituals” — like cupping (Maxwell will explain).  Preparing a coffee at home or in a specialty coffee store is the subject of all sorts of geek debates and intriguing rituals

And then there is the kit.  There is a huge industry constantly launching new coffee grinders (hint: you want a burr grinder apparently), different filters and pour over devices — and Maxwell has now even come up with a machine to “optimise” your water ( PeakWater; think a home water filter jug that you can tweak for your taste in coffee and according to the water hardness etc. in your house).


Coffee is more addictive. In moderation this is clearly “helpful”  But if you drink 5-10 coffees (ie ingesting about 400mg of caffeine) a day for 2 weeks you are likely to get caffeine withdrawal symptoms if you went “cold turkey”. 

Theoretically you can get addicted to the caffeine in Chocolate — but you’d need to eat an INCREDIBLE 1kg per day for the same period. Theobromine, which is the largest stimulant in chocolate, isn’t addictive.  Sugar is addictive … but that’s another story.  And another argument for Craft Chocolate as it contains relatively little added sugar (see blog for more details).


Specialty coffee has far clearer “definitions” (similar to e.g., Craft Beer).  Q Grading of Coffee means that it’s very clear which beans can be labeled “specialty”.  And Specialty Coffee makers are good at conveying this via their packaging, labeling and terminology. Specialty Coffee packaging is brilliant at telling the story of the individual farmers, their location, fermentation and giving pointers to consumers

By contrast there is no equivalent definition for Craft Chocolate, and all too often even Craft Chocolate makers only place the origin, not the farm, estate or co-operative’s details on their labels (Note: at CocoaRunners we only sell bars where we know both where the bars are crafted and from where the beans are grown, fermented and dried.  And we’re still struggling to persuade some of our makers to include these crucial details on their packaging, but we will persevere as it really is key to Craft Chocolate and so important a tool for Consumers).


Bottom line, there is a TONNE we can learn from Specialty Coffee.  And please join Maxwell to discuss this more — and to try some of his favourite bars and coffees. Please see below for details on how to purchase the Tasting Kits and register for the Talk.  Plus, we’ve listed a few bars that showcase a few bars crafted with specialty coffee.

We’re hosting our Virtual Chocolate & Coffee Tastings with Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood. The first tasting will take place on Sunday 9th August at 11am, the second on Sunday 20th September at 11am.

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