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Creators, Curators, Connoisseurs

By Spencer Hyman  ·  25th October 2021  ·  Weekly Blog

What’s the link between the following?

The link (hopefully) is that all the above help customers discover great new experiences, ideas, music, flavours, etc.

To give it a ‘fancy’ title, they are all ‘curators’.

(Side note: the term curator is relatively recent.  In the UK it was only in the 1950s that the Arts Council started working with the Tate on “curated temporary artist exhibitions”. And quite how the word ‘curator’ etymologically morphed from a title applied to members of the Anglican clergy (curates) to ‘curators’ caring for art works, to someone designing temporary themed art exhibitions isn’t at all obvious).

In all these cases a curator takes us on a journey, tells us a story, opens us up to intriguing sounds, materials, foods, drinks, etc.  

And this journey is very different from the normal web ‘spear fishing’ experience where you know, and select, what you want via ‘search’. Most internet shopping, and indeed many web based activities, are seeking out specific solutions; for example:

  • Figuring out how to get to a place/location,
  • Seeking out the answer to a question,
  • Purchasing a product you already want,
  • Listening to a favourite track,
  • Watching a movie, or TV series.

You know what you want. You type (or increasingly speak) into a device, type or ask a question and scroll through a few different answers.

Curation is different. You put yourself in someone else’s hands. You trust curators to enthuse and delight you with stuff you couldn’t easily search, and find, on your own.

It’s about going on a journey more than executing a transaction. It’s going to an art show or exhibition rather than visiting a museum’s permanent collection and looking at a host of disparate paintings. It’s listening to a playlist rather than a specific (or even random) song.

You are trusting someone (and possibly something (see below)) to ‘take care’ over what you see, eat, read, hear, etc.

And for almost 7 years you’ve been trusting Cocoa Runners to take care of your chocolate needs with our monthly discovery boxes (indeed for just over 50 of you who’ve been with us from the start, you will soon get your 100th box! …January, if you are wondering…).

So thank you for your support and letting us try to be craft chocolate curators (or as we normally refer to it, “chocolate DJs”; a title which has a longer pedigree, and is more appropriate for our music backgrounds; read on to learn more).

This week’s blog entry was prompted by a podcast request by one of the great places to discover curators on the web; Flipboard. So thank you Flipboard! We will post the link when it is broadcast.

And this post is also an attempt to answer the question as to why we set up Cocoa Runners, explaining why we think DJing and discovery is so important for craft chocolate (and music, wine, cheese, and more).

The Background to Cocoa Runners

In addition to our music experience, Simon and I also were (relatively) early e-commerce veterans. Back in the last century (i.e. 1999), Simon was at Buy.com and then John Lewis, and I was setting up Amazon’s Software, Video Games, Electronics and Toy Stores “this side of the pond” in the UK, France and Germany. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, home internet speeds were slow, and often crashed. Browsing wasn’t really feasible. So most shopping was done via searching for what you already knew you wanted to purchase. The huge catalogues of books, video games, etc. also made ‘long tail search’ the natural play for early e-commerce sites (in those days discounting was still a novelty, and for some categories, such as books in Germany, not allowed).

And then in the late 2000s, with the emergence of Google, search also became the most economic way to ‘acquire’ customers. Google found a way to turn the practise of ‘classified ads’ into a multi-billion dollar business by helping consumers search for products, services, holidays, and just about anything, and then connect them with appropriate e-tailers, travel companies, banks, etc.

So whereas the secret to physical retail is (was?) “LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION”, then the secret of e-commerce is “SEARCH, SEARCH, SEARCH”.

In these ‘transactional’ or ‘search based’ e-commerce categories it’s REALLY hard to beat Amazon. For many product categories it’s Amazon, not Google, where customers start their shopping search. Plus Amazon has now built a bunch of other advantages, like Prime free shipping, “encouraging” third party retailers to compete on price (and hence help customers get lower prices), etc.

Despite these challenges, Simon and I were convinced that e-commerce offers massive opportunities… as long as you didn’t try to compete head on with Amazon. And we both liked chocolate. And we thought that craft chocolate, which was just starting up at this time, presented an opportunity.

Buying craft chocolate is rarely a premeditated purchase where the customer already knows what they want. Buying a craft chocolate bar isn’t like buying a book or new video game. It’s more like buying a plant for your garden; it really helps to have some advice. It doesn’t lend itself to ‘search’.

Plus, the craft chocolate revolution was just starting, and we hoped it would follow the path of speciality coffee, craft gin, artisan breads, etc. When we launched Cocoa Runners, there were only two UK based craft chocolate makers; Duffy’s and Willie’s; although they were soon joined by Pump Street, Forever Cacao, Solkiki etc., and now there are over 100. And craft chocolate was (and still is) hard to both find on the high street. At the same time, chocolate bars are relatively easy to ship (four bars fit through most letterboxes).

So Simon and I launched Cocoa Runners as a subscription service where we’d send customers, every month, four of the very best craft chocolate bars we could source. We also offered tasting notes and the history of each maker (and now have video chats too). And we made a rash “no repeat” promise for these boxes (which we still keep for the ‘mixed’ and ‘dark only’ boxes, but sadly isn’t feasible for the 100% or milk boxes).

Fairly quickly customers told us they wanted more than the curated monthly delivery box. And our customers weren’t just in the UK. Plus you wanted more of the stories behind the bars, the makers and the growers. You wanted to be able to purchase individual bars (and later, cooking chocolate, truffles, etc.). You wanted to be able to gift boxes for different occasions. And they wanted more discovery tools. You wanted pairings. You wanted tastings and events. And we are trying to do all of these.

But the bedrock is the same; careful selection and curation in our monthly boxes.

And the goal is the same: Helping you delight in chocolate that tastes better, is better for you, better for farmers and better for the planet (come to a tasting to find out more!).

So how do we select and curate?

To offer our curated service we first had to define what we meant by “craft chocolate”, and explain why this was important (it tastes better, is better for you, it’s better for farmers and better for the planet).

Then we had to set a quality bar to make sure that customers would be DELIGHTED with any craft chocolate bar from our library.

And finally we had to find you; i.e. discerning customers; and offer you some curated services and products which we could deliver online and in person.

Towards a Definition of Craft Chocolate

Unlike, for example, speciality coffee or craft beer, there is no definition, or set of standards, laying out what ‘craft chocolate is. So, along with various educators, judges, makers and growers, we’ve evolved a set of criteria including the following (note: this is still an ongoing work in progress):

  • The aim is to reveal the myriad of flavours, tastes and textures from great cocoa beans. It’s not about additives, flavour inclusions, crunchy bits, bliss points, etc.
  • This in turn means focusing first on the source of the bean; knowing where it comes from, similar to the way specialty coffee describes the farm or co-operative, and the way any good wine will tell you its appellation, estate, etc. Naming a country, or even a county, doesn’t count for chocolate any more than it works for specialty coffee, fine wine, artisan cheese, etc.
  • And then we want to know where, and how, the chocolate is crafted. We insist on ‘whole bean roasting‘ (and crafting) in small batches. 99%+ of chocolate isn’t whole bean roasted. Mass produced chocolate is ‘nib roasted’. This is more efficient, but it doesn’t bring out the full flavour potential. And also please remember that most chocolate “makers” don’t start with beans; rather, they purchase ready made blocks of chocolate that they then remould (come to a tasting for more on the similarities here to chicken nuggets).
  • And we also insist on avoiding additives, stabilisers, preservatives, vegetable fats, excessive use of sugar etc. in the ingredients of the bar. Inclusions and flavours are fine if they are about revealing, rather than obscuring (or covering up defects), in the flavour of the bean. And these ingredients should be ones you have at home, and your grandmother would recognise.

And that’s why on our bar pages, we always detail firstly where, and how, the bean is sourced. Secondly we list where it’s made (it’s very different to mass chocolate where you’d have to list both where it’s processed into couverture and assembled). Thirdly, we list all the ingredients (this is also a legal requirement). We also try to unwrap the stories behind the makers and growers. And we’re trying to give more information on other ingredients, growing processes, and crafting approaches (roasts, conching etc. Join our new Flavour, Taste and Super Tasting sessions for more).

Raising the Bar: Quality

To promote craft chocolate, we also believe that it’s critical that any of the 1000-plus bars we supply at Cocoa Runners will delight and “wow”. As you can tell from the reviews; we don’t always please everyone. We have a lot of bars that can be divisive (see the reactions to 100% chocolates, white bars, the texture of Taza chocolate, etc.). But we really are trying to list bars that are exceptional.

The team tastes over 2500 bars a year. This sounds like a great job! And it is! But of these 2000+ bars, less than 10% (i.e. around 200) are choosen to add to our chocolate library. And less than 2% (80) will be added to a milk, mixed, dark or 100% subscription box (some will go first to the library and then a box).  

On the flip side, some of the bars we taste, sadly, have a lot of ‘room for improvement’. The risk here is clear; if a newbie to craft chocolate tries a £4, £5 or even more expensive bar, and doesn’t like it, this is a huge problem (we’ve a similar problem if a customer who loves milk chocolate purchases by accident a 100% bar, but that we can solve this in other ways).

We come in for quite a lot of criticism and “stick” here.

We fully accept that tasting is inherently subjective. And we are constantly striving to improve, and we want to “raise the bar” in terms of quality.

We do this by working with people who have a lot more experience than us, in and out of the chocolate world.

In the world of chocolate, we have learnt a lot from many chocolate makers and growers; Duffy, Bryan & Dahlia Graham, Mikkel Friis-Holm, Martyn O’Dare, Chris Brennan, Bertil Åkesson etc. about how to taste. Similarly, we’ve learned a tonne from Martin Christie and his team at the International Chocolate Awards, and Sylvia, Clive and the team at the Academy of Chocolate, plus experts/friends such as Jenn, Dom, Kate etc. And my apologies if we’ve left anyone out!

We’ve also tried to learn from other industries; especially coffee, wine and tea. In particular, we were fortunate to run a workshop with James Hoffmann (World Barista Champion and co-founder of Square Mile), Rebecca Palmer (Associate Director and Buyer at Corney & Barrow; wine merchants to the Royal Family) and Professor Barry Smith. If you’ve ever been to a virtual tasting, you’ll have experienced their insights through exploring ‘the flavour wave’.

And the flavour wave approach really helps us figure out if a bar is exceptional; we want to see not just the upfront melt and initial flavours, tastes and textures. We also want the bar to have balance, length and complexity that make it one you want to savour. We want every bar to wow and delight. We don’t want to disappoint.

Curating the Bars and Experiences

Once we’ve selected these bars, we then want to help customers find bars that they will savour, enjoy, delight and (at least some of the time) be completely blown away by (at least once a month we hope!).

We started with the relatively simple “DJed boxes”. And these still are a BRILLIANT way for any customer (including makers and growers) to receive a monthly box of great new bars that 99% of customers won’t have tried, or most of the time, even heard of. And these boxes are supplemented with tasting notes (and videos) that unwrap the stories behind bars, beans, makers and growers.

And we’ve now a range of other offerings and services (and if you’d like others, please do get in touch, or comment below); they are listed out below:

  • Events and talks where we in person, or virtually, hold interactive sessions on subjects including:
  • Fairs; like the one at Canopy Market, where we’ve pulled together over a dozen great makers (both of bars and filled chocolates) and a programme of talks, tastings, etc. (and we’re planning more of these!).
  • Pairings with wine, coffee and whisky, where again we offer both tastings and curated boxes (with notes, and tastings).
  • ‘Automated’ tools to help you find other bars (think Last.fm-like recommendations, or the book recommendations at Amazon):
    • For each bar we sell, (thanks to the amazing Gavin) we match our flavour descriptions and a few other details to suggest similar bars.
    • You can sort and browse via bean type, percentage, origin, maker, etc.
    • Strictly speaking, while these lists are not curated by hand, the themes and narratives here are set by us (and not some advanced artificial intelligence).
  • And then, using similar approaches, we have a ‘taste test‘ where you as a customer can tell us what sort of foods, textures, drinks etc. you like, and we use this to select a set of four bars that we hope will be a great introduction to craft chocolate.
  • We’re also working on a few other discovery and curation tools, and will be talking more about these in upcoming emails and blogposts:

Conclusion

Thanks for bearing with us on this VERY long post. But we hope that our “curation” now makes a bit more sense, and you can see how we strive to help customers become fans (and if they want to use the word “connoisseurs”) of the amazing chocolate creations of those growers and makers we work with.

As ever, thanks for your support.

Spencer

P.S. Sorry for missing Canadian Thanks Giving! But for some amazing Canadian bars see HERE (and please read our article in praise of Canada’s other achievements too).

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