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Bem-Vindo (Welcome) to Vinte Vinte

a waterfront cityscape of porto in portugal

With a bit of lateral thinking, many people can work out that the biggest tourist money spinners in California are theme parks (Disneyland, etc.). Figuring out California’s next biggest tourist money spinner is trickier; but it’s sort of similar; it’s wine tourism in Napa and Sonoma. And this wine tourism has hugely helped promote passion for Californian wine all over the world.

For whatever reason, most European wine makers haven’t really jumped on this opportunity.

…Until now.

In July 2020 Porto, Portugal’s Northern capital, launched the wonderfully named ‘WOW’ (World of Wine), the brain child of Adrian Bridges, CEO of Taylor’s Port.

Adrian saw the passion and enthusiasm created by California winemakers with their visitor centres, train tours, etc. And he also realised that this sort of immersive experience could provide a unique angle to differentiate Porto. Porto has amazing restaurants, hotels and architecture. But unlike the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon, Porto didn’t have the likes of Lisbon’s Gulbenkian or Berardo Art Museum. But now it has WOW; which seeks to move beyond wine and establish “The New Cultural District”.

And WOW has moved from being “just” about port and wine. There is also a fashion museum, a cork museum, and frequent photography exhibitions.

Plus, for anyone interested, and especially anyone passionate about craft chocolate, in July 2020 WOW also opened a chocolate museum (called “The Chocolate Story”) and Pedro Araujo and Adrian Bridge also launched Vinte Vinte, a new craft chocolate maker a few months later in November. Just as the wine museum in WOW seeks to demystify and contextualise wine by showcasing all Portuguese wines and wine regions, the Chocolate Story at WOW graphically contextualises chocolate’s 5000 year old history and provides immersive, hands on activities to demystify how cocoa beans are transformed into chocolate bars.

This sort of experience is super important for craft chocolate. When you visit a specialty coffee shop, the barrista can not only explain the importance of their beans but they’ll also personally display their mastery to “pour over” a filter coffee, “pull” an espresso, perform “latte art”, etc. And consumers can ‘see’ the difference, and, almost by osmosis, learn the difference between mass produced, instant coffee and speciality coffee. It’s far harder to explain this for craft chocolate. Just looking at the packaging doesn’t easily reveal the huge difference between a mass produced bar where the “maker” buys in, and remoulds, industrial couverture as opposed to the approach of craft chocolate bars where makers work directly with farmers to seek out the best beans before crafting these to coax out flavour (come to our tastings to understand why we compare mass produced bars to chicken nuggets and craft chocolate to a home cooked roast chicken).

And whereas London alone has over 2000 speciality coffee stores, Europe overall has less than 20 makers where you can visit a craft chocolate maker to see them crafting their bars (for more details on these great pioneers, and maybe find one near you, please see our ‘chocolatourism’ section).

WOW’s Chocolate Story is even more than a visit to a craft chocolate maker. There are fourteen different “rooms” (or sections) to WOW’s Chocolate Story. The first sections deal with chocolate’s spread around the world; covering first the pre-Columbus Mesoamerican four thousand plus year history before explaining how chocolate spread in 17th and 18th century Europe, and then how mass marketing in the 20th century caused the dramatic rise of industrial, mass produced confectionery. There are also sections on Theobroma cacao as a plant, and its environmental importance. And then there are sections explaining how chocolate is crafted and made; with a clever series of images of hands to reinforce the manual nature of all steps of both industrial and craft chocolate on the farm and jungle. And of course visiting WOW’s Chocolate Story also gives you the chance to see the magical transformation from beans to bar achieved by Pedro and team, and in person hear more about the origins of their various bars.

Visiting Vinte Vinte, The Chocolate Story, and WOW is a great reason (if ever one was needed!) to visit Porto, one of Europe’s most magical cities. And while you are there, please do also consider a day trip to Aviero where you can visit Sue and Tomoko, founders of another Portuguese craft chocolate maker, Feitoria do Cacao (and great mates of Pedro’s), and see why Aviero is known as “Portugal’s Venice”.

If you want to find out more about Pedro and Vinte Vinte’s story, please check out our maker profile (and yes, their name, Vinte Vinte, or “Twenty Twenty” in English, is a reference to Theobroma cacao, the cocoa tree’s, preference to grow within twenty degrees North and South of the equator. And no, there are no plans to change the name of Taylor’s, Fladgate’s, Croft’s, or any of Taylor’s other port brands to “Twenty Eighty Fifty Two”; the latitudes for wine grape growing!).

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Chocolate for Father’s Day by Fathers, Daughters and Sons

selection box of father and son/daughter chocolate teams

Celebrated for over 100 years (at least in the US), and in various permutations (such as as St. Joseph’s day) for even longer in other parts of the world, Fathers’ Day hasn’t really ‘taken off’ in quite the same way as other events, like Mothers’ Day.

We are trying to fix this with a Fathers’ Day craft chocolate gift from five different teams of fathers, daughters and (one) son/grandson comprising:

This box is priced at £24.95 (a saving of over 15%) and for more details please see below. We’ve also a range of other great Fathers’ Day presents including pairings with wine, whisky and more, plus some great tasting courses.

And if you’d like to know a little more about the origins, and different forms of celebrations, surrounding Fathers’ Day please read on.

The History of Fathers’ Day

In Italy, Spain, Portugal or Bolivia Fathers’ Day is celebrated slightly earlier than elsewhere, on the Feast of St. Joseph on March 19th.

But unlike Mothers’ Day, which at least in Europe is rooted in another religious tradition (the idea of returning to your “mothering” church), St. Joseph’s Day doesn’t appear to have given rise to the modern tradition of Fathers’ Day.

In most other countries Fathers’ day is celebrated on the third Sunday of June (for some reason Austria, Ecuador and Belgium celebrate on the second Sunday; if you know why, please do comment below!). And the origins of Fathers’ Day are attributed to two initiatives started in the USA. The first occurred in Fairmont, West Virginia, July 5th 1908 when Grace Clayton suggested to the minister of the local Methodist Church that they hold services to celebrate fathers after a deadly mine explosion killed 361 men. The alternative backstory to Fathers’ Day occurred a year later 1910 in Spokane, Washington State. This story credits Sonora Smart Dodd for the idea; with her inspiration being a Mothers’ Day sermon, where she decided that fathers; like her own father,  William Smart, a veteran of the Civil War, who after the death of his wife raised six children with “hard work and love” on a small farm; should also be thanked and have a special day.

The idea received considerable political support. And it was also promoted by various retailers and gifting companies. However it wasn’t until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson designated the third Sunday in June as “Fathers’ Day”. And it was only in 1972 that President Richard Nixon, recognised Fathers’ Day as an official holiday.

It’s not clear when Fathers’ Day started to be celebrated here in the UK. Anecdotally, it’s hard to find anyone celebrating it much earlier than the 1980s. Today however is a different story. In 2021 retail spending on Fathers’ Day was estimated to be £951 million pounds, up from £743 million in 2017.

However, this is dwarfed by the $20 billion that is estimated to be spent in the US. And the US spent a further $32 billion on Mothers’ Day versus £1.6 Billion in the UK.

Speculation on Why Fathers’ Day Lags Behind Mothers’ Day

It’s interesting to speculate as to why Fathers’ Day ‘lags behind’ Mothers’ Day; and a host of explanations can be put forward:

  1. Mothers’ Day has a far longer history. Since Medieval times, the church has celebrated ‘Mothering Sunday’ far more than St. Joseph’s Day (aka Fathers’ Day). And in the US, Mothers’ Day was made an official holiday back in 2014 versus 1972. So Mother’s Day has a richer set of traditions to call on.
  2. Fathers’ Day was also almost derailed back in the 1920s and 30s when various attempts were made to scrap Mothers’ and Fathers’ days in favour of a single holiday, “Parents’ Day”. Indeed for about a decade, every Mothers’ Day, pro-Parents’ Day groups rallied in New York City’s Central Park arguing “that both parents should be loved and respected together” (Robert Spere, radio performer). Retailers however were horrified. And they came up with all sorts of smart advertisements to promote Fathers’ Day as a “second Christmas” for men, and in particular pushed the idea of honouring the US’ “fighting fathers” during World War 2.
  3. There haven’t been any great presents for Fathers’ Day. Mothers’ Day has a wealth of great present ideas associated with it; cards, flowers, lunches out, etc. Socks, gardening tools, woolly hats and the like arguably don’t resonate for Fathers’ Day in quite the same way. However now we have a perfect present: This Fathers’ Day please gift some great craft chocolate that tastes better, is better for them, better for the farmers and better for the planet. And it’s crafted by a father and daughter/son team so it provides a great backstory and link.
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Mexico: The cradle of chocolate?

cuna de piedra team

The name of one of our makers, Cuna de Piedra, translates as “cradle of the stone”; a play on Mexico’s description of itself as “cuna de cacao”(cradle of cacao). This play on words gives us pause to celebrate and explore Mexico’s contribution to the world of cocoa and chocolate (as well as do a little debunking and etymological sleuthing on the origin of the word ‘chocolate’).

Cuna de Piedra

Enrique Perez and Vicky Gonzales started their dream of Cuna de Piedra after a phone call in March 2019. Both loved chocolate, and both were looking for a product that would raise Mexico’s standing as a country with fine food (Enrique is a food consultant) and high-quality design and workmanship (Vicky is a designer and brand strategist).

Within six months in November 2019 they were able to launch their company and first bars. They work with a sister company, Revival Cacao, to source their beans. The two companies work together with farms and co-operatives in both Comalcalco, Tabasco and Soconusco, Chiapas. And it’s fantastic to see the quality of bars and beans they are achieving as they help the farmers upgrade their harvesting, fermentation and drying approaches.

As is to be expected, given Vicky’s background as a designer, their packaging does a fantastic job of explaining Cuna’s purpose and ambitions (indeed, barely a week goes by without a new design magazine featuring their bars). In particular as you unwrap the bars, look out for their motto that is playfully spelled out across the letters of the bars that translates as:

Mexico, Cradle of Cacao, from Bean to Bar

A rebirth for chocolate in Mexico?

Cuna de Piedra and their sister company, Revival Cacao, are part of a renaissance of chocolate, and in particular, heirloom cacao and craft chocolate, in Mexico.

And it’s not a moment too soon. Despite Mexico’s long history with chocolate and cocoa, the last few decades have been hard for cocoa farmers and chocolate in Mexico. At the turn of the 21st century, Mexico was growing over 50k tonnes of cocoa a year. This halved by the early 2010s, meaning that Mexico was a net importer of cocoa and chocolate. In part this was the result of Mexico being devastated by various cocoa blights; in particular frosty pod. But it also reflects Mexico’s move to commodity crops such as palm oil and maize, with attendant deforestation and destruction of cocoa trees.

Despite these challenges, various craft chocolate makers; Bonnat, Ritual, Krak, Goodnow and Original Beans to name but a few; have discovered the potential of the amazing beans available in Mexico (see below for some examples).

And at the same time, craft chocolate making is now starting to take off itself in Mexico. Ana Rita Garcia Lascurrain helped kickstart this by setting up her chocolate museum and then crafting her own bars (Mucho). And it’s great to see Cuna de Piedra joining these ranks.

Mexico and the History of Chocolate

Read any history book written before the 1990s and Mexico will appear as the “cradle of chocolate”, crediting the Olmecs with being the first people to cultivate and consume cocoa and chocolate over thousands of years ago.

Recent archaeological work has now pushed cocoa’s fermentation and consumption (as a drink) back a few thousand years earlier to modern day Ecuador and Peru, where the Theobroma cacao tree can first be traced. So Mexico has lost its claim to be the first place cultivating and drinking chocolate.

Any which way, the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs were HUGE fans of chocolate. At certain periods cocoa was reserved for royalty, warriors and high priests. And one of the first descriptions of Montezuma, the last Aztec Emperor, made by the Spaniards, was their awe of his consuming “the froth of fifty cups of drinking chocolate every night” before he would visit his wives (thereby kickstarting many of the myths of chocolate as an aphrodisiac).

So important was cocoa that the cocoa bean was used as a unit of currency. And indeed this tradition continued in El Salvador up until the mid-19th century, and the Spanish, following Columbus’ lead, would use cocoa beans, instead of metal coins, for small purchases for much of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Etymological Claims from Mexico for Chocolate

Mexico also lays claim, via the Nahuatl language, to have given us the word “chocolate” from their word “chocolatl” (with atl being the Nahuatl word for water). However, this is now challenged by various historians on the grounds that the word “chocolatl” does not appear in Nahuatl until the mid-18th century, and may well have been “borrowed back” from the Spanish who at this point started to write and refer to chocolate in letters and recipes.

Instead some historians argue that “chocolate” as a word derives from “chicolatl”, with the “chicol” referring to the special wooden stick used to beat and prepare chocolate. Other historians propose that the Mayan word “chocol” (which means hot), combined with “atl” (water) is the basis for our word chocolate.

Any which way, we owe Mexico a massive debt for their contribution to the world of chocolate. And it’s fantastic to have Cuna De Piedra represented the country in our chocolate library.

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Salve and Guten Tag to ‘Karuna’

armin and katya founders of karuna chocolate

South Tyrol is a curious part of the world; it’s Italy’s wealthiest province, where the majority of residents actually speak German as their first language. It’s where the real-life von Trapp family (made famous in ‘The Sound of Music’) fled. And it’s where one of the amazing makers in our craft chocolate library are based.

The strategic importance of the Brenner Pass has meant that over the last 1,500 years various bits of South Tyrol have been fought over and ruled by multiple peoples including the Goths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Lombards, Austrians, Bavarian and Italians (in various guises). And since the Treaty of London in 1919, South Tyrol has been part of Italy (albeit with considerable autonomy).

The region is incredibly beautiful and has AMAZING food and wines. And, now; AMAZING CRAFT CHOCOLATE, thanks to Katya and Armin, in Feldthurns, just outside Bolzano; founders of Karuna.

The History of Karuna

Katya and Armin have intriguing histories. Armin started his professional life selling and repairing musical instruments, with a sideline as a vegetarian chef in high demand to cater at concerts and festivals. Katya holds a masters degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and, through this, was asked to work in South India. Seeing a free position as a field manager in the same NGO, Armin joined her. And then on a trip to Tamil Nadu, he was entranced by the magnificent oddness of cocoa trees.

In his words: “[these trees and pods] intrigued me and I started researching cocoa and chocolate. By chance I found an article about the American craft chocolate scene and how they were making chocolate with Indian stone mills, a common household appliance in South India. The very next day I got myself a stone mill, some nuts and cocoa beans that I sourced locally ….. The rest is a much longer story … starting off as a hobbyist chocolate maker … getting more and more passionate about it … researching a lot … going through trial and error endlessly and — eventually — open a chocolate business four years later with Katya”.

The Karuna Name

Katya and Armin named their company “Karuna” (the Sanskrit word for compassion) as this was a nickname they’d been given for a food kitchen formally called Prem Prasad they’d established in 2007 for the poor of Northern India. (They still support this initiative and provide 200-300 free meals a day). And as they note “this name Karuna seemed a good match for our business philosophy too (as) we don’t want to exploit people, animals and the planet“.

More of the Karuna Philosophy

This philosophy of “not exploiting people, animals or the planet” is manifest in all aspects of their bars, starting with the first part of their products you see, their packaging. All their packaging is biodegradable (including the glues and inner sleeve). The images on the packaging (and those on the bar moulds) were designed by Armin’s brother Lorenz, and evoke cocoa leaves and fruits.

They also insist on only using transparently traded and organic ingredients. So, for example they source their Fair Trade organic raw cane sugar from Itajá, Brazil. And they only work with directly traceable beans from small farmers and co-operatives such as Kokoa Kamili (Tanzania), GoGround (Kerala, India), Urubamba (Chuncho, Peru) and Belyzium (Belize).

And for their vegan white chocolates, they use directly traded cocoa butter that is pressed from Arriba Nacional beans from farms in both Los Rios and Esmeraldas in Ecuador and then Piura beans from Peru. And instead of animal milk, they use de-oiled almond flour from organically grown almonds which is then flavoured with a variety of exotic (and organic) ingredients including raspberries, blackberries and sea buckthorn (see below for more details).

Armin is also a fan of bright, fruity flavours, and focuses on beans and processes to tease out these aromas. To this end Armin explores multiple roasting profiles and “curves” for each batch of beans to ”intensify the special notes that are naturally found in each cocoa bean” (see the details on each bar’s packaging).

And he goes even further by working with farmers to experiment with different drying processes. For example, he’s sourcing from Belyzium, a Berlin based company who work with the Mopan Maya farmers in Toledo, Southern Belize, on ‘slow drying’ and ‘regular dried’ beans. Thereafter Armin uses the same roasting, conching and tempering profiles; but there are huge differences in flavour, with the ‘regular dried’ bar having bright bursts of orange, and the ‘slow dried’ having more of a chocolate, tobacco and nutty profile.

We hope you enjoy these bars; they are a wonderful example of “compassion” and the flavours that can be achieved through great craft chocolate.

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La Reine Astrid and Cameroonian Chocolate

map of camerron

One of the wonderful benefits of working in craft chocolate is the serendipitous insights it offers into geography, history, food science and much more. With a focus on French craft chocolate maker, La Reine Astrid, we’ve started to scratch the surface of the complicated, painful and difficult history of Cameroon and chocolate. And the good news is that thanks to Christophe and his team at La Reine Astrid, there are now some grounds for optimism and a path forward.

A Very Quick History of Cameroon

Cameroon lies at the junction of West and Central Africa, and takes its name from from “Rio dos Camarões” (which translates as “River of Prawns”); the name given to the Wouri River estuary by Portuguese explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Archaeological digs have confirmed that humans have inhabited Cameroon for at least 50,000 years and amongst the oldest peoples are the Pygmies (known locally as the Baguielli and Babinga), who live in the Southern forests.

Along with the pygmies, Cameroon’s people claim to belong to over 200 different ethnic groups, bearing witness to a complex history of different kingdoms including the Sao, Kotoko and Fulanic who built advanced cities, trading routes and cultures whilst Medieval Europe was barely getting started. However, from the 16th century the Portuguese, and later British and Dutch, established a presence on the coast (malaria initially prevented them going much further inland) and Cameroon became a tragic part of the African slave trade for the next three centuries.

Armed with antimalarial drugs, the Germans laid claim to what they called “Kamerun” in 1884. Initially they came as traders, but gradually they also set up massive agricultural plantations based on forced labour (a eupehmism for slavery). And it was during this period too that cocoa appears to have been first introduced into northern Cameroon.

As part of the spoils of World War I “Kamerun” was split between the French and British. Both colonial powers set up various corporations and trading companies to export raw materials for factories in their home countries and secure home country industrial development. Neither colonial power paid much attention to local needs and infrastructure, leaving Cameroon as an agrarian economy reliant on exporting basic raw materials, foodstuffs and commodities, a condition that still blights Cameroon’s economy today.

Post World War II Cameroon slowly, and painfully, established independence from both France and Britain. After a bitter civil war France granted independence on January 1st 1960 to its former colony. And then under a UN plebiscite in February 1961, the Northern parts of British Cameroon joined the Federation of Nigeria, and the South joined the former French Cameroun, creating the Federal Republic of Cameroon.

Since then, Cameroon has struggled politically and economically (or as the Encyclopedia Britannica diplomatically writes “the political situation is less than ideal .. corruption is rampant”). Cameroon continues to rely on exporting raw materials, including cocoa. The discovery of exportable petroleum and oil in the 1970s helped the establishment of a few local agribusinesses, along with some petroleum refineries and related businesses. And some money was ploughed into education (literacy in particular improved dramatically). But Cameroon remains very underdeveloped with limited infrastructure and no significant industrial enterprise. Many of its people remain stuck in a poverty trap with over 30% of Cameron’s 25 million people judged to be below the poverty line, and Cameroon ranks 151 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index.

The Role of Cocoa in Cameroon

Cocoa was first introduced by the Germans in the Mount Fako Region of Cameron in 1886, with the express aim of securing cocoa supply for factories back in Germany. The French and British in turn continued to promote the export of cocoa to be turned into chocolate in Europe, and this approach has been followed by all Cameroon’s post independence politicians.

Cocoa now accounts for 5-10% of all Cameroon’s exports (it fluctuates by year depending on not just cocoa but also oil exports). And Cameroon is one of the worlds’ top 5 cocoa growing countries. Cocoa is also critical for the local economy. It’s the primary cash crop for over 75% of Cameroon’s rural population, with over a third of all agricultural land being used for cocoa.

However, the 280,000 tonnes of cocoa Cameron grows lags place it far behind its West African neighbours of Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire (they respectively grow 4 and 10 times more cocoa than Cameroon). Unsurprisingly Cameroon (and various external agencies, including the EU) have made numerous efforts to increase cocoa growth, exports and processing. But these large, top down initiatives haven’t really worked.

Back in the 2010s, Cameroon announced plans to double the amount of cocoa it grows to over 600,000 tonnes. But Cameroon is nowhere near achieving this. A massive problem remains the lack of capital, investment and expertise. Over a quarter of all Cameroon’s cocoa trees are at least over 40 years old (cocoa trees can continue to grow fruit after this age, but rarely as effectively as younger trees). Infrastructure to harvest and transport cocoa is also lacking. There are few modern fermentation centres, and much drying is literally done on what roads there are in the jungle. The government has provided very little money for roads or diggers or trucks or warehouses. The farmers (who rarely have more than 1-5 hectares of farm land) also have no money for fertilisers or pesticides and so various cocoa diseases (mirids, brown and black pod etc.) are rife and can destroy 50% or more of the crop.

Consequently cocoa farming is shunned by most young Cameroonians. Whereas the average age in Cameroon is now 18, the average age of cocoa farmers in Cameroon varies between 63 and 70 (depending on the province).

Instead of cocoa, younger farmers prefer to grow crops like cassava and yams. Unlike cocoa, these crops do not grow well amongst other jungle plants and trees. Consequently, virgin rainforests are being cleared and replaced with monocultures of these crops. By contrast the heirloom trinitario cocoas that mainly grow in Cameroon thrive within, and indeed require, rainforest canopy. And the destruction of these cocoa trees, and rainforests, is disastrous for biodiversity and the environment overall.

Enter La Reine Astrid

And this is where the likes of Christophe, Marina and the Reine Astrid team offer some real hope and evidence of what focused, grass roots initiatives on growing high quality cocoa can do. In many ways what they’ve done is similar to speciality coffee.

In 2017 Christophe, with the support of the local Cameroonian government, established a cocoa co-operative in the village of N’Kog Ekogo. N’Kog Ekogo is a tiny village; it only has 75 families; but they’ve managed to triple the income of this village, and increase their sales (and harvests) of cocoa from 2 tonnes in 2018 to over 40 in 2020. These beans are not just used by La Reine Astrid, but also by local French chefs who, as Christophe proudly explains, are switching away from “industrial chocolate couverture” and instead crafting their own chocolate from these beans and thereby “re-energising local economies in villages that were almost deserted”.

Christophe has achieved this firstly by proving the potential of this cocoa by crafting some GREAT bars. And he’s heavily invested time, capital and resources into the co-op he established. He has helped finance a 150m local warehouse, whilst also investing in a cocoa school and garden. In 2019, Christophe sent out an agricultural engineer from France to set up a 2 hectare model of best practises that showcases, for example, how to plant cocoa amongst other rainforest trees along with shrubs that ward off insects, etc.

Above and beyond this, Christophe recognises the need to help the village “move up the cocoa value chain”. So he also invited a young Cameroonian to train in Paris for 8 months before sending him back to set up an artisanal, craft chocolate factory in N’Kog Ekogo. And they helped finance (along with Miss Cameroon) a project whereby 10 local young Cameroonians rebuilt a disused school (see Facebook for more on this Nyamoro project).

More on La Reine Astrid

If you’d like to see more details on La Reine Astrid, including an explanation of why the company is named after a Swedish/Belgian Queen (hint: She liked chocolate!), then please see their profile on the website. And you can also see more on some of Christophe’s other initiatives, including an inspiring story about the co-operative they work with in Haiti, that again provides a magnificent cause for hope.

But above all, we’d encourage you to try La Reine Astrid’s bars. They really show how grass roots initiatives offer real hope for West African cocoa through transparent trade and farming. It’s one small step. But to paraphrase the Chinese Proverb, and as Åkesson has shown in Madagascar, Kokoa Kamili in Tanzania and ABOFCA in Ghana, “all [cocoa] journeys start with a first step”.

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How much sugar is in your chocolate?

Sugar is a sticky topic. There’s a large swathe of people who lump all chocolate into the catch-all; “if it has sugar, it has to be bad”. We beg to differ!

Let’s start with a couple of questions: Which has less sugar; a typical breakfast cereal or a dark craft chocolate bar? A low fat yogurt or a dark craft chocolate bar? Most people will be aware that breakfast cereals contain more sugar than dark craft chocolate bars (and this is true even of most ‘no sugar-added granolas’). But what not everyone realises is that a single serving size of low fat vanilla yogurt can have over five teaspoons of sugar (the sugar is used to replace the fat and so stabilise, preserve and give mouthfeel). By contrast an average craft dark chocolate bar (65g at 70%) has less than four teaspoons of sugar.

Let’s add a bit more context: A 330ml can of Coca Cola has just over eight teaspoons of sugar in it. A bottle of red wine (750CL) has around six teaspoons. A craft chocolate bar (65g, 70% bar) contains about three/four teaspoons of sugar. Most people drink the full can of coke in one sitting. Most people share the bottle of red wine. And most craft chocolate consumers share and savour the bar of chocolate over a few evenings.

So the more useful question is “how many teaspoons per serving?”.

And not all chocolate is created equal. If you examine the ingredients of a mass produced milk (or dark) chocolate bar you’ll notice it will have a far higher sugar content (over 60% in many cases). Even the lead ingredient on the new Cadbury’s Dark Dairy Milk is sugar. This is partly because sugar is a much cheaper ingredient than mass-produced cacao. And it’s also because sugar is addictive and, when combined with fat, flavourings and salt, becomes irresistible (the so called ‘bliss point‘). Even a 45g supermarket checkout bar can contain six teaspoons of sugar. And you are very likely to eat this whole snack bar in one go (hence why the packaging of mass-produced bars isn’t resealable).

By contrast, if you savour a craft chocolate bar with just three to five squares per session, you’ll be consuming less than a teaspoon of sugar per serving. Your taste buds will be stimulated. You’ll feel delighted. No games with the bliss point. Just the magic of the cocoa bean. Brilliant!

So firstly, savour. Indulge. No need to scoff.

And secondly, don’t worry too much about the percentages on a craft chocolate bar. Bean type and mouthfeel make a massive difference to how sweet a craft bar tastes. Below we’ve assembled a bunch of ‘high percentage’ bars that will leave you guessing (and delighted). Try a couple blind and see if you can work out which has the higher percentage (including the 100% from Fossa).

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Dark Milk Chocolate: A Low-Sugar Alternative

milk chocolate tasting

“Everything in moderation”. Epicurus had it right. A little sugar in chocolate is to be welcomed.  And a little milk can add creaminess and the impression of sweetness too.

In craft chocolate, sugar is added to bring out the flavour of the bean. In the words of the esteemed Mrs Beeton (she of Victorian cooking book fame), adding a little sugar to chocolate is what “salt is to meat and vegetables”.

Pure granulated sugar is just a taste (sweet). It doesn’t have any odour or flavour. Try the ‘holding your nose’ experiment; firstly with sugar, and then separately with chocolate, to see what we mean; both are sweet-tasting but only the chocolate develops flavour and aromas when you release your nose. Sugar offsets and balances the cocoa beans’ natural astringency and bitterness. By adding small amounts of sugar, the chocolate maker can transform cocoa beans into fine craft chocolate bars with mind-bending flavours, textures and tastes. But you don’t need a lot of sugar. Everything in moderation.

By contrast, mass-produced bars are all about sugar and added flavourings, fats and preservatives. Sugar is added because it creates a ‘sugar-hit’ (and it can be addictive). And because it is inexpensive. It isn’t used to develop the flavour of the cocoa bean. Rather, sugar, along with additives and flavouring, conceals the flavour and taste of what little cocoa there is in a mass-produced bar.

In the UK, at least two ‘big chocolate’ brands have launched advertising campaigns for their mass-produced ‘dark milk chocolate’. Arguably this mass market dark milk chocolate confuses the links between sugar, health, creaminess, mouthfeel and sweetness.

Mass-produced ‘dark milks’ still list their first (i.e. largest) ingredient as sugar. For example, the first ingredient on Cadbury’s new Dark Dairy Milk is sugar. And the bar only contains 40% cocoa. This is less than almost all our classic milk chocolates, and far less than dark milk craft chocolate bars.

In the world of craft chocolate, we believe that dark milks should contain at least 50% cocoa (and the International Chocolate Awards have a category of awards to showcase them). And more and more makers, led by Duffy, Friis Holm, Dormouse, Fjåk, Sirene, Zotter and more, are leading the craft dark milk charge.

Dark milk craft chocolate is a wonderful way to explore how milk can sweeten chocolate. Indeed Zotter crafts a dark milk 70% bar that has no added sugar; it relies on the caramelization of the milk and a wonderfully creamy mouthfeel to sweeten the bar. You can try it for yourself here.

It’s the creamy, smooth mouthfeel of dark milks that explains why the likes of Friis Holm’s and Sirene’s dark milks taste so sweet.

Here’s why: Let’s start with two questions: Which tastes sweeter; milk or cream? Which contains more sugar; milk or cream? Many people will answer cream to both questions. But cream actually has less sugar in it than milk per fluid ounce. As Professor Barry Smith notes: “Creaminess as a mouthfeel creates a sensation we perceive as sweet“. Hence the ‘creamy magic’ that craft makers can achieve in their dark milks.

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Deadly Diseases

cocoa pod with frosty pod rot disease

Most wine aficionados are aware that in the 19th century European wine was almost destroyed by phylloxera. And anyone partial to bananas is aware that disease destroyed our favourite banana of the 1950s and 1960s (the Gran Michel) and the same may well occur with today’s favourite banana; the Cavendish.

But few people are aware that chocolate too has suffered from diseases as disastrous as phylloxera with gruesome names like ‘swollen shoots’, ‘vascular streak dieback’, ‘witches’ broom’ and ‘frosty pod rot’. And as cacao spread around the world it’s also been afflicted by pests like cocoa tree mirids in Africa (Salhbergella singularis and Distantiella theobroma) or cocoa pod borer (Conopomorpha cramerella) in Southeast Asia. Indeed chocolate may well have been the first crop targeted by bioterrorism back in the 1990s.

And Europe’s insatiable desire for drinking chocolate in the 17th and 18th centuries, combined with disease, led to cocoa cultivation shifting from Mexico, Honduras and Belize to Venezuela, Ecuador and the Caribbean. Disease, and the near extermination of the indigenous Mayans, Aztecs and other peoples, also lead to the abuses and horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and use of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean for cacao cultivation.

Ironically the (partial) conquest of other diseases, in particular malaria, also explains how cocoa spread to Africa, and again became entwined with slavery.

Today chocolate still struggles with ongoing issues of labour abuses, including slavery. And chocolate confectionery, via excessive sugar, is leading to a host of disastrous 21st diseases for young and old alike. The obesity epidemic, soaring rates of diabetes, heart diseases and many other ‘modern’ diseases can directly be attributed to chocolate confectionery products that are over 50% sugar.

At the same time, it’s not all a story of doom, gloom and disaster. Chocolate can also show some glimmers of hope. Learning to savour craft chocolate provides one means to avoid sugar related diseases. And the diversity of cocoa varietals treasured by craft chocolate provides one of the best defences to cocoa’s next phylloxera.

Read on for more, and see below for some bars that track the way disease has driven chocolate’s journey around the world.

Disease, Slavery, and the Emergence of Drinking Chocolate in Europe

It took Europeans over a century to realise the delights of drinking chocolate from when Cortez and the conquistadors first witnessed Montezuma’s drinking-chocolate-fuelled exploits with his wives as they ransacked Mexico from 1519 (note: Columbus came across chocolate a decade earlier, but thought it was primarily a unit of currency).

By the time appreciation for chocolate had taken hold (i.e. the mid to late 1600s), many of the locations in Mesoamerica (Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, etc.) where cocoa had been drunk and cultivated had seen jaw dropping population declines. Smallpox and a host of other European diseases ravaged Mesoamerica; in some cases wiping out 60% plus of the population in the decades following Columbus (Guatemala shrank from over 2 million people to under 500,000 in 30 years, El Salvador from 500,000 to under 70,000 in the same time period).

As a consequence, the descendants of the conquistadors turned to South America, in particular Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela, for their cocoa needs. The descendants of the conquistadors needed far more cacao. So they developed a radically different approach, a plantation like system known as the ‘encomienda’, to cultivate cacao in Brazil and Venezuela. And the bedrock to the encomienda system was slavery of not just the few remaining indigenous peoples but also slaves from the Atlantic slave trade.

Ironically, what ended the encomienda system (including its use of slavery) in Venezuela was disease. This time the disease was one that impacted the cacao tree, called at the time ‘alhorra’ and now thought to have been either ‘ceratocystis eilt’ or ‘black pod rot’. Either way the disease was recorded by contemporaries to leave cacao groves “without a single fruit-bearing plant”. And as a consequence, new pastures and lands were sought.

Note: Mexico still produces some amazing chocolates, see Cacao Prieto and Mucho; and amazing cocoa is grown there (see here for some bars from Original Beans, Bonnat, Ritual, Krak and a dozen more makers). And, see below, it has an encouraging diversity of cocoa varieties which provides one means to fight these diseases. As do Brazil and Venezuela, again, see below for more bars from Franchesci, Åkesson’s etc.

Cacao Diseases and the Dissemination of Cocoa to the Caribbean, Asia and Africa

Faced with these cacao blights and diseases in South America and the increasing popularity of drinking chocolate, colonial powers, especially Spain, the UK, and the Netherlands, successfully transplanted cacao trees throughout the Caribbean and Asia, and then Africa.

The Caribbean

Although there are records of cacao being grown in Trinidad as early as the 1525, it wasn’t until the late 1670s that cacao trees, brought over from Venezuela, were cultivated as a commercial crop. As in Venezuela, Trinidad also suffered from various cacao blights and diseases until new cacao varietals were cross bred and cacao farming flourished. In honour of this achievement Trinidad lent its name to a family of these disease resistant beans, ‘Trinitario’. Cacao was also cultivated on other nearby islands, including Tobago, Grenada and Jamaica. And by the 1820s, the Caribbean (and in particular Trinidad and Tobago) was the third largest exporter of cacao; helped ironically by a series of other blights and diseases that damaged cacao cultivation in Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador, before Trinidad’s cacao was again devastated in the 1920s.

Asia

At the same time as cacao was introduced to Trinidad, the Spanish also introduced chocolate to the Philippines. And soon after the Dutch, in an effort to wrest control over the cacao trade, also introduced cacao to some of their Indonesian colonies (most notably Java and Sulawesi).

Africa

Cacao cultivation in Africa really took off in the second half of the 19th century. Initially cacao was cultivated on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, which by the late 1870s were accounting for over 20% of global cacao crops, and over 50% of Cadbury’s cacao needs. Sadly this cultivation was again based off slavery (for more see here).

What drove cacao to these African countries was again partly the appearance of devastating cacao diseases. Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica and the other South American cacao growing powerhouses all suffered from a series of blights and diseases, going by dramatic names including frosty pod and witches’ broom.

Disease, or rather the (partial) conquest of one endemic African disease, also made cacao cultivation possible. Until the late 19th century the white colonial powers had been unable to colonise more than the coast of Africa as their armies and administrators had no resistance to malaria (during the 17th and 18th centuries it is estimated that over 60% of Europeans visiting the hinterlands of Africa died within a year). However, the discovery of quinine made the colonisation of Africa possible and so in the late 19th century various ‘white nations’ conquered Ghana (Great Britain), Cameroon (Germany), Cote D’Ivoire (France), etc.

Bioterrorism in 1990s Brazil

In the 1990s cacao farmers in Brazil were facing a calamity so severe that they were hanging themselves and drinking rat poison to kill themselves. Yet a decade earlier Brazil was the world’s third largest grower of cacao, and it made farmers rich (although the plight of the workers was wretched). But in the early 1990s, Moniliophthora perniciosa (aka witches’ broom) was discovered in Bahia, Brazil.

Witches’ broom isn’t native to Bahia, Brazil. Like cacao itself it originated in the Amazonian rainforest. But in the Amazon, it cannot quickly spread as wild cacao trees are well separated from one another. But when witches’ broom reaches dense plantations of cocoa trees, the impact is disastrous; Trinidad and Venezuela lost 80% plus of their cacao trees in outbreaks from the 1920s to the 1940s (Venezuelan cacao then also was hammered by frosty pod and ceratocystis to add to its problems).

From the first instances of witches’ broom in Bahia in the 1990s, suspicions were raised of a deliberate infestation. The first trees to be impacted in many estates were in the middle, not the outskirts, of plantations; and as an eyewitness reported: “I found two cocoa trees with dry witches’ broom tied onto them in the middle of their trunks” (José Roberto Benjamin, a farm owner in Camacan, quoted in The Knot).

And then in 2006 an even more extraordinary claim was published. Luiz Franco Timoteo claimed that he, and other left wing activists,  in an effort to draw attention to the dire conditions of the cacao workers in Bahia, deliberately introduced witches’ broom, with the help of workers from CEPLAC; the Brazilian equivalent of DEFRA (UK) or the FDA (US), as CEPLAC “could go anywhere” (which explains how the disease spread in such an extraordinary way).

CEPLAC vigorously contests these assertions. And it clearly did make extraordinary efforts to destroy the disease; including fumigating cacao farms with Agent Orange. And other conspiracy theories have also been circulated (including the idea that Ghana or the Cote D’Ivoire indulged in agro-warfare).

The origin of witches’ broom in Bahia is still unsolved. But the dangers of bioterrorism, and threats posed by cacao diseases to mass, monoculture agricultural approaches to cacao, is clear.

Why does this matter? Chocolate and Disease: The Present Day

So the good news is that Bahia, Brazil is slowly recovering, and whilst cacao production is nowhere near its earlier levels, it is enabling some farmers and many makers to craft great bars (see here for some from Åkesson’s own operations there).

In part this is because scientists have discovered wild cacao varietals deep in the Amazonian rainforest that can resist witches’ broom (indeed one, called Scavina-6, was identified as early as 1940s in the Peruvian rainforest). And CRISPR is now also being used to try and avoid some frightening new diseases threatening African and Asian cocoa farmers. At the same time these clones have major issues; for more see here on CCN-51.

Without wishing to sound melodramatic, commodity cacao and mass produced chocolate are an existential threat through their reliance on agricultural monocultures, their use of slash and burn agriculture combined with their requirement for loads of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. We need to learn from the disasters foretold by the Gran Michel, and now Cavendish, banana. We need to promote more cacao varietals and delight in chocolate’s myriad of flavours to protect genetic diversity. And we need to protect the rainforest, not destroy it with slash and burn monocrop agricultural commodity cacao and mass produced chocolate where flavour and taste is all added in the factory.

The end product of this commoditised cacao; mass produced chocolate confectionery; is also causing a whole series of other human diseases ranging from early onset type 2 diabetes, heart and liver issues, obesity, cancers, etc. Pretty packaging, smart marketing, evocative slogans (even those claiming to “eradicate child slavery”) should not divert from the fact that most supermarket chocolate bars are over 50% sugar (including Tony’s). As a flavour enhancer sugar is awesome. But it’s also highly addictive and unhealthy.

So if you want to help eradicate the diseases to (and from) cacao and save our planet please savour craft chocolate.

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Too Good To Be True:

How to read the small print of chocolate and health studies, with Dr Tim Spector

There are a lot of scientific claims about chocolate! So we teamed up with Dr Tim Spector to ‘review’ these claims. 

Similar to the way we encourage you to check the ingredients on a chocolate bar’s label for its ingredients, and the details of the farm where the beans are sourced, we STRONGLY suggest you review chocolate-related health claims and how many people were studied, who funded the work and your own potential ‘cognitive bias’.

One of our mantras at Cocoa Runners is that “craft chocolate tastes better, is better for farmers, better for the planet and also better for you”.

This is one reason why we invited Dr Tim Spector to join us for a ‘Craft Chocolate Conversation’, and to discuss his latest book, ‘Spoon-Fed: Why almost everything we’ve been told about food is wrong‘. 

Tim is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, a craft chocolate aficionado, and one of the driving forces behind the crowdsourced covid-19 app (the one that works!). And his latest book is a passionate paean to the dangers and risks of ‘miracle cures’ and hyped scientific claims for all foods. At the same time, Tim has also spent the last 30+ years researching the microbiome of our gut, and he talks a tonne of sense about how different people respond to different foods (including chocolate).

A Quick History of ‘Scientific’ Claims for Chocolate

Throughout history, chocolate has been the subject of truly miraculous claims. Both the Aztecs and Marquis de Sade were convinced of its properties as an aphrodisiac. Earnest debates were held on its “humorous” properties by alchemists, doctors, barbers and quacks during the 17th and 18th centuries. And two of the first three US presidents (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) were keen that chocolate become the preferred drink in the US given it’s “nutritional benefits” (…and that it didn’t come from Great Britain).

Arguably, the modern fad for claiming that chocolate is somehow healthy can be sourced from a series of studies of the Kuna people in the late 20th Century, which highlighted their low rate of heart attacks and coronary problems. These health benefits were attributed to their predilection for a unique drinking chocolate recipe that is very high in flavanols (as well as eating lots of fish).

There may well be something in this. But it’s hard to translate their habits into ‘normal’ chocolate consumption, as the Kuna were drinking gallons (over 5 large cups or almost, 2 litres a day) of this beverage, which is crafted and fermented very differently to any normal chocolate bar.

But the genie was out of the bottle. The power of associating health benefits with chocolate was immediate. Loads more studies were launched all over the world. To journalists, the headlines from these studies are like catnip; after all, chocolate health studies make for great click bait.

‘Greatest hits’ from the “is chocolate good for you”? debate:

It’s fun (and also a little worrying) pulling highlights from the ‘chocolate-as-cure-all’ discourse. For those who want to read more, The Economics of Chocolate (ed. Mara P. Squicciarini and Johan Swinnen 2019), has a whole chapter entitled ‘Nutritional and Health Effects of Chocolate’ which collates various studies. Here are a dozen claims: 

  1. “…an average consumption of 10g/day of chocolate induced positive effects on cognitive performance, with maximum benefit depending on the variety of chocolate consumed (flavonoids-rich type) (Nurk et al 2009)”.
  2. “…a habitual chocolate consumption of 10g of dark chocolate per day (corresponding to 4.2g of cocoa) was associated with lower systolic blood pressure compared to no, or very low, cocoa intake (Buijsse et al 2006)”.
  3.  “…Almoosawi and colleagues (2012) found that 20g per day of dark chocolate improved cardiovascular risk factors in healthy, overweight and obese subjects”.
  4. “Research conducted in the Netherlands on young healthy women explored the relationship between appetites and levels of gastrointestinal hormones … results showed that smelling and eating 30g chocolate induced appetite suppression and were inversely correlated with levels of ghrelin, a hormone which stimulates appetite (Massolt, 2010)”
  5. 21 healthy men aged 25-30, were given dark or white chocolate for 28 days. They were given 25g three times a day (at 4,6 and 8pm). And those who were given dark chocolate saw a “decrease in blood sugar” (Rusconi, 2012).
  6. 15 women, aged 20-40 years, were given 100g of 70% dark chocolate (Di Renzo) in two 50g portions in morning and evening. “After chocolate consumption, a significant increase in HDL cholesterol level and a significant decrease of total cholesterol/HDL cholesterol ratio were observed”. And in addition “a reduction in abdomen circumference” was noted.
  7. Hermann and colleagues (2006) suggest that “70% dark chocolate improves vasodilation by 80% in young healthy smokers starting from two hours after chocolate ingestion and lasting for up to 8 hours”.
  8. “…people with an average age of 57 years who’d been eating chocolate five times a week for the last few years, and run 3-4 times a week, have a lower BMI that those who eat chocolate less often (Golomb and colleagues)”.
  9. In a study by Parker and Crawford in 2007, of 3000 people who described themselves as being depressed, 45% craved chocolate. “Chocolate is high in branch-train amino acids, and especially in tryptophan, which increases the blood level of serotonin, the neurotransmitter producing calming and pleasurable feelings”.
  10. “Chocolate was found to coat the teeth, thereby preventing tooth decay … Tannins in cocoa were found to promote healthy teeth as they inhibited the formation of dental plaque (Matsumoto, 2004)”.
  11.  “A double blind study of 30 healthy subjects divided into two groups one consuming a 20g per day of high flavanol level chocolate and one consuming a conventional dark chocolate … confirmed that a regular consumption of rich-in-polyphenols chocolate confers significant photoprotection and can be effective at protecting human skin from harmful UV effects (Williams et al 2009)”.
  12. “Chocolate is rich in theobromine (an alkaloid stimulant that acts on the body in ways similar to caffeine) and other compounds similar to caffeine) and other compounds similar to the cannabinoids, that act on the central nervous system, producing euphoric, aphrodisiac and stimulating effect (Di Tomaso et al 1996). It also contains phenylethylamine, a molecule  released during intimacy, when people are infatuated or fall in love, and it further promotes the release of serotonin … producing some aphrodisiac and mood lifting effects”. (No study quoted for this one, and to be fair, the authors say more work is needed on this).

It looks like if you smoke or are healthy, if you are male or female, looking to lower blood sugar, reduce the size of your “abdomen circumference”, end your cravings, cure your depression, think better or want to fall in love someone has done a study where the solution is “EAT MORE CHOCOLATE”!

Some scientific studies really are too good to be true.

So, to help you separate fact from (fantasy) fiction, here are some of Tim’s tips on seeing through the jargon:

  1. Just as we encourage you to check the ingredients in your bar of chocolate, check how many people the study has involved. In the above, I could rarely find the number of people ‘studied’.  
  2. Similarly, just as you want to know the farm/estate/co-operative where the beans in your bar are from, when checking a study it’s worth trying to find out who has paid for the research. Vox did some research in 2017 of 100+ studies carried out on chocolate by Mars and found “they overwhelmingly drew glowing conclusions about cocoa and chocolate … promoting everything from chocolate’s heart health benefits to cocoa’s ability to fight disease”. Similarly, when we dug into the health benefit claims for coconut sugar we discovered that the “proof” that Coconut sugar generates lower GI spikes was based on a study of 11 people financed by The Philippine Coconut Marketing Agency… Hmmm…
  3. Beware of what is variously described as ‘cognitive bias’, ‘motivated reasoning’ or ‘wishful thinking’. Psychologists warn us to beware that we all are more likely to notice what we want to notice. And this is very true when we see ‘justifications’ for savouring our favourite craft chocolate bars.
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Time for Chocolate and Cocoa

chocolate clock

At our craft chocolate and wine tastings, our wine partners put forward an enviably neat explanation of how a wine develops flavour, texture and taste on its journey from vine to bottle and through its time in bottle:

  1. What happens on the vineyard: the grapes, terroir, etc. create the ‘fruity’ flavours in both red and white wine, like citrus, berry, jammy etc.
  2. What happens as the wine is made: pressing, barrels, etc. generate flavours like toasty, creamy, smoke, etc.
  3. What happens as the wine ages and oxidizes: results in flavours and sensations like leather, caramel, roundedness, etc.

(For more on this, come to a wine & craft chocolate tasting; see here).

Chocolate, sadly, isn’t quite as simple. Or if it is, we haven’t found as concise a segmentation.

Chocolate has the same complexities of flavour, taste, texture and mouthfeel as wine, but these complexities are interwoven. Each stage of growing, crafting and even ageing a craft chocolate bar (yes you can get vintage chocolate; we sometimes have some!) can yield similar results. For example the ‘citrus’ or ‘berry’ flavours in a bar can be the result of bean variety, fermentation, roasting and conching.

The common theme that really drives flavour and quality in chocolate is the TIME taken at each stage. And TIME (which is partly a proxy for care) impacts each stage of cocoa on the farm and chocolate as it’s crafted.

Below we have recommended some bars to illustrate these differences.

The Tree, Pod and Cocoa Varietal

As with apples, wine and almost every fruit, different cocoa varietals have very different flavour profiles. A great way to experience this is to compare how different makers can produce radically different sensations with the same machinery from very different beans (see below for examples from Tosier).

To grow the cocoa trees that yield these pods and beans takes time and effort; once a seed or seedling is planted it takes at least 3-5 years before its first harvest (and they will continue to produce fruit for decades to come, contributing to biodiversity in the rainforest). And you have to be able to recognise the best time to pick the fruit; as with wine, ripeness is incredibly important. Many farmers know their trees and their pods; they know when the colour change and texture of the pod is just right and can identify when it ‘sounds’ right upon being knocked. To compare how amazingly distinctive flavours can be from different varieties, see the pair of taster bars below from Mikkel Friss-Holm.

By contrast, most mass produced chocolate uses only a few varieties with limited diversity, with the emphasis on rigorous productivity. But all too often these clones are planted at the expense of the rainforest; as with other commodity crops, rainforests are destroyed and mono-cultures are planted. Mass produced cocoa is harvested when it’s convenient to harvest with no account for ripeness. To quote an industry expert “Ripeness in mass-produced cocoa is more about picking the time when you can get the most volume“. And these clones don’t have fine flavour (that’s why most mass-produced dark chocolate bars have tonnes of additives and flavourings).

Harvesting and Fermentation

Depending on where the cocoa is growing, trees can be harvested a few times a year (normally twice, but sometimes more and occasionally only once). When cocoa is in harvest, it’s in season for a few months, but farmers harvest traditionally every two weeks to allow only ripe pods to be harvested, this is why central fermentation among smallholders is important, aggregating these small volumes enable better fermentation for ripe cocoa. And specialty sources of craft cocoa do their utmost to ensure only ripe pods make it into the next step.

And then the magic of fermentation occurs. This is where the flavour of the cocoa really starts. Before fermentation a cocoa seed is incredibly bitter and astringent, but surrounded by a delicious pulp. Once opened, the pulp reacts with local bacteria and yeasts to kick off a fermentation that turns the bitter, and astringent, cocoa seed into a cocoa bean that is recognisably ‘chocoalatey’.

Again, a magic ingredient in fermentation is TIME. The differences between, for example, a 5 day and 6 day fermentation are staggering; see Krak bars below. And for the differences that small changes in fermentation make, also see these double versus triple churned bars from Mikkel Friis-Holm.

By contrast mass-produced cocoa is often not properly fermented. Sometimes the beans are immediately dried leading to high levels of bitterness and astringency, they are then pressed for the cocoa butter (used for cosmetics etc. and far higher priced than the remaining cocoa mass). Indeed sometimes the beans are immediately pressed for the cocoa butter. The residual compressed cocoa mass is then turned into cocoa powder and used to make ‘chocolate’ ice cream, biscuits, cakes, etc. And even when the beans are fermented this is often lackadaisical, with beans piled into a heap for an indeterminate period with random raking. It’s a world of difference to the way farmers and makers ferment in wooden boxes for set times with specific turns at specific times.

Drying

The final stage on the farm is drying, and again time and care needs to be taken to dry the beans so that they neither go mouldy nor dry out. The way craft chocolate is dried plays a huge role in generating flavour. Most cocoa is sun dried to allow slow transition from fermentation and rich flavours continue to evolve. And huge care needs to be taken; too much time and the drying beans can bake; too little time and they will go mouldy.

One more twist at drying: in places such as Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Fiji it can be too rainy to rely on the sun to dry the fermented cocoa. Instead nearby fires are used to dry the beans. And the smoke from these beans can permeate the beans. This can generate intriguing flavours for those who are fans of Islay whisky, smoky teas or even smoky bacon crisps. Try the Firetree and Solomon’s Gold bars below (note: the Firetree beans are fully sun dried but the finished chocolate still display the hidden deep forest, woody, earthy, truffle aroma characteristic of this environment and terroir).

Provenance

One of the easiest ways to tell craft chocolate apart from mass-produced chocolate is by making sure you know where the beans are grown, harvested, fermented and dried. And by this we don’t mean the continent or country. “From Peru” works for Paddington Bear, but it doesn’t work for chocolate any more than it works for fine wine or speciality coffee or artisan cheese. You need to know as much as possible about the farm, co-operative and plantation as with other artisanal products.

What’s Next

Once the beans are dried they are sent to be ‘crafted’ or ‘processed’. And again, there are HUGELY different approaches between mass-produced confectionery and craft chocolate which explain their radically different flavours, textures and tastes. And again, TIME is a critical element. But mass-produced chocolate bars not only don’t detail where they source their beans but they also don’t (and arguably can’t) specify where their bars are made and processed.

Please do try some of the bars below. In addition, please spend some time with us at a craft chocolate tasting and learn more about everything we’ve discussed here.