Posted on Leave a comment

Books and Chocolate

As the summer holidays come ever closer, one fun and important task will be selecting books to take with us on our travels.

So for anyone with a love of chocolate; or indeed anyone with a passion for everything from the science of flavour, history, environmentalism, or health & nutrition; we’ve started to assemble a list of great books featuring chocolate. We’d love your suggestions to fill out these lists and even add new categories; here’s what we have so far:

  • Novels: Everything from Willy Wonka to Agatha Christie; we’ve a range of great stories where chocolate takes centre stage. See HERE for more.
  • Science: Chocolate’s amazing versatility provides a fantastic lens to explore everything from the science of flavour (Anne Sophie Barwich’s ‘Smellosophy’ remains our ‘go to’) to the intricacies of chocolate crafting. Again see HERE for more.
  • History and Environmentalism: There are a wealth of great books here from the seminal work by Sophie and Michael Coe, and again we strongly recommend Dr Kristy Leissle’s ‘Cocoa’ as a fantastic introduction. See HERE for more.
  • Recipes and Craft Chocolate: We’ve built this list with a focus on craft chocolate makers’ contributions as so many of them (Casa Cacao, Pump Street, Dandelion, etc.) have written personal stories combined with recipes and histories of cocoa. See HERE for more.

Please look through our ‘first pass’ lists, and use this form to suggest other books, and even new categories, that you would like to recommend and add to the list.

Book Clubs and Chocolate

We’re also delighted to be working with Kathryn Laverack and Cat Black on the wonderful idea of marrying book clubs and craft chocolate. Bottom line; different craft chocolate bars, makers and growers can provide a great means to illustrate and explore themes from any book. Please do look through some suggested pairings, with accompanying videos.

And now that in person book clubs are back, why not bring along a few craft chocolate bars to thank the host and share with other guests?

Chocolate DJs and Book & Bar Sets

During lockdown we asked a bunch of craft chocolate enthusiasts from other industries like Tim Spector, Julian Baggini, James Hoffman, etc. to online “Desert Island Chocolate” tasting sessions, where we told their lives through chocolate (and we do plan to continue these in the autumn, both in person and virtually). We also asked these enthusiasts to pair some of their favourite bars with books they’d recently published. To quote a Japanese proverb; these pairings are like “hitting two birds with one stone”.  You receive a great book and great chocolates.  And they make great presents.

One final point; we will be exploring chocolate and… movies, podcasts, music, and more, soon! Again, your recommendations are most welcome (you can add them to our form too).

Thanks as ever for your support.

Spencer

P.S. Nick and I have been to Amsterdam for Chocoa this last week, so expect a full report next week!

Posted on Leave a comment

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 doesn’t (yet?) 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”.

Also 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!).

Finally, if you can make it to London on the 7th July, please also join us when we are holding, with Pedro, a port and chocolate tasting. We’ll run through why these pairings work so well, taste a bunch of Pedro’s bars (and a few of his other favourite makers bars too), and also hear more about his extraordinary journey from chef to craft chocolate maker (if you’d like to bring kids, that’s fine too; just be aware that some of the tables that people will be sitting out will serve alcohol).

Thanks as ever for your support, and hope to see you on the 7th!

Spencer

Posted on Leave a comment

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

fathers' day graphic

Celebrated for over 100 years (at least in the US), and in various permutations (e.g., 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 e.g., Mothers’ Day.

Although I’m biased, I think that this is a real shame. So this week 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 see below. Be warned, try as I did, I can find few linkages between Fathers’ Day and chocolate. But please do help us make that link, not least as this may well address one of the challenges Fathers’ Day faces; the lack of memorable and suitable gifts.

The History of Fathers’ Day

If you are in Italy, Spain, Portugal or Bolivia we’ve sadly missed your Fathers’ Day, as this is celebrated 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. My own personal favourite: 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.

For those of you celebrating Fathers’ Day this Sunday in Austria, Ecuador, etc. you can always blame Brexit and associated mailing issues (although this won’t really work for Italy, Spain and Portugal who celebrated St. Joseph’s day in March). And if you are in the US, we might still just make it if you order today. For the UK, please can you order by Wednesday and choose first class mail.

Thanks as always for your support.

Spencer

Posted on Leave a comment

Welcome to Moka!

montage of images related to moka origins

One of the great aspects of working in craft chocolate is the people you come across. You meet chefs, engineers, environmental activists, racing car designers, opera singers and, this week, a US based team who moved from meditation, yoga and herb gardening to speciality coffee and craft chocolate.

Moka Origins is the creation of Jeff and Ishan. Unlike many craft chocolate makers who start off in their kitchen crafting bars, Jeff and Ishan started on a farm; and not even a cocoa farm. In their own words, Jeff and Ishan came to craft chocolate via what they modestly describe as “humanitarian community development”. Back in 2007, when they were working in Cameroon for the Himalayan Institute growing medicinal herbs, they realised that the key crops for Cameroon of cocoa and coffee had “completely broken” supply chains which was causing huge suffering and hardship for many farmers.

And over the next seven years Jeff and Ishan worked to solve a host of local challenges, while also acquiring more expertise in cocoa, chocolate and coffee, to address this “opportunity”. By 2014 they had assembled a group of cocoa farmers in the Kumbo region of Cameroon, and then in 2015 they were granted 1200 acres of land by the local Cameroonian government. They named the company Moka, a play on the term Mocha, meaning a combination of chocolate and cocoa, as they also grow, and roast, coffee.

And then the really hard work started. The land they’d been granted had no running water, no roads and no electricity. So in addition to finding the best spots to start growing cacao, the team had to build the infrastructure needed; including building wells, an internal road network, solar infrastructure, a river irrigation system and a tree nursery.

In 2017 to complete their ‘tree to bar’ loop, and to turbo charge both their coffee and chocolate initiatives, they built their own factory back at Honesdale, Pennsylvania. And if you are nearby do drop by and say “hi”! For more details, check out our ChocolaTourism page (and indeed, Jeff also runs trips to Africa to visit the farmers in person).

Their bars are also awesome in flavour. Sadly covid, combined with political and social uncertainties, mean that Moka has not been able to import any beans from Cameroon over the last few months; so we don’t (yet!) have their Cameroon beans/bars. But we do have the bars crafted from beans they source from Tanzania, where they work with the like-minded Simran and Brian of Kokoa Kamili. Similarly, please try Moka’s Ugandan bars that are crafted from Jeff Steinberg’s Latitude beans. And if you are subscriber, you should also have received their interpretation of the ABOCFA co-operative’s Ghanaian beans last month. See below for more details on all these bars.

As Dr Kristy Leissle, our ‘go to’ Ghana (and indeed, overall cocoa) expert noted when describing this bar: “Anyone who thinks that Ghana can’t grow amazing beans should try this bar”. And indeed it’s one of the bars we will be tasting, and discussing, with her, virtually and in person, at a special tasting session (you can book tickets to attend at our London office, or buy the kit to taste along at home). There is also an awesome dark milk produced from these ABOCFA beans, which you’ll find below.

To celebrate the fifth anniversary of their Honesdale factory, Moka also released some heart warming statistics of what they achieved, including:

  • Planting over 230,000 trees (from mango and avocado to cacao and banana trees),
  • Purchasing over 58,000 kilos of beans,
  • Roasting over 96,000 kilos of coffee beans,
  • Crafting over 117,000 bars (note: That didn’t include the ones we’ve recently imported),
  • And supporting over 10,000 farmers and their families to secure a “sustainable living wage” that they can rely on over the long term.

See below for more details on all their bars, and see their page for their incredible story.

As ever, thank you for your support.

Spencer

P.S. Do remember that you can taste Moka’s ABOCFA bar, and five other great bars with Kristy in person or virtually on the 17th June.

P.P.S. For a sneak peak at our plans for Father’s Day, including a box comprising bars made by father’s with their daughters (and sons), check out our new page.

Posted on Leave a comment

Celebrate the Jubilee with Craft Chocolate

queen elizabeth ii looking at chocolate

On June 2nd the UK is set to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s ‘platinum jubilee’. We’ve two bank holidays and, hopefully, good weather to enjoy. And we’ve built a series of craft chocolate boxes, wine pairings and activities below to help you celebrate.

Side note: for the eagle-eyed amongst you, you may wonder why the 2nd of June has been picked when the Queen’s reign started on the 6th February 1952; the answer seems to be that her coronation was on the 2nd June, but 1953.

Queen Elizabeth II has had an extraordinary 70 years not just as Queen of the United Kingdom, but also as Head of the Commonwealth. Whereas being Queen of the United Kingdom is a hereditary position (i.e. you are born to rule), Queen Elizabeth’s role as Head of the Commonwealth is ‘selected’ (and the next Head has also been selected, and yes it is indeed Prince Charles).

As well as covering all the continents where cacao is grown, the Commonwealth comprises 30% of the world’s population. The Commonwealth is also often misunderstood. Yes it does have its origins in the British Empire. But some of its newer members weren’t in the British Empire (e.g. Mozambique and Rwanda). And it spans wider than the Caribbean, Africa and Asia; it does include Canada (though not that other North American ex-colony; the USA) and it also includes Belize and Guyana in South America.

More importantly, its not about imperial nostalgia. As Queen Elizabeth II noted when she became head of the Commonwealth in 1952: “The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace”.

So please can we recommend that you celebrate the Jubilee with twelve milk and dark craft chocolates in our Commonwealth Jubilee Box. Naturally it’s priced at £70 (a saving of over £15). And the bars and beans are sourced from all over the Commonwealth; from Canada to New Zealand, India to Ghana, Uganda to Belize, Malaysia to Papua New Guinea and Singapore to Grenada.

And we’ve also built two boxes priced at £24.95 from craft chocolate makers representing England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each contains four bars, one box is dark only and the other milk. Please see below for all of these wonderful boxes.

Alternatively (or in addition?), celebrate with some great chocolates expertly paired with wine from Corney and Barrow, royal warrant holders to the Queen for their wine.

And if you want to keep the kids amused over the long weekend, please try our craft chocolate lollipop making kit! Wishing you all a great weekend; and a fantastic Jubilee celebration.

Spencer

Posted on Leave a comment

Deadly Diseases

cocoa pod with frosty pod rot disease

Now that we are (fingers crossed) turning the corner on covid, it seems timely to take a step back and think about the way diseases impact our history and culture.

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.

Spencer

Posted on Leave a comment

ChocolaTourism

As travel restrictions disappear and the summer holidays creep closer, can we interest you in some “ChocolaTourism”?  Why not combine your next trip with a visit to a craft chocolate maker or even go on a cacao trek in the Amazonian jungle?

Unlike the banter of a barista or the chat of a craft beer maker, it’s rare to meet a craft chocolate maker in person and experience all the work they put into crafting their bars. When we purchase a bar, we can read a bit about the maker and farmer from the packaging. But it’s really not the same as hearing the barista’s enthusiasm, and literally smelling the freshly brewed coffee, in a specialty coffee store. Similarly, we miss those great descriptions in the pub of new craft beers and clinking of glasses.

In the world of craft chocolate, this is starting to change; you can now experience the sights and smells as chocolate is crafted and grown. More and more makers are opening up for visits, and some are even offering museum-like experiences and activities. And farmers and growers are also offering treks and tours.

We’ve started to assemble an atlas of our craft chocolate makers offering visits and tours; see HERE. Please note that it’s a work in progress; if there are other makers or growers or experiences you’d like us to add please let us know! And similarly, if there is other information you’d like, again let us know. Please do note that we are NOT arranging these tours and activities, nor are we selling tickets. Rather we are rather trying to provide a simple facility for craft chocolate lovers to take their appreciation one step further.

Visit the Makers

At Cocoa Runners we work with over 150 chocolate makers from every continent (with the exception, so far, of Antarctica). And more and more makers are opening their doors and welcoming visitors. So whether you are planning to visit Cleethorpes or Copenhagen, Saigon or San Francisco, Mexico City or Manchester, please do leave some time to visit a craft chocolate maker. See here for more details.

Weekends Away

If you fancy a weekend away, why not combine this with a trip to the Suffolk seaside and visit Pump Street in Orford (and for a personal suggestion, I heartily recommend staying at The Ship at Dunwich). Or head off to Glasgow to visit Lara and Cam’s newly opened Bare Bones drinking chocolate bar; and stop off and say hi to Rachel McCormack too for a whisky and chocolate pairing.

And if you want to take ‘chocolatourism’ one stage further, why not take a trip to Catalonia and stay in the Roca’s chocolate hotel, dine in their award winning restaurant and visit Jordi and Damien’s chocolate factory.

Learning from Napa Wineries

The wine industry in America long ago discovered the wonders of wine tours with wine tourism in Napa and Sonoma in California second only to Disney World as tourist money makers in California). Realising this, Adam Bridge of Taylor’s Port has created not only ‘port tourism’ in Porto, Portugal, but also now you can visit their chocolate museum and factory (we’re launching Vinte Vinte’s bars next month, and hosting a tasting with Pedro on the 26th in London; stay tuned for updates!).

And if you are in Austria, we strongly recommend a trip to Julia and Josef Zotter’s chocolate experience near Vienna.  And if in Taiwan, do visit Fu Wan where you can stay in their hotel, trek in the nearby forests where they harvest some of their cacao and visit their award winning factory.

ChocolaTourism and Cacao Treks

And if you are up for even more of an adventure, why not consider a cocoa field trek to Uganda, Ecuador or the Dominican Republic? Jenny from Conexión still has a few tickets left on her next trip. Zorzal in the Dominican Republic offers the chance to visit their cocoa farms and bird sanctuary. And Jeff (from Moka), along with Jeff Steinberg (founder of Latitude) coordinates some great trips to Uganda and Latitude’s operations.

Home-Based Experiences

For those of you who’ve already made other summer plans and can’t wedge in some chocolatourism just now, fear not. We’ve also some great board and bar gifts based on these makers and growers; see HERE and below.

In addition, we are now running a series of monthly in person events and tastings at our London Offices in Charterhouse Square; see HERE for more details.

  • Next week we’ve a tasting at Chelsea Physic Garden (on the 12th, at their garden),
  • We’re delighted to be part of Vinte Vinte’s UK launch, with a special tasting at our offices with Pedro, their chief chocolate maker; please purchase tickets HERE,
  • We’re hosting a hybrid Zoom and in-person ‘talk and tasting’ with Dr Kristy Leissle on the 17th June; please see HERE.  Note: you can either attend this tasting in person or via zoom!
  • We’re celebrating Chocolarder’s 10th birthday with a party on September the 8th; see HERE.

And much more to come!

Hope to see you at an event soon, and happy ChocolaTourism!

As ever, thanks for your support.

Spencer

P.S. Again, please do note that we aren’t arranging any of these tours or experiences; if you’ve questions we’ve tried to provide contact details for the makers and growers on the website.

Posted on Leave a comment

Theobromine Versus Caffeine

Back in 1841 the Russian chemist Alekasandr Voskresensky discovered an alkaloid in the fruit of Theobroma cacao (aka the cacao/cocoa tree). And he called it ‘theobromine’, reflecting the etymology of “food of the goods” (aka, the cocoa tree; called “Theobroma cacao” by Carl Linnaeus).

This discovery was part of a line of remarkable alkaloid discoveries starting with morphine (1804) that went on to include a range of other interesting stimulants and drugs such as caffeine (1820), nicotine (1828), and cocaine (1860).

Theobromine is one of the reasons why chocolate is so delightful and so stimulating. But despite being remarkably similar in composition to caffeine (see image the above), theobromine’s ‘stimulation’ is quite different. Unlike other alkaloids, theobromine is not addictive, you won’t get withdrawal symptoms from missing your daily fix but at the same time, it does wonders for your heart, blood pressure and general mood.

How do Theobromine and Caffeine Differ?

Theobromine is found in a number of plants and fruits; most notably in cocoa and chocolate, and also in tea (Camellia sinensis), carob, guarana, and yerba mate.

Caffeine is also found in a number of plants and fruits; in particular coffee, and also trace elements of caffeine are in cocoa and chocolate.

Chemically these two alkaloids are remarkably similar (see the above image). Theobromine is technically C7H8N4O2. And caffeine is C8H10N4O2.

Caffeine contains one more ‘methyl group’ than theobromine.  And this extra methyl group is hugely significant.

How do Theobromine and Caffeine Work?

Caffeine, thanks to its third methyl group, can cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to adenosine receptors. Caffeine blocks these adenosine receptors, stopping one feeling drowsy and boosting adrenaline. This is why caffeine “peps” one up; making one more alert and perkier (hence why it’s great for sports like cycling). It can also make you jittery as it promotes an adrenaline surge, and if you consume a reasonable amount regularly you may suffer withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking coffee/taking caffeine.

Theobromine does not cross the blood-brain barrier. It doesn’t boost adrenaline production or block adenosine reactors. So it doesn’t cause any jitteriness. And you don’t get any withdrawal symptoms (the cravings people have for mass produced chocolate confectionery is from the sugar).

As theobromine is absorbed in our bodies it stimulates the release of nitric oxide, and these in turn reduce enzymes in the blood that constrict our blood vessels. And as a consequence, theobromine causes our blood pressure to decline (note: This may also be due to phosphoesterase inhibition).

At the same time, theobromine interacts with enzymes in our heart and lungs promoting vasodilation and bronchodilation. And this is one reason why dark chocolate is often recommended to help asthmatics breathe more easily.

Theobromine (and caffeine) are also diuretics (or, more graphically; they encourage you to pee). Indeed back in the early 1900s chocolate was regularly prescribed as a diuretic and way to treat edemas (i.e. fluid build ups in the legs, hands, etc.).

Note: Many of the benefits that you get from theobromine you also get from caffeine as the body breaks down caffeine into theobromine. But given that only 10-15% of caffeine is converted to theobromine (the majority is converted into paraxanthine as well as theophylline), the magical impact of chocolate and cocoa as vasodilator, diuretic, etc. are a bit less.

Is Theobromine Poisonous?

At  very high doses, theobromine has been blamed for sweating, trembling and severe headaches in some cases. But it’s very hard to find large studies on this, and even anecdotal evidence here seems very rare.

However, there are some suggestions that for some (unlucky) people, over indulging in chocolate in massive binges may also cause heartburn as theobromine causes the oesophageal sphincter to relax and so some stomach acids go “the wrong way” (so you’ll need some antacids etc.).

More importantly for dogs (and cats), theobromine is far more dangerous because they metabolize it far slower than humans (humans metabolize theobromine over 5-8 hours versus three to five times this for dogs). So if you do have pets (especially dogs as they, unlike cats, have an affinity for sugar and sweetness), keep the chocolate out of the way.

Note: If you are one of those people who believes that dark chocolate etc. causes you headaches, it may well be that you are allergic to PEA (another chemical in cocoa/chocolate) rather than theobromine.

How can I access some these wonderful benefits from theobromine?

So the simple answer here is “eat some dark craft chocolate”. Or you can drink some good quality craft drinking chocolate where the prime ingredient isn’t sugar. Or you can add some cocoa nibs to your smoothie, porridge or whatever. And indeed you can even have a good craft chocolate milk bar (especially if it’s a ‘dark milk’ like Krak’s award winning bar below, as the high content of chocolate in these bars ensures the presence of lots of theobromine). And please see below for some suggestions of some great drinking chocolate and bars.

As you try the recommendations below, remember that there are also a host of other great benefits from savouring craft chocolate; everything from satisfying the second stomach so you’ll gorge less, to accessing valuable minerals like magnesium, zinc, selenium etc., whilst also releasing all sorts of wonders like serotonin, phenylethylamine, etc., which make you feel GREAT! And it’s far better for the farmers and planet.

Delight and relax without any jitteriness. Thank you THEOBROMINE: Food, and alkaloid, of the gods.

Spencer

P.S. If you missed our discussion of caffeine and theobromine (and much more) at our Square Mile coffee and chocolate pairing last weekend, fear not! There are still some tasting packs and a recording will available for you to follow along on your own time.

P.P.S. As ever a huge thanks to Peter Goodfellow for correcting many of the earlier errors in this email/blog. Any errors remain mine!

Posted on Leave a comment

Cocoa and Cacao… What’s the difference?

So the ‘smart Alec’ answer here is spelling. ‘Cacao’ has two As, one O and two Cs. ‘Cocoa’ has one A, two Os and two Cs.

However, all sorts of claims are made for the benefits of the likes of “raw cacao nibs”, “alkalinised pure cocoa powder”, etc. Almost all these claims are hogwash. And some are downright misleading.

And then there are a bunch of definitions in dictionaries, government departments, medical sites, etc., which are at best amusing and invariably confused and confusing.

Having said this, there are a couple of best practises for using the terms cacao and cocoa. And as long as these aren’t bowdlerised by nonsense terms like ‘raw’, the way we use the terms helps us think more about the magic of chocolate and that it’s so much more than a commodity or mechanic for half-baked health claims.

Bottom line: Think of “cacao” as to what the farmer does with the fruit of Theobroma cacao. Cocoa is what makers do with cocoa (or cacao) beans.

Cacao is what comes from Theobroma cacao (aka, the tree whose fruit gives us chocolate)

Most craft chocolate makers and “cacao sourcerers” (yes there really is such a term; it refers to people who source the cocoa beans used to make chocolate), use “cacao” to refer to the fruit of Theobroma cacao that is handled on the cocoa farm, i.e. the pods, the pulp inside the pods, the seeds, and the then fermented and dried ‘beans’.

But you can also refer to cocoa pods, cocoa seeds, cocoa pulp, fermented cocoa beans, dried cocoa beans, etc.

It really doesn’t matter too much. Both are correct.

Cocoa is what chocolate makers do with fermented cacao (or cocoa) beans

Many of us use the term ‘cocoa’ to refer to ‘hot cocoa’ (i.e. the drink) or ‘cocoa powder’.

These terms started to be extensively used in the early 19th century following the invention of the cocoa press (by father and son, the Van Houtens). And to demarcate the massive innovations following on from this invention (coupled with a few by Fry, Nestlé, Lindt, and Daniel Peter), the idea of makers processing the fruit of the cacao tree into cocoa, is a useful historical reminder.

The cocoa press kicked off a bunch of innovations and further inventions (if you want more details, and to taste loads of chocolates, please do come to an in person, or virtual craft chocolate tasting).

  1. Fairly soon after working out the mechanics of the cocoa press, the Dutch also realised that if you ‘washed’ the remaining cocoa mass in an alkaline solution you could remove some of its bitterness, lighten and redden its colour, whilst also improving its solubility in water, milk etc. Smart marketing was deployed for this alkalinised or ‘Dutched’ cocoa powder such that many consumers perceive Dutched or alkalised cocoa powder to be nutritionally superior; but in fact, natural cocoa powder retains far more of the nutritionally valuable minerals like magnesium, potassium, iron, etc. In the US, food labelling requires that manufacturers say whether cocoa powder is alkalinised. But here in Europe, and the UK, this isn’t a requirement (you can read more on the deficiencies of European labelling regulations and other issues on chocolate labels). And in Europe (and the US), most cocoa powder is alkalinised. So if you want some cocoa powder to make a great hot chocolate and/or to cook with, please can we recommend our Kokoa Kamili cocoa powder (and if you are near Nkora speciality coffee, check out their hot chocolate made with this).
  2. In parallel, this extracted cocoa butter also became a key ingredient for cosmetics. Cocoa butter is an amazing butter in a multitude of ways. It nourishes and moisturises. It doesn’t go rancid or ‘off’ for a VERY long time. And it can be crafted into a stable solid at room temperature which then can melt on contact with bits of the human body like lips (lipsticks), cheeks (blushes), arms and legs (moisturisers), etc. And so popular is cocoa butter for these purposes that cocoa butter is now far higher priced than cocoa mass (which is used to make confectionary, ice cream, etc.).
  3. Another use of the spare cocoa butter also (apocryphally at least) gave rise the transformation of chocolate from being consumed as a drink to being eaten in the form of stable, solid bar. Back in 1847, Joseph Fry had his eureka moment when he realised that he could add back cocoa butter to the cocoa mass used to create drinking chocolate to create the first stoneground chocolate bar (try a Taza bar to explore the very different textures of these stone ground bars).
  4. Over the next fifty years the Swiss then fine tuned the idea of the chocolate bar into smooth and moreish chocolate bars thanks to Rodolphe Lindt (conching), Jean Tobler (tempering), Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé (milk chocolate); learn about these developments at a tasting.
  5. At the same time, advertising and trading standards here in the UK can be partially traced back to “hot cocoa”. Cadbury are, again, coming in for criticism of their sourcing with child labour etc. But they were (and arguably still are) amazing marketers. And amongst their marketing genius was their use of the advertising for their Dutched cocoa essence drinking powder in the 1860s as “Absolutely Pure. Therefore Best”, alongside medical testimonials, which helped shape the idea of which gave rise to the modern day trading and advertising standards authorities.

What about raw caca nibs, raw cacao, etc.?

Cocoa (or cacao) nibs are wonderful to nibble on, add to porridge and smoothies, use for cooking (both sweet and savoury), etc. Try them from our shop.

And they are also very nutritious. And they can be packed with flavour. They also are less astringent to consume than 100% chocolate bars; so many chocolate connoisseurs worried about additives and sugar will opt for a handful of nibs rather than a few squares of 100% chocolate. To somewhat oversimplify, this is technically because the finer particles of the ground cocoa nibs in your smooth 100% chocolate bar can deliver the tannins in your chocolate faster and more effectively to dry out the proteins in your saliva which is what creates that puckering sensation of astringency.

But these nibs aren’t ‘raw’. Please read our longer rant on “raw”. But raw cocoa (or cacao) nibs are nonsense (as are raw bars). All cocoa nibs are made with fermented beans, not unfermented cocoa seeds. And as cocoa beans can’t germinate, they shouldn’t be called ‘raw’, at best raw should be confined to cocoa seeds. And these aren’t very pleasant to eat (they are super bitter and astringent). And fermentation and drying of cocoa goes above 42 degrees which effectively kyboshed another often quoted characteristic of raw foods; i.e. they’ve not been cooked or heated above human body temperature.

Almost all cocoa nibs, and ALL the cocoa nibs I’ve ever seen for sale direct to consumers, are also roasted. This roasting is partly to impart flavour; just as roasting coffee beans differently imparts different flavours, the Maillard reaction does the same for chocolate. Roasting is also used to kill off any bugs and nasties in the chocolate (cocoa beans are a notorious source of anthrax). And almost all raw chocolate is ‘flash roasted’. This is true of many of the ‘raw’ bars we sell (e.g. Minka) where these bars are roasted similarly to the “virgin roast” of Conexión’s bars, i.e. a flash roast for 1-2 minutes rather than 18-25. We do have a few exceptions, e.g. Raaka and Forever Cacao, who don’t roast their beans (and they are very careful to test all their beans for any nasties). But these makers are careful not to confuse the loose definition of raw with their ‘unroasted approach.

And on a final note: Cocoa nibs are super healthy and nutritious. But the extra claims that go along with raw cocoa nibs are scientifically unfounded. For example, the oft quoted claim that these raw cocoa nibs are higher in anti-oxidants because of their ORAC score is technical tosh. And the same is true for raw chocolate bars’ health claims. Indeed many of these supposedly super healthy raw chocolate bars are packed with sugar and other ultra processed additives, so you’d be FAR, FAR better off with a craft chocolate bar that has ‘cleaner’ ingredients, tastes far better and is far better for the farmers and the planet.

So bottom line: If you do want to draw a sensible line between ‘cacao’ and ‘cocoa’, this processing by makers is as good as any line to draw. But don’t fall for the marketing nonsense about raw, alkalinisation, etc. Having finished this rant, I’d love to ask you readers with an interest in chocolate a couple of questions:

  1.  Why do so many people continue to believe so much tosh about chocolate?
  2. What do we have to do to get more common sense into the industry about not just misleading health claims but also disingenuous sourcing claims (such as Cadbury’s Cocoa Trace programme)?

I’d love your thoughts here (please comment on the blog here, or send an email to team@cocoarunners.com). And we’ll select a couple of the best answers to feature on the blog, and send you some fine cocoa (or cacao) nibs from Menakao.

Thanks as ever for your support, and happy Easter, easy fasting for Ramadan, and chag Pesach sameach for Passover!

Spencer

Posted on Leave a comment

How to Ensure Cocoa Farmers are Properly Paid

In the last week a UK TV series, Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches’, broadcast a damning investigation into Cadbury’s use of child labour in sourcing cocoa from Ghana. It’s very shocking and disturbing. Kids who aren’t even ten years old, wearing just flip flops and t-shirts in sweltering heat are harvesting cocoa with machetes longer than their arms instead of going to school. The whole programme can be found HERE. It’s only 30 minutes, and even though it’s gruesome watching it’s still worth it;  hopefully it’ll persuade you to upgrade to craft chocolate for your bars and eggs.

Sadly this isn’t new news. Back in the 1990s the BBC broke the story of child slave labour in West African Cocoa. And despite a tonne of follow up TV programmes, media uproar, court cases, the US Congress’ attempt to pass Harkin Engel, and lots of consumer affront, not a lot has changed. Cadbury continues to sell 300 million plus Creme Eggs each year.

Indeed, ever since Cadbury has been sourcing cocoa from West Africa back in the 1880s, slave labour and other abuses on cocoa farms have been prevalent. Over a 100 years ago in 1908 Cadbury suffered an incredibly embarrassing court case versus The Standard (newspaper). But despite this and a massive consumer boycott in the 1920s, it seems that nothing really has changed in the world of commodity chocolate.

So how to fix this. How do we ensure that cocoa farmers are paid enough to live on?

The short answer is to treasure chocolate for its amazing variety of flavours, textures and tastes, and pay the farmers for this. We need to stop cocoa being treated as a ‘commodity ingredient’. We need to switch to craft chocolate that not only tastes better, but is also far better for you, the farmers, and the environment.

There is an incredible irony in the way that cocoa has been commoditised and cheapened. Chocolate literally has more flavour complexity than just about anything on the planet (if you want to experience this, just try THIS box of different bars all crafted from well harvested, fermented and dried Ghanaian cocoa). However, big chocolate has commoditised chocolate, and this has created a doom loop for cocoa farmers, their forests, our planet and our health.

Why are cocoa farmers paid so little?

Economics suggests that as demand increases, prices should rise. So given that demand for chocolate/cocoa has been steadily increasing, why are cocoa prices remaining so low and why are farmers being paid so badly?

Economics also has a concept called monopsony; basically a monopoly where the buyers have the power, effectively dictating prices. This is the position of almost all cocoa grown and purchased in West Africa (which accounts for over two thirds of the world’s production, with Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana by far the largest exporters).

There are a dozen ‘big chocolate’ companies who purchase over 80% of all the commodity cocoa beans grown in West Africa. And as these companies want to make as much money for their shareholders as possible, they seek to pay as little as they can for cocoa (and all the other ingredients) that go into chocolate bars and confectionery. And as part of this cocoa has been commoditized so that all cocoa is interchangeable and all that matters is price.

West Africa has literally millions of small farmers, each with 1-2 hectares, growing 50-200 bags of cocoa a year. These farmers struggle to make enough money. Over 90% of Cocoa Farmers in the Côte d’Ivoire are paid less than half what the World Bank believes is a ‘living income’; to put this into context, men take home $0.78 (US) per day, and women 25¢; and the living income they need is over $2.50 per day. So these farmers are desperate for more income, and cocoa is one of the few cash crops they can grow, so they do everything they can to grow more cocoa, including cutting down the few remaining rainforests to plant more cocoa (this is often cited as one of the major causes of the appalling deforestation, and desertification, in West Africa).

And so even though demand for cocoa is growing, the desperation of the farmers combined with their weak bargaining position and the ability to source more commodity cocoa (including some that is smuggled from neighbouring countries) means that the prices paid for commodity cocoa barely generates enough income for many farmers to survive. And as the C4 Dispatches programme graphically shows, these farmers not only can’t afford to pay to send their children to school, but they are so desperate that they have to put their children to work in harvesting cocoa.

Note: This is NOT a criticism of the Ghanaian government; they don’t want their children to have to work in unsafe conditions and not go to school. They do have laws against this. But they also know that over 90% of their cocoa farmers don’t make the living income benchmark.

So why can’t certification solve this problem?

For the last few decades, some amazing work has been done to help consumers access ‘ethical’ and ‘environmental’ brands where a price premium is paid to the farmers. In many crops it’s worked wonders; for example, Fair Trade bananas.

In the world of craft chocolate, Zotter pioneered organic and fairly traded chocolate in Austria. And here in the UK, even though it’s more ‘mass produced’ than ‘craft’ the work that Divine has done with Fair Trade chocolate and Kuapa Kokoo in Ghana is inspiring.

But unfortunately Fair Trade, along with other certifications and labels, just isn’t enough to break the poverty loop of commodity chocolate. Unlike, for example, speciality coffee, these certification initiatives have failed to break through and change consumer’s attitudes to paying enough for chocolate such that this materially changes the livelihoods of cocoa farmers.

At the risk of vastly over simplifying, here are some of the reasons why ‘certification’ isn’t a panacea in cocoa and chocolate (note: This is NOT to say that choosing a Fair Trade or organic supermarket bar is no different from buying another mass produced bar; rather it’s arguing to do more).

  1. Certification is REALLY hard, expensive and even dangerous to do for cocoa. And when it comes to a commodity crop (aka hard to trace and distinguish), it’s hard to enforce. So it’s perhaps not that surprising that C4’s Dispatches found so many abuses. At the same time it’s a credit to Ghana that Channel 4’s Dispatches were able to make the programme that they did… there are many other places in West Africa where making this programme would have been a lot less safe, and certification even trickier to get right.
  2. A lot of certification and labelling is, to put it mildly, ‘hogwash‘ or at best ‘greenwash‘.  
    • Some labels like “raw” and “ethical” may sound good, but they are utterly meaningless (a bit like the term “Belgian Chocolate”. Read more about reading labels HERE). 
    • Other certifications are really confusing; for example, mass balance fair trade upsets many consumers when they realise that the “fair trade” bar they’ve just bought may well have no fair trade beans in them (see HERE for more).
    • And there are now so many company labels (like Cadbury’s ‘Cocoa Life’) that it’s impossible for most consumers to keep track  and know what really is what.
  3. Consumers just won’t pay enough. Working out how much of a ‘premium’ consumers will pay for ‘Fair Trade’ is notoriously difficult; it varies by product type and also consumer. But even for Fair Trade coffee (one of the highest premiums with the highest acceptance rates), its only about 20%. And whilst this premium is welcome news for any farmer, in the case of a male cocoa farmer earning less than 85¢ a day (or 25¢ a day for a female cocoa farmer), this still means they are less than halfway to securing a minimal living income for West Africa.
  4. Ethical and environmental certifications don’t guarantee quality. Fair trade and organic are about how something is grown and harvested. They aren’t about ‘taste and flavour’. By comparison, ‘specialty coffee’ is in part defined by measuring the quality of the beans on the coffee farm (which may also be organic, fair trade, etc.). But in cocoa it’s very different; even “fine” cocoa is allowed to have up to 3% defects (e.g., mould, under fermentation, etc.) and it’s still certified organic, Fair Trade, etc. (hat yip to Martin Christy here).

Bottom line: These certifications persist in treating cocoa and chocolate like a commodity ingredient, where price and volume are all important and flavour can be synthesised with additives in the factory. And in the case where you’ve few buyers but lots of desperate farmers, this inevitably leads to the awful situation shown in the Cadbury exposé.

Why craft chocolate is the way forward:

As in specialty coffee, artisan cheese, craft beer, premium olive oils, malt whiskies, craft gins, fine wines, and almost every other food and drink, consumers will pay more if a product tastes better (and has more kudos and coolness). And these price premiums are FAR higher than any Fair Trade premium.

Craft chocolate clearly has oodles more flavour complexity, length and depth than can be found in mass produced chocolate which relies on additives, fortifiers and, above all, sugar. (And we think it’s a lot cooler, and far more impressive to serve at your next dinner party).

And craft chocolate makers know that they have to pay the farmers more for the extra work involved in planting, growing, harvesting, fermenting, drying and transporting these speciality beans. The premium paid by craft chocolate, and its long term contracts, really does break through; the premium craft chocolate makers pay for their beans is anywhere from two to over ten times the commodity cocoa prices, and way more than even the highest fair trade premiums.

However, even though these craft chocolate bars cost less than a round of beers in a pub, many consumers recoil at the thought of a £4, £5 or £6 bar of chocolate (or £8-10 Easter egg). And whereas specialty coffee now accounts for over 20% of all coffee spend in the UK, craft chocolate isn’t even 0.02% of the £5b plus spent on chocolate in the UK each year.

In part this is because mass produced chocolate has persuaded consumers that they shouldn’t expect to pay more than £1 for their ‘sugar rush’ of a chocolate bar. And this perpetuates the vicious cycle of commodity cocoa. The only way that a bar of chocolate can cost £1 is, as the Dispatches programme shows, for the ingredients to cost less than 11p (see minute 8). And this is only achievable through ‘commodity cocoa’; paying less than a living income to the cocoa farmers, and by using LOTS of even cheaper sugar (which is also highly addictive).

It’s not easy to break this ingrained habit. Humans are pre-programmed to like sugar, and chocolate is an amazing vector for “sweet delight”. At the same time, humans are unique in delighting in savouring flavour; and craft chocolate has more flavours than just about anything.

So we really believe that if you can break the sugar habit and upgrade to craft chocolate you can help break the vicious cycle of poverty, child labour and deforestation that are all inherent in commodity cocoa and mass produced chocolate.

Conclusion

We need to stop treating chocolate as a commodity where price is all important, where the primary ingredient of a chocolate bar is sugar, and where a mass produced bar’s taste and flavours are created through cheap additives, enhancers, sweeteners and sugar.

And we need to start to read the label. We need to check the ingredients on the reverse of the pack. We need to look for where your bar (and Easter egg) is really made (as opposed to processed and assembled). And we need to look on the label for where your beans really come from (i.e. the farm and co-op, not just the “single origin” country, occasionally listed on the front).

And we need to avoid being distracted, and misled, by a bunch of great sounding, but effectively meaningless, phrases like “Cocoa Life”, “slavery-free”, “ethically sourced” etc. We have to move beyond greenwashing environmental stickers. These distract from the real issue.

So this Easter, please, please avoid ‘commodity chocolate’ and all the tragedies for the farmers, planet and ourselves  Please SEE HERE, and please remember to order before next Wednesday the 13th, mid-day, for UK deliveries.

Thanks as ever for your support.  It really does make a difference!

Spencer

P.S.

i) This post is NOT arguing for a boycott of West African chocolate. Ghana, The Ivory Coast, Cameroon, etc. aren’t to blame for the way that ‘big chocolate’ has commoditised cocoa. Nor is it a criticism of Fair Trade. Rather, it’s a plea to upgrade to craft chocolate, and savour the flavour of great beans, and pay a little more to reward farmers for work.

ii) Whenever child slave labour is discussed, we inevitably get asked about Tony’s Chocolonely. Tony’s is a marketing machine, and has done an amazing job of (re)alerting the world to the problems of child labour in cocoa. But we side with Anne Riggs here who has evicted them from her ‘Slave Free Chocolate‘ organisation. Check the Tony’s labels: The primary ingredient is sugar. And try figuring out where their beans really come from, and how, and where, their chocolate is processed. For our ‘two cents’ please, SEE HERE.