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Welcome, ÓBOLO! Our first craft chocolate maker from Chile

OBOLO Mark maker profile

Geography has never been my strongest subject.  So even though I know that cocoa only grows within a band of 0-20 degrees of the equator, I struggle to identify which of the following countries does NOT both grow and craft chocolate and wine:

  1. The USA
  2. Bolivia
  3. Chile
  4. Australia

The answer is Chile (in the USA, Hawaii grows cocoa as well as coffee, Bolivia growns both and in Australia they grow wine in both the South West and South East, plus cocoa in the Daintree Rainforest in the North).  Chile grows some amazing wines (which pair wonderfully with craft chocolate, as we plan to show in an upcoming Virtual Wine and Craft Chocolate Tasting).  However it’s too far south to grow cocoa.

Despite this, Chile does have its own bean-to-bar, small-batch craft chocolate maker, ÓBOLO.  And we are delighted to welcome Mark Gerrits, the founder of ÓBOLO, and his bars to our chocolate library.  He sources his beans from the Pangoa Cooperative in neighbouring Peru, and we are delighted to finally have these for sale – see below, or here, for more details.

ÓBOLO

Mark Gerrits, born in the USA, went on a three-month backpacking trip to Chile in 1994 and has basically yet to return. He stayed in Chile until 2001, when he moved to Napo, Ecuador, to work with a number of cocoa-growing communities. In 2003, he returned to Chile to join The Nature Conservancy.

Having been “bitten” by the chocolate bug in Ecuador, Mark determined that even though Chile does not grow its own cocoa, it would be far more environmentally sensible to craft chocolate in Chile.  He noted that Chile’s local chocolate market was comparatively large, compared to its neighbours (though it has a fair way to go to catch the UK, see the full breakdown below).

PopulationVol. 2014 (tonnes)Vol. 2018 (tonnes)Spend per capita
Chile20 million25,00040,000$40
Peru32 million8,00015,000$6.56
UK60 million390,000480,000$143.33
Comparison of chocolate consumption by country, 2018. Source: Eurostat

And he saw the opportunity, and environmental benefits, of importing beans from nearby Peru rather than having the beans shipped to Europe (or the US), processed there, and then shipped back to Latin America.

So in 2013 Mark started to craft chocolate in his home, and by 2015, following unanimous encouragement from US makers who had tasted his early bars, he decided to throw himself full-time into crafting chocolate.

Mark named his company “ÓBOLO” after the Spanish word that means a gift or a small contribution in Spanish.  Or as Mark puts it “We at ÓBOLO are very grateful to everyone who supports us daily on this adventure: the cacao farmers, our local community, employees, clients, friends and family. ÓBOLO is our small gift back to the world; our way of saying thank you”.  If you dig back a little further, the naming is even more appropriate – the root of ÓBOLO comes from ancient Greek, where an ÓBOLO was a coin… just like the cacao bean was used as a unit of currency in Mayan and Aztec societies.

Mark also leveraged his knowledge of cocoa and Latin America to find a unique source for his cocoa beans.  ÓBOLO works directly with the Pangoa Cooperative in Junin, Peru.  The cooperative was established in 1965 to help preserve the ancient rainforests and 36 “Native Communities”.  In 1977 they set up a Coffee Co-Operative and, with ÓBOLO (and a few other US makers including French Broad and Fruition), they have over the last decade also formed a Cocoa Cooperative.

ÓBOLO crafts a variety of dark bars (including a very approachable 100%) to showcase the sherbety, fruity and nutty flavours of the Pangoa beans.  And in addition they’ve incorporated various local flavours and spices from Peru in their bars – we strongly recommend their Maqui Nativo bar, made with a local “superfood” berry.  In addition, they have an intriguing dark milk and (rare) white bar.  Please see below for more details.  And again, we STRONGLY recommend these bars with a local Chilean Malbec like Intipalka (and do write to us for more wine recommendations).

MORE VIRTUAL TASTINGS

And just to remind you that we’ve a bunch more Virtual Tastings and Craft Chocolate Conversations now available — see here for the full listing and below for some highlights.

Wishing you a great weekend  

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony

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Launching Milk Chocolate Tastings, and Explaining the Wonders and Importance of Craft Milk Chocolate

We’ve been really delighted by the support shown for both our weekly Wednesday “Welcome to the Revolution” Craft Chocolate Tasting and also our Thursday “Conversations on Craft Chocolate”. 

Part of the fun of these tastings is trying eight (or more) very different craft chocolates that vary between dark, milk, stone ground to even 100% — and having everyone share their reactions in real time on the main screen (and thereby avoid the awkward silences or (worse) loud shouting of in person big tastings). During these online events it’s always intriguing to hear your questions, feedback and comments — and we are constantly learning.

One of the most common questions we keep hearing is “can you do a milk focused tasting”? And the answer is (obviously) YES.  And this week we are delighted to be launching a Milk Craft Chocolate Tasting. So thank you for all those who encouraged us here.

We’ve provisionally planned to do one milk tasting each month – see here for more details. We will use the Tasting to explore the history of chocolate and discuss the social and environmental challenges posed by commoditised, mass-produced chocolate. But even if you’ve already attended one of our regular, mixed chocolate tastings (and heard some of this already), if you want to taste a range of nine very different milk chocolates, please do join in.  There is only one tasting kit, but it will easily stretch to four people with lots left over for the next few days (and we’ve including a CocoaRunners Storage Pouch for this purpose).

We are also using this week’s blog post to explore the importance of milk chocolate in history and the extraordinary variety milk chocolate can offer (including some “no sugar” and non-dairy options), while also owning up to a few of its challenges (hint: it doesn’t age well and it’s VERY moreish).

Milk Chocolate in History

For almost all of chocolate’s five thousand year history, we consumed chocolate as a drink.  And for much of it’s history, chocolate has had strong religious and aristocratic leanings.  But thanks to three discoveries within the last fifty years of the nineteenth century, chocolate went mainstream and became eaten, rather than drunk.

  1. The first “discovery” was by Joseph Fry in the 1840s who counter-intuitively worked out  that by adding cocoa butter back into the chocolate pastes that were used to make drinking chocolate he could create a stable, chocolate bar that people could eat.  And in 1847 Joseph Fry launched from his Bristol factory what is accepted as the world’s first commercial chocolate bar.
  2. These first bars were very grainy and gritty (similar to Taza’s stone ground bars of today).  In 1879, after apochryphally leaving on a machine over the weekend, Rodolphe Lindt “discovered” what is now called “conching” and how to make the smooth chocolate bars that predominate today.  (For more details on how conching works, and how it releases more of the hundreds of flavour volatiles in chocolate whilst creating a smooth mouth feel, please see here.)
  3. In parallel, and a few villages away, Daniel Peter was working on how to add milk to chocolate.  Initially he had huge problems as chocolate does not react well to water (as anyone who cooks with chocolate can testify). However when he partnered with Henri Nestle, a neighbour who had invented a milk-condensation process for his baby foods, the two were able to start making commercial milk chocolate in 1875.

Putting these discoveries together – bars, smoothness and milk – kicked off the “chocolate revolution”.

To put this revolution in context: It is estimated that in 1870 around 50 million people drank chocolate, compared to 500 million drinking tea and 200 million drinking coffee.  But with the transition from drinking to eating chocolate, world consumption of cocoa beans increased tenfold between 1850 and 1900 (from less than five thousand tonnes to over fifty thousand tonnes).  And it has kept growing – from 50,000 tonnes in 1900 to 632,000 tonnes in 1940 to 4.5 million tonnes in 2016. 

Much of this is down to the “moreishness” of smooth, milk chocolate.  Indeed it can be argued that Daniel Peter’s creation of milk chocolate created one of the world first “bliss point” foods  (we will explain this more in a moment, see below).

Varieties and Virtuosities in Milk Chocolate

Just as different beans, fermentations, drying, roasting, grinding, conching and recipes create huge differences between dark chocolates, the same is true of milk chocolate.  Indeed arguably milk chocolate is capable of even greater varieties – and so in our Milk Craft Chocolate Tasting we plan to explore the impact of some of the key factors

  • Different percentages — using two bars crafted by Mikkel Friis Holm, from the same bean and farm
  • Different beans – comparing two milks made by the same maker, with similar recipes and the same percentage, but from different origins
  • Different milks – comparing the famed creaminess of Swiss milk to the milk from cows directly descended from those brought by the Vikings to Iceland over 800 years ago and to a non dairy “alternative” milk

And we’ll also explain why many American Milk Chocolates taste so “funky” (we are being polite) to many of us here in Europe (hint: it’s related to butyric acid, one of the key ingredients in parmesan cheese).

Challenges of Milk Chocolate: Ageing and Vintages – “Use by” versus “Best Before”

One of the many facets of Craft Chocolate that we are REALLY looking forward to is the emergence of “Vintage” Craft Chocolates.  Just as wines vary year to year, so does cocoa.  And similarly just as wines “age”, so can chocolate (in both, the tannins evolve to create radically different profiles).  Fresco and Friis Holm are already exploring this.  But it deserves more attention.  And it brings home one of the differences between dark and milk chocolates (and craft versus mainstream chocolates) that is exemplified in the confusion over “best before” and “use by” dates.

In the UK almost all foods and drinks have to have a “use by” or “best before” date (wine is one of the exceptions, it doesn’t have to have either).  These different phrases often confuse consumers, and lead to considerable food wastage.  Here is the difference:

  • Use by – contains an ingredient or additive that goes off.  Generally a really BAD idea to eat after the use by date; but this is complicated by the cautiousness of many makers – and it’s often OK to eat some products (e.g. a yoghurt) a day or so after it’s use by date.
  • Best before – arbitrary date applied by the producer.  Food and drink can be safely eaten after the date, but the flavour and/or texture may be impaired. 

Milk Chocolate of all varieties clearly needs to have “use by” dates.  And (ironically) the additives and preservatives in many mass-produced dark chocolates means they too have “use by” dates.

Dark Craft Chocolate should not have a “use by” date; but sadly by law it does need to have a “best before” date.  There is no consensus around what this date should be – most makers will suggest a year from the date of production, but others argue for 18 or 24 months.  And I’m quite happy to try dark bars that are three to five years old (we’ve been storing some); although to improve the melt and mouthfeel, they are best savoured after they’ve been lightly warmed. 

(Insider tip: occasionally we have some bars that are close to their “best before” dates, and we place these in “lucky dip” boxes where you can purchase four of these bars for £9.95; see here for more details.)

But bottom line: IT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA TO EAT ANY MILK CHOCOLATE, OR MASS-PRODUCED MAINSTREAM DARK CHOCOLATE, AFTER ITS USE BY DATE (although a few weeks/months is normally fine).

Challenges of Milk Chocolate: Resisting the Bliss Point

In the late 1960s, after his graduation from Harvard with a degree in experimental psychology, Howard Moskowitz was assigned the task of figuring out how to ensure that American soldiers would eat more of their MREs (Meals Ready to Eat in army speak — i.e. field rations).  And his discovery of what he named the “Bliss Point” has impacted everything from spaghetti sauces, fizzy drinks, pizza, salad dressings to snack foods.  In a nutshell, the “Bliss Point” is about making food irresistible – or in Pringle’s catchphrase, “once you pop, you can’t stop”.  And Moskowitz worked out that by adding salt, sugar, fat and flavourings in different proportions to different foods (and drinks), you could “engineer” people to eat far more. We can’t help but reach for more.

Arguably Daniel Peter worked this out a century before Moskowtiz when, along with Henri Nestle, he worked out how to make milk chocolate.  Milk chocolate is very moreish. Whereas most of us will savour dark craft chocolate, and are happy with a few squares from a couple of bars, with milk chocolate it is harder to resist (and this is true of both “classic” milks and “dark” milks with over 50% cocoa in them).  Indeed in the case of mass-produced milk chocolate even the packaging reflects this – it assumes that the whole bar will be eaten in one go (actually the same is true of many mass-produced dark chocolates, as they too have other fats, oils and flavourings added to optimise for the “bliss point”).

Summary

Forewarned is forearmed.  Craft Milk Chocolate is awesome.  It has a range of flavours and textures that can rival Dark Craft Chocolate.  And the addition of milk to chocolate helped move chocolate from being primarily a drink for the aristocracy and wealthy to being a delight that everyone can eat and savour.

We really look forward to many of you joining our planned Milk Craft Chocolate Tastings – and for those who’ve attended the regular tasting, we’d love to hear your reactions too.  Please see below for more details, and a few milk bars to (try and) savour.

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony

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Bridging the Gap – A Marketing Masterclass from Omnom and Zac Efron

This week’s blog post is a celebration of some super smart marketing by Icelandic Craft Chocolate makers Omnom thanks to their friendship with the actor Zac Efron and their awesome “bridge” bars. 

Omnom are masters at “bridge bars”. We’ll explain this concept below, as well as try to tempt you to enjoy, and to share, some great Craft Chocolate “bridge” bars by Omnom and a few other Craft Chocolate makers.

FINDING CRAFT CHOCOLATE

Once most people try Craft Chocolate they get it.  Immediately, they taste the difference.  And many then go on a journey of unwrapping the story behind the bar, realising how much good these bars do for them, the farmers and the planet.

However it’s not always easy to get people to try their first Craft Chocolate bar.

The first problem is one of access.  In a pre-Covid world the secret of physical retail was “Location, Location, Location”.  But there are very few physical retail stores that stock Craft Chocolate. In comparison, in London, there are over 500 Specialty Coffee stores, almost every pub sells Craft Beer, but the number of physical stores selling Craft Chocolate is at best a couple of dozen.

Most sales of Craft Chocolate are therefore online, i.e., via the internet.  And if the secret of physical retail is LOCATION, the secret of the internet is SEARCH.  Hence Google … though increasingly for many physical products where the customer knows what they want the first port of call is Amazon; growing from less than 20% to over 60% in many categories over the last decade (source: NYTimes).

But if you aren’t aware of Craft Chocolate, you aren’t going to search for it (and there isn’t much Craft Chocolate for sale on Amazon).  The serendipitous discovery of a great new Specialty Coffee or Craft Beer is a LOT easier via your local pub or specialty coffee store.

RAISING AWARENESS

Back in the day, mass-produced chocolate companies were masters of TV and print advertising. Think back to your favourite childhood bars and you’ll conjure up an iconic advert.  And we’ve had great fun assembling links to a few UK examples — the classic lorry, the kid in a cowboy costume, the guy performing amazing feats to deliver a magical box of chocolates, a boyfriend sharing their last whatever, or some beautiful lady romancing a stick of chocolate in some exotic location.

But this sort of FMCG advertising is very expensive.  And it doesn’t work so well in today’s media environment.

Instead, in the online world,  word of mouth and endorsement by recognised (and ideally respected) celebrities reach the parts that others can’t.  And arguably internet viral marketing is even more powerful with its capacity for exponential growth and blitzscaling.

BRIDGING THE FINAL GAP

However, even with a recommendation or endorsement there is often one final hurdle. For many products and categories, especially one that doesn’t fit an existing habit, consumers are nervous to even try.

And unfortunately this can be the case with Craft Chocolate. Many consumers are reluctant to brave the unknown and try a bar made with beans from a place they’ve barely heard of and with a percentage that seems far higher than they are used to.

To cross this final “bridge”, Craft Chocolate makers have crafted bars which incorporate a familiar ingredient, or perhaps a local flavour, that customers recognise, helping them feel comfortable enough to give the bar a try. The familiar thus acts as a ‘bridge’ to a whole new tasting experience – for example:

The list of bars, and maker, we have is awesome here — and we’ve assembled over two dozen brilliant bridge bars on our website here.

ICELANDIC MAGIC

From the get go, Kjartan and Oskar, the founders of Omnom, have used their Icelandic roots to “bridge” to local consumers and international tourists.  They have an awesome liquorice bar which is still one of their best sellers.  They partnered with a local coffee roastery to make a bar that is like a solid cappuccino. Plus their Black N Burnt bar is an extraordinary experiment with local brewers.

Every Christmas they experiment with new local flavours and create more of their amazing packaging.  Ditto Valentines Day and Gay Pride.

And they’ve just released a bar whose list of local and natural ingredients is as long as the name of an icelandic saga — SUPERCHOCOBERRYBARLEYNIBBLYNUTTYLICIOUS – that we are delighted to be launching in the UK this weekend.

THE GREAT TASTE OF ZAC EFRON

In parallel, Omnom has worked another bit of magic.  Kjartan and Oskar have become friends with Zac Efron.  And Zac has just made a highly-rated Netflix documentary about Iceland.  So of course Oscar and Kjartan, plus their crew and their iconic factory in Reykjavik harbour, all feature prominently.  And this is an AWESOME mechanic for reaching new customers and persuading them to try Omnom’s bars.  It’s called “Down to Earth” if you have Netflix.

SHARE THE LOVE

If only every Craft Chocolate maker could persuade Zac Efron (or another celebrity actor with great taste) to try, and fall in love with, their bars.

But there is another way.  It doesn’t have to be a celebrity who shares their appreciation of Craft Chocolate.  A recommendation from a friend, family member, partner or colleague also works especially if it’s to an accessible, “Bridge” bar.

So we’ve assembled a bunch of great “bridge” bars, see below for a few and for a longer list please see here on the website.  And we’d ask that you too share the love — just like Zac — and recommend these to your friends, family and colleagues.

And you even get another advantage — if you use our Refer A Friend scheme, you’ll receive a coupon for a free (taster) bar when you next order and your friend (or partner or colleague etc.) can use the coupon BRIDGECR for 10% of any of the below Bridge Bars (including some of Zac’s favourites). So please just share this blog post, link and coupon to your friends etc. — and then register at our Refer a Friend scheme here.

As ever, thanks for your support. 

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony

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What Craft Chocolate can Learn from Specialty Coffee

Coffee and Chocolate

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

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

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

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

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

SIMILARITIES

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

HISTORY

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

QUALITY

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

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

ON THE FARM

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

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

DIFFERENCES

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

DRINKING VERSUS EATING

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

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

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

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

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

UPGRADE

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

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

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

RITUALS, FAIRS KITS

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

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

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

ADDICTION

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

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

DEFINITIONS AND PACKAGING

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

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

IN SUMMARY

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

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

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Introducing Soklet and Explaining the Importance of Dal in Craft Chocolate

India doesn’t immediately spring to mind when one thinks of craft chocolate. Yet.

But this is unfair and a misconception. Firstly, Indian culinary technology underpins the explosion of craft chocolate making over the last twenty years. Secondly more and more craft chocolate makers are exploring fine quality, heirloom cocoa varietals from India.  And thirdly India is now emerging as a powerhouse in the tree-to-bar craft chocolate making scene.

This month we are delighted to introduce our first Indian tree-to-bar maker, Soklet (you can read more about them here)  We’re also keen to highlight a few other bars crafted using Indian beans, from Norway to Dubai.

Craft Chocolate and Lentil Grinders

As access to fine flavour cocoa improved in the late 1990s and early 2000s, more and more chocolate enthusiasts were inspired to try and craft chocolate bars at home, emulating the craft beer and speciality coffee industries.  However, unless these enthusiasts were in the fortunate position of inheriting a historic grinder and conche, they struggled to access affordable machinery.

Whereas these enthusiasts could roast using converted ovens or coffee roasters, winnow using hair dryers or converted vacuum cleaners, and temper by hand, the machinery required to grind and conche beans was far more specialist and expensive.  To make craft chocolate you need to grind and conche (think kneading dough when making bread) the beans for many hours.  Magimix-like food mixers or coffee grinders simply don’t work.  And “industrial” grinders and conches are extremely expensive and designed for mass, not small batch, production

Craft chocolate making ingenuity rapidly developed a solution.  John Nanci (of Chocolate Alchemy fame) discovered that tweaking the  lentil and spice grinders used in Indian home cooking could create what they named “Craft Chocolate Melangers” — inexpensive machines that could grind and conche in small batches of single to tens of kilos.  Rapidly, the likes of Spectra, Premier, and CocoaTown became the go-to critical machines for literally hundreds of craft chocolate makers; everywhere from Saigon to San Francisco and Budapest to Brooklyn.

Today, CocoaTown, Spectra, and Premier are being joined by makers around the world (literally from the US to Russia) in making ever larger versions of the original lentil grinders / melangeurs.  We estimate that of our 100+ makers, over two thirds started, and are continuing, with their converted lentil grinders.

And with the gradual easing of lockdown, you can now visit chocolate makers to see these machines in action: Dormouse in Manchester (UK), Pump Street in Orford (UK), Duffy in Cleethorpes (UK), Plaq in Paris (using an American machine), Mirzam in Dubai, and a whole host of makers in the US.

India and Chocolate – Some History

Cocoa was first introduced to India by the British East India Trading Company in the late eighteenth century in Kerala.  It was mainly drunk by the British but unlike tea, chocolate didn’t really take off with the locals.  Today, the average annual chocolate consumption in India is still only 100-200g per person, compared to 5-9kg per person in Europe, and India comprises less than 1% of the world’s production.

Nonetheless, India possesses all the ingredients to be able to cultivate fine flavour cocoa.  It has a perfect climate, unique ecosystems, and beans bursting with flavour.  Zotter have sourced beans from India for many years. And it’s no surprise that the likes of GoGround are now emerging as sources of excellent cocoa as the below bars from Fjak and Standout evidence.

Introducing Soklet…

Beyond this, more and more entrepreneurs in India are crafting their own bars from “tree to bar”.  Two such people are brothers-in-law Harish Manoj Kumar and Karthikeyan Palansiwamy of Soklet. They run the business with their wives, Rathi – in charge of production – and Sajini (who is Harish’s sister) – in charge of marketing and packaging.

They first started growing cocoa in 2005.  Then in 2015,  Karthikeyan  and Harish decided over a few drinks that they would become India’s first ever tree-to-bar chocolate maker. Harish’s family has been growing cocoa on Regal Plantation since 2005, primarily as an “intercrop” to boost the farm’s healthy diversity, and then later as a valuable product in its own right. But they felt it wasn’t getting the recognition its beautiful flavour profile deserved. So they set out to change that – by producing bars full of flavour and brimming with quality.  They named their company “Soklet” after how Chocolate is pronounced in Tamil, the region they come from.

Cocoa Runners meet Soklet

We first met Karthikeyan and Harish over three years ago at Chocoa. At that point they were still both involved mainly in the Textile industry, with chocolate as a sideline activity (Harish originally planted cocoa to “rest” from his other crops).   We’ve watched with huge respect as they’ve spent more and more time on their cocoa plantation and crafting their chocolate, experimenting with different sugars, different approaches, and different ingredients (hint: the addition of ghee in their milk bars is intriguing). 

Please do try some of the great bars coming out of India and with Indian beans.  And the next time you have dal along with your Indian meal, give thanks to the lentil grinder and its foundational role in craft chocolate.

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Some insights from learning to ride a bike, and 100+ Craft Chocolate Tastings

Bike Fathers Day

Image credit: Bike List

We have hosted over 100 Craft Chocolate Tastings!  A huge thanks for all your support, encouragement and kind words.

Through these tastings we’ve discovered there are some aspects of savouring craft chocolate that are a bit like learning to ride a bike. And what a great theme to reflect upon given that it’s Father’s Day next Sunday.

Learning to Ride a Bike

None of us are born knowing how to ride a bike.  It takes a bit of practice.  Training wheels (stabilisers) can help.  And falling off, with some embarrassment, is par for the course.  For most of us it’s an experience where we remember the good parts and acquire a fun and rewarding skill.

Learning to savour craft chocolate is similar. Even though almost everyone enjoys great craft chocolate, no one is born with an innate expertise (and distrust anyone who says they were born with a great palate).

None of us instinctively can articulate the tastes, flavours, textures and mouthfeels that we experience when we taste craft chocolate (or fine wine, coffee, tea, etc.).  We need some basic vocabulary so that we can describe the word on the tip of our tongue. Articulating is a vital step in evaluating and remembering. And then we need to practise (which with craft chocolate is normally great fun). 

It also helps if you can “interact” as you taste.  Sharing what you are experiencing makes it more interesting and stimulating.  But many of us are worried about not knowing what to say or, rather, saying the wrong thing.  And in public tastings it takes a lot of work to get people to speak up (and also sometimes shut up!).

The Advantages of Remote Tastings (and Joe Wicks)

Remote Tastings have a number of advantages to physical tastings.  First, we aren’t constrained by our “London Bubble”.  We can have lots of people attending from lots of places (at one recent tasting we had people from the US, South America and over 6 EU countries). They are more convenient for many customers (we do them at various times every Wednesday, and are happy to arrange ad-hoc tastings too for families, companies, etc.).

Remote tastings are also great at being partially, or fully, anonymous.  They avoid the fear of, for example, turning up to a gym spin class and being embarrassed about one’s fitness or clothing.  Think of it being a bit like Joe Wicks. We exercise together, but in the comfort and anonymity of our own homes.  We can learn some new moves and have fun.

Ideally you also want some interaction and some feedback (maybe more Peloton here than Joe Wicks). It helps to see what other people are experiencing too.

Our experience of all our face to face, and remote, Craft Chocolate Tastings has confirmed that feedback and interaction are really important. People just need to overcome their initial trepidation. Once you know a little bit, once you’ve tasted the magic of craft chocolate, everyone is intrigued.  And if you can start to articulate what you are enjoying and tasting it makes it even more fun.

So we now use a tool in our Virtual Tastings where you can describe what you are “sensing” in real time along with everyone else.  You do this remotely and anonymously.  No one needs to worry about saying the wrong thing.  No one needs to worry about not saying anything. But it is really interesting for everyone to see what everyone else is enjoying – and realising how different craft chocolates can be. 

The Craft Chocolate Great Wave

To provide a framework, and some vocabulary, we use the “Craft Chocolate Great Wave” that we developed with Professor Barry Smith, James Hoffman of Square Mile Coffee and Rebecca Palmer of Corney & Barrow Wines.  These three all have years of tasting experience.  And they are all very articulate and passionate, and have put in the hours to acquire this fluency. 

To extend the analogy, this “Craft Chocolate Tasting Wave” is sort of like training wheels on a bike.  It can help you describe those flavours and textures that are on the tip of your tongue.  And once you can articulate the flavours, textures and tastes you enjoy you can discover more of what you like, why these bars taste this way, and how to find more great bars.

More Tastings with Chocolate DJs

Lots of people who’ve attended our tastings have asked us for more tastings.  So we are now also rolling out a series of additional Remote Tastings with other friends of Craft Chocolate acting as “Chocolate DJs” with their playlists of favourite craft chocolate bars. 

By popular request we’ve another Tasting with Professor Barry Smith on the science of flavour, taste and texture.  Next up is another philosopher, Julian Baggini, who is about to publish a new book on that great foodie movie, Babette’s Feast.  And he, along with Spencer, will explore the interaction of chocolate over the ages with religion and philosophy on the 9th of July.  Then we’ve two “wine and chocolate” pairings; the first one with 67 Pall Mall on the 2nd July, and then another with Ruth Spivey (founder of Wine Car Boot) on the 23rd of July.

Similar to when we started with our original Zoom Tastings, we are still developing the format for these tastings.  The one constant is that we’ll be tasting 8-10 chocolates that you can purchase as a Tasting Kit, and that we’ll be discussing these – and much more – with the speaker on Zoom.  And all of these Tastings Kits and Sessions can be bought and reserved on our website – see here.

Fathers Day

As anyone who has email knows, it’s Father’s day next weekend.  So we’ve prepared a bunch of great craft chocolate offerings (see below and here). In addition we would like to encourage you, and any fathers, to join in one of our Virtual Tastings.

Wishing you all a safe and sane weekend.

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony

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The case for fruit and nuts in craft chocolate

In the world of craft chocolate, the subject of adding nuts and other “inclusions” to the cocoa bean is heated and vexed.  Purists insist on minimal ingredients. They sniff at the idea of flavour combinations, “additions” and the likes of “fruit and nuts”. At the same time, most craft chocolate aficionados have their “guilty secrets” and appreciate the amazing pairings craft chocolate with inclusions can achieve. 

We think that there is room for both types of craft chocolate lovers.  But we think that this debate opens up a more important issue:

Is the bar about “using but obscuring” the cocoa bean? (i.e. mass-produced chocolate) …

Or is it about “revealing and celebrating” the cocoa bean? (i.e. craft chocolate) …

To phrase the question in another way:

Is the aim to use chocolate as a vector for flavouring, or is it about showcasing how chocolate offers an unparalleled variety of flavours, textures, tastes, mouthfeel – and offers awesome pairings?

Mass-produced Chocolate …

Mass-produced chocolate is all about cost, consistency and immediate satisfaction.  To that end, it’s all about achieving the same flavour, melt, mouthfeel and texture bar after bar, year after year, for the lowest possible price. Hence the uproar whenever there is a rumour of a change to the formula or format of any mass-produced bar, egg, or whatever.  

And one way to achieve consistency and low cost is through additives and flavourings. These additives and flavourings also create “moreishness” (hence why mass produced chocolate bar packaging isn’t designed to be resealed – they expect the whole bar to be eaten in one go, and hence why they have so much sugar, additives, etc.)

… versus Craft Chocolate 

By contrast Craft Chocolate is all about showcasing the myriad variety of flavours, tastes and textures that can be coaxed from fine flavour cocoa beans.  Different fermentations, vintages, roasts, batches and the like are celebrated for their distinctiveness.  And when you savour craft chocolate bars, there is a wave of aromas and flavours that develop from the cocoa bean.  To adapt a famous UK adline “I can’t believe it’s not FLAVOURED”; great craft chocolate bars have so much flavour that one thinks that something other than cocoa beans has been added. Please see the following bars where you will look twice at the label as they really do exhibit more flavours than you’d expect from “merely” a cocoa bean:

1+1 = MORE THAN 2

We love these single-estate craft chocolate bars.  Indeed they are what our monthly subscription is all about.  But there is more.

To be pedantic, even in a two-ingredient craft bar, there is an inclusion (sugar).  The addition of a “touch of sugar” to a craft chocolate bar helps bring out the flavour, develop the mouthfeel and remove astringency and bitterness.

And even purists will accept the addition of some cocoa nibs (technically a fruit) to add texture, crunch and astringency (see the following great examples from Taucherli, Menakao, Askinosie, and Feitoria).  Plus for over 100 years, thanks to the pioneering work of Swiss chocolate enthusiast Daniel Peter, we’ve been enjoying milk chocolate bars because he worked out how to add milk to a bar, and use milk’s creaminess to sweeten and add roundness to a bar’s mouthfeel.

Above and beyond this there are a number of pairings and inclusions which showcase the genius and heritage of many craft chocolate makers.  Here are a few favourites (this is just the tip of the iceberg of amazing inclusion bars):

Fossa’s Honey Orchid Dancong Hongcha bar showcases Singapore’s culinary heritage.  Have this bar instead of desert (or in addition!).

Pump Street’s signature Sour Dough and Sea Salt pays tribute to their baking heritage and seaside location.

The pepper in Akesson’s Black Pepper bar is grown alongside the cocoa to offer it shade and prevent it from becoming “sunburnt”. It also makes this bar an awesome pairing for red wine.

And finally, it’s hard to get more Norwegian than reindeer moss – see Fjak’s Lingonberry and Reindeer moss.

Virtual Tastings

Finally, please do join us for one of our Virtual Tastings to continue this discussion (and taste some great bars).  Our Friday session with Professor Barry Smith was a smash hit – so we’ll be holding another one soon.  Plus we’ve now a series of alternate 5pm and 8pm (UK time) sessions every Wednesday through June and July that you can book on the website. The zoom sessions are free, but we do recommend tasting along with us via a Couples or Family pack.

Wishing you a safe, sane, physically distant but socially close Bank Holiday weekend (at least here in the UK) with some great craft chocolate bars.

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony

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Dark Milk Chocolate – a low-sugar alternative

100% Cacao (No Added Sugar) Gifts | Cocoa Runners

“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 there is currently a series of TV ads running for 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 Cadburys new Dark Dairy Milk is sugar.  And the bar only contains 40% cocoa / chocolate.  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% chocolate (and the International Chocolate Awards have a category of awards to showcase them).  And more and more makers, led by Duffy, Friis Holm, Dormouse, Fjak, 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.

Wishing you a safe, sane, sweet and hopefully creamy Craft Dark Milk Chocolate filled weekend

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony

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How much sugar is in your chocolate?

Chocolate and low sugar

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 5 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 4 teaspoons of sugar. 

 Let’s add a bit more context.  A 330ml can of Coca Cola has just over 8 teaspoons of sugar in it. A bottle of red wine (750CL) has around 6 teaspoons. A craft chocolate bar (65g 70% bar) contains about 3-4 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 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 6 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 3-5 squares per session, you’ll be consuming less than a teaspoon of sugar per serving. Your tastebuds 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).

Wishing you all a safe, and dare we say sweet, Bank Holiday weekend. And to all American mothers out there, happy Mothers’ Day too!

And as ever, thanks for your support and enthusiasm

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony

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Earth Day in Lockdown

Last Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.  Normally all of us involved in craft chocolate would be all over this.  But these aren’t normal times.  Here in the UK we’ve just completed our first month of “lockdown” and, unlike a few other parts of the world, we’ve no end in sight.  Earth Day acknowledges our environmental problems and encourages us all to be positive in taking proactive steps that can be both small and large.  So we thought that it would be good to take stock and also ask you all to help celebrate Earth Day by enjoying and sharing craft chocolate, as it really is better for the planet.

TAKING STOCK

All of our 100+ makers have been hit really hard by Covid-19.  At best they’ve shrunk back to a skeleton staff, often the founding team, but they are able to continue operations.  However for many the lockdown has meant they’ve had to completely suspend operations. This has been particularly prevalent in cocoa-growing countries like Ecuador and Peru, but also some makers here in the UK, France and other parts of the EU and even the USA have had to temporarily shut up shop. For those makers who had built major retail operations and/or those who have grown by partnering with coffee shops and restaurants it’s been devastating. Bottom line, all craft chocolate makers are struggling with huge declines in sales.

Craft chocolate isn’t alone here. Jenny Linford, a wonderful food writer, has penned an incredibly poignant and heart rending description of the challenges for artisan cheese makers (which you can read here).  Craft chocolate makers for the most part don’t grow their own beans, so the circumstances are a little different.  But the essence of craft chocolate is celebrating the cocoa bean.  And all our makers practise direct trade – they all build personal and long-term relationships with the farmers and co-operatives who grow their cocoa beans.  And that’s the next really big fear.  What happens with already harvested beans?  And even more worryingly, what will happen with the next harvest?  So now, more than ever, craft chocolate needs your support.

At Cocoa Runners we are incredibly fortunate to have a great warehouse partner in Devon who have put into place even more stringent hygiene and social distancing rules.  We are still bringing in new bars and even new makers. And we are grateful to the Royal Mail who are “taking the strain”.  The strain on the Royal Mail does mean it is taking longer for UK deliveries (please assume 2-3 days, even with RM 24 “first class”).  International deliveries, with a few exceptions, are continuing – although they too are taking longer.

These circumstances have also forced us to leave our “London Bubble” with Choc O’Clock on Instagram and Facebook live on Thursdays.  And instead of the monthly London based tasting, we are now doing weekly “Virtual Tastings” via Zoom on Wednesdays, with alternating times of 5-00 pm and 8-00 pm UK time.  We are also experimenting with “joint” tastings – kicking off with a Fine Wine and Craft Chocolate Tasting next Thursday with 67 Pall Mall.  Plus we’re doing tastings at other virtual festivals and for small groups, families or corporates.  Please do email us with any questions or suggestions – team@cocoarunners.com

We’ve also seen a huge uptick of interest in cooking with craft chocolate.  We have a range of recipe cards that we send along with our Milk (44%), Dark (63%), and 100% single-estate cooking chocolate.  This cooking chocolate is sourced from the Sambirano Valley and crafted by Menakao in Madagascar.  Being grown and crafted at origin means that this chocolate is calculated to have 4-5 times the beneficial impact of Fair Trade certification for the local economy.  And it makes great cakes, biscuits, savoury dishes, hot chocolate and more.  Please see here for more details.

OUR ASK

If you are a regular to this email, the chances are that you already know that craft chocolate tastes better, is better for you, and better for the farmers and planet.  Plus it makes FAR better brownies and hot chocolate. So this Earth Weekend, please can we ask you to share this email, invite your family and friends to a Virtual Tasting and above all stay safe, physically distant but socially close?

Thank you

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony