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Veganuary and Chocolate

Many people attempting Veganuary each year ask us: “Can I still eat chocolate?” Well, great news – you absolutely can! In fact, most of the chocolate in our library is vegan.

Dark craft chocolate, so long as it isn’t a flavoured bar with a non-vegan ingredient, is perfectly fine for Veganuary. Be careful buying dark chocolate from the supermarket, though, as lots of it isn’t actually vegan – read on for more.


When we started to research Veganuary we were amazed to find that it has “only” been around since 2014.  And the term veganism is new(ish), being first used by Donald Watson in 1944, although its roots go way, way further back – to Pythagoras and the world of Ancient Greece.

Veganuary was set up by Jane Land and Matthew Glover from their kitchen in York, and launched in January 2014.  It’s very much focused on vegan food, giving veganism “a go”, supported by loads of recipes (see here for some of ours), food suggestions, product guides and starter kits (see here for our chocolate boxes) and is an interesting means to start the year differently.

According to Wikipedia, over 500,000 people have “sign(ed) up for the Veganuary challenge in 2021 and of those people there were 125,000 from the UK (… this is up from 2017 when) … 50,000 participants had signed up as of 4 January”. Veganuary is now also going international with the US, Germany, Sweden and many other countries signing up (intriguingly, Texas claims to have had “the second highest number of US sign ups”). See below for details.


Veganism as a term dates back to 1944, according to the Vegan Society.  It was defined by Leslie J Cross initially as “[t]he principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man” and later clarified  “to seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man”.

But the spirit of veganism and vegetarianism go FAR FAR further back.  The UK Vegetarian Society dates back to Ramsgate in 1847.  And in turn Vegetarians date their history back at least as far as Pythagoras (yes, the same Greek who was a father of geometry was also an early advocate of avoiding animal products).


Most people think that the way to continue enjoying chocolate during Veganuary is to simply omit milk chocolate from their weekly shop.

But many supermarket “dark” chocolate bars, despite not having “milk” in their description, may not be suitable for vegans. 

For example, many cooking chocolates have “butterfat” to give them a rich mouthfeel – see this well known cooking bar label’s ingredients:

And the same is true of many other (non-cooking) mass-produced “dark chocolate” bars.  In the past, many dark chocolate bars were “filled out” with whey powder and other bulking agents (whey powder is a by-product of making cheese – and now used by bodybuilders and athletes). 

Because of these uses, whey powder is becoming more expensive, and many mass-produced confectionery makers are switching to using more vegetable fats and palm oils.  And at the same time Mars now has gone the full circle, using the same old whey powder to launch “Protein Enhancement” extensions to some old favourite brands

Bottom line: it’s another good reminder always to check the ingredients (and source of beans) of any chocolate bar

You also don’t have to stick solely to dark chocolate in Veganuary; there is such a thing as vegan milk chocolate too!  These chocolates are made with “vegan” milks like coconut milk or oat milk instead of cow, sheep, or goat milk, and are vegan-friendly.


Yes – there are a host of great makers; all of our 100+ makers craft bars that are great for vegans. And then the likes of Marou in Vietnam, Raaka in the USA, Forevever Cacao, Solkiki, and Chocolate Tree based over here in the UK – they all do some great coconut milk bars.

So, if you’re struggling to keep those January Blues at bay, and would like to indulge in some sweet treats (without breaking you Veganuary pledge) see our vegan selection of chocolates!

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie, Harmony and James

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Advent Calendar and US Presidential election

Next week, as I’m sure you are aware is the US Presidential Election.  And we are also putting on sale our Craft Chocolate Advent Calendar.  These two events are linked.  Read on below for the history of Advent Calendars to explore the link (it’s not that tenuous) and an overview of our Craft Chocolate Advent* Calendar.  

Plus we are excited to confirm a whole host of new Craft Chocolate Conversations – with Barry Smith (Nov 6th) James Hoffmann, Philipp Kauffmann and Vanessa Kimble.  In each of these Conversations we’ll be exploring their careers and philosophies whilst tasting bars that showcase different aspects of their lives.  You don’t need the chocolates to participate.  But it’s really fun to taste alongside them (and everyone else), and a great way to learn about philosophy, the science of taste and flavour, Specialty Coffee, Organic Trade, the WWF, Sourdough bread and more.  Please do join us by registering here

Our Craft Chocolate Advent Calendar

One of our mantras at Cocoa Runners is to always taste a Craft Chocolates in pairs as this really helps you appreciate their distinct flavours and tastes.  For most people flavour and taste are notoriously hard to articulate.  But tasting chocolate bars alongside one another throws their textures, flavours, melts, tastes and way they develop into sharp relief. And it really helps to refine your palate and enjoyment of craft chocolate.

So if you can steel yourself to only eat half of each Advent Chocolate for the first day, you can savour you way through 25 different chocolates eaten in pairs.  And because each bar is at least 5g (and most are over 10g, with some up to 37g) you can do this alongside 1-2 others. 

This year we’ve bars from Raaka, Pump Street, Menakao, Pralus, Chocolate Makers, Taza, Jordi’s and CacaoSuyo that run the gamut from milk to dark.  And they come in a (re-useable) hamper, along with tasting notes, books, pencil and all the kit you need to create a your own calendar (i.e., the envelopes, festive string and clothes pegs)

A History of Advent Calendars

Historians believe that Advent has been celebrated since the fourth century, albeit originally signifying the time when religious converts prepared for baptism.  Today Advent is obviously associated with Christmas and, for the last century or so, it’s also been accompanied with a tradition of Advent Calendars.

Originally these “calendars” took a very different format – German Protestants during the 19th century began to mark off the days to Christmas by burning a candle or marking walls and doors with a chalk line.  In 1908 Gerhard Lang came up with the idea of counting down to Christmas by attaching 24 little sweets to cardboard coloured squares.  Soon after he added little doors and sales sky rocketed. 

And the rest would have been history were it not for World War 2, where the Germans forbade the printing and making of such “frivolities”.  However post war, Richard Sellmar miraculously (considering the paper shortages) obtained a permit from the US officials to begin printing and selling them again, and built a hugely successful international business (the company Sellmar-Verlag has now been selling Advent Calendars for 70+ years.

During he 1950s various companies experimented with filling calendars with chocolates.  And they hit “influencer gold” when President Eisenhower was photographed with his grand children opening a Chocolate Advent Calendar.  A tradition was born and we remain indebted to the US presidency for launching Chocolate Advent Calendars.

Did You Know…

  1. The world’s largest advent calendar was built in 2007 at St. Pancras station in London.  It was over 200 feet high and 75 feet wide
  2. Harrods in 2007 created a Christmas-tree-shaped carved wooden Advent calendar which cost over £30,000.
  3. Since then prices have inflated even further — Porsche have a $1m calendar made from brushed aluminium that includes a Porsche Design P’6910 Indicator watch in rose gold, an individually customisable Porsche Design kitchen and a custom-made motor yacht, also designed by Porsche’s studio in Austria. The added extras also include a pair of 18-carat gold sunglasses, a pair of Porsche designed cufflinks, and a pair of the most expensive trainers money can buy.
  4. According to the Guiness Book of records, Kevin Strahle holds the record for the fastest time to  consume a chocolate advent calendar, taking 1 minute 27.84 seconds. 
  5. In 2012, Lego built the world’s largest LEGO Advent Calendar in Covent Garden, London using over 600,000 LEGO bricks in 30 different colours.  It took them (and a master lego builder) over 7 weeks to build.
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Welcome to NearyNogs – our first Northern Irish maker

Which Northern Irish county is famous for:

  • Being the birthplace of Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum, inventor of making drinking chocolate with milk, and Royal Physician to the crown?
  • Having the highest mountains in Northern Ireland (the Mourne Mountains)?
  • Being the home, and birthplace, of the father of the Brontë family (Patrick – father of Anne, Charlotte, Emily and Branwell) – and now known as “Brontë Homeland”?
  •  Being the location of the first Craft Chocolate maker in Northern Ireland – NearyNogs?

The answer is County Down.

And this week we are delighted to be welcoming Dorothy, Shane and the Neary family – and their wonderful Craft Chocolate, NearyNogs, based on the Mourne Coast, County Down.


In 2011, Shane and Dorothy Neary organised a fundraiser for their eldest daughter’s trip to work in an Indian orphanage. Dorothy, whose family has a long history in the confectionery industry, was given an old chocolate fudge recipe by her mother, who suggested that she make some to sell at the event.

Luckily for Craft Chocolate, this chocolate fudge was a massive hit. Within days Shane and Dorothy were invited to craft markets and asked to provide food for weddings—and so the chocolate making began.


Craft chocolate became a full-time passion and career after a family illness. In late 2011 one of their younger daughters became seriously ill and required life-saving surgery and regular treatment at Great Ormond Street Hospital. To provide more time for his daughter, Shane decided to leave his regular job and dive into the world of craft chocolate making.

They named their company “NearyNógs” after Johnnie Neary, Shane’s father, and the Irish Gaelic word Tír na nÓg (Nógs) which means “the land of the youth” (Shane’s father wrote many children’s stories).  And from the outset they determined to make it a “family firm”.


The family has come a LONG way from their early days of processing their beans with a rolling pin and hair dryer. They now craft their chocolate in a repurposed potato farm in County Down, at the base of the Mourne Mountains with a beautiful view over the Irish Sea.

Shane and Dorothy are fully committed to sourcing the finest single-estate beans and then crafting these into Craft Chocolate bars with flavours that linger and last.  A great case in point is their 72% Hispaniola Dominican Bar, with beans they source directly from Fernandez Badia of Agrocacao, a small family cacao farm in San Francisco de Macoris, Dominican Republic.

In addition to these “straight” Craft Chocolate bars, Dorothy and Shane are developing various “bridge” bars based on their Irish roots.  These “bridge” bars provide an immediate way into craft chocolate by appealing to customers keen to explore local traditions and ingredients native to County Down.  And we are delighted to be able to offer you their “Dúlamán”, a 70% dark bar that is flavoured with gorse flowers hand-picked from the Mourne Mountains and seaweed from the nearby Irish coast (the beans are the same as their Hispaniola bar above).

For more on Dorothy, Shane and the NearyNogs family firm, please see their maker profile.  But we celebrate the way that NearyNogs really is, in Shane’s words “… a family business .. all of our older children have various skills that are beneficial to a chocolate making business… i.e. mechanic, carpenter, event organising, marketing, researching, visual retailing and fancy improvising when necessary.”

Go raibh míle maith agat  (which I believe translates as “thank you and may you have goodness”) and also céad míle fáilte (a hundred thousand welcomes)

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie, Harmony and James 

PS – please do join our next Craft Chocolate in Conversation with Professor Barry Smith on the 6th November, see below for more details

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Cooking and Baking with Craft Chocolate

This week over a third of people watching TV (an estimated 6.9m people) tuned into the Great British Bake Off’s “Chocolate Week”.  To put this in context, around one in five Brits eat chocolate every day, over 70% of us eat chocolate at least once a week, and over 15% of households in the UK have cooked or baked with chocolate in the last three months. (And yes, more of us watch people baking than bake ourselves .. but we sort of already knew that?)

Given that many of us are now (unfortunately) heading into lockdown again, we’d like to encourage more people to bake and cook with Craft Chocolate.  And to that end, we’ve three requests:

  1.  Please can you fill out this survey so we can understand better your habits, requirements and requests?  The survey is pretty similar to a public online survey we just finished (see below for some of the findings). It shouldn’t take more than 3 minutes.
  2. Please would you also email us at if you’d like to be part of our Craft Cooking Chocolate Panel?  In return for answering the odd email, we’d like to invite you to sample new products and experiences, plus help us develop new concepts and approaches.  In the header of your email, please add “CRAFT CHOCOLATE PANEL”.
  3. Please would you consider trying our Craft Cooking Chocolate and Baking Powder the next time you “bake off” (or cook with chocolate)?  As a small incentive, once you’ve completed the above survey, you’ll receive a 10% off voucher on all of our current cooking range?


Here are some of the findings we’ve gleaned from the survey.  Hopefully some will resonate and raise a smile:

  • An extraordinary number of us cook with others in the family (as many as those who also cook on their own; nearly 50% in both cases).  However very few cook or bake with their partners – it’s clearly not considered much of a romantic activity!
  • People who love chocolate, unsurprisingly, cook with it a lot, citing this as their prime motivation.  And this particularly true of you young males under 30.
  • Age plays a huge role in what people cook – basically youth are into experimenting with brownies and cookies, whereas cakes are the “go to” for the more mature cooks and bakers.
  • The vast majority (over 85%) of people cooking with chocolate purchase their cooking chocolate from their local supermarkets.  Online is very low, in low single digits, and below farm shops, delicatessens, etc. please help us address this! (note: we specifically asked people about their pre-lockdown habits)
  • At the same time, most people go online for recipes (over 40%), followed by books (26%) and then followed by some distance by TV shows.
  • The best news for us is that the number one factor people claimed to choose from was “taste”, followed by price.
  • Over 90% of our respondents had baked the “big three” – cakes, brownies, or cookies.
  • About 40% of our respondents cooked with chocolate buttons or cocoa powder, while 50% reported cooking with full bars.


Any which way, we’d really appreciate your insights and suggestions. So please can you spare 3 minutes to complete the survey (even telling us that you don’t (yet?) cook or bake with chocolate is useful to know!) — take the survey here.

And we are really excited to be able to offer Menakao’s Professional / Chef grade Cooking Chocolate in family sized packs of Milk (44%), Dark (63%) and 100% (trust us … it really does help the flavour).  These come in 230g bags of chocolate “drops” (not huge bars) which makes it easier to break, weigh and melt. One bag is designed for a LARGE tray of brownies or a couple of cakes.  And the bags are resealable, recycleable and easy to store.  Prices are £6.95 per bag (and 10% less if you use the discount code CRSURV10 for the next 48 hours).

In addition, we are also offering Menakao’s roasted nibs and non-alkalised cocoa powder from Kokoa Kamili in similar packaging.

 These really will make all your cooking taste better, be better for you and are better for the farmers and the planet — please do try them  See below for more details

Above and beyond this, we’ve already developed a couple of “family” cooking products and Lizzie has more up her sleeve.  Plus thanks to Jenny Linford we’ve a bunch of amazing brownie and cookie recipes (see here).  And if you want to know how to make a hot chocolate like a barista pro, please check out Ewelina from Prufrock here

Here again is the survey link.

Thanks for your support

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie, Harmony and James

PS — A huge thanks to Julian Baggini for his talk on “Craft Chocolate and Babette’s Feast” – YouTube video coming soon, and you can still buy the book and bars here

PPS – Please do join us this Thursday for our Next “Craft Chocolate in Conversation” with Isabel Vincent, who will be discussing her most recent book (Dinner with Edward) and her adventures as an investigative journalist while also tasting various chocolate bars that match these adventures.

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Thankful for Canada!

This week at Cocoa Runners we’re all about Canada!

This Monday is Canadian Thanksgiving, and we here at Cocoa Runners are certainly thankful for a lot that comes out of Canada. Any list of the world’s greatest Craft Chocolate makers will include the likes of SOMA, Palette De Bine, Qantu, Sirene and DesBarres (and some more we are looking forward to introducing soon).

But not many people know that we all have many things from Canada to be thankful for, including all of the following:

  1. Trivial Pursuit
  2. Lacrosse
  3. Basketball
  4. Ice Hockey
  5. Yahtzee
  6. Pictionary
  7. Balderdash
  8. Table hockey

Not bad for a population of “only” 38 million!

Obviously, we’re focused on the chocolate creations (though see below for more details on these other inventions).

Quite why Canadians make such great Craft Chocolate Makers is an interesting question.  Asking Cynthia, David, Christine, Max, Elfi, Taylor, Ariane or Erik (the makers of the above companies) always results in a laconic, and typically modest, “Do you really think so? We’re not really sure”. Aw shucks. 

Maybe this is part of the answer.  All of these makers are both humble and always seeking to improve.  But this is true of many Craft Chocolate makers (and another reason why makers are so great to be around).

To celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving we’ve arranged two Canadian Chocolate and Food related treats for you to enjoy.


Firstly, we’ve built a box of four award-winning bars from a selection of our Canadian makers (see here and below for details).  If you bought the bars individually the price would be £36.80, but to celebrate Thanksgiving the box is priced at £29.95.


Secondly, we’ve organised a Craft Chocolate Conversation with Canadian journalist and author Isabel Vincent.  Isabel’s career spans Canada, Brazil, Switzerland, and New York, where she is now living and writing for the New York Post.  She’s written on everything from Avon ladies in the Amazon rainforest to how a pair of English Opera singers helped thousands of Jews escape Nazi Germany.  

She’s also just published a paperback version of her wonderful book, Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship.  This is both a story of some wonderful meals but also of a meaningful friendship for both Isabel and Edward.

On Thursday 22nd October we are going to be talking to her about many of these adventures, in particular with Edward, in a virtual “fireside” chat.  Alongside the chat we’ll be tasting six very different bars that relate to these adventures.  And we’ll cover everything from sourdough bread to labradors, and from Japanese Yakuza to Swiss Bankers. 

You can purchase the book and chocolates we’ll be discussing here — and if you’ve already received the book, the chocolates only can be purchased here.  You can also just dial into zoom to hear the conversation (and ask questions).  It’s not quite on Canadian Thanksgiving (which is the 12th), but we really hope you can join us.

Wish you all the best,

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie, and Harmony

Read on for a bit more about Canadian Craft Chocolate and some Canadian inventions!



For those of you who are interested in the stories of the inventions mentioned above, here is a short rundown of how it all happened…

  1. Trivial Pursuit

“Formulated by Chris Haney and Scott Abbott in Montreal in 1979, the game that tests general knowledge has gone on to sell more than 88 million copies. Initial investors in the game earned $500,000 for every $1,000 staked.” Source

  1. Lacrosse

“Lacrosse is based on games played by various Native American communities as early as 1100 AD. By the 17th century, a version of lacrosse was well-established and was documented by Jesuit missionary priests in the territory of present-day Canada.” Source

  1. Basketball

“In early December 1891, Canadian James Naismith, a physical education professor and instructor at the International Young Men’s Christian Association Training School (YMCA) in Springfield, Massachusetts, was trying to keep his gym class active on a rainy day. He sought a vigorous indoor game to keep his students occupied and at proper levels of fitness during the long New England winters. After rejecting other ideas as either too rough or poorly suited to walled-in gymnasiums, he wrote the basic rules and nailed a peach basket onto an elevated track.” Source

  1. Yahtzee

“Yahtzee was invented by a wealthy Canadian couple to play aboard their yacht. Whenever friends were invited aboard, they were taught how to play the “Yacht” game. Their friends enjoyed the game so much that they all wanted copies of their own.” Source

  1. Pictionary

“In 1982, Robert Angel and his friends would gather to play a game that required each player to randomly locate a word in the dictionary and sketch it for their team members. In 1984, Angel moved to Seattle and found his old notes of the game and decided to play a few test games with his family. Having realized the importance of knowing words, he read the dictionary and created a word list. Two other partners joined, and they produced the first 1,000 words game in his apartment.” Source

  1. Balderdash

“Selling more than 15 million copies to date, this game combining trivia and bluffing was developed by Toronto residents Laura Robinson and Paul Toyne in 1984. A Balderdash television show briefly aired in 2004 and 2005.” Source

  1. Table hockey

“The first commercial tabletop games were designed by Toronto’s Donald H. Munro in 1933. Munro built his prototype from scavenged scraps of metal and wood as a Christmas present for his children.” Source

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Chocolate playlists? The greatest source of discovery since radio

Few industries have as powerful a discovery mechanic as music enjoys with radio DJs, mix tapes and now playlists. How else do you first come across a new band, a new album, a new song?

Before the internet had come up with the “Viral Marketing” the cool kids were doing this for music via mix tapes in the school yard and now via playlist recommendations on streaming services.  But above all it was radio and DJs.  Say what you like about the BBC, but Radio 1’s dominance of pop radio and its commitment to playing new music are key forces in explaining why the UK has so many great artists and new music.

This concept of DJs and discovery is the bedrock of Cocoa Runners (Simon and Spencer had worked together before at a music label…).  It is all too easy to be swamped by the amazing choice of new makers, beans and bars.  Sadly, all too often, many of us are overwhelmed and revert to “what’s on special offer this weekend”. 

This is a real shame.  It’s like listening to the same handful of songs all the time.  Relying on what’s on offer means missing an opportunity to taste, and indeed to do, something amazing, as craft chocolate tastes so much better, is better for you and better for farmers and the planet.


So to help you discover great new bars we launched the Cocoa Runners monthly subscription box. 

For the last seven years we’ve kept our promise to bring you each month four different bars, along with tasting notes, that are the best craft chocolate bars that we can find (and we only charge £19.95 plus P&P, ship all over the world and offer a 10% off any bars that subscribers enjoy in their box).


We also love inviting other people to become Chocolate DJs and to share their favourite Craft Chocolate Bars.

In our new Craft Chocolate Conversations we are taking this a step further.  We’ve invited World Barista Coffee Champions, Bakers, Philosophers, Novelists, Environmentalists, Wine Journalists, Scientists, and more to explore their lives and work via their favourite Craft Chocolate bars.  See below and here for more details.  And yes, we’ve borrowed this idea from Radio (cf Desert Island Discs).


Above and beyond this we were thrilled and honoured when Annalisa Barbieri of the Observer suggested building and DJing her own personal introduction to Craft Chocolate.

Annalisa is awesome.  Not only is she the Observer’s chocolate correspondent but she writes an incredibly insightful advice column in the Guardian’s Saturday Weekend Magazine where the comments and discussion generate literally pages of discussion.

Needless to say the box she’s assembled is amazing.  Impressively, Annalisa managed to choose one of the very few bars that went on two weeks later to win three stars in the Great Taste Awards (Tosier’s Colombian Coffee bar).  And she single-handedly reintroduced the UK to the delights of Pralus’ Barre Infernale (truly the perfect pudding substitute for any lunch or dinner).  See below for more details.

The five bars, which JUST fit into one of our standard boxes, were launched a couple of weeks ago (see here) at £37.95 (instead of the £44.05 you’d pay by buying the bars individually).  We also ran a special 10% discount for Observer readers until the end of the September along with a £3 contribution to Camfed (a charity she selected) for the first hundred boxes we sold. (Note – neither Annalisa, nor the Observer, receive any money from this box.)

We are now extending this offer for our readers for the next two weeks – please use code ABOCT.  Note: it’s been hard to keep in stock, so bear with us if it takes a little longer than the super fast speed Char, Karl and Wayne normally pick, pack and dispatch.  (And Parcelforce haven’t helped by losing a replenishment stock order!)

Once this coupon expires (Oct 15th), we’ll take 10% of all sale proceeds and donate this to Camfed for the holiday season.

So please treat yourself.  And do join a (free) Craft Chocolate in Conversation here.

As ever, thanks for your support,

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony

P.S. We’ve just received a (small) parcel of short-dated white chocolate from Bertil Akesson, so for any white chocolate aficionados, please do check out our White Lucky Dip boxes.

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The Great Taste Awards and the “Art” of Tasting

Great Taste Awards 2016

This week we’d like to congratulate a number of chocolate makers who have entered, and won, multiple awards at the Great Taste Awards — in particular Fjak and Tosier (ladies first), Standout, Firetree and Solkiki swept the boards.

To celebrate we’ve pulled together an award winning box (see below) and highlighted a few other awesome award-winning bars. 

We’ve also used this occasion to ruminate more on the extraordinary labour intensity of judging food and why they are (arguably) more “art” than “science”.


Just as how you are often advised to swill your wine in a glass, sniff it and then sip it, chocolate has a similar protocol.  When you open a bar the classic advice goes along the lines of “admire the shininess of the chocolate, then break off a piece (it should have a clean snap), then ‘sniff’ it and finally move on to savouring the bar”.

In the process of tasting literally thousands of craft chocolate bars, we believe that there are a few other best practices to make savouring more fun and memorable. These include:

  1. Try to have a few chocolates on the go at the same time (easier than with wine or coffee…).  It really highlights the differences
  2. Try to share and discuss with friends.  It’s more fun and articulating the notes you detect helps you discover and remember
  3.  Try to have some “crib sheets”; most of the time tastes, flavours and textures are “on the tip of our tongues” but hard for most to articulate.  Hence why we always hand out our “Craft Chocolate Savouring Wave”
  4.  Give it time.  Lots of time.  Revisit and repeat


For most of our senses and experiences we’ve developed standardised criteria and scientific measurements.  Time has minutes, hours, years, etc.  Distance has miles (or kilometres).  Weight has kilos (or pounds). Sound has decibels (and pitch, rhythm, frequency, tone, etc.)  Temperature has Celsius (or Fahrenheit or Kelvin).  Colour, since Newton and his prisms, has wavelengths to describe red, yellow and even stuff we can’t see.

Food and drink are different.  They are about flavour, taste and texture.  Measurements and judgements are a lot more subjective. 

Awarding prizes and awards in food and drink is all done by hand (or rather mouth and nose) and by teams of people.   The Great Taste Awards is all about lots of people tasting lots of products.  The same is true for wine with the likes of Decanter, the IWC, IWSC etc. tasting tens of thousands of wines each vintage.  And the Academy of Chocolate and International Chocolate Awards do a similar job for chocolate, each now tasting thousands of bars every year. 

No one really has found a way to speed up or “automate” the process of tasting.

This is in large part because we are a long way from having standardised criteria and measurements for “taste” (or more specifically for flavour — see below).  We don’t have Newton’s light-refracting prism to help us describe and define aromas and flavours.  

And disentangling what we enjoy when we drink and eat is incredibly complicated.  To quote Professor Barry Smith, “…what we ordinarily call ‘taste’ involves input not just from the tongue, but from touch and smell. …  The experience often described in unisensory terms as ‘taste’ depends on the multi-modal combining of inputs”. By this he means that when we delight (or not) in food it is all about our sense of taste, smell, texture and a few other senses (e.g., spiciness). Untangling these is part of the problem.

Another part of the challenge is that we only have defined measurements for some of these senses. For spiciness we have the Scoville scale.  And we do have criteria to measure all the “tastes” (saltiness, sweetness, sourness, bitterness, umami, etc.).

But flavour (olfaction, our sense of smell and flavours) is particularly problematic.  It wasn’t until 1991 that Linda Buck and Richard Axel identified where, and how, the brain’s olfactory process “works” (they won the Nobel Prize for their work here in 2004).  But we are still a long way from having anything like Newton’s prism to define colour via light waves.  Olfaction is hugely complicated.  For example, just for starters we detect flavour in two very different ways; orthonasally (through our nose) and retronasally (through our mouth). 

For those of us who are fans of “real” food (and drinks) there is some good news here: it’s really, really hard to recreate flavours that occur in nature.  Scientists have some tools – for example, Mass Gas Spectometry.  But if you read how long and laborious it was to make artificial vanilla, you’ll see how far they are from cracking fake flavours (the work behind synthesizing artificial vanilla has been compare to “trying to figure out what was inside a mysterious piece of luggage by heaving it off a hotel balcony”). And even then, artificial and synthetic flavours are  approximations which seek out some key characteristics of the desired fruit or suns. Nootkatone was identified in the 1960s as giving grapefruit part of their distinctive flavours and, when distilled, it made a great addition to create Fresca.  But it’s not the real thing.

And to return to the Great Wave of Savouring Chocolate we use in our Virtual Tastings (see here), it is in the “after taste” that these artificial additives fall flat.  To quote Tim Spector from our “Craft Chocolate Conversation” on Thursday night:  “Real food like craft chocolate really lingers and evolves …. mass-produced chocolate is all about the upfront flavour … and is often designed to give you more “hits” to get you coming back for more (and more and more)”.


So anyhow, let’s celebrate all the hard work of our makers, and the tasters, of the Great Taste Awards.  We’ve assembled a box of Milk and Dark Award winning bars.  And as we could only fit four in this box, we’ve included a few more wonderful winners too.  See below and here.

And if you want to know more about the science of taste, flavour and indeed the amazing career of Professor Barry Smith, please do sign up for his next “Craft Chocolate Conversation” with us (he is in the process of choosing his “Desert Island Chocolates”,  but you can sign up for the free Zoom details here and we’ll send you details on how to buy the kit soon).

As ever, thanks for your support,

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony

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Too good to be true … how to read the small print of chocolate and health studies with Dr Tim Spector

This week’s blog post is a light hearted, sceptical review of some of the scientific claims about chocolate.  Plus we have some advice on how to “review” these claims.  Similar to the way we encourage you to check the ingredients on a chocolate bar’s label for its ingredients, and the details of the farm where the beans are sourced, we STRONGLY suggest you review chocolate-related health claims and how many people were studied, who funded the work and your own potential “cognitive bias”. 

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

  • It is pretty easy to “show” people that Craft Chocolate tastes better. They just need to try some.
  • There are also LOTS of studies showing how direct, transparent trade leads to far higher incomes for cocoa farmers (see the Transparency Reports from Kokoa Kamili, Raaka, Omnom, etc).  Similarly Original Beans do a great job of explaining how heirloom cacao is a fantastic crop to encourage local communities to preserve the rainforest (indeed for every bar they sell they plant a tree in the rainforest).
  • However the studies around health and chocolate can be far more problematic. It is often really hard to separate “the wheat from the chaff” of the various claims made for chocolate.

This is one reason why we are delighted to be hosting a “Craft Chocolate Conversation” with Dr Tim Spector about his latest book, Spoon-Fed: Why almost everything we’ve been told about food is wrong

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Some scientific studies really are too good to be true.

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

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

As ever, thanks for your support

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony

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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.


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).


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.)


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”).


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