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Deadly Diseases

cocoa pod with frosty pod rot disease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Caribbean

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

Asia

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

Africa

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

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

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

Bioterrorism in 1990s Brazil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to Spend Less and Save the Planet

Can you think of an advert for any supermarket that doesn’t end by focusing on price? Or one for insurance or energy services that doesn’t offer you the best deal?

Can you now try to think of an advert for a ‘switch’ that could save most households over 20% of their weekly expenditure on a raft of products? And as an added bonus, this action or ‘switch’ also helps save the planet.

The switch here isn’t a new product or service. It’s more fundamental. It’s a change of approach. It’s about throwing away less drinks and foods (including chocolate).

And it’s not just consumers who can make this change. Retailers like us can also do our part to reduce waste.

We present an invitation to grab some great craft chocolate bargains from the supply chain challenges we’ve had, due to Brexit and covid, and a recap on how to read the label to help you, as a consumer, waste less by understanding labels and thinking a little more laterally.

So the next time you see an advertisement saying how much you can save by switching supermarket, energy supplier, insurance company, etc. remember that there are some even bigger savings to be had.

According to Friends of the Earth:

  • The average UK family spends £470 per annum on food they bin.
  • One third of all food produced across the globe is lost or wasted.
  • 50 million chickens are wasted in the UK each year.
  • 100 million pints of milk are tipped down the drain each year in the UK.

We can’t directly help with the 50 million chickens or 100 million pints of milk. But we can help you, and us, reduce chocolate waste. And grab a bargain along the way.

1 – Learn to read the label: The difference between “best before” and “use by”

One of the biggest factors leading to consumers wasting food, and drinks, is the result of misunderstood labels. In the UK (and the EU and US) almost all foods have to indicate a product’s “best before” or “use by” date.

These two labels were designed to help consumers avoid waste and eat safely. However, most consumers are unaware of the difference. And this leads to considerable food wastage, with lots of perfectly safe food being chucked because of a simple misunderstanding.

So here is an attempt to reduce this misunderstanding by clarifying these terms, and then applying them craft (and mass produced) chocolate.

  • Use by dates: This means that the product contains an ingredient or additive that ‘goes off’. So it’s 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, or milk chocolate) some time after their use by date. Just take a sniff, and a small bite, before you really dig in. (And also please note that the way you store products with a use by date can also bring forward the use by date if the product requires special conditions for storage (e.g. refrigeration, not opening, etc.).
  • Best Before dates: These are arbitrary dates applied by the producer. Food and drink can be safely eaten after the date, but the flavour and/or texture may be impaired. And it’s up to the manufacturer to determine the best before dates. And again, storage conditions play a part here.

What does this mean for chocolate?

  • Milk and white chocolate of all varieties clearly need to have use by dates (yes, this includes alternative m!lks/mylks like oats etc. too). And, see above, most makers err on being overcautious here for fear of the way retailers, and consumers, store their bars. Again, follow the sniff test.
  • Mass produced dark chocolate also often has use by dates as they contain various additives and preservatives (e.g. butterfat, whey powder, palm oils, etc.) that go off.
  • Dark craft chocolate should not have a use by date; but 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. At Cocoa Runners, we’ve happily to tried dark bars that are three to five years old! However these dark bars may go a little ‘out of temper’; i.e. they won’t melt in the mouth as easily and their mouthfeel is slightly different.

And for when bars, especially dark ones, go out of temper, this is an opportunity to be a bit more inventive and creative, and reduce food waste by thinking a little more laterally.

2 – Think laterally, and be a bit more creative

A bunch of entrepreneurs over the past few years have done a sterling job in promoting ‘odd’ or ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables. Similarly a bunch of chefs have come up with recipes, videos and programmes galore on how to use leftovers, etc.

The same sort of lateral thinking can be used for chocolate that is out of perfect temper, etc. Here are some personal examples; starting with some pretty obvious ones:

  1. If a bar seems ‘out of temper’ (i.e. a bit brittle, doesn’t melt easily, etc.) try gently warming it up by, for example, placing it on warm radiator, in your back pocket, between your legs (we’ve had this suggestion from friends in the wine industry who swear by this to warm overly chilled wine!) or anywhere that is relatively warm. A couple of other suggestions:
    • Do remember not to leave the chocolate there for too long.
    • Do use the wrapper to stop any inconvenient melting if you overheat the bar.

(NOTE: this trick works for bars that have been badly stored as well as past their best before or use by dates).

  1. Treat yourself to some hot chocolate (either with water, milk, etc.).
  2. Bake or cook with craft chocolate (e.g. try a mole, add dark chocolate to a stew or mole, etc.).
  3. If that’s too much ‘faff’ just heat up the chocolate either in a basin suspended in boiling water or, even easier, in a microwave. And then you can, for example:
    • Dip in, or pour over, some fruit (strawberries, grapes, figs, apricots, oranges), or even try vegetables (trust us, it does work!).
    • Drizzle on top of digestives; you’ll get chocolate digestives that are SO MUCH better than anything you can buy in any supermarket or delicatessen; if you really want to push the boat out, add some marshmallows to make ‘smores’.

We’d also love to get your suggestions here too; please fill in THIS FORM (or click the link here: https://forms.gle/CoCb5Pkx7V2wpkWRA) and for the three best suggestions, we’ll send you one of our lucky dip taster boxes to thank you.

3 – Take advantage of suppliers’ ‘unforced errors’

Another major reason driving food waste is consumers purchasing more than they need as a result of; irresistible offers, panic buying, having sudden changes of plan, etc.

All too often the same happens with retailers and distributors. We overestimate demand. We overcompensate for supply chain issues.

“Mea Culpa”; this happens at Cocoa Runners. During some of the sudden covid lockdowns, we were scrambling to keep up with demand, in particular for virtual tasting kits for couples and individuals where we needed LOTS of small taster bars. And Brexit messed up our supply chain and logistics, so in a bunch of cases we had to re-purchase stock that was stuck in warehouses all around the world.

The upshot is that we’ve some excess inventory of a few taster bars. So we’ve created some lucky dip boxes for these taster bars (see HERE). We’d love your help in not wasting these (some of the bars do have milk, but all are well before their ‘use by’ date).

And we’ve also a few ‘standard’ taster boxes of full size bars where again either because of supply chain issues (and yes, this is STILL happening because of Brexit) or because our forecasting was off, we’ve some stock of dark chocolate bars that are either just past, or close to, their ‘best before’ dates.

A quick note on pricing

As a general rule, at Cocoa Runners we never discount our bars as we think that this encourages ‘commoditisation’ and runs against the ethos of valuing the craft, and efforts, of our makers, farmers and cooperatives (note: an exception here is that subscribers to our monthly boxes, as a membership perk, get 10% off all purchases of bars and gifts).

And this is why in our ‘standard’ lucky dip boxes we don’t specify which bars and makers are included. But we do guarantee that the price you pay for a lucky dip box will be at least 40%, and sometimes 60-70%, less than the standard retail. And we’ve both 100% boxes (great for thinking laterally in the kitchen with) and dark bars (great for snacking and savouring) HERE and below.

For the taster bars we’ve made an exception and are letting people know what’s in the boxes, so if you’ve ever wanted to try Zotter’s award winning butter caramel bar, Jordi’s HIT with nibs, Chocolate Makers’ Tres Hombre’s milk bar etc. grab this opportunity. See HERE.

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What We’re Doing About Food Waste In Craft Chocolate

Since we started Cocoa Runners in 2013, we have been trying to explain why people should pay a little more for a craft chocolate bar than a mass produced bar. We believe craft chocolate bars taste better, are better for you and represent a better deal for cocoa farmers and our planet. Craft chocolate is made from carefully selected, farmed, fermented and dried beans. Makers work directly with farmers and co-operatives to secure the best beans, and craft chocolate makers realise that they need to incentivise growers and pay them for their hard work. This sort of cocoa isn’t a commodity where the only distinguishing factor is price.

When price is the only means of competition, prices paid to cocoa farmers can be less than they need to survive. And indeed that is all too often the case. The average wage of a cocoa farmer in the Cote D’Ivoire, one of the main sources of beans for mass produced chocolate bars, is less than a dollar a day (i.e. less than half of what the UN believes is a “living wage”). In addition these low prices for mass cocoa also involve extensive deforestation as farmers are forced to turn to ‘slash and burn agriculture’; and this has reduced rain forest canopy in the Cote D’Ivoire from over 30% to under 5% in less than 30 years. By contrast, the prices paid to farmers growing the beans for craft chocolate can be 2-3 times (and more) per tonne more than the traded ‘commodity price’ of cocoa. So if you pay £4.95 (or a little more) for your directly traded craft chocolate bar, rather than the £1.95 or less for mass market confectionery, you can make a real difference.

Most people who buy mass market chocolate in a supermarket do so as an ‘impulse purchase’, and prices (and special offers) are a key decision factor. We really want customers to move beyond simply focusing on price and special offers when they buy chocolate. And this is one reason why, to date, we have never discounted the price of individual bars on site. We truly believe that the ‘recommended’ retail price of our bars is a fair reflection of their quality, and the time and effort put into their creation. And so we work with our makers to bring you the best possible prices, which reward farmer and makers, for their bars

But this commitment to fair pricing presents certain challenges for us at Cocoa Runners. For example, over the years the subject of ‘food waste’ has been a tricky topic for us. We never sell on consignment, as we believe that it is only right that we pay for the goods that we order and we don’t think that it’s fair that makers (and indirectly farmers) should pay the price if we fail to forecast accurately.

As such, we assume the risks associated with forecasting and stock management ourselves. We would love to have systems in place to ensure that we never have short dated or expiring stock, but with a library of nearly 1000 bars, cooking chocolate and more, we inevitably end up with some stock that we cannot sell because it has past its best before or use by date.

Until recently, these expiring bars would sit in our warehouse or our office in London, providing a source of delicious snacks for the team and those who visit us. Wonderful as they tasted, this never felt quite right to us; these were fantastic bars that deserved to be enjoyed by a wider group of craft chocolate fans. So, we aim to bundle bars which are nearing ‘sell-by’ dates into ‘lucky dip’ boxes, so that they’ll still find a welcome home.

Our Commitment To You

  • These boxes represent excellent value; as a ‘thank you’ for helping us to find good homes for short dated stock, they will have a ‘retail price’ value of at least twice the selling price.
  • You will always receive at least four bars in each box.

What’s Inside The Box

  • At least four short dated dark chocolate bars.
  • These bars will have a shelf life of between 1 week and 1 month when they leave our warehouse.
  • These bars generally have ‘best before’ rather than ‘use by’ dates as they have no ingredients (such as milk) that would have ‘gone off’. As such, they are safe to eat for some time after their best before date, but we would not otherwise sell them on site.

The Small Print

  • We will not tell you in advance which bars are in the box; they may contain dairy, nuts, gluten and bars that contain traces of alcohol. If you have an allergy, you should avoid these boxes.
  • These are ‘final sale’ only; we will not accept returns of these boxes. If you don’t love the bars you receive, we’d recommend turning them into a delicious hot chocolate or perhaps a brownie; head on over to our recipe section for some inspiration.
  • We may, from time to time, include 100% cacao or high percentage cocoa bars in these boxes, but at most there will be one bar over 90% in any single box.
  • These boxes will only be available when we have excess stock. We will not be providing any estimates about when they will be back in stock.
  • You can only buy one lucky dip box per transaction per customer.
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Is Craft Chocolate Organic?

During our Virtual Tastings we’re often asked, “What about organic chocolate?”. It’s a great question, but answering it is complicated at best. Here’s why:

  • Craft Chocolate is all about bars that taste better, are better for you, and better for farmers and for the planet. 
  • Organic food and farming have the same aspirations. Organic certification is all about avoiding artificial chemicals and environmentally destructive practises.
  • Yet most craft chocolate isn’t organic.

As I said, it’s complicated! But let me explain, and I’ll also recommend some Craft Chocolate: some are organically certified, others are effectively organic, but all are great.

The Best Beans through Transparent Trade

You can only make the best craft chocolate when the cocoa beans are grown naturally, in the rainforests, without the harmful practices of mass production. This is where the Transparent Trade model comes in.

Original Beans’ price premiums compared to the world prices and Fairtrade and Organic premiums.

The maker works as closely as possible with the farmers and cooperatives growing their beans. They pay a premium for a long-term relationship that avoids damaging agricultural practices and harmful, artificial chemicals.

At Cocoa Runners, we only sell bars when we know both the way the bar is crafted and the source of its beans. 

We have met, mainly in person and at a minimum through video, all 100+ makers we directly purchase from. We have visited and spoken to many of the 70+ farmers and cooperatives where most of our makers source their beans. 

Indeed, we often find new craft chocolate makers thanks to many of these growers, who recommend to us other makers buying their beans.

Organic and Craft Chocolate

However, overall sales of organic chocolate is still incredibly niche — less than 0.5% of total chocolate sales and even less of world cocoa harvested. Meanwhile, organic fruit and vegetable sales in the US account for around 5% of total sales.

Almost all organic chocolate is “mass produced” to have a bland, uniform taste. It will often have added artificial flavourings like vanillin, and makers will use couverture (pre-processed chocolate) rather than making directly from the bean. 

In contrast, craft chocolate is all about coaxing different flavours out of different beans, terroirs, vintages, fermentations and working directly with the farmers.

Some of our makers are certified Organic: some of these only sell organic bars (like Original Beans and Taza) while others sell both organic and non-organic bars (like Conexion and Georgia Ramon). 

Even then, most craft chocolate makers and heirloom cocoa growers are not organic certified. The cost of organic certification is often too expensive for smaller producers, and there are many other prohibiting factors.

On the Farm…

Organic certification was originally developed for products that could be grown large-scale like bananas. But whereas bananas are largely farmed on big plantations at scale, cocoa – especially heirloom cocoa – is usually grown by farmers with less than 5 hectares of cocoa trees. 

These cocoa farmers usually lack the budget and economics to afford certification. The potential cost of organic certification is literally more than their annual income.

Some innovative ways have been found to overcome this problem of affordability and scale. In Peru, the indigenous Asháninka people have secured funding for organic certification for a large swathe of cocoa farms via the Kemito Ene and Rainforest UK NGOs. 

There are also cocoa farmers who are effectively organic, but just without the certification. The folks at Askinosie ask all the cocoa farmers they work with to sign a contract promising to adhere to “organic-like” practices, and they regularly visits the farms to oversee this. 

But they don’t force the farmers to pay for organic certification. So, while the farmers may be following organic-like practices, they are not technically certified as organic farmers.

In the Supermarkets…

Countries like Germany and Denmark (the biggest European markets for organic goods) have dedicated organic stores where customers readily support organic products. Organic certification has business benefits for local makers like Georgia Ramon and Original Beans – there are already consumers willing to buy organic chocolate. 

Organic sales in the UK still lag, however. There are few organic retailers, and the organic message is clouded by many supermarkets having their own certification schemes. The marketing strategies of big brands and retailers train consumers to expect an offer on chocolate bars, or to grab a quick snack from checkout aisles, endcaps, and vending machines.

It’s a vicious cycle for organic craft chocolate. Customers can’t find craft chocolate in the vast majority of UK organic retailers. 

Even if you do visit the organic supermarkets, you won’t find an Original Beans chocolate bar – £3.95 is “too expensive” despite winning ‘Organic Chocolate Maker of the Year’ multiple years in a row.

You can’t easily pick up and try a craft chocolate bar while shopping, and so you think that chocolate is all about added flavours and simple percentages. Customers carry on seeing chocolate as a cheap, mass-produced snack.

How can we fix this?

Craft chocolate has an ethos and set of objectives that have much in common with the organic movement.  Both strive to grow and offer products that taste better, are better for you, better for farmers and better for the planet.

But in many cases craft chocolate makers and craft chocolate farmers aren’t at a scale to afford organic certification. And the answer isn’t to try and simply “scale up”.  Nor is it to focus on yet another certification or label.

The packaging for bars already has all you need to know. Just read the label.

We need to stop regarding chocolate bars as a commodity snack where it’s all about paying the lowest price. Then we can stay true to, but also go beyond, simple organic certification. We have to go beyond the “2 for £2” offer for bars (even if they are “organic”). And if you do pay £3.95 or more for a GREAT craft chocolate bar, you really can taste the difference. More importantly, the bar will be better for you and better for the farmers and the planet.

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Water and Chocolate

Photo by Javier Rejon on Unsplash

This weekend was meant to be about Cocoa Swimmers.  Cocoa Runners had planned to swim “Castle to Castle” with the wonderful Mike, Becca and Chocolarder team in Cornwall to raise money for the RNLI.  This sadly isn’t happening (next year!).

Instead we are going to explore the links between chocolate and water.

For most of recorded history we’ve drunk chocolate by mixing it with water.  This is ironic, as chocolate doesn’t mix well with water. It’s even more poignant  given the amount of water that is required to grow and make a chocolate bar — approximately 2,000 litres (or about 25 full baths) per 100g.  Fortunately, by savouring craft chocolate and by encouraging farmers to preserve the rainforest, there is a way to both save water and eat better.

A Brief History of Water and Chocolate

The history of drinking chocolate can be traced back 4-5,000 years ago (about the same time as people started to drink wine). There is pottery evidence that the Olmecs in Mexico were drinking chocolate around 1900 BCE. More recently, some archaeological finds in modern-day Ecuador suggest the Mayo-Chinchipe were drinking chocolate even earlier – around 3,500 BCE.

Columbus brought some cocoa beans back with him after his third voyage to the “New World”.  After a shaky start, once Europeans worked out how to combine cocoa with spices and sugar, chocolate became a popular drink within aristocratic and wealthy merchant circles. Indeed, Tosier Chocolate, soon to be featured in one of our upcoming monthly boxes, takes its name from Thomas Tosier – King George I’s personal chocolate maker.

But chocolate and water really don’t mix that well.  If water creeps into the chocolate making process it effectively ruins the batch (the water activates various enzymes in the beans which turn them into a sticky paste). In addition, “finished” chocolate doesn’t dissolve very well into water (or milk); it rapidly congeals and the cocoa butter separates out.

In 18th- and 19th-century Netherlands, this congealing drinking chocolate created major problems. Cold winters meant that the cocoa butter separated out even faster, and, given Dutch men’s predilection for fine beards, this meant that they covered their facial hair with glutinous cocoa butter.

In the 1820s the father and son team of Van Houten came up with a partial solution: the cocoa press. This invention “pressed out” much of the cocoa butter, leaving less of it to congeal in their fellow Dutchmen’s beards. They also realised that by “dutching” the remaining chocolate cake (i.e. washing it in an alkali solution) they could reduce some astringency and bitterness.

The next innovation was in Bristol, England. Joseph Fry took this excess cocoa butter and discovered that by combining it with ground cocoa beans he could create a stable chocolate block. Armed with this innovation, in 1847 he launched the world’s first chocolate bar, setting off a revolution in which we now eat chocolate, rather than drink it.

Chocolate, Water, and the Environment

As we’ve eaten more and more chocolate, a series of unplanned, uncontrolled and undesirable issues related to chocolate and water have emerged.

To grow the cocoa and run the machines needed to make a 100g mass-produced chocolate bar requires between 1,500-2,000 litres of water (a bath contains 60-80 litres). Indeed, chocolate needs more water than almost any other crop – and by some measures even more than cattle. For more on this, please see these articles:

If the cocoa is grown in a sustainable rainforest, much of this water comes from natural precipitation. Mass-produced cocoa, however, is often grown by destroying the rainforest. For example, the Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana have seen their rainforest canopy shrink from over 35% to under 4% since 1990 (source: Mighty Earth). Much of this deforestation is caused by cocoa farmers encroaching on the rainforest, destroying it and planting fast-growing “cloned” cocoa trees, which are designed to grow quickly rather than provide depth and complexity of flavour.

For the environment it’s a double whammy. These cloned cocoa varietals need more water than almost any other crop and their cultivation all too often involves destroying the rainforest.

By contrast, heirloom cocoa and craft chocolate are all about preserving the rainforest and not wasting water. For example Original Beans pledges to plant a tree every time it sells a bar. Bertil Akesson plants pepper plants next to his cocoa trees to provide shade and minimise the need for extra irrigation. Manabi Province in Ecuador has created sophisticated irrigation systems in its rainforest and cocoa farms to recycle the water (check out Conexion’s bar here).

So, for delicious chocolate that does not destroy our only planet, have a look at some of our craft chocolate partners.