Fair trade chocolate is a growing industry. Seattle based chocolate company Theo Chocolate recently spent more than $1 million on equipment to quadruple its production. And Theo’s goals aren’t merely to increase production and widen distribution: Joe Whinney, one of the co-owners, wants to “to help malnourished, undereducated farmers and their families, while demonstrating how to build a profitable business that does good in the world."
That Whinney’s goals are so far reaching demonstrates the span of the global chocolate industry’s impact. While chocolate is more an enjoyable treat than a necessary part of one’s diet, it’s still important to view its production in the same framework that you’d view other foods. Before reaching for that chocolate bar, one must consider issues like child labor laws in cacao producing countries, not to mention the environmental impact of that production. And it’s not just about the cacao – additive ingredients like palm oil are notoriously damaging to the environment.
As is the case with a ripe tomato or a juicy strawberry, farming practices matter: the craft of chocolate making begins with the careful farming of the beans. If the raw product isn’t produced correctly or in a sustainable manner, the end chocolate bar won’t be what it could have been.
I grew up with an appetite for dark chocolate, preferring its rich flavor to sweet milk chocolate (and avoiding the not-even-chocolate white chocolate entirely). As an adult consumer, I sought out fair trade chocolate options, until finally discovering “bean-to-bar” chocolate. I first became acquainted with the concept of bean-to-bar when I lived in Brooklyn and bought my first bar of Mast Brothers chocolate. Admittedly, I purchased that initial Mast Brothers bar simply because of the company’s incredible paper choices and branding. But my first few bites, and subsequent chocolate purchases, provided me with an experience not unlike my first taste of an in season tomato or first sip of properly roasted coffee. I didn’t want to eat a “regular” bar of chocolate again – and I wanted to understand how bean-to-bar chocolate could produce a flavor that was so much richer and more satisfying.
Bean-to-bar chocolate companies are involved with the entire process of chocolate making. Rather than sourcing pre-made chocolate that they’ll reform and shape, these companies work with farms and coops to source the beans themselves, paying above market rates and working with the farms in their own countries on issues ranging from environmental practices to work standards.
After the beans are sourced, the bean-to-bar chocolatiers sort the pods before roasting them. From roasting, the cacao is winnowed, a process that separates the nib from the shell and germ. The nib is then ground into a paste and mixed with sugar. Ritual Chocolate, a bean-to-bar producer from Denver, Colorado, explains more about cacao butter and why they don’t need to add any additional butter to their bars:
Cacao beans are composed of about 50% fat (+/-), which is commonly referred to as cocoa butter. Similar to nuts, the fat is released during the grinding process. When this fat is released, it acts to coat and suspend the solid cacao and sugar particles. In lieu of our low sugar content, we have no need to add additional cocoa butter (which is otherwise an industry standard), because there is enough cocoa butter to go around for all of our solid particles.
From there, the paste is rolled until it’s smooth. Once smooth, it’s conched, which involves agitating the chocolate while keeping it warm, drawing out acids to improve the flavor and dispensing of volatile acids. Finally, the chocolate rests before being formed into bars. Ritual Chocolate provides a very detailed description of this entire process, if you’re interested in learning more.
This new wave of bean-to-bar chocolate makers is driven by the idea that controlling every step of the process not only allows for the creation of enticing flavors, but also for effecting positive change in the supply chain improving labor practices in the countries from which they source.
One such chocolate producing country is Madagascar. Madagascar is the world’s fourth biggest island after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo. The country’s tumultuous history is marred by French colonial rule and decades of poverty. Madagascar briefly achieved independence in 1960 before a military coup in the 1970s and subsequent socialist rule. After Andry Rajoelina seized power in 2009, most of the international community condemned Rajoelina’s position as unconstitutional and stopped foreign aid, which at that point had accounted for 70% of the nation’s budget. Madagascar currently struggles with poverty, hunger, a growing prison population, and expanding sex trafficking operations.
Though Madagascar cacao represents less than 1% of the world’s total production, cacao had always been a major export for the county. Under French colonial rule, Madagascar exported much of their cacao to France. Historically very little chocolate has actually been produced on the island itself.
Despite its small market share, Madagascar cacao is renowned for its flavor. On their website, chocolate company Madécasse writes that this flavor comes from the variety of cacao plant typically planted on Madagascar, and the island’s soil. Dandelion Chocolate shares that many of Madagascar’s cacao trees are planted on land that used to house fruit plantations. The farm from which Dandelion sources its cacao also grows pepper, ylang ylang, vanilla, bananas, and more. “Because of this [diversity of products]," says Dandelion chocolate maker Alice Nystrom, “the beans are packed with flavor."
Though there is renewed interest in helping Madagascar develop its cacao industry, positive change in a country in such turmoil comes slowly. Just recently, the BBC reported on armed bandits hijacking cacao stores. Individual farmers must hide their beans in their own homes to keep them safe.
Last week, I visited Portland’s Cacao, a chocolate store with two downtown locations. Cacao carries a selection of bean-to-bar chocolate from the United States and worldwide. In addition to wrapped chocolate, the store houses a chocolate bar with a menu full of hot chocolate and truffle options. Since that first bite of Mast Brothers’ chocolate, I’ve consistently gravitated towards Madagascar chocolate, without giving my enjoyment much thought beyond the flavor. As I looked at the displays and started picking up a few chocolate bars, my husband and I decided to buy more than we’d originally intended, curious to compare the flavors, tastes, and textures of Madagascar chocolate from different bean-to-bar chocolate makers. We purchased a few bars we’d enjoyed before, and a few that were completely unknown. Of the 6 bars, all but one were created in the United Sates. And the one crafted in France was also the only bar containing soy lecithin, an emulsifier in chocolate that local bean-to-bar makers eschew.
Madécasse might be the Madagascar chocolate with which you’re most familiar. The company was started in 2006 by two Brooklyn based former Peace Corps volunteers who’d been stationed in Madagascar. Unlike the other five chocolate makers we sampled, Madécasse chocolate is grown, made, and packaged on Madagascar. The chocolate’s wrappers are even printed and wrapped on the island. Tim McCollum and Brett Beach were driven by a desire to help the country they’d become attached to, and saw chocolate production as a way to keep as much money in Madagascar as possible. When they first started making chocolate, they faced multiple challenges in getting the raw cocao beans transformed into a bar locally: “You have farmers farming cacao who have never eaten chocolate," McCollum shared with GOOD magazine in 2012.
Today, Madécasse partners with 45 cacao farmers in the Ezaka cooperative and has won many awards, including a 2012 Leader of Global Change by the United Nations and Foundation for Social Change.
And how did our bar taste? When we first unwrapped the bar, it smelled not unlike opening up a bag of coffee. There was a distinctive sandy nib feature on the finish and my entire bite was punctuated by a raspsberry-like sweetness.
The other equivalently sized chocolate producer we sampled was the French based François Pralus. François Pralus is one of a small collection of French chocolate makers who grow and create chocolate from bean to bar. In 1965, François’ father, Auguste, invented the “prauline", a brioche with praline and sugar coated hazelnuts and almonds. François apprencticed with chocolatier Maurice Bernachon, before taking over his father’s company. In 2000, Pralus bought land in Madagascar and developed a cacao plantation, planting 25,000 trees from the Criollo variety. This plantation was certified Bio Ecocert in 2007 and employs nearly 50 workers. Approximately 100 tons of Pralus chocolate is produced and sold every year.
As mentioned above, the 75% bar was the only bar we ate that contained more than just cacao and sugar. Pralus also adds soy lecithin (from non GMO soy) and additional cacao butter. Soy lecithin is a byproduct of soybean oil and is commonly used to keep the cacao butter and cacao from separating.
The Pralus bar tasted buttery, with hints of cherry. I could almost imagine that there was jam inside. For a 75% bar, it was much less intense than some of the 70% bars.
The final four bars we tried all share similar business models, ethical standards, and in some cases, beans.
Dandelion, Bar Au Chocolate, Ritual, and Woodblock are small, American made bean-to-bar companies. San Francisco based Dandelion Chocolate's wrapping – hand silk screened paper from India – rivals Mast Brothers’ eye-catching paper. The company was started by two friends, Todd Masonis and Cameron Ring, who met at Stanford and started making chocolate at home.
On their blog, Dandelion Chocolate posted that they ordered 12.5 metric tons of chocolate from the SOMI farm in Madagascar, and that Woodblock Chocolate and Bar Au Chocolate shared in this order. Dandelion reported that the process of ordering to receiving takes about 2 months.
Dandelion is passionate about meeting cacao farmers and sourcing the best raw cacao available. In one interview, chocolate maker Alice Nystrom shares "[there] aren’t many fine cacao growers, so we found most of ours through a little online research and talking to other chocolate makers."
Dandelion’s blog is full of interesting information on the chocolate making process, along with descriptions of sourcing trips (including a sourcing trip to Madagascar). And though a relatively new company, they’ve developed a loyal following, garnering a prize at the 2013 Good Food Awards.
I admired the wavy texture on each chocolate block and was impressed with Dandelion’s attention to detail, from the inclusion of the harvest date (February 2012) to the shimmery gold paper. The first taste that I detected was of a savory spice, similar to cardamom. The chocolate was balanced, not nibby, and left a pleasant flavor on my tongue long after I was done chewing. We found this bar incredibly satisfying.
After Dandelion we moved onto Bar Au Chocolate, a chocolate maker completely unfamiliar to me. The wrapping is striking in its simplicity: it conveys its uniqueness with simple gold lettering. Bar Au Chocolat is made by Nicole Trutanich in Manhattan Beach, California. Because the company is in its infancy, there’s very little information available, except for a few posts on her blog. The logo is inspired by a 20th century French copper wall hanging, and was created by the chocolatier’s mother. Despite being new to the bear-to-bar scene, the chocolate company was a Good Food awards finalist in 2013.
I’ll be following Bar Au Chocolat’s business closely, as this 70% bar of chocolate was our favorite in the group of six. The initial smell was similar to Madécasse. The bar was thin and crunchy; after initially thinking that the taste was too simple, the flavor bursts onto the scene, full of vanilla, hazlenut, and sandalwood notes. The chocolate melts quickly and leaves a long, buttery finish.
The third chocolatier that shares raw cacao orders with Dandelion is Portland’s own Woodblock Chocolate. Woodblock is Portland’s first bean-to-bar chocolate maker and has quickly developed a loyal fan base here. The chocolate is produced, wrapped, and marketed by Charley and Jessica Wheelock, whose passion for chocolate is readily apparent. “Chocolate has global implications," says Charley Wheelock. “It’s dynamic. And it’s unbelievably cool."
Since moving to Portland, we’ve watched Woodblock expand its presence in stores throughout the city. Of the six bars, we were most familiar with this Madagascar variety (I received two small bars in my stocking this year!). Although it’s the smallest bar we sampled, the taste is strong, with a full mouth feel and floral notes. The chocolate didn’t activate any bitter taste buds, with flavors of jammy chocolate, and a slight hint of roast on the finish.
The final bar we sampled was from Denver’s Ritual Chocolate, owned and produced by Robbie Stout and Anna Davies. Stout is a cyclist and former journalist who was assigned to write an article about coffee marketed to cyclists. As Colorado Homes Magazine reports, “he was stirred by how diverse and amazing this sister substance could be – and the success some young artisan-entrepreneurs were having carving out their corner of that specialty industry. [Stout’s] thoughts turned toward chocolate, where he and Davies saw ‘immense potential and endless interest’.”
Ritual's bars are shaped (perhaps unintentionally) like train tracks, which immediately made me think of Denver’s Western heritage. The bar is thinner than some of the others we tasted, with a less pronounced mouthfeel. The taste reminded me of a bright Ethiopian coffee, and I couldn’t help thinking it would be a perfect shaved chocolate over a dessert.
Despite the fact that we only tasted small pieces from each of our chocolate samples, we felt completely overwhelmed by the intensity and range of the flavors. Even though all of the raw cacao originated from the same country, the bars varied a great deal in their textures and tastes. Eating chocolate is a fond ritual in many people’s lives, but we take for granted its complexity, its history, and its room for culinary expression. As Cameron Ring of Dandelion Chocolate notes, "[everyone] is familiar with [chocolate], but at the same time, even self-described chocoholics could know so much more about what’s going on."
The next time you plan on indulging in a piece of chocolate, think about the path it took to arrive as a bar in your hand. And if you support these bean-to-bar producers, you’ll be contributing to a more virtuous system – and rewarding your taste buds as well.