The source of all chocolate, a tree native to Central America called Theobroma cacao, has been known to humankind for three millennia. Until the mid-1990s, chocolate's ancient history was largely obscured by less-than-rigorous scholarship handed down from the days of Spanish conquest and plunder. But a 1996 book called The True History of Chocolate, undertaken by a food history-loving anthropologist named Sophie Coe (and completed by her husband Michael after she died of cancer) blew the Eurocentric lid off the story of the Western world's favorite sweet.
Shortly after the millennium's turn, a new generation of small-scale chocolate makers began to emerge. These producers spurned the industrial processes and products that had dominated the chocolate world over the prior century. The idea that great chocolate could be made in small quantities with scrupulously sourced cacao beans and antique or makeshift equipment — shared in early Internet forums among a handful of fanatics — caught on. Now, there are dozens of small chocolate producers, doubtless inspired in part by their pre-industrial forebears and by similar movements involving other food and drink.
The ongoing explosion in the number of small-scale chocolatiers may not be fully understood until it passes into history. But there's still plenty to talk about. Who are these new producers and what makes them tick? Is their chocolate really better than the mainstream stuff? What about value? A lot of these bars go for $10 and up. Can they possibly be worth that kind of money? Even assuming there is premium-quality chocolate that's worth the cost, how the hell is someone supposed to find the good stuff and avoid the charlatans or some twentysomething stoner's ill-conceived home experiment?
Eater enlisted three experts: a hardcore chocolate fanatic, the owner of a chocolate shop that specializes in carefully selected, premium-quality bars, and one of the enduring (and award-winning) small-scale chocolate producers to provide their assistance, just in time for Valentine's Day. But first, a little context for chocoholics.
Old Days, Old Ways
The elevator history of the cacao tree, its pods, the beans inside the pods, and its magical byproduct, chocolate, goes like this: the Central American Indians first domesticated and enjoyed chocolate, the Spanish stole it, then Milton Hershey and his industrialist contemporaries ruined it.
Naturally, the story is far more complicated than that, which is why everyone should read the Coe book for all the sordid details. It was the Olmecs of Southern Mexico who first unlocked the secrets of the cacao tree, learning how to convert "the pulp-surrounded seeds" into the "dark, pleasantly bitter, chemically complex substance we know of as chocolate," according to the Coes. Thereafter, in the succeeding Mayan and Aztec cultures, chocolate and cacao beans became important as a beverage and medium of exchange, respectively.
Once Aztec culture suffered its demise in the early 16th century, the Spanish held sway over cacao production, and drinking chocolate became a prized perquisite of the Spanish royal court until Spain's colonial grip on the world began to loosen. Thereafter, in the 17th century, chocolate (still consumed primarily as a beverage) became popular among the elite throughout Western Europe. Today's chocolate lovers can celebrate that the other European powers were responsible for the importation of Theobroma cacao to hospitable regions of equatorial Africa, where it flourished. The sad cost was that, like the Spanish, these powers asserted colonial hegemony over cacao's expanded range. In association with the Europeans' colonial rule, the cacao trade became inextricably intertwined with the spread of African slavery to the Americas during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The final stage of chocolate's march to the present began in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution. As summarized in The Chocolate Obsession, Chloé Doutre-Roussel's 2000 all-purpose guidebook, key events in the early industrialization of chocolate took place in Europe: the Dutch chemist Van Houten's 1815 success separating cocoa butter from cocoa solids and, of paramount significance, an English company's first crude efforts, in 1847, at blending and molding melted cocoa butter, cocoa solids, and sugar into chocolate bars.
Mass production of solid chocolate began in Europe, but found its most fertile firmament in the United States. Early credit goes to Milton Hershey who, as the story is told in Mort Rosenblum's book, Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light (North Point Press 2005), largely abandoned his caramel making business the moment he witnessed the process for making bar chocolate at an 1893 Chicago international trade exposition. Thereafter, Hershey built not only an industrial-scale chocolate empire, but what Rosenblum terms his "magic kingdom" in Derry Township, Pennsylvania, including an amusement park, a school for troubled youth, and an exquisite mansion for himself and his wife.
Though Hershey's business was booming as chocolate swept up the mass market, the Coes remind us of the costs associated with chocolate's evolving popularity. "As production, mass-marketing, and consumption skyrocketed," they write, "the culinary quality of the product plummeted."
But The True History of Chocolate closes on an optimistic note. Even as the book was being written, an incipient reaction to crappy industrial chocolate had begun. Some transitional "artisan" producers — such as Scharffen Berger and Dagoba — have come and gone (or, sold out to the industrialists) while early hobbyists have joined the expanding ranks of commercial chocolate-makers. Their singular point of pride is controlling the complex production process from bean-to-bar. Though the movement has taken a decade to find its footing, the small-scale production of high quality chocolate has reached full ferment today, as the experts explain:
Scott Craig: The Chocolate Geek
Scott Craig, who presides over Dallasfood.org, is a chocolate obsessive and it shows, from his pithy “my morning bar” descriptions on Twitter to the 35-part (yes, 35) exploration of the chocolate-hazelnut amalgam called giandiua. He is also an accomplished (if perhaps unintentional) consumer crusader who revealed in 2006 that a now-defunct chocolate maker named Noka was covertly buying and remelting pedestrian confectionary chocolate (generically known as “couverture”) to make its own obscenely-priced confections. More recently, Craig’s research revealed a pattern of misconduct by Brooklyn’s popular Mast Brothers including, once again, passing off a third party’s chocolate as their own. The story was picked up (and confirmed) by the likes of the New York Times and most of the national food press.
"Most journalists miss the point that there are two evolutionary trees in the [premium chocolate] market," Craig says. One group of makers, including Scharffen Berger, Theo, Soma, DeVries, and Askinosie, began with actual chocolate-making equipment that the industrialists cast off as they ramped up production. The second group are acolytes of John Nanci, of the Chocolate Alchemy website, "who wanted to make high-quality chocolate in the home kitchen." Nanci began "posting his discoveries online in about 2003, and an online community built up around him," Craig says. "Nanci's influence can't be overstated." Those small-batch chocolate producers who came to rely on coffee roasters, hair dryers, Shop-Vacs, Champion juicers, and the Crankandstein cocoa mill, among other low-end tools, to achieve an endearing "kitchen hack" vibe all have John Nanci to thank.
But Craig is emphatic that Nanci's methods were not intended as a business road map. To the contrary, those following this path are challenged to achieve commercial success. Worse still, though the romantic appeal of micro-production is undeniable, the taste and texture of the resulting chocolate isn't great. Small producers are economically and practically limited in their selection of quality beans, and the equipment necessary to break down roasted cacao beans to a smooth, creamy-textured chocolate (without using a lot of added cocoa butter) can be beyond the means of low-budget producers. This isn't to say no one has been able to surmount the technical hurdles, but "makers who have been able to make great chocolate with this setup are relatively few," Craig says. As a result, consumers may be "trained into believing" that small-batch chocolate is supposed to be bad.
Compounding the problem for those who are making excellent premium-quality chocolate is a market that Craig believes may be growing faster than it is maturing. "An immature market rewards pretty packaging, product ubiquity, novelty, and low price, all of which puts quality-oriented makers at a competitive disadvantage," he says.
And forget the "craft" designation for chocolate, Craig recommends. "If a well-capitalized company using state-of-the-art equipment makes better chocolate than a Oaxacan grandmother grinding it out on a metate, put it in my bag, please."
Aubrey Lindley: The Chocolate Pusher
With partner Jesse Mannis, Aubrey Lindley opened Cacao, a must-visit chocolate store in Portland, Oregon, in 2006. The original store and a second, satellite outlet sells nothing but chocolate: indulgent drinking chocolates, jewel-like confections and, best of all, shelves and table tops filled with beautifully displayed bars.
But Lindley and Mannis have never made any effort to stock everything that hits the market. They travel and taste widely. As a result, the two are notably opinionated about the "elite" chocolate market and picky about what they carry. Like Craig, Lindley worries about the consumers "who have been trained to overlook various types of off-flavors under the notion that they are acquired tastes." He's also concerned with texture. While many varieties of chocolate are smooth, Lindley notes that "many of the craft chocolates have a different texture. Sometimes this is delightful — as with Soma Old School — and sometimes it feels like sandpaper in the mouth and irritates the taste buds."
Lindley and Mannis are on the lookout for bars that satisfy a multitude of criteria. Beyond taste and texture, they're concerned with "aroma, pleasure factor, clean ingredients, sound labor practices, clear sourcing, scale, passion, care about quality, unique and intentional voice and, of course, price." This, by the way, is the abbreviated list. It should be no surprise that in the end, "we taste many bars for every bar we select for the store. Most don't make the cut," Lindley says.
What about packaging? "It doesn't matter what we think," Lindley says. "Consumers still make a lot of decisions based on packaging and we hope good makers want to convey the care they took in making the chocolate with a nice outside appearance. Besides, we have to do a lot more work to sell each bar when the packaging is ugly."
Lindley offers several reasons for the meteoric rise of the premium chocolate market. There is the general interest in food origins, plus the desire to move away from large-scale industrial farming and food production. Producers may be "interested in the people or culture where various cacao beans are grown," Lindley says, often based on connections made while in a growing region. On the more cynical side, some producers get in the game based on "a false impression that this is a lucrative industry since bar prices are high."
Lindley's parting thought? "The industry is still very young and developing. Standards for identifying fine quality beans are still being developed. It is an exciting time to explore, but can be expensive without guidance. We hope to be able to help."
Shawn Askinosie: The Chocolate Alchemist
To the extent there is a dividing line between the old guard and the Young Turks in the premium chocolate maker world, Shawn Askinosie is on the seasoned side of the divide. In 2005, Askinosie decided to chuck his successful legal career and become a chocolate maker. Askinosie has won numerous awards for his chocolate and is a whirling dervish of activity: He's launched charitable initiatives in Davao, Philippines, the source of many of his company's cacao beans. "We're in our fifth year of a 100 percent sustainable lunch program at a little elementary school," he says, "and now that school is training another nearby school how to implement the lunch program with our partnership."
Askinosie addressed one of the key questions affecting the craft chocolate trade, namely whether premium chocolate bars that cost $10 and up — such as his — ought to be considered a fair value. He pointed specifically to an essay he had recently written that was published as a blog entry on Huffington Post.
Askinosie's starting point for his proposition that the $10 bar is underpriced is the desperate poverty among cacao farmers. "Most of the nearly six million cocoa farmers around the world are poor, very poor, in a way that most of us can't fathom," he says. He makes a forceful case that responsible bean-to-bar producers have a social obligation to address the problem directly, presumably through the prices they pay for cacao, and to raise awareness about it. Askinosie laments that, based on the metric ton price the industrial producers are paying for cacao, West African cacao farmers, who supply the industrial chocolate makers, are receiving a paltry 50 to 84 cents per day for their labor. If anything, Askinosie contends, that $1.40 chocolate bar one might buy at the grocery store is grossly underpriced.
Superior quality also supports that $10 price tag. "Where else are you going to get the absolute best of something for $10?," he asks rhetorically, citing wine, cheese, and olive oil as comparative examples. (An even more apt comparison, considering it is a commodity-based market, is with coffee. How many people willingly hand over a fiver every morning in exchange for a top-quality shot with a little milk, or $20 — or more— for a pound of perfectly roasted beans?) "Most craft chocolate makers are not rich unless they were rich before they started," he says. "Sorry to burst any bubbles, but the kind of profit margins to make us rich simply don't exist in the small-batch chocolate world."
His final point in support of the $10 chocolate bar is the trust in quality that results from kinship between the cacao grower and chocolate maker. Building relationships means time on the ground in cacao-producing regions. The implication is that the expense of travel to and investment in these often remote communities is a necessary component in the cost of a premium-quality chocolate bar. He also makes a point of sharing his financial reporting with his suppliers, so the allocation of profit is transparent. "Yes, we've translated our financials into Swahili," he notes, adding that he's looking for ways to become even more transparent with his business partners.
Askinosie is adamant that relationships are a far superior way to ensure quality than remote certifications. "We should not be fooled into thinking that a fancy certification will void our need to be responsible buyers," Askinosie says, citing recent disclosures in the world of extra-virgin olive oil. "Certifying a thing does not prevent a seller from lying about it." Plus, "the third-party certification industry is rampant with fraud."
Askinosie finishes his thoughts on personal note, but his aspiration applies with equal force to all the players in the premium chocolate world. "My hope is that we can earn the respect and trust of chocolate lovers by being as passionate about doing the right thing as we are about creating great chocolate."