Chocolate, a product with a rich, long history, is on the verge of a renaissance as it is starting to be recognized as the next craft food. Chocolate started four millennia ago as a powerful drink exclusively consumed by royalty and the elite. In modern times, it became a wildly popular candy, dessert, and obsession, for almost everyone. Now, I believe a multi-party effort to educate consumers and retailers on the true value of chocolate is the key to making the next chapter a reality. An elevated consumer perception for chocolate could help contribute to a sustainable future for cocoa farmers, their crop and chocolate products.
Most people do not know a lot about chocolate; where it comes from, how the farmers grow cocoa, harvest and process the crop, how makers transform the cocoa bean into chocolate and how it makes its way to the grocery shelf. They have no idea how many links there are in the supply chain; how difficult it is to work with and how much science and art goes into turning cocoa into a delicious food. I believe chocolate is underappreciated because of this lack of understanding and education around the process and product. Until people understand the value of chocolate, they will not spend enough to adequately compensate all the players in the supply chain.
It all starts with the cocoa tree and its genetics. There are nine known varieties of cacao that have been identified. There are undoubtedly many more, yet to be discovered or identified. Each variety has its own unique look, color, and taste. There are surprising flavor notes, like banana, citrus, earth, nut, cherry; the list goes on and rivals the flavor nuance of wine. There are over 1,500 flavor components in chocolate, making it one of the most complex foods available today.
Farmers need to protect the trees from disease and drought, and to grow them in the shade of the rainforest canopy. Each tree produces 40-50 pods each year, with each pod yielding enough beans for one 350g chocolate bar. Most farms are small and family run with a few hundred trees. Imagine the income the farmer gets when a tree only produces enough chocolate for 35 chocolate bars in a year.
These farmers also play another key role in the resulting flavor profile of a chocolate bar through proper fermentation and drying. With very little income, the pressure is on the farmer to turn the crop as quickly as possible, possibly skimping on these two important steps which have a huge impact on the resulting flavor of a bean.
The beans get processed by chocolate makers, and chocolate confections are created by chocolatiers, who get the product to the shelves via freight carriers and distributors. In my experience, neither the makers, chocolatiers nor carriers, are making enough of a profit to significantly increase the amount the farmers are being paid. I have found that the low ceiling on prices at retail simply do not leave enough room to adequately compensate all the involved parties.
I believe the solution is educating consumers and retailers about the true value of chocolate. People will not spend more than they are accustomed to spending, without understanding the need and the benefit. We need to showcase the flavor diversity and nuance of chocolate and teach consumers about all the variables that go into delivering these flavors. The wine, coffee, beer and spirits industries have all succeeded in capturing the imagination and intrigue of consumers, creating huge craft industries. We have the benefit of being the world’s favorite flavor, and something people of all ages can enjoy. Selling our products at rock bottom prices to win market share is not a long term or sustainable strategy for the craft chocolate category. If we respect the farmers, our supply chain, and our beloved product, we can preserve the integrity and quality of chocolate into the future.
For more, watch my recent TED talk.