Amsterdam is the largest importer of cocoa in the world, with more than 600,000 tons of cocoa beans finding their way to the city every year. Not only is the region on top when it comes to importing and storing of cocoa beans, but it is also second largest for processing into cocoa butter, liquor and powder. This article is about the city’s cocoa trade history and the future of cocoa and chocolate in the region of Amsterdam.
“Amsterdam started as a port, and the city was built around it,” said Astrid Fisser, Commercial Manager Logistics & Cocoa at WCF member Port of Amsterdam. Historically, Amsterdam benefited from its perfect position: well protected, easily accessible and close to other European cities. The port has always played a crucial role in the movement of goods between northern and southern hemispheres. Holland’s involvement in the cocoa industry started as early as the 1600s, when the country got a first taste of cocoa beans brought back from the ‘New World’. When the famous canals were dug in the 17th century, the offloading of precious goods such as cocoa, coffee and tobacco in nearby warehouses became easier. Great fortunes were made at that time, and many buildings in the old city center still symbolize that prosperity.
Everything changed when the thick and foamy drink that the Spanish introduced in Europe was replaced by candied chocolate for the ‘common people’. Father and son Van Houten introduced the defatting press and alkalization, a disruptive new technique to process cocoa, thereby creating the foundations on which the Dutch cocoa industry flourishes still. The process is called ‘Dutching’.
Today, one third of the cocoa beans that arrive in Amsterdam are directly re-exported to other European countries, but most beans are processed in the region. The region is also at the forefront of sustainability certification with organizations such as Max Havelaar (Fairtrade) and Utz/Rainforest Alliance. Every year, Chocoa, a cocoa & chocolate event and conference held in Amsterdam, brings together thousands of stakeholders in the supply chain, from cocoa producers to chocolate lovers, to connect, learn, do business and buy good, sustainable chocolate. Chocoa takes place in the old exchange market of the Beurs van Berlage, closing the loop on the city’s trading heritage.
But those who want to stay ahead need to be ready for the future. Flexibility, diversification, expertise and more focus on sustainability are now the way forward for Amsterdam. Much is changing in the cocoa industry. Grinding activities in the Amsterdam region are slightly decreasing as cocoa and chocolate companies open more and more processing facilities in cocoa-growing countries. The percentage of fine flavor cocoa, particularly from South America, is growing. This trend coincides with consumers’ developing interest in sustainability, ethics and traceability. A 2017 Unilever study showed that 33% of consumers prefer to buy products from brands that they believe are doing social or environmental good. This trend for more sustainability means new ways of doing business for cocoa and chocolate companies.
The Port of Amsterdam’s new motto: ‘smarter, faster, greener’, reflects these evolving realities. For example, the Port is making green shipping more attractive and will help install 100,000m2 of solar panels before 2021, thanks to work done in partnership with the local government and port companies. The project leader, Belle Webster, mentioned that “a combination of good image, cutting costs, sustainability and the reduction of carbon output” makes it interesting to invest in solar panels. These solar panels will provide energy to more than 4,500 households in the city. Finally, the construction of one of the most sustainable chocolate factories in the world, the Chocolatemakers’ factory, will soon be completed in the port.
Amsterdam has a historical advantage when it comes to the trade of cocoa. But one cannot build a future based on the past alone. Thanks to the expertise and the high concentration of traders, warehouses and grinding facilities, together with the region’s flexibility to adapt to change, Amsterdam has a solid foundation to continue to play an important role in cocoa for many years to come.