The Next Big Thing in Chocolate

By Iron Chef Leftovers

If you like chocolate, you should really pay attention to where your chocolate is being sourced. Most of it is poor quality, purchased in bulk and is produced with unethical labor practices. Fortunately, there has been an alternative that is catching on (finally) in the chocolate world called bean-to-bar. It isn’t a new concept, but one that is finally becoming more mainstream. Here is how it works in an overly simplistic way:

A chocolate company decides it wants to make a bar with beans sourced from say Ecuador. The chocolate maker goes to Ecuador and talks to farmers and selects some that they would like to work with. The chocolate maker and the farmers collaborate on producing the best quality crop (over quantity) they can produce. The chocolate maker purchases the higher quality product at a significantly higher price than the going bulk rate (as much as 8 times the going bulk rate for the best quality beans) and makes their bars from that cacao.

Basically bean-to-bar is a direct trade between the farmer and the chocolate maker. It has become hugely popular in the U.S. thanks to Theo Chocolates, but there are now dozens of chocolate makers doing the same thing, many of them very small producers. One of my favorites is Mindo out of Dexter, Michigan. The owners spend part of their year working directly with the farmers in Ecuador (all of their chocolate is sourced from there), so they have a truly personal relationship with the process.

The trend seems to be catching on elsewhere, as evidenced by a recent article in the UK paper The Telegraph:

No longer is it sufficient for a smart bar to proclaim – as Green & Black’s do – that its contents are merely organic. Nor will it raise much interest among the chocolati to declare that your bar is artisanal or hand-wrapped, or that the cocoa within comes from a single estate. Worthy though all these considerations are, they are being swept aside by the latest trend in chocolate: bean to bar.

Let there be no mistake. Organic is good, and compared to the sugary slop mass-produced by Cadbury and Hershey, Green & Black’s (owned by the multinational Mondelez) is decent stuff.

Single origin bars, whose beans come from a particular location, are now becoming hugely popular, and supermarkets are making their own. So long as the farmers producing the beans are fairly rewarded and decent labour standards are maintained in production, there is nothing sinister about this either. But as it becomes easier to buy “good” chocolate, so the search for the best becomes more refined. True connoisseurs now like to pursue products that are not concocted from bought-in-bulk chocolate, but in which the whole process, from the grinding of the bean to the moulding of the bar, has occurred in one spot, under the care of one group of people: “bean-to-bar” chocolate.

I have had many conversations with small chocolate producers over the years and they all believe their biggest challenge is trying to convince consumers that paying $6 for a 2 oz. bar of chocolate is something they should be doing. Their product is infinitely better than the mass produced crap, but the price point is a tough sell. How tough? Well take a look at what I found last year when looking at dark chocolate prices:

Type Producer Cost Per Bar Bar Size Cost Per Pound
Mass Produced Hershey’s $1.19 1.55 oz $12.28
Fair Trade/Organic Endangered Species $3.25 3.00 oz $17.33
Bean to Bar Mindo $2.75 1.05 oz $41.90
Bean to Bar Theo $4.00 3.00 oz $21.33
Farmer Owned Kallari $5.99 2.46 oz $38.96

 

Theo is large for an artisanal producer and gains a great deal in economy of scale when shipping cacao from its source back to the US. The transportation cost is actually the biggest cost to a chocolate maker and even with the scale, Theo costs twice what Hershey’s does.  There are other advantages that offset price – bean-to-bar producers are making chocolate that is infinitely better tasting (better taste means you eat less in one sitting) and they are improving the quality of life for the farmers that they work with. If you doubt me, come with me to the NW Chocolate Festival in September. I will introduce you to the people who are on the ground working directly with the farmers. They tell their story much better than I ever could.

If you really want to be on the cutting edge of chocolate, purchase it from a Farmer Owned Co-op, like Kallari or Grenada Chocolate Company. The farmers control the entire process from the bean to bar and all of the profits are invested directly back into the local communities where cacao is grown.

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