Chocolate Clinic: Could you talk about how craft chocolate makers (people who make chocolate from bean to bar, often sourcing cacao beans through fair or direct trade practices) play a roll creating equality between the undeveloped world and the developed world, as it relates to cacao?
Carla: If we consider the history of cacao and chocolate, for thousands of years people were relatively well connected with the conditions of production. The Mayans, for example, were (and still are) a people involved in both production and consumption of cacao. Historically, many people were farming cacao themselves. They were developing methods of preparation to consume cacao as a beverage or food. They had strong, informed opinions on cacao quality and lamented changes that led to perceived reductions in quality. In other words, they had an awareness of the conditions of production, both environmental and social, that impacted cacao.
Even in the early colonial period, we find evidence of elite Spanish or English consumers of cacao/chocolate products who were highly aware of the origins, if from an armchair position. They might, for instance, carefully study botanical drawings of the time (many of which took artistic liberties), insist on cacao from one particular estate that they believed to have the highest quality, follow carefully recipes that included tips on how to identify cacao defects, or actively participate in subsuming the labor conditions of production (often involving chattel slavery) to a more exotic narrative of colonial splendor.
As cacao and chocolate products changed with the development of more industrial methods of production and the subsequent democratization of their availability, the conditions of their production became increasingly opaque to consumers. Now, the average consumer of chocolate has access to only minimal information about the social, environmental, or geographic conditions of production and, likewise, the average cacao farmer has access to very little information about price, the global market, where their cacao will end up, and how it will be processed. This has all been accompanied by an unprecedented concentration of power and wealth at the retail and processing end of the value chain, and has contributed to some of the extreme inequality that we see in cacao production today.
This is where craft chocolate comes in. The best craft chocolate operations participate in a more collaborative cacao sourcing operation, where information is shared more equitably among stakeholders, and where price flexibility is an option that can lead to increased farmer incomes. When done well, craft chocolate can offer a unique alternative to the massively concentrated chocolate processors, manufacturers, and branded retailers that drive the vast majority of the cacao-chocolate value chain. Craft chocolate makers are both responding to and driving consumer interest in value chain transparency, weaving new narratives around production and consumption, and demonstrating that there is more diversity among chocolate consumers than previously understood, with quality and ethics taking center stage.
CC: What power do craft chocolate makers hold in this industry?
Carla: Craft chocolate makers hold a great deal more power than they have yet to enact, especially a collective power that will be realized through increased collaboration and organization that we’re seeing take place gradually. The big companies tend to push actions that involve concentration—for example, the idea that if you can increase farm yield you can solve most problems. Or that if you can increase farm size you can reduce other problems. There’s something to many of these proposed solutions and they make sense on the surface from an agronomic perspective. They’re also often far too simple. When we look at the historical record, we see that simply increasing agricultural yield does not decrease poverty. It may actually increase someone’s income in the short term; however, there are myriad problems beyond the basics of agronomy that influence whether cacao production is sustainable. Local infrastructure, access to education and health care, financial fluency and loan availability are just a few examples of areas that also must be addressed. Unless we’re paying more for cacao while simultaneously attempting more holistic solutions to resolve the various issues that play into cacao farmer poverty, we’re not actually completely addressing the problems. And unless we are engaging farmers as equal partners in solving the problems in the industry, we are only replicating the unequal power relationships that have gotten us into this mess to begin with. At its current scale and facing its current challenges of financial sustainability, craft chocolate is unlikely to be the silver bullet that solves all problems in cacao and chocolate, but it can demonstrate that there are different ways to approach flavor and ethics that can play a part in reducing the inequality that characterizes this industry.
One word of caution: let’s not oversimplify things by assuming all we must do is focus on fine cacao and craft chocolate and we will solve all the problems. There are many trade barriers and other factors that limit the ability of developing countries to participate equally in reforming cacao production. Often it makes better financial sense for cacao producing countries to focus on exporting raw materials (like cacao beans) rather than finished materials (like chocolate liquor or cocoa powder), even though finished materials would allow them to keep more profits in-country. Education and consumer interests alone can’t change those types of inequality. Lobbying and policy can change those things. There are lots of other problems in the supply chain that are going to require multi-stakeholder solutions involving collaboration among different parties of which craft chocolate and its consumers are a part but not the full picture.
C: You are the founder and director of the Fine Cacao & Chocolate Institute (FCCI). How do you intend for your institute to help with these supply chain concerns?
Carla: The big chocolate companies have their own internal research and education initiatives that are mostly proprietary—they tend to keep their findings to themselves. Often larger companies are also subcontracting research with academic departments on university campuses. There’s a huge correlation between subcontracting research and getting results that are supportive of the paying company—think research on chocolate and the inflated claims around health benefits of antioxidants.
My colleagues and I are eager to provide a space that is not linked with company interests but is linked more with the ideals of high quality education and rigorous research that can support the niche fine cacao and chocolate industry. We should work with cacao farmers to determine what they need, then to facilitate in creating the conditions that will allow them to succeed. Likewise, we should work together to better understand what craft chocolate makers need in order to make their businesses successful.
FCCI’s first major initiative is establishing a system for and education around the evaluation of cacao to improve communication throughout the supply chain, with an eye toward eventual industry consensus on a grading standard. There is a lot of activity around developing standards for cacao quality today— the Flavor Labs established by Equal Exchange and TCHO at origin and the Cocoa of Excellence awards. FCCI taught our first introductory cacao grading class with a collective team of experts—Chloe Doutre-Roussel, Colin Gasko, Jamin Haddox, Brad Kintzer, Cristina Liberati, Zohara Mapes, Dan O’Doherty, and myself—earlier this year to a group of cacao and chocolate professionals in San Francisco, CA (chocolate makers, chocolatiers, cacao sourcing specialists, and retailers).
CC: Isn’t this is already happening in coffee?
Carla: Yes. The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) oversees the Q Program, a robust curriculum and testing program that has educated thousands of people worldwide in coffee cupping and calibrated evaluation. Essentially, their program takes experienced participants to a state where they are calibrated to work within standards that have been established by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the CQI. If a coffee farmer and a buyer both have been trained, they will approximate one another in how they communicate about that coffee’s quality and flavor. This doesn’t yet happen with cacao. Consistently in interviews with cacao farmers, I hear that one of their biggest frustrations is the inconsistency in responses from various cacao buyers about the quality of their cacao. In addition, farmers often receive only top-down explanations of what buyers want, and have little access to information that might allow them to evaluate and change their own cacao. Our hope is that, with time, this training will help to build a bridge in communication around cacao quality, and that it can be developed to serve a population that is skilled and comfortable in the practice of sensory evaluation. We cannot have sophisticated conversations about cacao quality without first sharing knowledge and educating widely. We’ve benefited greatly from working with certified coffee Q instructors in the development of the FCCI curriculum.
CC: How will you bring cacao farmers into the conversation?
Carla: Cacao farmers have been central to the development of the sampling protocol and curriculum, especially through interviews and research exploring their wants and needs. We are headed to Peru and Brazil to teach the class to farmer groups and seek their feedback this summer. In Peru, we are partnering with Equal Exchange and TCHO through their USAID Cooperative Development Program project to complement their work on chocolate liquoring protocols at origin. In Brazil, we are partnering with the Ilhéus Festival of Cacao and Chocolate in Bahia.
Beyond this, the FCCI methodology for cacao sampling is already being tested in Central America, Southeast Asia, Hawaii, and the Caribbean, and we are eager to support a broader conversation and facilitate guided tasting of a wider diversity of cacao among origins. To do this, we will soon be able to distribute kits with additional cacao samples to class participants and others. We are working with Yellow Seed to build in a feedback loop that will provide cacao producers with feedback on their cacao as well, part of Yellow Seed’s broader goal to facilitate communication and learning between producers and makers.
CC: What makes the FCCI’s approach unique?
Carla: Simplicity, repeatability, and accessibility. The FCCI protocol can be completed within a few minutes in the field and requires simple equipment that costs less than $50 USD. It involves a physical evaluation of cacao through a cut test, then a sensory evaluation. The sensory evaluation requires selecting 30-50 cacao beans from a sample at random, heating them in a popcorn popper for about 45 seconds to puff the shells without roasting, deshelling the beans, then grinding them in a blade coffee grinder to evaluate the fresh grounds for acidity, bitterness, and astringency as well as common positive/neutral attributes and defects. When you compare this to other traditional methods of examining cacao quality, which most often involve making chocolate liquor or a finished chocolate product, those have a much higher bar to accessibility, and introduce a large number of variables around equipment and skill that can impact the final evaluation of quality. We see this simple cacao sampling protocol as an essential complement to chocolate liquor and finished chocolate product tasting, and an equalizing force that makes cacao evaluation accessible to cacao producers, who should not be excluded from the process.
CC: What’s in your chocolate stash?
Carla: [laughs] When you called me I was eating a Patric Chocolate Triple Ginger bar, which is pretty much my chocolate Achilles heel. For inclusions, I also love the Charm School vegan milk chocolate bars. I have a cabinet full of single origin bars that I return to over and over again: from Rogue, Soma, Dick Taylor, Ritual, Palette de Bine, Castronovo, Letterpress, Areté, Lonohana, Franceschi Chocolate, Cacao de Origen, Domori, Grenada Chocolate… the list goes on! And I consider myself very lucky to have ready access to the fresh, bold flavors of New England’s gâté comme des filles and Dancing Lion Chocolates confections.