Taza Chocolate: A Small Chocolate Maker with an Outsized Impact

Uncategorized / Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

As many of you know, I spent a week in Belize at the Cotton Tree Lodge with Taza Chocolate. I have so many great cacao-related stories to share with you that it’s hard to choose which one to share next. I’ve decided that since this week’s chocolate happy hour theme is Taza Chocolate I should, well, talk about Taza Chocolate! Before I start, I’d like to throw down a challenge to our customers.

Lauren’s Chocolate Challenge
This challenge is for everyone, but particularly for those of you who have tasted Taza Chocolate before –  I challenge you to try it again. If you’ve never tasted Taza Chocolate, I challenge you to taste it with an open mind (and palate).

As you taste this “perfectly unrefined” chocolate, focus on the flavor of the cacao. Taza purchases some of the best organic cacao in the world and minimally refines it to bring you closer to the flavor of the cacao bean. I’ve learned to embrace the crunchy texture of Taza’s unrefined style, and to enjoy the taste of great cacao. I encourage you to do the same.

Alex Whitmore at Maya Mtn Cacao

Direct Trade, Taza Style
As the organizer of chocolate week at the Cotton Tree Lodge, Taza Chocolate Founder, Alex Whitmore, had the bully pulpit for the week. On three nights, Alex gave talks on topics as wide-ranging as chocolate refining techniques, Mayan cacao farmers and Direct Trade versus Fairtrade. I have something to say about each of these topics, but for this post I’m going to tell you what makes Taza such an extraordinary company – its commitment to Direct Trade.

Taza is a small company. By small, I mean a blip on the charts of the world’s major chocolate companies. Taza produces very small amounts of chocolate using a fraction of a percent of the world’s cacao. At the same time, Taza is one of the largest craft chocolate companies, which puts it in a unique position. Compared to its artisan peers, who might use hundreds of pounds of cacao a year, Taza uses tons of cacao a year, enough to have an impact at the country of origin. And impact it has.

You may notice a Direct Trade logo on every bar of Taza Chocolate. This logo is not sanctioned by any particular group – it’s one that Taza created. Yet it has more meaning and impact than many of the sanctioned fair trade logos on the market. How does such a small company have such a big impact? Taza works directly with cacao farmers, sets clear quality standards for fermented cacao, pays more for cacao than the competition and hires an independent, third party to audit its direct trade practices every year.  As Alex pointed out, it all comes down to transparency. Taza is a fully transparent company.
But wait. There’s more!

Many of Taza’s craft chocolate peers aren’t able to purchase the same volumes of cacao, which severely limits their access to the finest cacao in the world. In the spirit of cooperation, Taza sells cacao to many small artisans, providing them with access to some of the same great cacao Taza is sourcing directly from the countries of origin for its own use. This ensures that more chocolate is being made with directly-sourced cacao. It’s a win-win-win for Taza, for its peers and for cacao farmers.

I admit I’ve looked at the Direct Trade logo on Taza chocolate bars many times without really understanding what it meant. Let me provide a summary of the power behind that small graphic label.

Maya Mountain Cacao does detailed flavor & fermentation analysis on every batch of cacao

Taza Chocolate’s Five Direct Trade Principles
Taza sources superior quality cacao beans that have 95% or higher fermentation rates and are dried to 7% moisture or less. In addition, Taza follows five direct trade principles.

  1. Works exclusively with USDA Certified Organic cacao farms that practice sustainable agriculture
  2. Pays a premium of at least $500US per metric ton above the NYICE price and a floor price of $2,800 per metric ton on the date of invoice directly to cacao farmers
  3. Physically visits each cacao farmer or cooperative at least once a year to build long-term, sustainable relationships
  4. Only buys cacao from farmers and farmer coops that ensure fair and humane work practices
  5. Never purchases cacao from farmers or farmer coops that engage in child or slave labor
Alex smells cacao drying at Hummingbird farm in Cayo

At great expense, particularly for a start-up chocolate company, Taza hires an independent, third party auditor each year to certify its direct trade claims, and it produces a report that’s available for anyone to review.

Wow! What more can I say? A lot, actually.

The subject of fair trade versus direct trade is a long, complicated affair. Taza’s direct trade approach is a much more robust and impactful way to make change at the farmer’s level. I would be remiss if I didn’t compare Taza’s use of direct trade to fair trade. Without the comparison, you wouldn’t understand the impact.

In the interest of keeping you from nodding off, I’m going to summarize and make it as simple as possible. Please keep in mind that my over-simplified version is exactly that. But it’s a good start at helping my readers understand the pros, cons and limitations of many of the fair trade programs on the market.

An example of fair trade cacao pricing:

How is fair trade different than direct trade? I’ll summarize by sharing the price difference for a farmer selling at the fair trade price versus a farmer selling to Taza Chocolate. Please keep in mind that the floor prices stated are a minimum price. Historically, cacao has traded below these prices, but it’s currently at some of its highest prices, so it’s selling above both floor prices. Prices are approximate as of April 14, 2014.

Fair trade and Certified Organic cocoa price:
Fairtrade floor price: $2,000 per metric ton

$3,060US per metric ton (current market price)
+$200US Fair trade premium per metric ton
+$300US organic premium
$3,560US per metric ton

It’s important to keep a few things in mind when looking at this number:

  1. The cacao farmer does not receive the fair trade premium directly. The premium is given to the coop, and the coop Board determines how it will spend premium money. An example might be building new infrastructure (e.g., water wells) for member villages. In this example, the farmer would keep approximately $3,360US.
  2. Farmers not Certified Organic will not receive the Organic premium
  3. Farmers must pay a certification fee to the fair trade organization and to a USDA-approved organic certifier to receive either of these premiums. Certification can be expensive and out of the question for many small farmers. Farmers who are producing quality cacao and being paid more than market rates may not bother with fair trade certification because of the expense and the bureaucracy involved.
  4. While craft chocolate makers might purchase cacao that’s fair trade certified, they must also pay to certify their business to use the fair trade logo. This is an expense that’s often outside the budget of a craft chocolate maker. Some of the chocolate you’re eating maybe fair trade, but it may not have a logo on it.
A cut test on fermented beans to assess quality

Taza Chocolate Direct Trade price:
Taza Direct Trade floor price: $2,800US

$3,060US per metric ton (current market price)
+$500US per metric ton Taza direct trade premium
+$300US organic premium
$3,860US per metric ton

While this is the minimum amount Taza pays for cacao that meets its criteria, Taza may end up paying more. Some of the cacao Taza purchases is in high demand among the finest chocolate makers. Farmers selling fine cacao can command prices well above the world market rate, and a quality chocolate maker like Taza will pay the higher price. At the end of the day, selling well-fermented, quality cacao is what brings farmers a higher price.

There’s so much more to consider, but I’m going to stop here.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog post, Eladio Pop: A motivational Mayan organic cacao farmer.