A Decade of Changes in the Craft Chocolate Industry, Part II

Belize, Chocolopolis, Politics & Economics of Cacao, Travel / Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

In Part I of my post, I focused on the changes and significant growth in the ranks of craft chocolate makers between 2008 and 2018. Now let me turn to the changes and innovations that have happened in cacao sourcing in the past ten years.

When we opened in 2008 the craft chocolate market was just beginning, truly a start-up concept. There were a handful of craft chocolate makers in the US, there were a few cacao-sourcing options for craft chocolate makers, and there were three known cacao genetic families. All of that has changed in the last decade.

One of the most inspiring developments in craft chocolate in the last decade is the rise of cacao sourcing groups such as Uncommon Cacao (née Maya Mountain Cacao) and Kokoa Kamili. These groups focus on helping small cacao farmers and cooperatives improve their post-harvest processing to get better fermentation results and earn a higher price. They also enable a more direct trade connection between small-batch, craft chocolate makers who often can’t afford to purchase an entire container of cacao, and cacao farmers, who earn more by reducing the number of middlemen involved in transactions. While these groups are not a cure-all (see Dr. Kristy Leissle’s book, Cocoa, for a more in-depth economic discussion of cacao farming), they provide an alternative approach to traditional cacao sourcing, and one that offers hope for a better future for small-holder cacao farmers.

I had the pleasure of visiting Maya Mountain Cacao in 2014 and spending a week with Mayan cacao farmers. I wrote many blog posts about my experience, including a feature on the cacao farmer Eladio Pop, the first-hand experiences of the fair trade Toledo Cacao Growers Association and Taza Chocolate’s role in starting Maya Mountain Cacao. While I had been teaching customers about cacao and chocolate for a number of years, this was my first visit to a cacao farm. When you own a retail store it is difficult to get away and travel. Both time and budget make it prohibitive. In Belize I finally had the chance to experience a cacao-growing country at origin and commune with cacao farmers. It was a wonderful experience that allowed me to ask a lot of questions directly of the cacao farmers and the former head of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association. Like so much in the world of chocolate, it was a reminder that the realities of cacao farming are always more complex than the stories told from afar.

I find the craft chocolate industry’s energy and enthusiasm inspiring. Whenever I attend meetings of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, I am so proud of the passion craft chocolate makers bring to the table in trying to improve the lives of small-holder cacao farmers. Improved quality usually translates to a higher price, which means quality is good for the farmer. I find the work of Askinosie Chocolate, Taza Chocolate and Dandelion Chocolate to be particularly inspiring in making a difference for the cacao farmers while sourcing better quality cacao (see Dr. Leissle’s recent article on Dandelion’s purchase of cacao from Sierra Leone). Unfortunately, the volatile price swings of the cacao market mean that fewer and fewer young farmers see a future in cacao. Many of them are moving away from cacao, or away from their family farms altogether. While the craft chocolate industry has its heart in the right place, it is unlikely that it will be able to effect large scale change without purchasing larger volumes of cacao.

Scale is an issue in every part of chocolate making. While there are a plethora of craft chocolate makers on the market today, I would posture that none of them are profitable. Chocolate making is a capital-intensive business that requires scale to become efficient.  Scaling to produce larger batches of chocolate using larger equipment is antithetical to making small-batch, craft chocolate. My peers in the industry seem to be going through soul-searching on this topic, recognizing that the current business model is not sustainable without changes in the definition of “craft”. There are a lot of talented people in the industry, and I expect some of them will come out of this with a sustainable business model that allows them to produce quality chocolate while continuing to elevate the fortunes of small farmers who are producing well-fermented fine flavor cacao. The best advice I’ve heard from someone in the specialty food industry is that makers should be focusing on the story of the quality of their ingredients and their personal story as an artisan, not on the small scale of their manufacturing process. Scaling a quality product provides the path to becoming a financially sustainable business and having the financial ability to affect change in countries of origin.

While the craft chocolate industry brings passion to the plight of the cacao farmers, “Big Chocolate” (the large, well-known brands many of us grew up with) has the ability to affect change for the farmers in a meaningful way, a controversial point of view that I’m sure will earn me some comments. I’m not suggesting I agree with how Big Chocolate approaches chocolate and cacao, but I do think that Big Chocolate companies are able to have more impact because of the larger volumes they purchase. While Big Chocolate often undertakes projects that help its bottom line, improving its bottom line may mean helping cacao farmers. After all, Big Chocolate needs a consistent supply of cacao and it doesn’t benefit when cacao farmers decide to get out of the business of cacao farming. This brings me to Big Chocolate’s involvement in research to improve cacao yields and productivity.

The Cacao Genome Project launched just as we opened in 2008. A joint project of the USDA and Mars, the Cacao Genome Project’s goal was to sequence the cacao genome to improve disease resistance and yields in cacao trees. This was a public project that promised to publish its results (Hershey undertook a similar project of its own at about the same time). The results of the Cacao Genome Project would theoretically help both Big Chocolate and cacao farmers. Part way through the project the group announced it had identified 10 major genetic groups of cacao, providing more specificity than the three groups commonly used by the industry. No longer was it correct to lump all cacao into three genetic categories of criollo, trinitario and forestero. There were now ten:

  1. Marañon
  2. Curaray
  3. Criollo
  4. Iquitos
  5. Nanay
  6. Contamana
  7. Amelonado
  8. Purús
  9. Nacional
  10. Guiana

In 2010 the Cacao Genome Project released the preliminary sequence of the cacao genome. The team from the USDA and Mars continue to conduct research on the cacao genome. Their work has informed not only the science of cacao, but the historical understandings of its domestication. While Big Chocolate’s goals may be very different from those of the craft/fine chocolate industry, the USDA’s research partnership with Big Chocolate has contributed to the craft chocolate industry’s ability to found the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. While the craft chocolate industry views Big Chocolate with significant skepticism, I am hopeful that the skepticism doesn’t get in the way of the craft chocolate industry using the positive accomplishments from Big Chocolate’s playbook and building on them.

As I reflect on the past ten years, I can only imagine what the future brings. I’m thankful that no one player has defined the craft chocolate industry the way Starbucks has defined the specialty coffee industry. While having a big player may provide a larger impact faster at country of origin, not having a large player gives the craft chocolate industry time to let the innovators and small-scale sourcers (or “sorcerers” as Greg D’Alessandre of Dandelion is known) figure out models of impact that drive change before one model gains traction.

Whatever happens, I will continue to push for higher quality cacao and chocolate in the hopes of encouraging chocolate makers to make better craft chocolate. That’s the best way to move the entire industry forward and to ensure a stable future for smallholder cacao farmers.