single origin chocolate bars

Chocolate Wine Fridge

A few weeks ago, we could no longer close the plastic containers where we stored our chocolate. We realize Rubbermaid containers were no longer a viable solution for the massive amount of chocolate we produce and purchase. It was time for a new addition to our chocolate factory!

So, we found a fancy wine fridge on craigslist that the owner said no longer cooled. Perfect! We hooked it up at home and determined that it is not easily fixed, but the light still works, the door still seals, and the shelves still slide in and out. In other words, we suddenly were in possession of a beautiful and well-organized space to store our chocolate!

chocolate fridge

chocolate fridge

The only hitch in the plan was that the drawers were made for wine bottles, not chocolate. Well, a quick trip to the hardware store and some creative tubing/wiring solved that conundrum! We now have seven shelves of chocolate.

lighted chocolate fridge

Here’s the shelf just for our own chocolate (not the prettiest, but definitely the proudest!):

Bags of Root Chocolate. Packaging soon to come?!

Bags of Root Chocolate. Packaging soon to come?!

And the shelf for our friends’ chocolate (Arete, Confluence, Cocoa Logos, Endorfin, Dandelion):

Chocolate from our friends

Chocolate from our friends

Our single-origin bars from all over the world (Askinosie, Fine and Raw, Raaka, Marou, Castronovo, Manoa, Amedei, Lonohana, Lillie Belle, Vintage Plantations):

single origin chocolate bars

single origin chocolate bars

And the flavored bars (Manoa, Elbow, Antidote, Mast Brothers, Patric, La Colombe Workshop, Cocacu, and Il Morso):

flavored chocolate

flavored chocolate

Some mainstream bars and delicious truffles from our friend, Belinda:

Mainstream chocolate bars and truffles

Mainstream chocolate bars and truffles

And finally, Mexican chocolate (Taza, Guelaguetza)!

Mexican chocolate

Mexican chocolate

Guelaguetza

Last weekend, Richard and I took a wonderful trip down to LA. And like we usually do, we incorporated chocolate into the trip in a variety of ways. First of all, we brought chocolate to share with our friends and family. (Everyone’s favorite was the Venezuela from John Nanci’s beans!)

One of the other ways we incorporated chocolate into our trip was by visiting local phenomenon, Guelaguetza Restaurante. This is the most authentically Oaxacan spot I’ve experienced since spending a summer in Oaxaca, Mexico itself. They serve tlayudas, mole, and mezcal, among other southern Mexican delicacies.

Guelaguetza or Fiesta de los Lunes del Cerro, is the name of an annual festival celebrating the diversity of communities and cultures in the state of Oaxaca. You can read more about it here, here, and aquí. When I lived in Oaxaca in 2005, I actually was able to attend the celebrations with my parents and my friend, Medina. It was a spectacular show of dancing and ceremony. Here’s what one of the colorful dances looked like on stage:

Guelaguetza

Guelaguetza

When Richard and I visited Guelaguetza, the restaurant in LA, it looked a little different, but the colors, the sounds, and the smells were very similar. Most of the restaurant guests were speaking in Spanish and we heard a lively rendition of “Felix Cumpleaños” as we walked in. The decor has a bright and traditionally Oaxacan look, with an open view of the tortillas being made in the kitchen and shelves full of Oaxacan treats, pottery, and utensils for sale.

And of course, we spotted the chocolate!

Mexican chocolate and molinillo

Mexican chocolate and molinillo

They sell a variety of products, but we came for the chocolate (and the delicious hot atole). When we later shared the chocolate with our chocolate-making friends, the taste brought back one of my favorite chocolate memories. It looks like a hockey puck and requires a knife to break it into pieces. The texture is very grainy, though in a way that’s different from Taza’s texture. Taza seems to include chunks of cocoa nibs, while the largest particle size of this chocolate came in the form of sugar. We crunched on the sugar crystals with each bite. And the flavor includes strong notes of cinnamon, nuts, and other spices, as some of these ingredients are actually ground down with the nibs and included in the chocolate.

Though it isn’t what we’d call “modern chocolate,” it is a delicious and memory-inducing version of Mexican chocolate that I love returning to.

What’s your guilty pleasure in the chocolate world? Maybe it isn’t the highest quality single origin bean-to-bar maker’s award-winning bar. Maybe it’s something you sneak on the side when no one’s looking!

Marketing or Education?

Occasionally, while I sit at a Vietnamese restaurant, cautiously eating my standard Pho, I can’t help giggle to myself as Richard sweats and guzzles water to counteract the powerful sensations coming from his inevitably extra spicy dish. Similarly, I pass on the japapeños in Mexican cuisine and the Sriracha at Thai places. A coworker’s kid only eats food that is white and my cousins, while growing up, ate solely Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, with hot dogs.

You may laugh and say that people who refrain from eating delicacies like spicy Pho, caviar, or kimchi have unsophisticated palettes. We must not know or understand the intricacies of such delicious foods. Richard may say that my Vietnamese food is bland and that I’m not gaining the full experience of these cuisines.

I would respond that I like what I like. My taste buds have their own preferences and there’s not too much I can do about that. I’m not being stubborn on purpose; I’m sure you can identify with me in having a particular taste for something that may be considered unpopular.

So, what does this have to do with chocolate?

Let’s start with the basics. What is the definition of “fine flavor cacao?” In their book, Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate, Williams and Eber explain the definition along the lines of Justice Potter Stewart who was asked to define obscene pornographic material: “I know it when I see it.” The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative‘s objective is to identify and classify heirloom flavor to better understand fine flavor cacao and propagate it for the future.

As we’ve discussed in this post about genetics, there are a million ways to differentiate among chocolate bars. Labels like Fair Trade, Organic, and Single-Origin as well as particular ingredients like cocoa butter or flavors, and processes like stone-ground or table-tempered also differentiate among the supply.

The craft chocolate industry is suffering from a plight of its own making: our product – fine flavor chocolate bars made from the highest quality cacao in the world – is not understood or even necessarily liked by the general public. The chocolate bars that highlight the distinctive flavors of each cocoa bean and origin taste very different than the chocolate that most people grew up with. These craft chocolate bars are typically more expensive, darker, and significantly stronger than the Hershey’s or even Lindt of their youth.

What can we, in the craft chocolate industry, do about this disconnect?

We set up education campaigns! Rather than a Marketing Department, the Mast Brothers has an Education Department. Instead of convincing people to buy the chocolate, they share information about where chocolate comes from, how it is made, and why it has such different flavors from mass market chocolate. We, here at Root Chocolate, are particularly drawn to chocolate companies like Askinosie that share the history either of their company’s traditions or of their connection to the farmers abroad. In other words, taste is NOT everything to everyone.

In fact, the story of the chocolate, an understanding of the recipes and a guide to the potential flavors identifiable in each unique bar of fine flavor chocolate are the key to connecting consumers to high quality chocolate. Plus, as we’ve heard many times before, just eat more chocolate. With more chocolate tasted, the consumer will better be able to identify his or her personal preferences.

How about those of us who just like what we like?

Back to my initial story – I’m not going to start ordering the spicy curry that I dislike just because someone explains the history of Vietnamese spices and their rare availability in the world. In other words, education isn’t the silver bullet solution. Some people are going to keep eating the chocolate they are most familiar with.

In our next post on a recent chocolate tasting, you’ll noticed high marks for the relatively generic Ikea bar. Ikea likely uses a lot of cocoa butter and some soy lecithin, imitating the smooth textures and specific mouth feel of a Hershey’s bar. For some, clearly, that is more appealing than, for example, Taza’s gritty crude grind. Joe Whinney, founder of Theo Chocolate, is quoted in Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate:

“I don’t find a lot of broad relevancy to the concept of fine flavor. I understand it. But I don’t think the consumer is thinking about that. They think about origin. They think about percentage a little big more than they used to. But ultimately they are still seeing chocolate as this sweet treat that if it’s dark it might be a little bit better and better for me and what kind of nuts does it have in it…?”

Perhaps with more knowledge of the ingredients, process, and origin, those individuals would try more exotic bars, but it’s possible that they will always prefer a smooth, lower percentage bar.

What is the bottom line?

Both the picky eaters and the craft chocolate-makers can survive in this complicated world! While I encourage people to follow my food policy – I’ll try anything once – I do not believe that everyone will be or should be a fine flavor chocolate aficionado. If you prefer Hershey’s, go for it!

On the other hand, the bean-to-bar chocolate-makers of the world should continue on our path of education rather than marketing, because there are plenty of potential converts out there. I, for one, have learned a ton about chocolate and now prefer more complex dark chocolate bars. That said, I still enjoy my sweet milk chocolate on occasion and see nothing wrong with that!

Chocolate Labels, Part 2

“Organic”

“Local”

“Single Origin”

“Fair Trade”

“Rainforest Alliance”

“UTZ”

“Direct Trade”

What do these all mean and which ones should you pay attention to when you’re choosing your chocolate? Good question! Some relate to labor practices, others relate to the environmental circumstances surrounding the farming.

If you’re just joining us, check out Chocolate Labels, Part 1, where we discuss Organic, Local, and Single Origin labels. You can also take a look at previous posts, here at Root Chocolate, where we cover what happens before the cocoa beans are ready to be made into chocolate: we’ve discussed where cacao farmers fit into the picture, the complications of importing cocoa beans, the benefits of slowing down our interaction with food, and the importance of supply chain, and the relevance of genetics.

Now let’s talk about the external certifications that can factor into your decisions around chocolate purchases and consumption. I’m not going to claim that one certification is better than another or that any one of these means your chocolate is sustainably produced and sourced, but let’s go into what each of them mean.

Fair Trade

This label certifies that the farmers and workers involved in creating the product are fairly compensated for their work and have favorable working conditions. The specifics of this definition differ across agencies and can, like organic certification, entail costly and time-intensive processes to adhere to. That said, the theory behind fair trade is a positive one.

For chocolate, fair trade mandates a minimum price for cocoa beans and includes components of community development and direct trade. The first chocolate bar to have the label, “fair trade” was Green & Black’s Maya Gold in 1994.

To read more about fair trade chocolate, check out the sites below:

Rainforest Alliance

“The Rainforest Alliance works to conserve biodiversity and improve livelihoods by promoting and evaluating the implementation of the most globally respected sustainability standards in a variety of fields.” The Rainforst Alliance certifications confirm that particular products are farmed and produced in a way that protects rainforest environments. Again, the cost of obtaining and maintaining this certification can be high for small farmers, but Rainforest Alliance is working to provide mutual benefit to the rainforests and the farmers.

Their work with cacao has involved supporting farmer communities by training them to conserve natural resources, protecting land and waterways by teaching farmers practices that conserve their land and plants while also productively harvesting cacao, and finally improving incomes by connecting farmers to markets that are willing to pay higher prices for certified chocolate.

To learn more, visit these sites:

UTZ

UTZ certification is specific to coffee, cocoa, and tea and was started in the late 1990s. UTZ-certified coffee, cocoa, and tea follow a set of guidelines that take a big-picture view of social, environmental, and economic issues. The Codes of Conduct require better farming methods, better working conditions, better care for nature, and better care for future generations. As a result, UTZ certification pushes toward better crops, better income, better environment, and a better life.

To learn more, check out these sites:

Direct Trade

The simplest definition of direct trade is when a chocolate-maker buys cocoa beans directly from a cacao farmer. Some say this method is the most fair and sustainable – better than fair trade certification (which costs the farmers money). However, it does not necessarily account for the environment or the complications that arise from importing beans directly from cacao farmers. Some recent articles from Yes Magazine and Relevant Magazine go into more depth on the subject of direct trade for cocoa beans.

In January of 2012, a group of chocolate-makers, cacao farmers, and chocolate industry gurus visited Honduran Island, Guanaja, and founded the membership-only group, Direct Cacao, which is dedicated to giving “a voice to chocolate makers, chocolatiers, independent tasters and other in the chocolate industry working with and supporting directly sourced fine cacao, and to the cacao growers supplying the cacao.”

For more information on some of the chocolate makers who use direct trade, check out the links below:


As you can tell, there are many labels and many options. Make your own informed decision about what makes you feel connected to the root of your chocolate and other food!

For more articles on these and other labels that could affect your consumer chocolate choices, check out the links below: