Northwest Chocolate Festival displays chocolate industry’s sustainability and growth

Photo Credits To: Molly Mclean

By Molly McLean

Photo Credits To: Molly Mclean

Thousands of people crammed themselves into a cruise loading warehouse in Seattle this past weekend in order to sample, purchase and learn more about the art of chocolate. The Northwest Chocolate Festival was in town, dazzling the world with its magic and delights. There was a gridlock of traffic on the Magnolia Bridge with hordes of people all rushing to see the proverbial big top in town for the weekend. The gray Seattle waters and gargantuan ships surrounded the huge building, which juts out onto Elliott Bay. The calm of the balconies overlooking the water allowed for some respite from the huge, shuddering crowds exuding energy and excitement.

Do not fret, gentle reader, if you feel ignorant on the topic of artisan chocolate, for the chocolatiers interviewed remarked that the art of artisanal chocolate in the United States is a very recent phenomenon. “When I started making, there was probably three artisan makers in the U.S. Now, there’s like two hundred,” Lance Brown of The Cacao Bean Project said. Now artisan chocolate is on the rise, similar to the popularity of craft coffee and wines over the past few decades. One cause of the rise of artisanal chocolate is education.

In the United States there has been a recent surge of emphasis on ethical consumption. Cacao is a sensible place to improve its ethics, since it historically has offered very low wages to its workers worldwide. The website for the Make Chocolate Fair organization writes that cacao farmers receive only 6.6 percent of the value of a ton of chocolate sold. Martin Zorrilla specified that his company, Marou, makes sure to pay the farmers “more than twice the international price of cacao,” in order to maintain the quality and integrity of the product. Cacao, like any other internationally-traded commodity, is subject to rapid fluctuation. Right now, Zorrilla noted, cacao is in a worldwide downturn. Furthermore, cocoa is only grown in the Global South, originating in the highlands of South America but grown in Northwest Africa, Vietnam, and other warm climates. This natural climate distinction that places it in colonized countries ensures a long history of exploitation in its growth and production.

In the early 1990s, the United States encouraged growth of cacao plants in Vietnam. According to Zorrilla, this project never really came to fruition, yet his company, Marou, is attempting to keep cacao production healthy within Vietnam. The effects of climate change and over-development are omnipresent. Zorrilla bemoaned the “saltwater intrusion happening a little bit in the Mekong region, so that’s related to climate change. We’ve actually lost origins,” Zorrilla said, connecting the loss of farmland to climate change. “Origin” refers to the location where the cacao plants are sourced. Similar to wine experts, chocolate experts maintain that the soil and regions of each farm have a tremendous impact on the taste of the chocolate. The saltwater intrusion Zorrilla refers to also impacts the flavors of the chocolate produced from that region. Perhaps an unforeseen consequence of climate change will be the constantly-evolving flavors of chocolate in fragile and fluctuating ecosystems.

Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz also wants to keep money within the countries in which cacao is produced. “I grew up in Haiti and I always wanted to create jobs when I grew up,” she said. Symietz researched plentiful crops in Haiti after graduating from the University of Michigan before returning to create jobs in the countryside of Haiti, ever-aware of the need for jobs outside of Port-au-Prince. Now they have 10 full-time employees manufacturing the chocolate and have four different flavors.

Another company that attempts to make the growth of cacao more beneficial to the farmers is Enliven, a non-profit organization from Minnesota. Enliven helps connect farmers in rural Nicaragua to tools, resources and networking that allow them to create more economic activity in an impoverished community in rural Nicaragua. Ben Dollins from Enliven states that part of their mission is to “engage in mutually beneficial relationships that are sustainable” with the small village they work with. The farmers grow cacao and partner with small chocolate-makers in order to make more economically healthy connections between farmers and chocolate producers.

Wendy Brown writes in her book “Undoing the Demos” that modern businesses base many of their marketing practices off of what they think will appeal to their consumers’ morality. Part of their branding lies in the consumer’s attraction to their ethic integrity. The success of artisan chocolate, therefore, is dependent on the current neoliberal framework of business as moral guide. The instability of chocolate as a commodity will decide the fate of how Americans view chocolate in the coming years — whether it mimics the turned-ethical pattern of wine and coffee, or if the love of cheap candy bars continues.

Advice to young chocolatiers:

One of the first artisanal chocolatiers in the U.S. was Clark Gobel, who cautioned the recent boost of chocolate, since it is such a delicate market and process. When just starting out, chocolatiers with little experience will find themselves “sort of at the chocolate’s beckon,” working long hours just to survive. Mitch Loge representing Kicking Horse Coffee, offers the following advice: “Just keep eating it!”

Glossary of Chocolate Terms, from boards presented by the Northwest Chocolate Fair and interviewees:

Types of Chocolate Producers

  • Chocolate Makers: People who process cocoa beans into a wholesale product to be sold to chocolatiers.
  • Chocolatiers: The people who purchase wholesale chocolate product to temper and mold it into various chocolate products. Sometimes these two people are the same, depending on the business model and type of trade.

Types of Trade

  • Direct Trade: Chocolate makers directly purchase beans from cocoa farmers, and production usually takes place in a different country.
  • Farmers Co-Op: Organizations of farmers collectively negotiate prices with foreign chocolate makers.
  • Bean to Bar at Origin: The chocolate is produced locally to where it was grown and its later exported for sale.
  • Farm to Bar: Similar to bean to bar, except the chocolate is produced at the same farm where its cocoa was grown.
  • Fair Trade: A type of certification in which farmers’ collectives are given reasonable rates and meet certain standards.
  • Non-Equitable Trade: Situation in which companies exploit famers through poor wages, abuse of farmland, and other unjust practices. Most cocoa is made for the production of chocolate for very large corporations, and these companies are often faulted for these poor practices.

Steps to chocolate production, from Jeff Stern of The Cacao Pod

  1. Cut the pods open with a machete
  2. Clean out the pulp surrounding the beans
  3. Ferment a large batch of beans together
  4. Package and deliver to processing facility
  5. Roast beans
  6. Winnowing: remove bean shell
  7. Grind roken bits of shell (nibs) with stone grinder (smaller producers use these) or industrial equipment
  8. Now product is cocoa mass or cocoa liquor
  9. Blend with sugar
  10. Roll-refinery: make particle size smaller until it is edible
  11. Conching: machine called “conch” mixes and aerates the product, might be heated
  12. Tempering and molding, the process of heating and shaping the chocolate into the form we eat it in.

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