Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lessons from Chocolate with a Soul

For the past couple of months, we have been exploring the practices and stories behind some bean-to-bar chocolate makers. While these chats have been quite enjoyable, they have also been extraordinarily illuminating. Several key themes surfaced during my chocolaty conversations, and I thought we might take some time to explore this further.

1.     Labels aren’t everything – while eco-labels have become very handy indications for us lay-folk in distinguishing products that strive toward the greater good, they are not silver bullets. In fact, most of the chocolate makers with whom I spoke were more inclined to work directly with farming communities to determine the most beneficial arrangement, rather than purchase cacao from a fair trade organization. Moreover, workin

2.     More bang for your bean – bean-to-bar operations that complete the whole production cycle within the country of origin retain much more value for the local, regional, and national economies. Keeping the jobs of growing, processing, and packaging within the country of origin also keeps the economic benefits there. Similarly, skipping the middlemen and working straight with the producers to improve their practices and the quality of their beans results in not only a better bar, but more money staying in the community and going to the farmer.

3.     Where there is passion, there is a way – each of the companies I interviewed started from a small seed, a passion for chocolate, and for some a love of a place. Artisan chocolate is a niche market, so there are huge challenges to overcome when bumping heads with the big guys like Hershey’s and Nestle. The passion and drive of the founders seems to have kept the businesses on the map.

4.     Think systems – without even overtly acknowledging this, each chocolate maker approached their business considering the entire system. It’s not just about the integrity of the ecosystems; the access to training and markets to earn a decent wage; or even what happens on the farm itself. Every point on the chocolate value chain is important.

5.     Savor, don’t stuff – like many tropical imported commodities, a $1 bar of chocolate does not reflect the true costs associated with making the treats. But we are talking about the food of the gods here! The strength of good chocolate is that there are complex flavors, subtle notes, and a richness that the other stuff lacks. I know (believe me, I do) it’s difficult to just each a piece or two, but consider the complex route that chocolate took to get to your mouth, and really savor each bite. It will be all the more enjoyable!

I guess the message from this is very similar to Michael Pollan’s food rules: eat chocolate (with a soul, hehe), not too much, mostly dark, from a company you know and trust.

This was so much fun, that I want to explore more! If you have suggestions for other environmentally/socially responsible chocolate companies (and contacts?), please let me know. Also, I’m toying with ideas for some other commodity crops and will gladly take requests.

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