Wednesday, October 3, 2012

My Munchable Soapbox: Tasting Chocolate with a Soul

If you have been with me for a couple of years (yes, mom and dad...), you may remember my 24th birthday affair. We tried an excessive number of chocolate bars and settled on a few favorites. Well, it had been too long since hosting the last chocolate tasting. This September, I decided to take some of the lessons learned from my Chocolate with a Soul series, scale back on the number of bars (only eight), and focus in on ones with a particularly ethical bent...some may overlap with the original tasting and others will provide the basis for a second round of soulful interviews!

What did we try?
 

Original Beans – Beni Wild Harvest 66%
The Origin: Bolivian Amazon
The Bar: This chocolate bar begins in the origin of all cacao and the largest rainforest region in the world, the Amazon basin. The 75,000 square kilometers (29,000 square miles) of the Beni savannah region in the Southwestern Amazon basin are marked by environmental extremes: seasons vacillate between fire and flooding. 66% Direct Trade Wild. 44% Certified Organic

The Company: Original Beans operates under ten guiding principles, including conserving critical biodiversity; protecting the biodiversity of cacao bean varieties; trading directly with smallholder farmers and co-ops to guarantee full traceability of the cacao and pay a standard premium that is 6.5 times the fair trade premium; certifying independently; leaving a positive eco-footprint through use of renewable energy and waste; replenishing forestry through active replanting efforts; and tracking and monitoring the ecological and social impact of the company.

The Verdict: Our favorite, unanimously! Smooth, citrus notes, and not too bitter.
 
Madécasse – 70%
The Origin:  Madagascar
The Bar: Farmers cultivate each pod by hand in a naturally organic environment, although not certified. Direct Trade - Bean to Bar at Origin

The Company: Founded by two former Peace Corps volunteers, the company was set up to create and retain profit and sustainability in the country. All the cocoa is sourced from one small village, in a remote corner of Madagascar, home of the Ezaka Cooperative. Through their partnership, Madécasse provides Ezaka with training, equipment and a stable market.

The Verdict: This was a bit hit or miss. Malagasy chocolate has a very distinct flavor and takes a bit of getting used to.

Theo Chocolate – Jane Goodall Dark 70%
The Origin: Currently, the sources of beans is primarily the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Peru.
The Bar: Through the partnership between Theo and Jane Goodall, proceeds from the sale of these chocolate bars will benefit cocoa farmers, promote conservation in the tropical rainforest, and directly contribute to the Jane Goodall Institute’s efforts to save chimpanzees, develop community centered conservation efforts, and direct youth education programs around the world. Fair forLife. USDA Organic. NON GMO Project - Verified.

The Company: The cocoa beans are grown sustainably in ways that promote biodiversity and positively impact the lives of the farmers they buy from. Theo's works with farmer groups and grower cooperatives throughout the world, partnering by providing technical assistance and sharing knowledge and understanding of what is required to make great chocolate. They work with farmer partners to support their ability to utilize sustainable growing practices, such as integrated pest management, biodiverse farming, and reforestation.

The Verdict: This was one of the favorites. It's a bit earthier and more bitter than the first bar.

The Origin: Colombia

The Company: Chocolate Santander, the only single origin chocolate produced in Colombia and one of South America’s most special, takes its name from the State of Santander, Eastern Colombia. The special features of Chocolate Santander, its natural origin, the mix of Trinitario and Criollo cacao, rural tradition, and modern processing and quality-control technology are the pride of Compañía Nacional de Chocolates. Its policy has been that of building an equitable and fair model that benefits producers and consumers alike and contributes to the country’s development.

The company has been promoting good cultivation practices among growers like the use of organic fertilizers, species improvement and soil protection through adequate shading in planted forests that protect water sources and mountain slopes.

The Verdict: Another favorite. It is smooth, with a slight coffee flavor.
Trader Joe’s – Belgian Dark 72%
Origin: Unknown
The Bar: Fair for Life. USDA Organic. Certified Organic by Quality Assurance International

The Verdict: Run-of-the-mill chocolate. Tones of banana and sweeter than some of the others. Also, it was nearly impossible to get any sort of information on sourcing for this bar. The lack of transparency in this particular bar is indicative of some of the larger issues with the chocolate industry.
 
Pacari – Los Ríos 72%
The Origin: Ecuador
The Bar: USDA and EU Organic. Bean to Bar at Origin

The Company: Pacari Chocolate is a family-owned company, dedicated to making the high quality organic chocolate from Ecuador, and the first single-origin organic chocolate made entirely in the country. The company pays a premium over market prices so that the producers capture sufficient value for their hard work and can continue their sustainable farming methods, preserving the genetic diversity of cacao in Ecuador. And because the company is located only a few hours drive from most of the producers, they have developed long term commitments with each of their producers.

The company works directly with traditional cacao growers, striving to protect the genetic stock of Ecuadorian cacao that is largely preserved on the diverse cocoa agroforestry systems on family farms. This is particularly important as it reduces risk of a plague destroying Ecuadorian cacao trees.

The Verdict: Not a hit among the tasters. Harder, grassy, and a bit too bitter. I've had some of the other bars, which are better.

El Ceibo – Heritage Dark 75%
Origin: Bolivia 
The Bar: The Heritage chocolate bar is made from beans from wild cacao trees that have never been cultivated or genetically altered by man. Certified Organic. Bean-to-Bar at Origin
The Company: El Ceibo is a cooperative entirely owned by its membership of over 1200 families. El Ceibo enriches and protects the environment by creating microclimates through successional agroforestry systems. Trees are cared for using organic standards and no chemical pesticides or fertilizers are used. Cacao cultivation and harvesting is accompanied by the planting of plantain, banana, papaya, and other trees.

Farmers share knowledge about cocoa farming among each other to increase productivity and improve quality. El Ceibo’s technical staff is in charge of visiting farmers periodically. They provide technical advice and ensure that organic farming methods are observed. El Ceibo also promotes the incorporation of new organic cocoa farmers by promoting the increase of organic cocoa farming in a sustainable fashion and in harmony with the environment. El Ceibo recently created a non-profit organization in Sapecho, PIAF - El Ceibo Foundation to serve its associates as well as non-associates.

The Verdict: Not a favorite of the group...in fact, least favorite. Very earthy.

Salazon - Sea Salt and Turbinado Sugar 57%
Origin: Dominican Republic
The Bar: Cacao is 100% organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified; the salt is from the Southern Atlantic and solar dried.

The Company: Based in Maryland, this company is founded on principles of environmental and social responsibility. They are a member of 1% for the Planet, donating 1% of their annual revenues to environmental organizations.

The Verdict: Warning, this bar is addictive. Everyone enjoyed it, but some thought it was slightly too sweet. 

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