When I was in London a couple of weeks ago speaking at the Academy of Chocolate conference, I had the great privilege of being the last speaker of the day. This enabled me to pay attention to what everybody else was saying and present a summary of what I heard in the context of my own panel presentation which was billed as, "The Global Future of Chocolate."
After presenting a summation, I urged the audience to consider a number of calls to action. Too often at conferences like this one a great deal of good information is shared but then that information does not get disseminated after the conference is over. We all go our own separate ways and little substantive really occurs.
I presented two calls to action that are related to each other:
1) The fine chocolate industry needs professional certification programs similar to ones that graduate professional sommeliers in wine.
2) The fine chocolate industry needs a $100 bar of chocolate.
If you think about it, if all wine was priced under $20/bottle and the majority of it was mass market and not very well differentiated, there would be no need for sommeliers. The fact that there are $1000 bottles makes $100 bottles seem less extravagant and the $100 bottles make $10-20 bottles seem like very good deals indeed.
More to the point, the actual manufacturing cost difference between the $1000 bottle and the $100 (or $20 bottle) are not as great as the price differences indicate. The price differences are a result of many factors that include wine quality, origin, manufacturer, scarcity, and reviews. What this means in practice is that there is a lot of money in the system that can be used to pay professionals whose job it is to educate people about why it's okay to pay $1000 for a bottle - or $100 for a bottle - when there are lots of much-more-than-adequate $10-20 bottles around.
Getting back to chocolate, most of it is mass market blah that costs $1-3 per bar. Most bars are in the $3-7 range. There is a small handful of bars that cost $10-15, and an even small number of bars that cost $20 or more — at least here in the US. Some of the price differential is related to manufacturing costs - e.g., higher prices for beans in smaller quantities. However, here in the US, the largest factors contributing to high retail prices on the most expensive bars are exchange rates (the US$ is fairly weak right now), the cost of importing, and a relatively high cost of specialty foods distribution here in the US. The Bonnat Porcelana bars that cost $25 here in New York can be purchased for half that price in France.
Because the vast majority of chocolate bars is under $7 at retail, there is no money in the system to pay for professional chocolate sommeliers and professional chocolate critics. There is a small group of people - relatively speaking - who do this, but I don't know a one who can make a decent full-time living being just a chocolate sommelier/critic.
What this means is that there is neither any need for, nor any economic value in, someone pursuing a professional certification because there is no way for anyone to generate a decent return on investment on the time and money invested in earning the certification, in part because the market does not recognize the need for it.
With a $100 chocolate bar (or, ideally, many $100 chocolate bars), the stage is set for the conditions that support professional certifications. The $100 chocolate bar makes the $10-20 bar seem not so unreasonable in price, and, thus "more affordable" for people looking to expand their taste. More importantly, the actual cost of production of a $100 bar is not 10x the cost of a $10 bar, which means that there would be more money in the system for marketing - which supports a host of other activities.
It is also very important that any $100 bar of chocolate be worth that price based on intrinsic factors that people who are knowledgeable about chocolate will agree support that price. The bar doesn't cost $100 because it is decorated with gold leaf or contains every expensive other ingredients: the bar costs $100 because of what went in to its making.
Now, having said that, I don't know exactly what those factors are. However, the idea was also presented at the Origin Chocolate conference in Amsterdam — actually for a €100 bar — just four days after I proposed it by Philipp Kauffmann, one of the founders of the Original Beans chocolate company, independently of my bringing it up in London. So I am not the only one thinking this way.
Having said all that, I am writing this in the hopes of hearing from members: a) what they think of the idea, in general, and b) what they think attributes of a $100 bar might include. Following are some of my ideas for factors that could contribute to a $100 bar:
#1) When I was talking with Mikkel Friis-Holm in London, he mentioned that he had some chocolate that was inedibly tannic when it was made. He put it away for a couple of months and then tasted it again and the level of tannins was much lower than it was when the chocolate was made. Still inedible, but much better. He is going to taste the chocolate again several months from now to see if it's any better. The corollary here is that there is actually very little wine that is made to be drunk in the days or weeks immediately after it's produced. Virtually all wine made is aged to some extent - and a lot of wine is made knowing that it will take years (or decades) before the wine reaches its optimal drinking condition. Virtually all chocolate is made to consume "young." Even when it's got a shelf life rating of two years, it's made to be consumed within weeks of being made. I wonder what would happen if people deliberately started making chocolate that was not going to be fit for consumption for two to five years, or more? And then selling "bar futures" on the chocolate.
#2) I was talking with Sepp Schönbächler of Felchlin in Amsterdam and he mentioned that Felchlin has quantities of the the 65% Grand Cru Maracaibo dating back to 1999. Whenever a new person comes into his department, they are tasked with re-tempering some of that chocolate which is, of course, all Form VI crystals at this point. Sepp notices some differences in taste between the 1999 "vintage" and the current "vintage" -- mainly in the fact that some of the top-note aromatic notes have disappeared. At the same time, the loss of those top notes should allow other flavor notes to come forward. There are wine and spirits industry practices of vintage blending. For example, in rums, solera blending adds small amounts of aged rum to younger rums to up the "tasting age" and make a limited supply of aged rum go much farther. I wonder what the outcome would be of blending a small amount of a much older chocolate with younger versions of the same chocolate (or different chocolates)? You could get the "youth and vitality" of the newer chocolates with some of the depth and complexity of the older chocolates.
#3) What about inoculating a milk chocolate with a specific mold spore after being aged for one year and then age it for one or more years longer?
The fact is, no-one really knows what the outcomes of such practices would be, because the economics of the $7 bar market don't support such lines of experimentation. But I put the challenge out there to chocolate makers around the word, especially to companies with stock of older chocolates, to start exactly that sort of experimentation - to set aside a very short-term outlook and think about practices that could result in a $100 bar of chocolate that everyone agrees is worth it.
I don't think that the $100 bar will appear this year or next, but it could. Five to ten years is a more reasonable time frame, but only if we get started down this path soon.
[Note: Edited on 11/4 by the OP to correct grammar and typos. ]
And what about Emmaneul Andren Gastronomy's $98 for four pralines? Jeez
Fritz used to have a $250 truffle - it's been some time since we chatted, so i'm not sure if he still does or not.
I'll happily make a $100 bar, sold by the dozen. You choose the beans, blend, and concentration. Pls let me know when you'd like me to start shipping them 8-)
I'll one-up you and offer a baker's dozen for the price of 12.
...and free shipping.
You ship now? To New York?
<big grin - sorry, couldn't resist, hope you don't mind the humor>
That gave me a good chuckle Clay. You know I was just having fun too!
who says the world of chocolate's not a cut-throat, competitive business? 8-)
Fritz's truffle is expensive as it is - it's made to order, only - because of the ingredients, including gold leaf.
For the $100 bars you're offering to make, what characteristics of the bars make them worthy of the price tag, other than made to order in extremely limited availability?
It was tongue in cheek. however i suppose i could do bars based off of extra-ordinarily rare trees (most people don't have access to germplasm databases), or crossed with things like theobroma grandiflorum.
However, uniqueness of raw materials and skill/knowledge of the preparer aren't going to be sufficient to justify/sustain an elevated price. There will need to be something less directly product related to accompany it.
Hawaii has the rarity , a diverse genetic pool, rich, volcanic soil and benefit of being the only US location to have a chocolate industry with the ability to grow its own material. Now what we need is some skilled bean to bar chocolate maker to come in and elevate that.
I totally agree that when you raise the top end, the bottom comes up in price and the mid range experiences stronger sales. I' saw this over and over in the my former career as a large jeweler, and continually tested and tweaked it. Marketing is one aspect. I Think the Heirloom Cacao Initiative is one of the means in the future to facilitate the reality of higher priced and appreciated bars, provided skilled hands are working with the beans.
You also need to start thinking about a PDO system. Coffee has Kona all sewn up and probably won't like the application to cacao. Place names are going to be very important to elevating awareness.
Many people know Chuao, and there are many names associated with cacao but they are used confusingly. Ocumare is a place? And a varietal? What about Rio Caribe? Can you get true criollos from Rio Caribe? Maralumi? Place or made up name?
Knowing what you have (and don't) and communicating it properly will be important in getting better prices.
Hawaii can lead the way on this; the community is small, the industry is still really nascent, and there are knowledgeable people. Getting the legislature to recognize the potential economic advantage (making the connection to Kona) could get them to act.
I’ve been saying this for some time, and I will continue to press my case: when it comes to efforts to raise the apparent value (and price) of chocolate, the model should not be wine. The model should be coffee.
For the first 100 years after it became fairly popular (ca. mid-1800’s) coffee was an industrial product produced almost exclusively in factories, with little consideration for quality. The main goal was simply to sell as much as possible at the lowest price possible. Sound familiar?
The specialty coffee movement completely transformed this model. I was part of the “second wave” off coffee, and when we started selling “gourmet” coffee and espresso beverages in the 70’s and 80’s people were, to put it mildly, skeptical. The idea that there even was such a thing as “gourmet coffee” seemed ridiculous to many people. It was like claiming you had “gourmet milk”. Coffee was a commodity, and commodities were, by definition, the opposite of gourmet.
Nearly every day we had to explain to customers why they should pay so much more for our coffee drinks. After all, it was “just coffee”. Also, people thought our coffee was “too strong”, and would often ask is to water it down so that it tasted “normal”. Again, does this sound familiar?
But here’s the thing: over the course of less than five years people stopped questioning our pricing, and they also quit asking us to water down our coffee. We stopped being a rare (and odd) treat and instead turned into a necessary part of the daily routine. And this, by the way, was all before Starbucks. Starbucks, despite all of their legitimate shortcomings, turned a racecar into a rocket ship.
Now, across the country, the specialty coffee business remains nearly entirely non price-sensitive. Paying $3-$5 for a coffee drink is the new normal, and even including inflation, the average price of retail coffee beans has probably gone up by 20%-30%.
More interestingly, the top tier of coffee beans has gone up considerably. These days there are numerous specialty coffees that cost $50-$80 a pound, and the high end can go much higher. For example in June of this year Stumptown Coffee paid over $12,000 for a mere 150 pounds of a varietal of green beans from Guatemala. That’s over $80 a pound, which means that once roasted this coffee will almost certainly sell for a minimum of $250 a pound. Probably more. And I doubt that they will have much trouble finding willing buyers.
This is what the coffee industry has done in only several decades. And in my opinion, if you want to see $100 chocolate bars some day this is the path to follow. In less than 25 years the American specialty coffee industry went from nothing to a multi-billion dollar juggernaut. And in the same period of time coffee went from a cheap commodity to a respected and profitable gourmet product. Everything that the new wave of chocolate makers want has been accomplished by the specialty coffee industry. Why aren’t we paying more attention to that?
When I was at the Northwest Chocolate Festival a few weeks ago there was a seminar in which exactly this question was put to a panel of industry insiders: how can we get chocolate priced along more of a spectrum, like wine? Of course “like wine”. Always “like wine”. And of course everyone proceeded to talk about how great it was that wine could sell for $10 or for $5,000 and how chocolate needed to be and deserved to be more like this. Which led to the inescapable (and in my opinion completely erroneous) view that the business model for chocolate had to be more like the one used for wine. Nobody of course had any idea how to make that happen, but it seemed as if everyone agreed that this was the goal.
But in my view this is not going to happen, because wine has a unique culture that cannot be and will not be replicated by chocolate. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is already a business model that could serve as a nearly perfect blueprint for how to move the chocolate industry forward, and it CAN be replicated by the chocolate industry.
You want a way forward? You want a business model that will yield a profitable industry along with customers who will spend up to $50/ounce for chocolate? Quit thinking wine. Start thinking coffee.