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. ]
OK, so it would appear that Clay's $100 bar is perhaps closer than we think. My opinion on this is from that of the consumer, not as an industry insider and is thus: "Have you lost your minds? Expensive chocolate, I'm there with you. But 'non-believers' still can't fathom us paying $10 for a good bar. Up it by 10-fold and it starts to look like the consumer, even the elite consumer, is just getting screwed. The actual cost of a $100 bottle of wine may not be greater than that of a $10 bottle of wine, to be sure. And there may be people who will gladly pay $100 for a bar of chocolate. But there are also people who will pay $800 per couple to eat at Per Se in NYC. The question then is, what are you paying for? The same quality meal could be had elsewhere, but there's the view, the cache, etc. A bar may not be able to claim all of that. And wine does get people feeling no pain. Chocolate makes us feel good and all, but not sure it's the same thing. (Personally, I prefer the effects of chocolate over those of wine, but I may be in the minority.) At the endof the day, a $100 may be good for the industry, but it also may not. If the public rejects it as being too outrageous, then it may end up being discounted at some level. That wouldn't help either side of the industry/consumer coin and it would make those few who paid full price look like idiots. People never like thinking they got taken to the cleaners.
Just thoughts from someone who lots of people think spends too much on chocolate.
There is much discussion here over whether chocolate should emulate wine or coffee to raise the profile towards thar $100 bar.
I think that we need to take a little from both. The $100 bar, should I believe be based on a vintage, after all that is how wine has reached such dizzy heights. There are even wines that will probably never be opened because they are the last one or two of a particular year, of a particular grape from a particular vineyard.
On the other hand the coffee model has opened up a wider market for better quality coffees. As has been said coffee is a daily neccessity for many people. Why can´t chocolate do the same.
The focus of this discussion has been on chocolate bars. Why not on cacao drinks? Cacao was originally served in cafes as a drink, let us go back to those roots with our current technology. Pure cacao drinks, pure chocolate drinks, and chocolate milk drinks. Such cafes would also be perfectly placed to sell high end chocolate bars.
Interesting point. As I see it, to get to the $100 bar, the quality would have to be exceptional. It would for wine, and people are already used to paying big for wine. They're not used to paying that much for chocolate though, so it would need to be something exceptional and consumers would have to really be able to taste the difference. It would also have to be something not easily replicated, to minimize the chance of having a "cheap knockoff."
As for chocolate bars, good idea, long overdue. There are the beginnings of such, and the Bittersweet cafe in San Francisco is an example (although they never seem to make hot chocolate hot enough, it's usually tepid for some reason). But if people see a chocolate bar in the same way they see a coffee bar, then the $100 chocolate bar may have some trouble. People won't pay $100 for even a whole pound of coffee, let alone a fantastic cup.
My point regarding the $100 bar is just that -- what's the point? If it's to make totally exceptional quality that is truly noticeable, then great. If it's to get the industry all ginned up, then it's harder to support, but it might still work with certain consumers who get caught up in status. We all know a huge company that has done a lot of that -- pretty gold boxes, high prices, etc. and personally, I don't think they have a truly superior product. They've even been known to include some vegetable fat for cocoa butter. Ick. And it does nothing to help the industry, even if their bottom line may be good. Again, I'm not in the industry, just a consumer, but it may be good to hear from some of us, too.
I disagree that it would HAVE to be exceptional. Once you get into such rarified areas, very few people can or will have tried it. But the back story has to be good.
As regards Bittersweet, I can only judge from their website, but I see more coffees on offer than chocolate drinks. No range of single origin chocolate drinks.
I have no idea of their method for making hot chocolate, but it will often be cooler than expected, just as good coffee is. But chocolate can be given an extra kick temperature-wise with a few seconds in the microwave.
That's paying for presentation packaging, though--fancy outer box, inner boxes, individually-wrapped pieces. Amedei's most expensive bar remains Porcelana, at $16.50 (or $33/100g or $151/lb). It's among the priciest bars in the world (apart from obvious hustles), but still a far cry from a $100 bar.
On the note of porcelana, I doubt that Amedei's porcelana is even pure porcelana! I think it's a blended rip off. I've had it, and here's why I think so:
1 Amedei's porcelana bar is very dark.
2. Porcelana cocoa beans are porcelain white when harvested (hence the name porcelana)
3. Once fermented, they turn to a reddish color on the outside and a tan color on the inside.
4. Once roasted, the beans/nibs turn to a red brick color and have VERY strong fruity notes.
5. I have found NO physical way to make Porcelana chocolate as dark as Amedei's without blending them with another dark bean. Alkalizing doesn't work on that bean to darken it, and who in their right mind would alkalize the holy grail of chocolate just so that it looks like all other chocolate???
In my opinion, Amedei's porcelana is a BLEND, and not a true porcelana. I think you're getting ripped off. Until they prove otherwise I will continue to think that, and express my opinion which is also based on working with porcelana beans daily for 4 years from a couple of different regions of the world.
Have you seen Valhrona's El Pedregal Porcelana? It's also dark. They even say it's all "estate-grown". If they're saying it's Porcelana but it's actually a blend, isn't that illegal? Not sure, just asking. I always thought Valrhona was pretty upstanding.
Interesting theory, Brad. Thanks for sharing.
As a customer, while I cannot pronounce definitively on Amedei's Porcelana being a blend (I believe there are no strict rules for calling anything Porcelana), I do believe that all Amedei products are priced a little too high for their qualities. In other words, I consider it a ripoff brand and I would not be surprised.
On the other hand, I have not been disappointed in Valrhona.
Taking it from here to the topic of the OP - for anything like 100-dollar bar to get started it needs to start by being genuine article, the price of which connoisseurs would consider justified.
Appealing to Jennifer Aniston (or rather her character in Friends) segment would then follow, just by the virtue of authority of connoisseurs and the desire for exclusivity that is still - barely - affordable.
There are never enough of exclusive-ish treats for the ones who expect things for Valentine's, for Mothers' Day, birthday, wedding anniversary etc ad infinitum.
Note: The post has been edited by the moderator because: