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. ]
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:
During my chocolate classes, I always stress to the "students" about the amount of work involved in making chocolate. From the Plantation to the final couverture, bonbon, bar...
Gordon is making a lot of sense here!
$10 for a bar which should include "fair" prices to the farmers as a priority , the transport costs, packaging etc... not much really left...
There is certainly a lot of effort to "educate" the public and Journos that small producers are aiming for something else that a mass produced bar made from cheaply bought beans which is often not so interesting quality wise anyway.
I think journos are the one to lobby to make the public aware of the changes in the chocolate industry.
Thank you Gordon for your work
Love this topic...not sure if anyone is still following but we have a tree to bar single estate chocolate business in Costa Rica. It seems to me that if there is to be a true path to the wine model...the chocolate would need to be made at the location as well. I know the challenges because I have found several tricks to the problem of making chocolate in a warm rainy climate...but it would be nearly impossible to produce a massive amount for worldwide distribution.
The making of chocolate on the farm converts the chocolate from something on your grocery shelf to something you travel for...much like wine country is for winos.. The most expensive bottles of wine are not in the liquer store...they are in the cellars of the winery. You might even have to know the owner to taste some of these wines. The same is true for chocolate if the chocolate is made at the farm.
Much of the flavor developed in the chocolate is set before the chocolate maker even gets the beans...so it seems to me that chocolate made at origin may also find its way into "special" since in that case it is the same farmer who made the chocolate from tree to bar. Story, travel, excellent flavor and the cacao farmer gets the true fame for the excellence of the chocolate...
Since the single farm factory is very small the quantity of this chocolate would be very limited. The future of chocolate needs to include and experience for the consumer. Chocolate travel locations like Hawii and Costa Rica and recently I visited Guatamala have chocolate makers who are setting a new bar by creating these fabulous chocolates in which you must travel to there site in order to taste. Exclusivity and adventure.
Thanks for the forum topic. Very encouraging and informative for me.
Interesting take on this. However, I see one issue and that is that the majority of rich people who could pay a lot for chocolate simply don't live where chocolate grows (obvious exception is Hawaii and perhaps some other places). Wine on the other hand grows where the rich live. I have paid $20 for chocolate bars I can buy here (which is a lot and sometimes not really worth it) but with a wife, kids, mortgage etc I haven't been OS in over 10 years. One other thing is proximity of other bean to bar makers, in a wine region you have 10s if not 100s of big and boutique wineries offering their own little twist on the local conditions and then there are the varieties and blends in the mix, perhaps again Hawaii is an exception here. The point being that people who go to or holiday in wine regions want this variety and expect to visit 5-10 wineries in a weekend.
I often tell people who wince at what I pay for an 80 gm bar that it will last me longer than the bottle of wine they bought and will drink within a few hours. That said, I can agree with both Tom and Paul: it needs to be a "destination" but also one that people can reach fairly easily. It also needs to be in a region where there are multiple options so people can go on e "cacao crawl" as it were, and sample several in a day or two.
Of course, there was a lot of talk on the news this morning about the huge increases in cocoa prices over the past year, what with India, Russia, China, and other co8untries getting in on the chocolate craze and hiking demand. This could lead to more chocolate planting in the long term (and I hope it's good quality stuff that is planted). That $100 bar may not be as far off as it originally sounded.