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. ]
You're probably right. One thing that would tip the scales (and this is unlikely to happen, but...) is if a particular varietal chocolate was found to have unique benefits. It would have to be something special, such as lowering cholesterol better than a medication, boosting libido, curing XYZ condition, etc. and would have to be unique to that particular chocolate. Taste alone, at least at this point, may not be enough of an impetus.
Yes Clay, I was just joking about the $100 bar.
However when it comes to the quality of my product for the market I'm selling to, that sir is something I don't joke about. Again, whether you like it or not is irrelevant. You aren't my customer, and the recipes aren't designed for you or other self appointed "professional tasters". They are designed for the general public, who, after buying $2 Million worth of my chocolate in the past couple of years has a very different palate (and evidently a very different opinion than yours and Marc's)
I'll tell you what though Clay. When you match what my customers buy I promise to care what you think. How does that sound?
Brad, that is the point that what you are producing and selling to your customers is right for you and them.
But if the general quality is ever going to be uplifted, then it needs something else. Whether we need "professional tasters", can be argued, but so long as the marketing of chocolate is completely in the hands of the mass producers, then things are not going to get much better.
My point is that unless someone such as yourself is prepared to take on that effort, there will be no change, and you are proving me right by saying what you say... a sort of "I am all right Jack".
I am not criticising that I am just stating that that sort of response is what Clay is going to be fighting against, and so his argument becomes circular with no way to break it.
This is not a competition. I don't feel the need to prove anything to you. I offer up my observations and advice freely - both actually and figuratively.
You may be right, I am not your customer. And I never will be as you long as you think we're in competition in any way - and continue to frame things in competitive terms.
But what I do think is relevant to your business, albeit in a way that probably has very little actual effect on your sales as your market is pretty much self-limited to Calgary, Alberta and my "market" is a community spanning more than 160 countries. What I do is improve people's awareness and appreciation of fine chocolate, and I do it on a global scale. And I give you the opportunity - at no charge to you (does that make me a bad business person?) - to share your views with my global audience. I invite you in to participate in my business.
You may scoff at that statement, but I have extended global awareness of your brand, your company, and you.
I am sure you have more customers than TheChocolateLife counts members, but we use very different systems to calculate their value to us. We have very different ends, and are pursuing very different means to achieve them.
But what we are not is competitors.
This is really a fascinating conversation, and the idea of a $100 chocolate bar intrigues me. It seems like a bucket-list item - something an average consumer might hope to one day afford for the thrill of it. Or another kind of status symbol for the diamond-studded Rolex wearer.
Speaking as someone largely oblivious to the deep inner workings of the chocolate industry (I don't make it or sell it, I just appreciate the heck out of it), I'm desperate for more information on what distinguishes one chocolate bar from another. This is what motivated me to start researching chocolate production in the first place - clear and compelling information about origins is just not that available to the average consumer.
I'm hoping to change that very soon.
So maybe a $100 chocolate bar would raise the awareness of the public on their chocolate options. It certainly gets your attention ;o)