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What the Chocolate Industry Needs is A $100 Bar of Chocolate

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.

Your thoughts?

[Note: Edited on 11/4 by the OP to correct grammar and typos. ]

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Cool. My first experience with high end beans was getting some nibs from Amano. I went straight from the Cuisinart to the Santha, added some vanilla and it was incredibly fruity and great all around. thanks for the link, I'll check them out.

I think a few people have touched on this in various ways, but an important part of the whole wine/chocolate thing is: a bottle of wine is (usually) to be shared whereas a bar of chocolate is (usually) for an individual.

 

Maybe a bar is not the best vehicle for delivering 75-100g of $100 chocolate? Maybe tasting squares that can be eaten like a cheese platter would be a better format to share the chocolate? Extending the cheese platter analogy, you could have various origins for different tastes. Just throwing it out there . . .

Gap - 

A good observation and one that is being hinted at in other responses. For example, Starbucks costs as much as it does not because it's such good coffee (objectively, it's not), people are paying for the experience, buying into the brand's lifestyle. Most people don't know this, but the two ingredients that comprise most of what Starbucks consumes are water and milk. Actual coffee is #3.

That said, is the presentation of the chocolate curated and moderated? Is there someone with expertise who's making the selection, providing the information, and more? Or, are the tastings unguided?

:: Clay

It might be useful in this pursuit to have a some well presented place(s) on the Internet where consumers can learn about the chocolate world in ways that they understand the wine world. I'm not sure what the best one is today. Perhaps it could be a joint effort of this group, but it needs to be a consistent format.


- Detailed history and style of chocolate makers, bios, videos and interviews

- Detailed information about chocolate appellations (a world map would be good). I think single origin is the only way to get the prices up.

Again, the idea being to allow customers to begin to go deeper in a way that enables them to build preferences, for which they may pay more.

Clay –

Re: your question, “Still the questions remain, what are more of the characteristics that define this $100 bar?”

My take on this is similar to Lane’s. Among other things I own a marketing company, so from a purely marketing perspective it seems to me that a legitimate $100 chocolate bar requires the same three things as any other product that is priced in the top tier and substantially above the norm:

1) A level of quality that is significantly and unquestionably above the norm.
2) A level of rarity that makes the item prized beyond even the issue of quality.
3) A pool of possible customers who can be identified and reached, and who have both the desire and ability to spend money on this product.

And here in my opinion is where we run into the main problem. When we ask whether or not any chocolate exists that is worth $50/ounce, or what the traits of that chocolate would be, we are asking the wrong questions. The issue is not the product. The issue is the customer. And by that I mean that there is no pool of customers for a $100 chocolate bar. And if there is no customer for a $100 chocolate bar, then there is no $100 chocolate bar. And there are no meaningful traits for a product that cannot be sold.

I’m not trying to be cynical for effect. I think that this is an important topic. But I also think that the discussions I see about this nearly always confuse what generates value and therefore pricing. I think it’s critical to remember that the makers control quality, but the buyers control value.

Let’s recall the history of lobster. Until the mid-19th century lobster was considered garbage food. It was only eaten by the very poor, and even then only if nothing else was available. Servants on the east coast even had it written into their contracts that they could not be forced to eat lobster more than twice a week. Suffice it to say that one of the most popular uses for lobster at that time was as fertilizer. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that lobster became a “gourmet” item. Now imagine a discussion in 1850 about the traits for a $50 lobster roll. It would have been a short conversation, but not for lack of quality. The reason you could not have sold a $50 lobster roll in 1850 was not that the quality was not possible. The reason is that the customer was not possible.

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the same thing applies to coffee. What are the traits of a $100 pound of coffee? In 2012 we can now delineate those traits. In 1972 we could not have done so because there were no customers for that product then. It took the specialty coffee industry 40 years to get to this point, and there is still much work to be done. Currently, at least in the U.S., it does not appear that craft chocolate is anywhere close to this.

The good news is that Americans love chocolate. The further good news is that the American appreciation of craft (dark, specialty, etc) chocolate is definitely rising. The bad news is that after 100+ years of buying cheap industrial chocolate, most Americans still don’t value chocolate very much and simply don’t believe it should ever be that expensive. Chocolate, as was the case with coffee until the second wave, is viewed as both inexpensive and common.

Changing that viewpoint and building a pool of customers who understand, accept and value the difference between craft and industrial chocolate is the key, and is directly analogous to the change in consumer viewpoints and buying habits that happened (and is still happening) in the specialty coffee industry. Only when a large enough pool of potential customers understand craft chocolate and are invested in it, will a $100 bar begin to be possible. In other words, the path to a $100 chocolate bar does not begin with the product. It begins with the customer.

The specialty coffee movement had thousands of coffee houses spread across the country with which to evangelize the masses. What does the craft chocolate movement have? That is the question we should be asking. In my view, it’s only when we have a suitable answer to that question that we can really even begin to start talking about $100 bars.

i have followed some of this discussion and you all make valid points on this discussion. I can talk only from an Australian point of view. My family has been in wine starting with vineyards in the Barossa Valley around 1830, though i grewup in wine and worked in the industry for many years my main work is speciality tea and chocolate .

Wine got to where it is by evolving over hundreds of years by making the public more knowledgeable about wine. Every major media has columns devoted to this topic every week. Craft beer is following the same path.

The type of discussion  you are having is happening in speciality tea as well, many of Clay's opening comments and thoughts have appeared in speciality teas pages.

Cafes are my industry and i've watched the rise and rise of coffee, again in Australia its evolved naturally, not by some grand master plan. Sure COE coffees can fetch hundreds of dollars per kilo but could be awhile before your local cafe has $50 cups of coffee . Here most speciality cafes offer origin coffee as an option to the main blend, at an extra cost of $1-2/cup, this is for coffee beans which cost double the house blend = breakeven at best. real price should be $10 based on standard 18g double shot ristretto.

If your going to aim for a $100 bar (a rising tide lifts all boats) it'll be through media, public awareness, tastings. If you look at wine its tastings tastings tastings- from corner bottle shop, wine cellar, restaurant hosting dinners, lets not forget wine clubs,

Wine prices are also influenced by collectors, i was only reading tonight that the stocks of very old wines 1900-1940 have all but disappeared, so stocks of 50-80's are more valuable.

Anyone got a 1952 Cruizel or Pralus chocolate ???

origin chocolate is the start lets just get out there and let people taste it the rest will follow

The big thing chocolate has (tea hasn't) is that emotional connection just like wine & coffee

A couple of points:

1) For this discussion there needs to be a standard weight for the bar.  I suggest 100 grams.  Obviously, a 50 g bar for $100 is much more expensive per gram than a 500 g bar at the same cost.  Or perhaps more realistically, you get twice as much chocolate for a 100 g bar than you do for a 50 g bar.  For sake of argument, and just to be consistent, can we just say we're talking about a 100 g bar?

2) The most expensive 100 g of chocolate that I've seen so far is $50 for 100 g of Oialla at Caputo's Market.  It's still listed, but no longer for sale.  Oialla might be a bar worth discussing because it is way overpriced and the chocolate is not very memorable.  I'm guessing that in this case paying a PR firm for marketing and individually wrapping each 5g piece are at least 2 factors that drove up the price.  Apparently Caputo's also agreed that there is better chocolate for a lower price.  They said, "Be sure to check out the "Beni Bar" from Original Beans. It is made with the same beans from the same area and is a fraction of the price. While it is not in super fancy packaging like Oialla, we feel the chocolate is tastier."

3) I guess that the question of this thread presupposes $100 bar that is actually worth the price. 

Well, I should have looked closer.  Caputo's also still has listed a 50g box of Oialla for $30.  Thus, per gram, it would be even more expensive than the 100g box since it is $60 for 100 g, and proves my point of the need for a standardized weight for this discussion.

I was thinking the chocolate equivalent of the classic 750ml wine bottle. So 100gr was what I was using as a benchmark.

What weight do you propose? Smaller quantities get a premium as packaging and labor take up a relatively higher percentage of the COGS.

The Oialla box is what - 10, 5gr squares? Personally, I think the ratio of packaging to product is way too high. I cringe when I think about it.

Domori is selling in 25gr bars of four squares. Their 100% Criollo is well under €10 for that quantity.

I agree with using 100g as a benchmark.

FWIW I paid $34/100g for Domori Chuao 2011. ($8.50 for 25g).

I think that with such specialty chocolate it ought to be 50g. 100g always seems more like munching chocolate to me.

Here is a $44 bar of chocolate.  Forte Fortunato #4. ($20/45g = $44.44/100g.) Made from, and I quote from their website, "the rarest chocolate in the world".  I bet the "colorful storybook depicting its amazing discovery" cost a quite a bit to put together too.

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