Friday dawned just as many days do in London, chill and damp.
Still, I am in London where it is warmer than New York, and by the time I make my way from the Sloane Square tube stop to Piccadilly and make my way to the Royal Automobile Club (venue for the Second Academy of Chocolate conference) the sun is shining and I am very much looking forward to the day even though I was too rushed to have coffee before leaving my hotel
The first thing you'll notice when walking into the RAC is that it's not like walking into a AAA office in the States! There is history here and the building shows this history in a very British way. Not only that, but we were informed the previous night that proper attire (jacket and tie, no sneakers) would be required in order to gain entry. I wavered at the last minute about bringing a tie and ended up not bringing one. In the end, however, it turned out to be a non-issue and I was admitted without being questioned about my attire.
There is no equivalent to the Academy of Chocolate in the US. The AoC is a small non-profit organization founded with the mission of promoting fine chocolate. And it has a patron, Michel Roux, OBE.
The conference was well attended - I estimate that there were over 100 people in the room, including a large number of students. Attendance was international, drawing people from Europe, the US, Caribbean, and Central and South America. What excited me most was the company I was in. Tony Lass and Robin Dand were on the panel starting the day off, the speaker roster did not diminish in quality as the day went on, and there were notable attendees who were not speakers. The group at my table included Duffy Sheardown (of Duffy's Chocolate) and Chantal Coady, founder of Rococo.
Issues Facing the Industry
The first session was on the topic of issues facing the industry, and featured Robin Dand and Tony Lass (representing the International Cocoa Initiative), with Freek van der Knaap of Barry Callebaut. The session set a framework for the rest of the day.
As the author of The International Cocoa Trade, Robin talked about the divide between the producer (who for the most part does not consume chocolate) and the consumer (who does not produce chocolate), as well as the market mechanisms underlying pricing, in particularly the difference between the formal market (which encompasses most of the bulk cocoa and is the basis of the commodity price) and informal market (which encompasses all direct trade, is private, and for which the participants, prices, and volumes are not known). I have a copy of the first edition of Dand's book, and I found his presentation to provide some insight into areas that I still had an incomplete understanding of, particularly how and where prices get set.
Tony Lass then followed by presenting an official Powerpoint produced by ICI on the subject of child labor and forced labor in West Africa, which he prefaced in a way that suggested that he did not agree with all of what was contained in the presentation. It was a very diplomatic presentation which included one of the best and most nuanced discussions of what constitutes child labor and what does not that I have heard. There is a tendency to focus on the most sensationalist aspects of child labor in cocoa, ignoring the fact that the problem is not solely found in the cocoa and chocolate industries. While any form of forced and dangerous labor is a bad thing, the underlying causes are not as simplistic as many would make them out to be, and the solutions are even more complex ... and not limited to cocoa and chocolate. The industry has a hand in perpetuating the problem by not addressing it in a meaningful way, but they can only be a partner in the solution, not the sole cause or cure.
Frank van der Kneep then followed with a presentation on key market drivers and trends, including some news about Barry Callebaut's efforts in creating high-flavanol chocolate and getting EFSA (European Food Safety Agency) approval to make a health benefit claim for same. Certainly, the health benefits of cacao and chocolate are key drivers and trends for chocolate makers and consumers, but I don't know that it's an issue of the same import as child labor.
Cocoa, Cocoa Genetics, and Cocoa Growing
The second panel was on the topics of cocoa genetics and cocoa growing, and featured Craig Sams (founder of Green and Black's), Frank Homann (founder of Xoco), and Santiago Peralta (founder of Pacari). Craig did not speak about cocoa genetics directly, but about the history of Green and Black's, about some of the chemical composition of cocoa, and about compounds called vallinoids, which are found in chocolate and play a role in our perception of chocolate (and other) flavors. Frank Homann talked about Xoco's work in identifying, propagating, and processing interesting strains of "heirloom" beans. The main points of the talk were that science has not identified the genes or gene complexes associated with flavor, and that even minor variations in cacao phenotypes (the visual characteristics of a pod, for example) can signal huge differences in chemical makeup which would lead to very different post-harvest processing requirements. The corollary is that when a fermentation pile includes a broad mix of pod phenotypes, sub-optimal fermentation for the majority of means will occur. Santiago Peralta talked about Pacari's work in Ecuador, most specifically about their experiences with biodynamic farming, which has resulted in dramatic increases in production and yield as well as improvements in the flavor of the beans being grown. There was also group discussion about the influences of the environmental aspects of terroir on taste, with surprising disagreement among the panel about the contribution of terroir to taste.
After a break to fortify ourselves with coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, the next panel tackled the issue of traceability in the supply chain. Panelists were Tony Lass, Bertil Akesson (Akesson's), and Mott Green (Grenada Chocolate Company). Tony's presentation covered the complexities of the modern supply chain for large multinational companies, as well as revealing some absurdities that exist that are not well known. For example, in Ghana, the cocoa board has a system in place for identifying the specific origin (down to the farm) of beans that includes sealing sacks under the watch of an examiner and uniquely identifying each sack, a process that buyers pay for. However, at the port, the bags are opened and commingled in containers of multiple tons thereby losing their traceability to the farm. Mott Green operates what might be the shortest supply chain in the world, operating a chocolate company in-country where the growers contribute beans to the cooperative, are paid for the beans, and receive a share in the profits of the sale of the chocolate made from those beans. GCC's 2012 Fair Transport experience shortened the supply chain to the consumer by delivering finished chocolate, by sailboat, directly to GCC's distributor in London, and every bar on that boat was identified with a sticker so that consumers can immediately identify those products. Bertil straddles the middle ground, as a plantation owner (in the lower Sambirano valley in Madagascar) who sells beans to many fine chocolate makers as well as having chocolate made for his own brand by Pralus. For fine chocolate makers, a purchase through Akesson means they have a short, traceable, supply chain because of the lack of intermediaries who might adulterate the supply.
Sensory Session and Tasting
The panel on tasting was moderated by Sarah Jane Evans (one of the very small number of people who hold the Master of Wine certification) and including Damian Allsop, William Curley, and Claire Clarke. A plate of four different chocolates was set at each table - all made with beans from Madagascar. The format was for everyone in the room to taste one of the chocolates, with the panelists providing their impressions followed by feedback from the room. The four chocolates cames from Cluizel, Valrhona (Manjari), Felchlin, and Amedei. Not surprisingly, all were complete different and some did not have the "typical" profile of Madagascan beans. (Bertil expanded on the genetics/terroir discussion from the earlier panel saying that there were major differences in taste - from the same rough genotypes - between beans grown in the upper Sambirano Valley and beans grown in the lower Sambirano Valley, in his experience, which accounts for part of the difference in taste -- beans from the lower Sambirano Valley exhibit more of the bright citrus/tropical fruit acidity typically associated with Madagascan beans.) For me, Damian Allsop's description of the Manjari was most evocative, speaking to his deep familiarity with the chocolate. For other chocolates that he was not as familiar with, the length and detail in the description paled in comparison. It's quite interesting the role memory plays in our perception - and articulation - of a chocolate (or indeed any other food or beverage).
The end of this panel signaled time for lunch, also a time to mingle and network.
Growing Pains: Scaling Up
The first panel after lunch was composed of a quintet of confectioners, Amelia Rope, Claire Burnet, Paul A Young, Claire Gallagher, and Angus Thirwell, on the topic of growing pains and scaling up. This panel ended up talking more about the core elements of brand identity of each company and how they contribute to the kinds of decisions that need to get made as growth occurs and less about specifics of scaling. All of the panelists agreed that money, space, and staffing issues are key to managing growth successfully, and that the particulars of location and other factors will influence the problems that crop up as well as the solutions to those problems.
The Future of The Chocolate Market
The topic for the final panel of the day was the future of the chocolate market. Moderated by Chantal Coady, the panel consisted of Chloe Doutre-Roussel, Yolande Stanley (an educator at Westminster Kingsway college), and myself. Chantal started off by providing a framework for thinking about the future. Chloe's topic was Brasil, and she covered the recent history of Brasil (it's change from being a major producer in the 1980s to just beginning to recover now, 30 years later) as well painting a picture of the current cacao culture in Brasil, which might be one of the most dynamic in the world. There is a great deal of work on the farm level (much of it done by people who are losing money on the cocoa and are being supported by other business interests), as well as in the design and manufacturing of small-scale machinery, and a can-do attitude towards improving production. While not at former levels, Brasil is now one of the top five producers in the world, and determined to grow. Yolande Stanley talked about education, and more specifically the program at Westminster Kingsway, working to train the next generation of chocolatiers and pastry chefs. In addition to having a formal program working in chocolate (and not just working with chocolate as a part of pastry, which is more common), they are also installing a bean-to-bar chocolate lab and will be teaching the processes involved to interested students as a foundation for their more conventional course of study in chocolate. This is a move I think other programs should follow, as knowledge of ingredients is key to using them. Working only with finished chocolate actually does pastry and baking students a disservice and does not treat the ingredient with the same level of interest as, say, flour, eggs, or many dairy ingredients.
I was in the enviable position of being the last speaker of the day, with the topic, "The future of chocolate on a global scale" (no small topic). I worried about this topic a lot in the week running up to the conference, and made a series of sets of talking points with which to deliver my talk. When I realized I was going last, I stuffed my notes in my bag and concentrated on what the rest of the presenters had to say, determined to create a closing narrative that tied together key points made throughout the day by the other speakers, followed by a call to action to the participants.
Robin Dand started out the day by talking about the two worlds of producers and consumers. I extended that analogy to other gourmet foods; that the divide between the two worlds was a result, in part, of the physical distance separating them. In most other gourmet foods, the finished product is made within a few miles of where the major ingredient is grown, whereas most fine chocolate is made thousands of miles away from where the cacao is grown. By extension, the concept of terroir must be extended to include post-harvest processing techniques unique to each producing region.
The second point I made was to talk about the fundamental conflict of interest that public corporations have. Their primary purpose is to maximize shareholder return. One way to do that is to make sure that raw materials prices are as low as possible. Thus the chocolate and cocoa industry is not truly interested in helping farmers as that would increase the cost of raw materials. They use NGOs cynically to show that they are addressing the problem (i.e., making consumers pay to "fix" the problem they created and perpetuate) while at the same time engaging in practices that ensure that no substantive changes occur.
The third point I made is that the pricing dynamics of chocolate are different from other gourmet foods, in part because chocolate does not improve with age, there is no collector market for chocolate, and that chocolate is too cheap, on average, to support "serious" education and criticism by people who can earn a good living solely by educating people about chocolate and rating and reviewing chocolate like wine, beer, and other gourmet foods.
After making these observations, I issued a series of calls to action to the group, challenging us to actually do something when we left the room and not let the energy dissipate. In other words, how was the information shared during the course of the day going to be used to effect change in the cocoa and chocolate markets.
The first call to action was to work on expanding the PDO (protected designation of origin) system (aka, AOC, DOC) to cacao. Every cocoa producing country should develop a working system of naming to identify growing areas and protecting the use of those names. At the moment, there are only a small handful of protected names, the most famous of which is Chuao.
The second call to action was the creation of a formal training program in chocolate connoisseurship and education, perhaps not as extensive as a Master of Wine, but leading to an internationally-recognized certificate. This should be accompanied by a standard chocolate judging protocol for competitions. In order to support the certification process I pointed out that it was not useful unless it also conferred an economic benefit (that is, people could make money by earning one). I used the metaphor of the $100 bar of chocolate to try to get this across. One of the reasons why there are Masters of Wine is that there are $5000 bottles of wine. If all there was was jug Chablis and $3 bottles there would be no economic need for sommeliers. However, because there are very expensive wines, there is the need for people to understand and educate people about them. Chocolate won't be able to support a generation of professional "chocolate sommeliers" until there are very expensive chocolates that are not novelties.
Finally, I suggested that there is a need to adopt a working definition of sustainability. What does "sustainable cocoa" actually mean? Over the past year I have been trying to articulate one and presented my thinking to the group, a definition with three pillars:
Environmental sustainability means that the trees, and their supporting and dependent ecosystems will be around in 100 years.
Economic sustainability means that there will be people who see cocoa farming as a viable way to make a living and support their families in 100 years.
Social sustainability means that the communities in which the farmers live will be around, viable, and dynamic 100 years from now.
Underlying the above three points - and this is a point that was made in the movie Nothing Like Chocolate about Mott Green and the Grenada Chocolate Company is there has be a sense of fairness, equity, and balance in the system. The farmer, the chocolate maker, and the chocolate consumer must all feel that they are being treated fairly and that one partner in the chain is not taking unfair advantage of them. If there is inequity in the system, it cannot be truly sustainable.
Afterwards, a small group of us went to a nearby pub for a drink before attending an event announcing the launch of a new initiative, Direct Cacao, which seeks to create an alternative to existing fairtrade systems for cocoa and chocolate. It's not exactly clear to me, yet, how this is going to be achieved - and it's something I have been working on for over a year now under the name CocoaAssure. I hope to get a chance to talk at length with Direct Cocoa co-founder Martin Christy of seventypercent.com while we are together in Amsterdam next week. Right now he's busy with Chocolate Unwrapped over the weekend.
I am going to Chocolate Unwrapped tomorrow (Saturday) and Sunday - and will be giving a presentation (tasting) on Sunday. The next blog (which will include pictures) will be after I get back from Chocolate Unwrapped. I may not finish it in London but will on the train to Amsterdam, in which case it will get posted Monday evening.