Telling a story - the global rise of artisan craft chocolate

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
As Easter approaches and we reach for that chocolate bunny, chocolate researcher Kristy Leissle looks at the explosion in craft chocolate.

Globally, chocolate and its source, cocoa, are in a moment of dynamism and change.

In some cases it's for the worse, as the industry faces the realities of climate change. Other changes, however, are for the better, as cocoa producers, chocolate makers, researchers and even retailers offer creative new ways to interact with this beloved food and the people who bring it to us.

Kristy Leissle has been researching and writing about all things chocolate for 15 years, from its politics and geography to its history and culture.

Here are three trendsshe has been following that are reshaping the industry.

One of the biggest changes has been the rise of craft chocolate.

For most of the 20th century, a few major brands such as Hershey, Mars, Cadbury and Nestle dominated the market.

That began to change in 1997, in the United States when Scharffen Berger opened its doors in Berkeley, California, and became the first new bean-to-bar maker in decades.

To see how much things have changed, look no further than the Northwest Chocolate Festival, held every autumn in Seattle, which recently celebrated its 10th year. When Leissle became education director for the festival in 2010, she knew maybe a dozen craft chocolate makers to invite. In 2013, the last year Leissle held the role, she surveyed the market and was able to locate 37 bean-to-bar makers operating commercially in the US.

Today, there are more than 200.

In comparison, New Zealand is where Cadbury (the company's New Zealand roots were in Dunedin) and Nestle dominated the market for decades, and the only homegrown alternative was Whittakers Chocolate Company which made the peanut slab and only started making 250g blocks of chocolate in 1990.

It was in the 1990s when the first ''craft'' chocolate makers began in New Zealand with Devonport Chocolates starting in Auckland in 1991, then Bennetts beginning in Mangawhai and Makana Confections in Kerikeri in 1998.

But it was in the 2000s when craft chocolate making began to take off with figures now showing 120 chocolate makers in the country, many of them craft chocolatiers such as Hogarth Craft Chocolate in Nelson, Honest Chocolat in Matakana, The Remarkables Chocolate Co. in Auckland and Dunedin's very own Ocho.

In 2017 New Zealand got its very own Chocolate Awards and last year New Zealand Chocolate Week in October was launched.

The NZ Food and Grocery Council has also identified chocolate as having high growth potential with consumer-ready chocolate exports already worth $81million in 2016 - 82% of that went to Australia.

The rise of craft chocolate has meant a true renaissance. These makers often take an artisanal approach, getting to know their materials well in this case, cocoa and sugar and shaping them carefully from bean to finished product. The results are lovingly crafted bars, many of them single origin that showcase cocoa's natural flavour range.

With this artisanal market shift has come rising consumer demand for education about chocolate.

Leissle's analysis of the craft market shows that consumers now want more than just a piece of chocolate. They expect makers to also share a story, from who grew the beans to the flavour profile of the finished product.

But this surge in craft chocolate makers and stories can also create confusion at the grocery store.

A visit to a typical sweets section these days reveals dozens of new and attractive chocolate bars stretching down the aisle, bearing a dizzying array of labels: Fairtrade, direct trade, Rainforest Alliance, IMO Fair for Life, bean to bar, raw, handmade, craft and artisan to name just a few.

Is there any real difference among these claims, or are they all simply marketing hype? And what does it really mean to be artisanal?

By and large, labels do one of two things: say something about a chocolate maker's ethics or its process.

Fairtrade, for example, sets a price floor for cocoa. In a market where cocoa's price can fluctuate dramatically, this introduces some budget stability for certified producer organisations, because they know in advance the minimum price they will receive. Fairtrade certified organisations also receive what is called the social premium - an amount paid over and above the price for the cocoa, which is reinvested into community development projects or, in some cases, distributed as cash payments to growers.

Direct trade, which Taza pioneered for chocolate, approaches things a bit differently, focusing on maintaining close and mutually supportive relationships with producers over the long term.

As for process, and consumer understandings of it, Leissle examined how new chocolate makers use the term ''artisan''. An artisan once was a person who spent long years as apprentice to a master, training in a craft, and ''graduated'' only when that master said the trainee was ready.

Opportunities for apprenticeships vanished in the US because the few chocolate companies that dominated the 20th century guarded their manufacturing secrets so closely. But once Scharffen Berger began marketing its chocolate as artisanal, the number of makers calling themselves ''artisan'' grew at an astonishing rate.

In consumer surveys Leissle conducted for this research, she found that people associated the term ''artisan'' with passion for chocolate making, rather than formal training in the craft. Furthermore, her findings suggested that consumers translate passion into good flavour. So the word ''artisan'' seems to sell a delicious chocolate-eating experience, which may or may not be true.

Leissle also concluded that terms like artisan are meant to do more than sell a product. The term, and the storytelling that accompanies it, is intended to educate consumers about what makes this chocolate different from mass-produced candies.

For consumers eager to get a story with their chocolate, these labels provide plenty of information. Leissle's advice is not to try to learn every story but to follow the ones that you find compelling. The more we learn about the people who bring us chocolate, the more mindfully we can enjoy it.

Melting in our mouths

One of the main reasons chocolate is so enjoyable and compelling to the human palate is because cocoa butter, the natural fat of the bean, melts at just below our body temperature, at about 33.8degC. This gives it its distinctive mouth-feel, covering our taste buds thickly and evenly.

But it's also a major headache for chocolate makers and retailers because it means their wares are susceptible to melting into mush in hotter regions and during the summer. And so the industry has been hard at work for decades on creating chocolate that doesn't collapse in the heat.

The effort began in 1937, when Hershey developed a heat-resistant bar for the US Army, which resulted in over 3billion Field Ration D units being distributed to solders during World War 2.

More recently, in 2015, researchers at Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences announced their discovery of the gene that determines cocoa butter's melting point. If this gene can be manipulated, it may mean another route to heat-resistant chocolate.

Today, Barry Callebaut, the world's largest chocolate maker, reportedly makes a bar that remains stable at up to 37.7degC. Nestle, Hershey and Mondelez also have heat-resistant projects that aim to conquer the melt problem while maintaining the mouth-feel.

For the company that solves this challenge, and still keeps chocolate feeling silky smooth, the prize will be enormous: vast new potential markets throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

And for consumers, the result may one day be a planet covered in chocolate - sharp and square, in its most pleasing form, and ready to melt where it ought: in our mouths.

- The Conversation/Additional reporting Otago Daily Times

- Kristy Leissle is a researcher and author at University of Washington, Bothell.

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