Craft Chocolate in 3D, Part 2: Ethics

Last time, I shared some thoughts about how the craft chocolate industry is giving us chocolate with flavors that are not only delicious but also interesting, naturally. The best way to find the flavors you like most is to get out there and try some craft chocolate.

This round is a little less hands-on (tastebuds-on?) and considers how craft chocolate can improve the ethical side of the chocolate industry. The short version is that craft chocolate makers are looking for quality rather than quantity, and we're willing to pay for it. It turns out that demand for quality can be a transformational force in the industry.

It helps to first understand how low-quality cocoa is produced. Usually it goes like this: farmers grow and harvest their cocoa, ferment it themselves, dry it themselves, and then take it to market where they sell it at unstable commodity (i.e. global baseline) prices. Because they get the same price for good and bad cocoa alike, there is no reason to consider quality. So, being relatively poor and needing to get paid as quickly as possible, many farmers speed through the fermentation and drying steps. Unfortunately, rushing these steps virtually guarantees a low-quality product.

Producing high-quality cocoa is largely about making investments at origin to solve the fermentation and drying problem. There are a couple ways to do it, but the model I am seeing most often goes like this: farmers grow and harvest their cocoa. Somebody else buys the fresh (unfermented) cocoa from the farmers and then ferments and dries it in a dedicated processing facility. Then the "somebody else" sells the high-quality finished cocoa at above-market prices.

These beans from Ghana are not considered "fine flavor" grade--but thanks to proper fermentation and drying, they make wonderfully rich chocolate.

The key questions then become who is that "somebody else" and what are their values? Again, there are a couple possibilities. One model is a farmers' co-operative. Basically, all the farmers chip in, maybe with some help from outside investors, to set up a processing facility and hire staff to handle export and other administrative tasks like applying for certifications (Fair Trade, Organic, etc.). This can be a great model because it's usually democratic and the extra money that the finished cocoa brings in stays in the growing community. There's not much to dislike like about it, and as someone who regularly buys cocoa beans I rarely think twice about buying from a co-op.

A bag of cocoa from the Oro Verde co-op in Peru, which uses its price premiums to offer technical assistance, medical care, and increased food security to its farmers.

Other models involve outside organizations coming in and providing many of the same services a co-op would. There's really a spectrum here. At one end you have nonprofit groups whose mission is to support the cocoa farming communities, and at the other end you have for-profit companies who do turn out high-quality cocoa but don't pay farmers very well or care a whole lot about the communities at origin. I will say this: what I'm seeing is a good deal more activity at the supportive end of the spectrum. If you want to see it in action, check out two of my favorites, Kokoa Kamili and Maya Mountain Cacao.

The bottom line is that craft chocolate makers typically know the model behind their beans, and that means they can choose what to support. If they demand more cocoa from supportive models, supportive models will prosper and spread. That puts a lot of power to do good in craft chocolate makers' hands.

Plus, no matter what the model is, you just can't escape the fact that producing high-quality cocoa requires investment in infrastructure at origin--in fermentation and drying facilities, in high-quality seedlings, in farmer education, in transportation networks, and more. Regardless of who pays for all this and what they do with the profits, we're talking about new money and new opportunities coming to cocoa-growing areas, which really isn't a part of the low-quality cocoa model.

So here it is in a nutshell. The more craft chocolate makers demand high-quality cocoa beans, the more new money must be invested in cocoa-growing origins to produce them. These investments support social, environmental, and economic development at origin. From an ethical standpoint, that's the big thing craft chocolate has to offer: origins as partners in growth, not sources of cheap labor.

The next time the price tag on a bar of craft chocolate gives you pause, remember this: odds are you're making a meaningful investment not only in the chocolate making company, but also in the origin on the package.