Craft chocolate is a relatively young industry compared to specialty coffee and other artisanal movements such as craft beer, but there are undoubtedly some similarities among them. Quality ingredients, small-scale production, and a focus on transparency are just some of the shared characteristics.
Read on for some insight into how the industries compare and where craft chocolate has room for development.
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A selection of chocolate bars from different origins. Credit: Julio Guevara
Craft Industries Are Thriving
After a couple of years in Farringdon, the craft chocolate subscription box company that I co-founded, Cocoa Runners, moved its London office to Old Street. We’re now close to Borough Market and Shoreditch, areas where many craft food and drink movements have blossomed. James Hoffman set up his Penny University for filter coffee here over a decade ago, Neal’s Yard has been promoting artisanal cheese in Borough Market for over a decade, and there’s no shortage of bars serving craft beer, natural wine, and craft cocktails.
The success of fine food and drink here sparked some thoughts about how craft chocolate compares to these other industries. Coffee and cacao have similarities in production and processing and both are tied to colonialism. But they also have similarities in consumer habits.
A chocolate flavour map, similar to the coffee tasting wheel. Credit: Julio Guevara
Let’s look at some characteristics shared by craft chocolate and other specialty foods, and identify where chocolate can learn from these other craft movements.
1. Craft Products Are Demonstrably “Better”
Craft foods and drinks are “better” than other versions in terms of taste, ethics, environmental impact, health, or a combination of these elements.
The most obvious appeal here is taste, but it’s not the only factor that attracts consumers. Specialty coffee as an industry cares about the welfare of producers and long-term environmental sustainability. Natural wine producers emphasise how their products avoid unnecessary additives, and in most craft food and drink there’s better transparency of production processes and origins than in commercial counterparts.
Craft chocolate is no exception in most of these areas – consumers enjoy the taste, the ingredients list contains quality ingredients, and farming fine cacao can be better for producers.
Where craft chocolate could learn from its elders is in standards of quality. There are no clear industry-wide standards for what constitutes specialty or fine cacao, and no industry definition of craft chocolate. Without standards, it’s difficult to ensure quality across the board and to demonstrate that a product is “better”.
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Cacao beans. Credit: Arcellia Gallardo
2. Craft Products Are an Easy Upgrade
Craft food and drink industries haven’t invented habits. Rather, they’ve encouraged consumers to upgrade their existing habits with more elevated products. People who value quality, small-scale production or who simply want to be cool opt for an IPA from a microbrewery, a locally made gin, or a pour over made with micro lot coffee over mass-produced versions.
Craft chocolate can also be an easy upgrade. For those who already enjoy a couple of squares at the end of an evening, trading up to a bar of craft chocolate is a relatively easy sale.
Although craft chocolate isn’t currently seen as an obvious alternative to a mid-afternoon chocolate biscuit or mass-produced chocolate bar, there is potential to market it in this way. It may be difficult to encourage older people used to commercial chocolate to upgrade, but younger generations are more attracted to the ethical credentials of craft chocolate, as well as more familiar with its less sugar- and dairy-intense flavour.
Craft chocolate can also redefine how chocolate is consumed. Rather than promoting cheap, large bars of commercial chocolate for everyday consumption, craft chocolate-makers can sell smaller sizes of high-quality chocolate at a higher price point and market them to be consumed in smaller amounts. For example, they could encourage consumers to enjoy a small square to complement a coffee or share a bar at the end of a meal.
Chocolate bars from Madagascar. Credit: Nicole Motteux
3. Craft Food & Drinks Usually Have Accepted Definitions
Specialty coffee has certified Q graders to evaluate roasted coffee and a clear grading system for which beans can be described as specialty. The wine industry has done a great job of using Designation of Origin (DOC) and region to highlight individuality. Craft beer has clearly articulated definitions and terminology including International Bitterness Units to make comparisons among brews.
These terms are more than industry jargon and marketing – they allow consumers to better understand what they’re buying and provide some guarantee quality.
As discussed, because there is no industry definition of craft chocolate, consumers can be easily confused or sold subpar products that appear to be of craft quality. Consider how many commercial chocolate manufacturers have rebranded products to compete with craft chocolate.
A handful of cacao beans. Credit: Etty Fidele
Without standards, individual chocolate-makers need to make sure their labels clearly state the ingredients, origin, and any other factors that can demonstrate their craft status to customers. Consumers should get into the habit of checking labels and being cautious of chocolate that looks artisanal but has been manufactured by a big name.
The Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI) has established a cacao sampling protocol, which was developed in consultation with chocolate industry professionals and certified coffee Q grading instructors. This is far from being used throughout the industry, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The FCCI is also part of a wider Working Group on the Development of International Standards for the Assessment of Cocoa Quality and Flavour, which aims to “establish accepted, credible and verifiable protocols for assessing and communicating about cocoa quality and flavour”.
Making chocolate. Credit: Chocolate Caballero
4. Industry Experts & Dedicated Spaces Help Promote Craft Products
Bartenders and baristas are ambassadors for craft drinks. They educate consumers on flavour notes, origin, and wider issues such as sustainability by talking about what they serve.
Most people first encounter specialty coffee and craft spirits in a coffee shop or bar. Having an approachable expert can take the risk out of trying new products. Instead of investing in a whole bottle of a new wine or buying a full pour over set-up, consumers can ask for help and guidance.
Then, after trying various brews or cocktails, they gain confidence and may invest in craft products for home use.
Squares of dark chocolate. Credit: Nicolas Ukrman
Chocolate isn’t set up in the same way – there aren’t craft chocolate tasting rooms on every corner like coffee shops or bars. It’s really hard to communicate the full story of a chocolate bar through a label and most people don’t want to sit down to study flavour notes at home.
So the craft chocolate world needs to think about where it can introduce consumers to information in a more natural way. We would benefit from cacao “sommeliers” or other well-placed experts to inform consumers.
There are some examples of craft chocolate-makers providing spaces to educate consumers. Zotter’s Austrian factory is an amazing experience, Dandelion’s factories include cafés and tours, and Pump Street’s café in Orford, Sussex offers a natural environment to try their chocolate. Mirzam’s factory in Dubai and Omnom’s in Reykjavík also do great jobs of showing why their chocolate is different by letting you look behind the scenes and understand the process involved.
So, if you’re a fine chocolate-maker, it may be worth adding a tasting room or hosting events in your space. In this way, you can encourage people to see the process, try products, and discuss topics specific to the chocolate industry.
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A bar of 75% cacao chocolate with sea salt. Credit: WKND Chocolate
5. Many Craft Products Have Appealing Accessories & Rituals
As anyone who has bought a gift for a fan of specialty coffee knows, craft food and drink can come with a lot of accessories and equipment.
Coffee has pour over devices, scales, goose-neck kettles, and grinders to name just the basics. Wine and cheese also have desirable accessories such as well-designed decanters, perfectly proportioned glasses, and brushes made specifically for cheese.
Similarly, hand brewing, cuppings, and wine tastings include rituals that add rarity and appeal to the experience. Specialty coffee lovers enjoy the process of making a pour over, just as wine aficionados do when decanting and evaluating their drink.
Craft chocolate doesn’t have the same range of accessories and established rituals, and it’s a missed opportunity. I know of a couple of restaurants doing craft chocolate tasting boards, but there is potential to make craft chocolate more of a desirable experience with dedicated tools.
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Bags of cacao beans.
From the perspective of a craft chocolate retailer, specialty coffee has done a great job in its marketing and has helped the wider coffee industry. Specialty coffee has clear definitions, its labelling often states which specific farms the beans comes from, and it clearly demonstrates why it’s different.
It also has great accessories and rituals. In short, it’s done a good job of making coffee cool. Perhaps most importantly, specialty coffee is also easy to find and experience – customers learn about it by osmosis when they visit a coffee store and chat to the barista. It provides an easy upgrade to an established, regular habit.
These are all areas that craft chocolate could improve in. We need to make sure that craft chocolate is easier for customers to find and better explain why it tastes different. We also need to be more explicit about why it can be better for the cacao farmers and for the planet. But the good news is that when customers taste craft chocolate and hear how it differs from its commercial counterparts, they understand why it’s a better choice.
We’re not there yet, but on behalf of craft chocolate, a big thanks to specialty coffee for showing us the way forward.
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