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How Does Chocolate Grow on Trees? Expensively.

Pam Williams and "Raising the Bar" book

Pam Williams and "Raising the Bar" book

For me, there is nothing tastier than a bit of fine chocolate during a morning coffee break. Chocolate in the morning? Try it some time. But before you scarf down that tasty morsel, let me tell you something about where it came from and how precious and endangered it is.

Chocolate and its flavor begins with the work of farmers, not factories. All chocolate is made from cocoa beans — seeds from the fruit of the cacao tree, a species that flourishes only in areas 20 degrees north or south of the equator.  Ninety-percent of cacao trees in this 20-20 zone in the developing world are grown on small family farms. Less than 5% of that crop is considered “fine flavor” by the industry — cacao destined for artisanal chocolatiers and fine chocolate manufacturers — and it’s sourced in such countries as Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Madagascar, among others.

Sweet terroir

Think about chocolate as you would about wine. Like grapes, the flavor of cacao is determined by genetics and terroir. How the cacao is dried after picking, how it is fermented on the farm and processed by the manufacturer all contribute to its flavor profile. A fine flavor cacao bean, like a Cabernet Sauvignon grape, will produce different flavor depending on the year it is grown and harvested.

At the turn of the 20th century, the vast majority of the world’s cacao trees were what we consider today to be fine flavor. Our assumption is that in the 18th and 19th centuries, only the trees with the best-tasting cacao, native to Mesoamerica, were propagated in colonies all around the equator. But over time, the demand for cheaper beans and mass-produced chocolate increased, prompting a search for trees with higher yields and better disease resistance — flavor quality was sidelined in the interests of quantity. Traditional fine flavor cacao orchards and farms were rapidly replaced.



"Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate"

By Pam Williams and Jim Eber

Wilmor Publishing, 2012, 288 pages

Even those beans destined for bulk or ordinary flavor chocolate are difficult to farm. Cacao trees are extremely labor intensive and difficult to raise. Compared to soy or bananas, crops that flourish in the 20-20 zone, cacao trees are significantly less prolific or profitable. The farmer must go through seven processes, each one of them time- and labor-consuming, to get the beans to market. When the cacao pod ripens, they must be individually harvested by hand. The pods are cracked open and their beans are then carefully removed. The beans then ferment in a box or pile for anywhere from two to eight days, after which they’re dried to a specific humidity level, sorted and bagged.

Few crops require even half the number of steps to get from field to market. Bananas, for example, which are handled in bunches rather than individually, need only be bagged (to deter pests), harvested and washed. It can be extremely tough to make money growing cacao trees, even with the increasing demand for cheaper chocolate.

Indulge your sweet tooth

Cheap chocolate should be an oxymoron — consumers don’t recognize the labor and expense behind it.  That must change. Chocolate is in essence a luxury purchase; we don’t need it. For now, when we crave a piece of it, we can choose between a bonbon made by a passionate artisan and a candy bar from the corner store. While eating chocolate is an indulgence for us as consumers, for the cacao farmer our appetite for chocolate is a matter of survival. Given the present price structure, fine-flavor cacao producers may not be able to survive.

Ironically, as the demand for great-tasting chocolate increases across the globe, fine flavor cacao is in danger. Most farmers aren’t paid a premium for better beans, and the return on their investment may not, in the future, be enough. Traditional farms are already being replaced by high-yield hybrids with one-note flavor.  For farmers in the 20-20 zone, it makes less and less sense to struggle with the more delicate fine-flavor cacao trees.

So if you want to continue to have the option to purchase fine chocolate, to enjoy the complex and subtle notes that are a result of painstaking farming and processing, vote with your wallet. By paying a little more for artisanal and other high-end chocolates, you’ll be helping to sustain the fine flavor cacao industry.

Top photo composite:

Author Pam Williams. Credit: Robert Ouimet

“Raising the Bar” book cover. Credit: Courtesy of Wilmor Publishing

Pam Williams has been in the chocolate industry since 1981 and founded Ecole Chocolat Professional School of Chocolate Arts in 2003. She has been instrumental in promoting the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative (HCP), a partnership between the Fine Chocolate Industry Association and the USDA's Agricultural Research Service to create the first genotype map with a focus on flavor cacao trees. The HCP's vision is to identify, preserve and propagate fine flavor heirloom cacao to ensure cacao quality and diversity for future generations.

  • Roxanne Browning 11·12·12

    An excellent article. A few points to add is that cheap chocolate is not cheap. Most consumers will eat a whole bar of massed produced chocolate as opposed to savoring a fine chocolate bar. Fine chocolate is very rich and to eat the entire bar is not likely, on the other hand, a cheap bar does not satisfy which leads to the entire bar being consumed. A $2 bar will last one or two days, a $7 bar may last twice that long or longer.

  • Jeffrey Stern 11·13·12

    So glad to see you here Pam, and the book getting more press. I am privileged to have been a contributor to the book. If you have any interest in chocolate at all and learning more about where it comes from, the people behind it, and the future of chocolate, this is a must-read!

  • savedbythebay 11·14·12

    Excellent points. Thanks for shedding light on the complex industry that is cacao production. I’ve visited cacao plantations in Brazil and can appreciate firsthand the work that goes involved in harvesting the beans. I’ve heard that small cacao farms do not involve destruction of rainforest; on the contrary, cacao plants need an intact ecosystem to thrive. I’d love to hear more about this aspect, as it’s yet another reason to support artisan chocolate; is this covered in the book?

  • Ron P. 11·15·12

    It is an overly generalized statement that farmers are poor. Some cocoa farmers are doing OK and some cocoa landowners are doing quite well.

    Sadly too few people read books these days and those who do tend to be the ones that already know the stuff.

    Above and beyond that, it has been 4 years since Motamayor published his groundbreaking study about different cacao varieties. Practically nothing has been done to diversify cacao since then. Maybe a little but not a lot.

    Until action is taken, it is mostly talk. Let’s hope this book if nothing else inspires action.