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The perils and promise of bean-to-bar chocolate
Words by Dr. Lily Kelting; Illustration by Samia Singh
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 5: Food Producers and Production.
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“You gotta read the labels, you gotta read the label” the RZA once told us. People have been “getting misinformed, thinking everything is everything”. The RZA was talking about music labels but he may well have been talking about the labelling and mislabelling of our food by corporations out to pull the wool over our eyes. We’re all familiar with those euphemisms ─ farm fresh, British-reared, no additives ─ and take them with a punch of naturally flavoured salt. But what about labels from smaller companies? From the company who make the coffee beans we take extra care to grind each morning, or the chocolate makers we might buy once in a while as a treat for ourselves.
I wrote about these labels at length in an article last year on the tea industry. What unites tea, coffee and chocolate is that they are, fundamentally, inequitable industries. By this I mean that they have been set up to be export commodity crops grown by the Global South to supply the Global North with a cheap and stable product. With the exception of east and south-east Asia in tea, and Ethiopia in coffee, these are not products that generally stay within their country of origin. Rather than deal with this head-on, companies have come up with other terms ─ ‘gardens and estates’ rather than plantations, ‘small batch’, even, to an extent ‘organic’ ‘Fairtrade’ and ‘direct trade’ ─ all to obfuscate the only thing that is important. How much are people being paid to make this? How much autonomy do they have?
Today’s newsletter by Dr. Lily Kelting is about another one of those euphemisms ─ bean-to-bar. It does literally mean something of course, and started out to refer to a specific craft process. But it has morphed into its own industry, promising not only good chocolate but good lives of the people who make the chocolate. Is this really true? And is the new label ─ tree-to-bar ─ any better? Max Fletcher suggested last week that we should become more critical of awards; we should do the same with labels. “If you don't read the Label” carefully, as the RZA reminds us, “you might get poisoned.”
The perils and promise of bean-to-bar chocolate, by Dr. Lily Kelting
In 2011, chocolate makers Rick and Michael Mast commissioned a three-masted schooner to carry cacao beans from the Dominican Republic to their warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It was the PR stunt of the decade, cementing their position at the forefront of the burgeoning ‘bean-to-bar’ movement. Mast Brothers bean-to-bar chocolate was, at a whole ten dollars a bar, almost laughably expensive in 2011, but it didn’t matter. The old-timey schooner was representative of a shift in the craft food revival – a return to a simpler, better way of doing things. People were willing to pay for a piece of it, for sustainable, ethical sourcing and small-scale, handmade, analogue manufacture.
Until, that is, in 2015, when a dogged food blogger broke the story: Mast Brothers didn’t start out working with farm-fresh, schooner-imported cocoa beans; they were working with couverture. Couverture is chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa butter which is added for smoothness and workability. Buying other producers’ couverture, melting, and re-tempering as bark or truffles is standard practice among chocolatiers. But the Mast brothers promised something different for chocolate – they were not chocolatiers making confections from couverture, nor industrial giants stamping bars from prepared ‘cocoa mass’. Rick and Michael Mast were chocolate makers, crafting chocolate itself, from cacao beans to luxury bar. The Mast brothers’ subterfuge was marketplace death. After the scandal, the brand became a punchline; the brothers shuttered their factories and slowly faded from view.
It’s easy to take potshots at 2010s hipsters and their crappy, overpriced, not-even-handmade chocolate. But it’s not just two guys. Take the Dutch bean-to-bar brand Tony’s Chocolonely, which was founded by a journalist, Teun van de Keuken, who was researching human rights abuses in the mainstream chocolate industry. Tony’s double-thick, joyfully presented bars are scored with unevenly sized hexagons, laden with virtuous promises. ‘To us it doesn’t make sense for chocolate bars to be divided into chunks of equal sizes when there is so much inequality in the chocolate industry!’ the brand chirps. But the harder they come, the harder they fall. In February 2021, the pressure group Slave Free Chocolate took Tony’s off their recommended list when eight former child labourers on chocolate plantations sued Nestlé, Hershey, Mars and Barry Callebaut, who happen to work with Tony’s Chocolonely.
The issues entwined with chocolate production are very real, very serious, and very complicated: contemporary slavery, child trafficking, deforestation. The bean-to-bar industry promises more ethical chocolate, but a handmade chocolate bar can feel as hollow and performative a solution to problems of this scale as a three-mast schooner. There have been more serious attempts to address these issues: in 2012, a group of chocolate makers and cacao farmers joined together to found the direct-trade organization Direct Cacao. Direct-trade chocolate makers usually offer far-above market prices and cultivate long-term, personal relationships with individual farm owners. They start schools on cocoa plantations. They keep open books. They share profits. They do all the right things.
The Direct Cacao alliance founders planted a criollo cacao tree at the spot that Christopher Columbus first made contact in the New World. I want to believe in that little tree; I want to believe in bean-to-bar chocolate’s symbolic promise. But the more I learn about chocolate, the less certain I feel about anything.
The term ‘bean to bar’ was first used in the late 90s by John Scharffenberger in Berkeley, who started using the term to distinguish small-batch, handmade Scharffen Berger chocolate bars from industrially produced ones. Scharffen Berger is now owned by Hershey; they too are being sued.
While the phrase ‘bean to bar’ makes it sound simple, the transformation from cacao beans to a chocolate bar is pretty amazing, and involves three steps of production. It begins with the yellow-red fruit pods of the small, evergreen theobroma tree. These pods are harvested by cacao farmers and split open. The beans inside, along with their pulp, are fermented at the farm. The farmers then dry the fermented beans in the sun or, in wetter climates, by smoking. After this, the dry beans are packed and shipped; the chocolate makers on the label take over production. The manufacturers sort, winnow, roast, and grind the beans to a uniform liquid called cacao liquor, then process this liquid again with sugar. This is now chocolate, which the chocolate makers temper to a crisp snap, set in a mould, wrap in a smart package, and sell.
The phrase ‘bean to bar’ subtly shifts the focus to manufacturing that happens ‘in-house’ – like sorting and grinding – rather than the agricultural work of cacao production, such as harvesting, fermenting, and drying. The child labour lawsuits that seem to plague the craft chocolate industry make it clear that, although Western chocolate makers may control the bar through their manufacturing (the word control gets thrown around a lot in craft chocolate circles), they certainly don’t control the origin of the beans.
Of course, roasting does change the flavour of chocolate, and conching – the grinding of beans and sugar – provides the silky texture. But it is fermentation that ultimately determines how a chocolate bar tastes. Bacteria are responsible for those plump tasting notes you see on the labels of luxury chocolates: red fruit, raisin, moss, molasses. More crucially, farmers are responsible for this process. So the ultimate flavour of the chocolate bar, the cultural component of that terroir you’re tasting, is controlled by farmers in the Global South, not chocolate makers in the Global North1. Working with beans, the very origin of chocolate, is fundamental for bean-to-bar chocolate makers; it is why many contemporary brands list their beans’ sources in big type. But in the descriptions of their chocolate, European and American chocolate makers choose to give more credit to themselves for sourcing quality beans than to their farmers for growing them.
Even with all the direct trade and school founding and profit sharing and cacao-tree planting, these imbalanced systems of labour and credit remind me that consuming craft chocolate is just another way of consuming colonialism: its aesthetics, its history, its ongoing economic impacts. The industry’s continued lack of engagement with this is pretty obvious. In 2017, for example, writer Megan Giller published a book about American bean-to-bar chocolate. Here, San Francisco’s Dandelion Chocolate is mentioned twenty times, enslaved Africans once; colonialism, not at all. Missouri-based Askinosie Chocolates demonstrate commitment to their farm partners by putting their black and brown faces on chocolate labels; they showcase photos on their website of the white company owners surrounded by grateful, smiling Black workers. Even when a craft chocolate maker is doing good, it looks bad. Cringey bad. It looks colonial.
It is at once ironic and obvious that most chocolate bars are not consumed in the beans’ country of origin. In Pune, India, where I live, a chocolate bar is a Cadbury. Cadbury Dairy Milk bars are milky and sweet, an affordable treat at five or ten rupees. They taste, for many Indians, like nostalgia. Cadbury may be a British multinational, but it is also as Indian as it gets. Ribbony Cadbury Flakes are blitzed into afternoon cold coffees for high school and college students, while Cadbury Celebrations are regularly gifted at Diwali. A residue of British marketplace monopoly on its ex-colony, Cadbury today controls over seventy per cent of the chocolate market share here, and on the agriculture side, Mondelez (which owns Cadbury) and CAMPCO have edged out other buyers of cacao so that there has been no market for better ecological and labour practices, nor higher quality beans. It is within this context that an Indian bean-to-bar movement has taken off. In India, I have become a bean-to-bar consumer and grudging evangelist.
I still raise an eyebrow when I see chocolate makers’ ethical claims around direct trade, sourcing and craft manufacture. But these claims seem more credible in an Indian context. In a cacao-growing region, it’s easier to determine where your chocolate comes from; to confirm there’s no child labour on your chocolate plantation when your office and manufacturing unit are located within close reach. Over the last couple of years, it has been exciting to see a new group of Indian bean-to-bar chocolate makers striving to understand and make sustainable as much of the chocolate production process as they can. These chocolate makers are even trying to reclaim the term ‘bean to bar’ to demonstrate their commitment to the agricultural side of craft chocolate making, branding their chocolate instead as ‘farm to bar’ or ‘tree to bar’. When Tamil Nadu’s Soklet say they’re tree to bar, it means they are doing it all, really, everything themselves.
Soklet is not just single origin – it’s single estate as well. The company grow chocolate through intercropping – between coconuts, nutmeg, pepper and banana – in the verdant Annamalai hills. The crop rotation prevents the cacao from leeching nutrients from the soil, and the staggered harvests also mean that Soklet can provide year-round employment to women from local villages. From the other parts of the cacao plant, Soklet sells cacao tisane and spicy roasted snacking nibs, among a range of other products. The completeness of the culinary ecosystem around Soklet – the very fact that this luxurious chocolate can be farmed, produced, sold and bought in Tamil Nadu – feels radical in a world where few chocolate farmers would have the opportunity to try the finished product at all. Almost no American chocolate makers note the importance of drying and fermentation when describing the taste of their chocolate; almost all Indian chocolate makers do.
This movement in India is smaller, and more nascent than its Western counterparts, but it excites me much more than the American-European direct-trade craft chocolate boom. It gets me hyped about the eventuality that other chocolate-growing regions across the Global South – like West Africa, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Brazil – will seize the supply chain, and with it a piece of the bean-to-bar market. It’s happening in India, in Chile, in Ghana; it must be happening elsewhere. Who is making bean to bars in the Côte d’Ivoire? In a near-future Lagos, could local chocolates be seen as more luxurious than Ferrero Rocher? Is there a market for ‘snacking nibs’ in Amazonia? Is there a writer like me, sitting in the mall in Tegucigalpa, pitching a piece about Honduran chocolate?
Yet the story is too good to be true. Much of the Indian bean-to-bar industry is still marked by the low-key hum of Europhilic aspiration. My first experience of bean-to-bar chocolate in India was at La Folie du Chocolat, a small chocolatier in South Bombay. I was intrigued by the jewel-box interior, the narrow marble staircase, the store’s Francophone promise. I was sweaty and La Folie looked well air-conditioned. I entered. It was. I splashed out an indulgent 1,200 rupees on a box of truffles and the Black Jaggery bar – a two-ingredient chocolate with cacao and India’s delicious, deep-brown, unrefined sugar. It was good; really good – bracing, just barely sweet.
But La Folie’s whole schtick is pretending that we could be anywhere, even Brooklyn. It’s almost aggressively anti-terroir. Like its Western counterparts, La Folie gets its beans from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. Though I am sure the brand is popular, I have never seen another customer in its shop. I don’t really know anyone but me who buys and eats Indian craft chocolate. I’m a little embarrassed about how unwelcoming these brands are to anyone other than super-rich self-styled cosmopolitan Indians. I’m embarrassed that they seem marketed to people like me.
Mason & Co is one of India’s most popular bean-to-bar brands; they are a product of the Conscious Living Fraternity, located in Auroville, Tamil Nadu. Mason & Co bars are single-origin, direct-trade, and delicious, delicious, delicious, but they also produce profit for a business owned by a white Australian woman who lives and works in a gated, neo-colonial enclave. Mysore-based Naviluna, too, is owned and run by a white expat. As a purchaser of these brands, the lasting ties between whiteness, colonial resource extraction, and Indian capitalism make me profoundly uncomfortable.
It's not just about the money (although of course it’s always about the money) – these Indian craft chocolate companies are niche luxury brands not only because of the cost, but because of the taste. In interviews, Indian chocolate makers somewhat condescendingly stress the difficulties of marketing dark chocolate to Indians accustomed to milk-based mithais. Regular Cadbury consumers often find Indian craft chocolate too bitter, too acidic. Some of the flavour combinations coming out on the Indian craft chocolate market – like Naviluna’s bar with fermented bamboo shoot candied in cigar syrup – verge on parody2. A Dairy Milk from the pharmacy, a Godiva bar from the Duty Free – who could turn those down? They’re smooth. They’re creamy.
I’m asking these questions because bean-to-bar chocolate is seemingly everywhere. The surge of new brands, markets and appetites is nowhere close to slowing. Even the Isle of Wight has its own make, Seaforth Chocolates. Seaforth, like several other craft chocolate makers worldwide, aims to be carbon-negative or carbon-neutral. Founder Abraham Seaforth achieves this not by purchasing offsets, but by transporting beans via the wind-and-wave powered schooner, the Tres Hombres. How many schooners before someone starts asking questions about compromised ethics and neo-colonial aesthetics, about whether it’s even possible to do a moral calculus on craft chocolate and come up with an answer? Two, apparently.
A friend recently brought me a small bar of handmade chocolate from a vendor in Goa. The label was obviously printed at home, with no graphic design. Out of curiosity and now habit, I scanned for sourcing information for the beans. She asked what I was doing; I explained, probably at length, the perils and promise of bean-to-bar chocolate. ‘Wait. I thought bean to bar was good. Is bean to bar bad?’ she asked. I felt terrible. I should have said ‘thank you’. Chocolate, is after all, about nostalgia and childhood and comfort. Which is why, despite reading up on last year’s child labour lawsuit against Mars, I continue to buy Bounty bars. Chocolate is about delight. But it’s also about colonial history, enslaved labour, direct trade and food justice. Can craft chocolate create space for all these? In my deep, stupid, Marxist way, I just want farmers to get what they deserve. And maybe chocolate makers from the cacao-growing world can show us how.
Dr. Lily Kelting is an assistant professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Flame University in Pune, India. You can find her at @lilykelting.
This article was edited by Sharanya Deepak, with additional edits by Sophie Whitehead.
Grist, ‘A guide to ethical chocolate’
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy, ‘On Chocolate’
Diaspora Co., ‘The Bitter Global History of Chocolate’
edible issues, ‘Celebrating Cacao on World Chocolate Day’
The Slow Melt podcast
There is a growing industry of commodities traders who round up ‘wet cacao’ and ferment at their own facilities, serving as a kind of ethical middleman for American and European craft chocolate makers. Kerala’s GoGround is an Indian example.
Predictably, I love this bar and do really recommend it.