Sunday, September 23, 2007

What a Label: Askinosie

Everyone is in a rush to check out the new Barney's, but I'm just as happy to browse our city's best chocolate specialty shops. Bittersweet Cafe displays their bars on the walls like the works of art they are. I stopped by on Friday and was drawn to a bar I had never seen before - Askinosie, 70% dark chocolate. I'd heard of the Missouri based company's strong commitment to Fair Trade chocolate, but it was the unique packaging that convinced me to try it.

The bar's wrapping looks like an ordinary brown grocery bag, tied at the top with rough twine. And if you're still not convinced this kind of packaging is natural, the labels assures "the tie that binds this package is from a biodegradable bag of beans shipped to our factory." The inner plastic wrap is "home compostable, non GM packaging from a sustainable source." So far, a perfect fit for our city! Following the trend of information-rich labeling in premium chocolate, Askinosie tells consumers not only the percentage of cacao, but the origin of the bean (San Jose Del Tambo, Ecaudor), the variety (Arriba Nacional) and even the lead farmer's name (Vitaliano Saravia) and picture. All of this information is in an old-school, imperfect font, as though it was typed onto a bag of beans for a customs agent - not to lure moneyed chocolate connoisseurs.

Shawn Askinosie's explanation of his slogan "real people, real places" all sounds very good. Vitaliano is the real person who gathered and fermented the beans for this bar. Shawn works directly with farmers, rather than bean brokers, and guarantees they get fair prices, open books and a stake in the outcome. (He even pays higher than the Fair Trade market price.)

After I untie the bag, I realize that, like a box of Cracker Jacks, this bar comes with a prize - a map! I've seen maps on the outside of chocolate bars, but never as a separate insert. (hmm, is this causing more waste than the average bar?) The map is actually a little confusing, because it describes two separate spots: San Jose Del Tambo in Ecuador and Soconusco in Mexico. I'm left wondering whether this map is supposed to be a "one size fits all" for all Askinosie bars, of if this particular bar was made in both spots. Plus, the direction of the cute little airplane makes it look like the bar goes from Missouri to Mexico to Ecuador. Maybe I need to visit the web site and type in my "choc-o-lot" number. If only my son was a little older, this could make an excellent geography project!
is a fabulously designed web site. From a marketing point of view, Shawn seems to be doing everything right. Real enthusiasts can read about his former career as a criminal defense lawyer, and his craving for Slim Jims and Jimmy Hendrix on a cacao farm in Ecuador. But I still have some business to attend to - finding out the real origins of my bar. I type in the "choc-o-lot" number and voila, everything I'd ever want to know about this bar. A few interesting points stand out. Askinosie makes their own cocoa butter for each batch, from the exact same liquor as the bar. They don't add vanilla. And Shawn loves fried catfish with hush puppies. Seriously! The journey is a series of journal entries from November '06 to July '07. Most of them relate to the actual chocolate making process, but Shawn throws in quite a few tidbits from his Indiana Jones/Milton Hershey personal life.

After all this research, it's time to try the chocolate! I'll share my thoughts next week...

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