Monday, September 1, 2008

Artisan Chocolate Maker Roundtable

So you think you wanna become a bean-to-bar artisanal chocolate maker? I’d have second thoughts after listening to five chocolate manufacturers share their struggles at an event sponsored by Slow Food Nation on Labor Day. Present was the criminal lawyer turned chocolate maker Shawn Askinosie, the laid-back Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate, the articulate Mexicanophile Alex Whitmore of Taza Chocolate, ex-glassmaker Steve De Vries of De Vries Chocolate and the ultimate perfectionist Alan McClure of Patric Chocolate. With only a few jokes made in the almost 3 hour long panel discussion, these guys take their chocolate very seriously. The panel was moderated by Alexander Morozoff, publisher of the glossy Cocoaroma Magazine.

What’s so hard about making your own chocolate? You get the best leftovers, you’re loved by all the women and you’re raking in the dough given the recent surge in dark chocolate sales. Ask Shawn Askinosie just how challenging it is to source cacao, especially from farmers who are certified organic. He once wired $28,000 to a Venezualan pastor and not a single cacao bean made its way back to his Missouri factory. And then there is the tempering; many of these guys still have burns on their hands from mistakes made with this grueling aspect of the cacao production process. There are also very few resources out there to guide young chocolate entrepreneurs. Art Pollard’s “new” antique conching machine came with a simple 1 page “instruction manual.” Steve De Vries tried to learn about making chocolate from library books; they all started with the phrase “melt chocolate.”

These chocolate artisans are proud of what they make, but there was a fair amount of frustration in the air. For one, why is every major chocolate company latching onto the term “artisan” in the hopes it will buffet their sales? Most panelists agreed that in order to be called artisan, a company must have one expert who manages the entire process of making chocolate. In that case, it is a bit of a Catch 22. Artisan chocolate makers need to make money by selling more chocolate; if they sell a lot of chocolate, they’ll need to hire more help and perhaps sacrifice the quality of their beans. At some point, they won’t truly be artisan but they will be profitable. And there is the problem that the American public, raised on sweet milk chocolate bars, will never truly appreciate what they do and still aren’t ready to fork over $10 for a chocolate bar.

Some panelists made light of the concern that artisan chocolate may be perceived as an elite food, like arugula and other foods that plague Democratic presidential candidates. According to De Vries, anyone should be able to afford a $10 chocolate bar. And as I say on my Chocolate Tours, the very best chocolate bar costs far, far less than the very best bottle of wine. But that doesn’t really address the problem. Americans are used to buying $1 candy bars. If artisan donuts suddenly cost $10 apiece, only a real food snob is going to think the cost is worth it. Shawn Askinosie expressly wants to stay away from chocolate snobs, instead aiming at “chocolate geeks.” For that reason, he decided to make a white chocolate bar, even with added nuts. For the rest of the chocolate purists on the panel, many of whom eschew soy lecithin, vanilla and even cocoa butter, that is taking things a little too far.

The real reason chocolate bars should cost $10 (or even more) is not to put money in the pockets of “elite” chocolate makers. Rather, it is to fairly reward the farmers who grow the beans that are essential to quality cacao. The panelists all make an effort to pay the cacao farmers they partner with prices that are above fair trade, with Askinosie even giving his farmers a “stake in the outcome.” And this is what Slow Food is all about – recognizing the agricultural ties inherent in everything we eat, including a chocolate bar.

So while listening to these artisan chocolate makers reaffirmed my own career choice, it seems I’m not the only woman choosing to enjoy fine chocolate rather than make it. It’s an observation I’ve made before, but why are there so few women in the bean-to-bar chocolate world? These guys talked about the importance of understanding science and engineering, so maybe the lack of female representation in these fields is part of the problem. Or maybe, like me, women are just too busy feeding the kids to make weekly trips to plantations from Africa to Equador. Alex Whitmore said that if they have another Artisan Chocolate Roundtable next year, there will be 5 times the number of participants. I hope so, and I hope at least one of them is a woman!

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