Chocolate Connoisseur’s In Focus series kicks off its 2018 here in February with Cacoco, a small company in Nevada City, California that crafts some of the world’s highest quality drinking cacao. Co-founded in 2014 by Liam Blackmon and Tony Portugal, Cacoco promises to transform the chocolate experience, taking your own personal cacao love story to new heights… to a level even bordering on mystical. Liam and Tony believe in the therapeutic properties of chocolate, and chances are, once you try their drinking cacao for yourself, you’ll definitively concur.
Powered by a clear, focused mission, Cacoco delivers on multiple fronts, from an end-to-end high quality product, to ethical sourcing practices, to a penultimate, beyond earth-friendly philosophy that reaches what I’d consider an “earth guardian” level, the company puts forth the extra effort in every single area they find relevant to the mission.
To put it simply, you won’t feel guilty at any point in your Cacoco chocolate adventure.
A Powerful Why
We’ll dive into all those details in a moment, but first, let’s shine a light on the big “why”. Tony and Liam started Cacoco because they perceived a chocolate industry nearly screaming for innovation, and chocolate consumers in desperate need for a deeper cacao connection. For this interview, we talked specifically with Liam, and as he openly discusses –
“The mainstream marketplace is dominated by processed confections and treats that are a far cry from their source, and as with many foods today, the average chocolate bar is devoid of its origin and its story. Who made this? Where did this come from?
By keeping supply chains obscured, and consumers constantly bedazzled, commodity traders and established candy makers have been able to peddle chocolate that is, for all intents and purposes, still a part of a colonial system.
Our goal with CACOCO is to bring back the essence of a more pure form of cacao, as well as establishing an ethical, ecologically sound supply chain – something not found in the current system.”
They also started CACOCO to revive and reintroduce “the molten chocolate vitality elixir” to as many people as possible. Cacoco proudly touts their product as “the most ancient and healthful version of cacao blended with herbs, spices, and a water base – the essence of our product line and brand.”
Such focused passion must certainly originate from some powerful experiences, and Liam openly, happily shares two of his most impactful.
“My first experience of bitter cacao was on the island of Maui in Hawaii 10 years ago. I was living in on a permaculture farm, in a tropical, sustainable agroforestry system, with dozens of different fruit trees, an annual garden, and waterfall pooling at the bottom of the property.
The fruit of the cacao tasted remarkable, and though the beans were yet to be fermented, from that moment forward I felt connected to the botanical roots of cacao.”
The Chocolate Shaman
Liam’s later travels, including to a jungle in Ecuador, further cemented his feeling of “connecting with the source.” His most profound experience, however, actually took place in Nevada City, with a Guatemala-California connection that truly sealed the deal, a key inspiration for what would eventually become Cacoco. He attended a “cacao ceremony”, a completely different chocolate experience.
Liam’s chocolate adventure began on Maui…
“The first time I sat in a cacao ceremony was in Nevada City, CA with a cacao shaman based out of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Participants gathered in a circle at a local yoga studio as the cacao shaman presented a special selection of alkaloid rich, 100% bittersweet chocolate which he mixed with hot water and a little bit of cayenne.
Individuals approached the center of the circle one at a time and the cacao shaman dished out little cups which we could add a little bit of honey to if needed. The cacao shaman told us that the cacao would meet us where we were at as individuals, and to not think to much or expect to much but rather be present with whatever was happening in the moment. Easy enough, right?
I drank several cups of the bitter cacao and sat quietly, paying attention to any arising sensations as anyone trained in basic meditation would do. After a few minutes I felt a lot of joy, followed by a lot of sadness that caused me to break down into tears – something that felt rather embarrassing around so many people, but was nevertheless necessary. It was a very cathartic experience, one that many others in the group shared with me that day.
I experienced a different side of cacao than I had previously known at the ceremony, and again leveled up my understanding of what cacao is really capable of – the ability for the alkaloids (active, medicinal compounds) in the chocolate to facilitate an experience of emotional release and integration.
It makes sense now when I read about Mesoamerican indigenous rituals involving cacao, such as transitional rites of passage like a birth, naming, wedding, or death ceremony; or a healing for a particular purpose administered by a curandera. Though the idea that cacao may be used in this way is foreign to people today, I believe if people consume high quality cacao and take the time to sit with it, they will have an experience outside of their normal state of being.”
Midnight Mystic, included in this issue’s CACOCO chocolate offer
Nevada City Roots
Intense? Yes. Life-changing? Check. Cacoco for all? You know it, as that key experience paved the way for the drinking elixirs Liam and Tony produce today. They officially started the business back in 2014 in the aforementioned Nevada City, an eclectic international California mountain town frequented by travelers from tropical regions where cacao grows in abundance – which according to Liam helped people living there embrace the Cacoco product concept quickly.
The Nevada City area also touts plenty of organic farmers and ecologically-conscious, health-focused people, so as Liam states, “It didn’t take a lot of convincing for people to integrate it into their lives, and understand what it was we were trying to create.”
Prior to launching, Liam spent five years crafting cacao elixirs at a farm to table superfood cafe in Nevada City proper. The invaluable experience fostered more growth and understanding in the non-traditional chocolate space, an important contrast to the typical confections or baking areas where many people kickstart their chocolate careers.
Liam and Tony
Liam and Tony bolstered the company launch through grassroots bootstrap efforts, taking time to build their business slowly and organically, with some assistance from family and friends along the way. As Liam notes, “a little support from famous musicians, Olympic athletes, and all sorts of other people with big hearts who believed in our mission” helped immensely as well.
Another notable boost came courtesy of an art, elixir, and tea bar in Nevada City called Elixart. Cacoco started a weekly, Friday event at Elixart where they serve cacao elixirs, both as an alternative to alcohol, and as a fun, relaxing way to connect with others. The event’s grown to such a hit that it still exists today, now running every single Friday for the past five years. Impressive.
Beyond the Hype
Ask Liam directly, and he’ll eagerly tell you that the most unique element of his chocolate is the story that supports the experience. All the stories and experiences would ring superficial, however, if Cacoco only talked the talk. Instead, as I hinted earlier, Tony and Liam deliver quality from start to finish, crafting a chocolate elixir that not only elevates your senses, it also inspires your soul.
Cacoco sources their beans from the UOPROCAE Cooperative, in the Esmeraldas region of Ecuador. If that region sounds particulrly familiar, David Menkes and LetterPress Chocolate give it much love, and you may have noticed the words “Costa Esmeraldas” on the LetterPress Chocolate Ecuador Bar wrapper in one of our 2017 chocolate offers. If you wondered about the quality of cacao from this region, wonder no more. Cacoco will not disappoint.
All of Cacoco’s elixirs are Fair Trade certified, organic, non-gmo, vegan, paleo-friendly, and sweetened only with coconut sugar, regarded as a low-glycemic sugar, thus safer for diabetics. Perhaps most impressively, Cacoco pays twice the Fair Trade price for its cacao beans. Obviously, Liam and Tony love happy, healthy consumers, but they also love a happy, healthy and stable supply chain as well, and paying twice the Fair Trade rate leaves no room for doubt.
An originality shines through in Cacoco’s wonderful elixirs too. As Liam says –
“All of our flavors are original in some sense. Probably the most unique blend we make is the Global Warrior blend, which is like an herbal chocolate chai, or one could also say an alchemical turmeric elixir.
Utilizing turmeric, black pepper, the healthy fats in the cacao, and the hot chocolate preparation method, Global Warrior allows consumers to experience the full benefits of the anti-inflammatory curcumin found in turmeric, which needs black pepper, healthy fats, and heat to be fully bio-available.
When people add it to their morning drink routine good things begin to happen!”
I’m making it a point to add the Global Warrior blend to my own morning in the near future, so look for a note on that in an Editor’s Corner column very soon. Athough Warrior Blend sounds perfect for yours truly, Liam says Cacoco’s best seller is actually Midnight Mystic, an 80% dark blend with vanilla, himalayan salt, and coconut sugar.
“We believe it’s a best seller because people love dark chocolate, appreciate the coconut sugar sweetener, and feel the mood-elevating nature of the high quality cacao we use. It has a rich, fudgy, creamy texture and often blows people’s minds when they first try it! Very fun to watch!”
Don’t Sleep on Technique
A significant part of that mind blowing stems from Cacoco’s unique preparation, which tends to surprise people. Instead of mixing the product with milk as is done with confections and conventional hot cocoa, Liam and Tony recommend blending Cacoco’s powders with water, as done for thousands of years in traditional chocolate elixirs. As Liam encourages, “This we believe provides the most feel- good, uplifting experience, and truly allows people to taste our Ecuadorian heirloom cacao.”
It makes perfect sense of course, particularly once you graduate far beyond those childhood days of Swiss Miss and a milk! The chasm between cheap chocolate and the straight from the source creations of Cacoco stands wider than the Grand Canyon, and we expect you’ll taste that in every single sip. Just make certain you follow Cacoco’s wisdom when blending your elixirs at home.
The Long Journey from “Chocolate Cookie” to Molten Chocolate Elixir
At the start of our interview, Liam revealed that his first two words as a child were chocolate cookie. Even though the inspiration behind his chocolate career didn’t strike until much later in life – it’s not as if he proclaimed at age seven he would one day make chocolate – one must wonder, were Liam’s very first words telling?
How many people do you know (I’m guessing most of us can count that on zero fingers) whose first spoken words hold any relevance whatsoever to their our adult lives, let alone speaking a word as specific, and unique for a child to speak, as chocolate.
Between the surprising early words, and a childhood spent in Nashville, Tennessee, where active, snowy winters led to many cups of hot chocolate, you might sense at least a wee bit of Cacoco foretelling in Liam’s childhood. Regardless of any early origins, today his chocolate philosophy clearly stands out –
“Revive the molten chocolate elixir!
Source the Earth’s purest ingredients from regenerative food systems.
Provide customers healthy, safe and delicious products with uncompromised quality, service and integrity, and create and implement the most sustainable methods and systems for our organization.”
That’s an easy philosophy and mission for Liam and Tony to stand behind, and for customers to embrace. As Liam tells it –
“The best part of Cacoco is the opportunity to do something essentially very simple that has deep impact on the world around us. By swimming upstream against the predominate business culture of wealth extraction, social exploitation, and cheap commodity trade, we can engage in and create the world we want to see, where people and planet collaborate synergistically. Also, people love chocolate, so when you bring the happy healthy chocolate to a party everyone is super excited!”
In addition to inviting Liam to attend your next party (yes, that’s tongue in cheek, please don’t call Liam and ask for his attendance at Timmy’s birthday), you can also catch Cacoco at a variety of different events each year, including the Natural Products Expo, the Chocolate Salon Series, and VegFest, as well as different craft fairs and music festivals.
As for what’s next, Cacoco recently launched at Whole Foods stores in the Northern California region, and according to Liam, “we have a lot of people to educate in the coming months!” They’re also working towards introducing the CACOCO drinking chocolate experience to people in natural and organic grocery stores across the west coast, with Whole Foods the biggest project.
From late February through late March you can order CACOCO right here with the February 2018 Issue’s Chocolate Offer — The CACOCO Collection, which includes three of the four drinking chocolate blends.
Of course you can also order directly from CACOCO online as well, so if you don’t live on the West Coast, you can still score some of the great molten chocolate elixir anytime. And when you do, drop us a line and let us know what you think!
“Revive the molten chocolate elixir” with elite drinking chocolate from CACOCO. You’ll journey from Maui to Ecuador to Nevada City, California, witness a life-changing cacao ceremony, and experience the creation of some of the world’s finest cacao that you can drink in February’s intimate In Focus…
We kick off 2018 with Healthy Ways to Start the New Year with Chocolate in the Healthy Bean, bring Theo front and center in On the Chocolate Regular, take a look back at 2017 and present our first, albeit informal, awards… Madécasse returns once more with a delectable Sea Salt and Nibs Brownies recipe, Chocolate News questions the news on potential chocolate extinction, and much more…
CACOCO’s ethically sourced, heirloom cacao is harvested from Ecuadorian farms applying ecological and regenerative practices. The CACOCO Collection features one (1) each of these three drinking chocolates: Midnight Mystic, Global Warrior, and Original.
If you have yet to read our In Focus article on CACOCO in the February 2018 issue, click here to read it now for much more on Liam, Tony, and why “reviving the molten elixir” will change the way you think about chocolate!
CACOCO’s ethically sourced, heirloom cacao is harvested from Ecuadorian farms applying ecological and regenerative practices. For details on each blend, see the collection below.
Yakima Valley, WA. Feb. 17th, 2018 The natural affinity between dark chocolate and red wine is no secret. The Red Wine and Chocolate event weekend, February 17th through 19th in the Yakima Valley, provides a distinctive and elegant offering of fine chocolate and fine wine. Visit the more than forty wineries in Yakima Valley Wine Country during this Presidents’ Day weekend. Each winery pairs sumptuous chocolate desserts with their very own remarkable red wines.
Golden Gate Park, CA. Mar 11th, 2018 Taste & experience the finest in artisan, gourmet & premium chocolate in one of the world’s great culinary metropolitan regions, the San Francisco Bay Area. Chocolate aficionados, fanatics, lovers and addicts can taste & experience the finest in artisan, gourmet & premium chocolate in one of the world’s great culinary metropolitan areas.
Albuquerque, NM. Mar. 17-18th, 2018 Founded in 2009, the Southwest Chocolate & Coffee Fest brings together 120 purveyors of incredible chocolates, coffees, candies, teas, gourmet foods, and wine and beer. By creating an affordable and accessible environment, the event now attracts over 18,000 chocoholics and coffee aficionados, making it the largest chocolate & coffee consumer festival in the country. The event has grown to include purveyors of all types of gourmet foods and proudly presents craft cheeses, artisan breads and baked goods, and unique sauces and dips.
Coral Gables, FL. Jan. 19th-21st, 2018 Support Fairfield Botanic Garden’s mission to save tropical plant diversity by exploring, explaining and and conserving the world of tropical plants. Their 12th annual Chocolate Festival includes chocolatiers and vendors, lectures, food trucks, cooking demos and even a walk through the forest where you can learn where cacao grows, look at the cacao trees and learn all about the cacao plant in its natural environment.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Feb 21-25th, 2018 With over seven hundred different flavors of chocolate, Chocoa festival in Amsterdam is definitely one of the sweetest events in Europe. See chocolate magicians from the Netherlands and around the globe (Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Hungary, Italy and England)… learn all about this magnificent confection… and view outstanding works of art. Finally, learn the origin story of chocolate and its impact on the living conditions of cocoa farmers — a can’t miss festival!
Atlanta, GA. Mar 16-18th, 2018 Indulge yourself in some of Atlanta’s finest up-and-coming artists, photographers and creators! There is something for every body including live body painting, live music, face-painting, and free chocolate!
Portland, OR. Jan. 20-22nd, 2018 Chocolate Fest promises you the opportunity to sample, taste, savor and delight in some of the finest chocolate from the Northwest and beyond, as you will mingle in one of the largest gatherings of chocolatiers and chocolate makers in the country.
Ashland, OR. Mar 9-11th, 2018 Each year the festival features the dreamy, mouth-watering creations of dozens of West Coast chocolatiers. These food artisans present a variety of fine chocolates and chocolate-inspired products that tease the taste buds of over 1500 visitors. Chocoholics – ahem… that is, Chocolate Connoisseurs – up and down the west coast dream about this weekend every year!
Versoix, Switzerland. Mar 17th-18th, 2018 The biggest festival in Switzerland dedicated to chocolate, the Festichoc is a family-friendly event with free admission, bringing together more than 30 chocolate artisans from Switzerland and abroad. Tastings, sales, exhibition of chocolate sculptures, animations and food stalls will allow you to spend a delicious moment … & chocolate!
Portland, OR. Jan. 20-22nd, 2018 Chocolate Fest promises you the opportunity to sample, taste, savor and delight in some of the finest chocolate from the Northwest and beyond, as you will mingle in one of the largest gatherings of chocolatiers and chocolate makers in the country.
The Winter Fancy Food Show
2017 Winter Fancy Food Show --Thanks you! - YouTube
Walk a Mile Project’s Take on THE “Chocolate is on Track to Go Extinct in 40 Years” Report
If you paid any attention whatsoever to the news in December, there’s a very strong chance you heard the report on chocolate’s potential demise by the year 2050. Originally reported in Business Insider, the blurb spread like wildfire, even reaching major newspapers. After writing an article last year on the Cacao Genome (see the 2017 issue), I didn’t find the news itself surprising, but there’s more to this story than meets the eye.
With us all so busy working on holiday doings here at the mag and otherwise, I simply planned to revisit it for Chocolate News here in the January issue, so I didn’t actually read the article outside of the headline. My first thought, however, courtesy of the investigation I do into the GMO controversy over at Change the World Films (www.walkamileproject.com), was that I’d really only expect news like this to come from the people working on genetically modifying cacao.
Why? Because those tinkering with our beloved cacao know how difficult the road will be to creating a GMO chocolate, which means they’ll need all the support they can muster to win people over on such genetic modifications.
The difficult road exists for two reasons. First, when people revere a food like they do chocolate, it sits under a more intense microscope than genetically modifiying say soy, or sugar beets. Translation – many people will question why you’re messing with their chocolate!
Second, cacao ranks among the most complex substances on earth, making it one of the more difficult genetic modifications to pull off. Genetics continues to advance, and the new CRISPR technology for more precise modifications holds great potential, but cacao may prove to be one of its biggest challenges.
As for my initial thought, that big chocolate’s work on GMO chocolate could use a little “scare tactic” boost to win some public support, well it turns out I was exactly correct. The report comes to us from the University of California at Berkeley, where geneticist Jennifer Doudna invented the aforementioned CRISPR technology, and where Mars now funds research, specifically into cacao. As the Science Alert article I’ve linked to here clearly indicates, the original news headline, proclaming cacao’s demise in 40 years from climate change, grossly exaggerates the situation –
“But where does it say cacao is heading for extinction in 40 years? Well, the article links to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report from 2016, itself citing research released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014.
That research warned that under one “business as usual” scenario predicting unabated global temperature rises of 2.1°C (3.8°F) by 2050, two of the world’s leading cacao producers – the Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana region of Africa, and Indonesia – will lose significant amounts of suitable cultivation area.”
The dire prediction exists under only one, very specific scenario, and clearly applies to a certain region. For big chocolate, yes, losing Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana for cacao would devastate their current business models, but for higher quality cacao grown in other regions within the cacao belt, not so much. So yes, big chocolate would have the most at stake by far, and if they feel they’ll need an acceptance of genetically modified chocolate to survive, well… I’ll let you fill in the rest of the pieces to that puzzle.
I also encourage you to read both the links below for more details. The bottom line – pushing out a click-bait, irresponsible, misleading headline like “Chocolate is on track to go extinct in 40 years” reeks of a different kind of manipulation than genetic, and as chocolate connoisseurs we should all do our part to clear that up with people in our own circles, whenever the opportunity arises. Regardless of how the genetic modification of cacao does or does not move forward, the last thing we ever want to see is a situation where it does so dishonestly. We’ve already seen that movie once, and it didn’t end well.
I scored big at Christmas last month when I found a stash of Endangered Species Chocolate’s Dark Chocolate with Caramel & Spiced Apple holiday chocolate bars on sale at Sprouts for $1 each. No one in my nuclear family sits anywhere even near the chocolate connoisseur spectrum, so buying decent chocolate as a gift proves nearly impossible. This year, however, ESC at least offered a nice upgrade, and the bars were a huge hit with (almost) everyone.
Never ones to stand still, the company also made a new move in mid-December at a key position – hirng a new Director of Brand and Marketing. Enter Tod Dalberg, stepping in to handle the core responsibilities of developing all brand and marketing opportunities. According to the press release, Dalberg says –
“The brand offers an incredible opportunity to build on past successes and to position Endangered Species Chocolate as a lifestyle brand that intertwines our passions with our consumers’ beliefs of enjoying a premium chocolate while supporting causes focused on species, habitat and humanity.”
“As the natural chocolate category becomes more mainstream, we are building our strategic vision to capture more consumers that desire a great tasting chocolate that delivers on our promise to ‘Give Back’ to wildlife conservation. We see a time in our near future where Endangered Species Chocolate will be able to donate $1 million dollars annually for conservation through the sales of our delicious, Fairtrade and Non-GMO certified chocolate.”
I almost left this little news tidbit out of the issue here, because although its core point is completely valid, as editor and publisher of Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine, I also feel it’s a tad irresponsible on Vox’s part. I do, however, enjoy much of Vox’s reporting, and since I think their hearts are in the right place here, it’s definitely worth discussing.
First, their point about the scientific studies, much like what you’ll see within the GMO controversy I referred to up above, is sad but true. Company’s fund studies with eventual financial gain as the intent, which is not unexpected, but that intent often frames the study with a very specific conclusion in mind. In other words, it can taint the process, and that’s the reality of much of today’s “science.” Obviously, the chocolate companies want positive results for chocolate, and when 98% of all the studies show positive results, well… raise the red flags. That’s an insanely high rate for studies to score in the clearly positive column.
So Vox makes a completely valid point here – you really don’t want to sit there with a giant bag of M&Ms and think you’re gorging yourself on flavanols! The article enters irresponsible territory, however, when it completely ignores higher quality chocolate (no offense to Green & Black’s, which does appear in the video).
The chocolate science hype machine - YouTube
As we clearly showed in this issue’s Healthy Bean column, a huge gap exists between even “plain” big chocolate bars and healthier alternatives, such as bean-to-bar, etc. Ignoring these alternatives and the smaller chocolate makers and chocolatiers of the world when making blanket statements like these, well… that does a disservice to both the chocolate creators and the more health-conscious consumers who rely on them for better snacks and treats.
Do we need more studies? Yes. Do we need to eliminate conflicts of interest and keep our feet firmly and ethically planted in the true science? Most certainly. Let’s just not throw all of the chocolate world under the bus in an effort to do so.
Taking a more health-conscious approach to the way we eat tends to take center stage at the start of the new year, and that’s a good thing, especially if we implement easy changes, built to last. Thankfully, as chocolate connoisseurs, our health arsenal includes healthy chocolate (cacao if you will), but are we really using cacao in our eating regimens to its fullest potential?
In this issue’s Healthy Bean, we’ll show you five different ways to add healthy chocolate into your diet, little ways that can add up to healthier, happier you, literally. Here we go!
1. Drinking Cacao
Let’s cut right to the chase – drinking cacao, like we’re featuring in next month’s issue with the outstanding company Cacoco, will most likely deliver the most bang for your health’s buck when it comes to adding chocolate to your weekly regimen. What differentiates true drinking cacao from your run-of-the-mill hot cocoa? Let’s turn to the experts at Cacoco (https://drinkcacoco.com/) for that answer –
“For thousands of years, chocolate has been consumed in its whole drinkable form by Mesoamerican cultures like the Olmecs, Aztecs, and Mayans. The traditional preparation was to grind the cacao bean into a rich paste and blend it with water, herbs, and spices to create a rich nutritive beverage that offered strength and vitality for an active life.
In the last two hundred years, modern industry has refined the fat out of the bean, and created a “cocoa craze” that has required consumers to mix the processed powder back into milk, which then needs to be filled with sugar to make up for the bad taste. The resulting “hot cocoa” has fallen far from it origins as a healthful beverage.”
In today’s overly-processed, mass-produced world, taking chocolate back to its roots means putting forth a little extra effort, both as a chocolate company, and as a consumer. You won’t walk down the street to a major supermarket chain and find Cacoco sitting on the shelf. Instead, you’ll need to search out individual places locally or online (Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine’s raison d’etre).
Extra effort delivers extra rewards, however, as incorporating drinking cacao into your daily routine packs a powerful health punch. Once again, we turn to the experts at Cacoco –
“The cacao bean is one of nature’s most nutrient-dense foods: as a whole bean, it has a higher antioxidant value than nearly any other food. Cacao is also loaded with healthy fats, protein, minerals, and a full range of phytonutrients and chemicals that gives chocolate its beloved mood-boosting properties.
Chocolate is inherently uplifting and nourishing, and also acts as the perfect delivery system for beneficial herbs and spices. This is due to theobromine, a vasodilator that opens up blood flow to the heart and delivers medicine in the most perfect way possible.”
Raw cacao also stands tall as the richest naturally-occurring source of magnesium, and contains the beneficial compounds of dopamine, seratonin, norepinephrine, anandamine, and phenylethylamine. It’s also packed with its own unique blend of phyto-nutrients known as flavanols, which studies show help both blood vessel health and overall circulation.
Add it all up you you’ll find Chocolate Connoisseur’s number one recommendation for 2018, drinking cacao – hands down, but cups up!
2. Chocolate Additions
If necessity is the mother of all invention, then your need for chocolate at breakfast time should inspire some excellent and creative chocolate and first meal of the day combinations. And yes, the exact same applies to both lunch and dinner. Healthy chocolate holds no boundaries, provided you’re not eating in excess.
Expect to see more such recipes from Chocolate Connoisseur in 2018, as we strive to bring you a double dose of health and chocolatey, but for now we’re suggesting something different – experiment with chocolate additions in your own way. Make it fun!
Chocolate for breakfast? Yes please. My personal favorite, I love adding chocolate to oatmeal. For a super fast addition, I use a square or two of whichever bar I’m currently eating for a snack, just melt it into the oatmeal, and stir.
I also add a handful of cacao nibs in as well, which provides a little healthy crunch. Add chia seeds and small portions of one or two fruits (just keep the sugar down), and enjoy one amazing and surprisingly filling (protein-rich chia helps in that area immensely) start to your day.
Note: For a more elaborate, although still very quick, oatmeal with cacao powder, bananas and peanut butter, make sure you stop over at this issue’s Chocolate Channel for a great recipe.
Organic Nutiva Chia Seeds on Amazon
So healthy chocolate for lunch or as a snack with vegetables? Indeed, it’s completely do-able, and one of the best ways to make it happen? Add chocolate to nut butters. I’ve used this trick for years when needing a little extra protein at snack time, simply dipping chocolate into organic, Valencia peanut butter (or almond butter), but truth be told, it’s quite hit or miss. Not all chocolate combines well with any nut butters, and of course like chocolate, every nut butter offers a different flavor profile, so I strongly suggest starting your experiments small.
Banana Chocolate Oatmeal
Regardless, keep one important thing in mind – if peanut butter is your thing and you’re truly health-conscious, only eat peanut butter from Valencia peanuts, at least at home where you can easily control your peanut butter source. Valencia peanuts are far and away the healthiest peanut variety, as they lack the all-too-common aflatoxin found in other types. And, as a bonus, they just happen to taste great.
I do find it’s a bit too sweet for my tastes, so I eliminate the honey and tend to skip the chocolate chips, but again, your goal here is to add chocolate to other parts of your daily culinary adventure, and enjoy it, so don’t approach the experience rigidly! If time holds you back from experimentation, take a great nut butter you already enjoy and simply blend the chocolate into that butter. Yes, it lessens the recipe flexibility a bit, but if time is of the essence, don’t think twice – just try it.
3. Cacao Nibs
I mentioned cacao nibs above briefly as an oatmeal addition, but these little miracles can add a powerful nutrient-dense punch to more foods than you’d think. I love adding them to number four below as well, but truly, the sky’s the limit for cacao nibs.
Granted, this food of the gods snaps bitter (remember, the word “chocolate” comes from the Aztec word xocolatl, which translates as “bitter water”), not sweet, but that simply opens it up to a completely different cross section of foods versus its sweeter derivations.
Of course, the bitter plays well with sweet, making it a great addition to ice cream. Case in point, see ourJune 2017 issue’s Dark Chocolate Vegan Ice Cream Recipe from Elements Truffles, my favorite moment in the kitchen of 2017! I made two different versions of Alak Vasa’s masterpiece, both absolutely divine (ice cream rules my world, however, so to each his or her own). Cacao nibs also work well in cookies, brownies cakes, and brittles too.
Don’t neglect the savory side, however, where healthy chocolate can deftly work its way into a much different part of your daily diet landscape.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, this 2014 article from the Vegetarian Journal offers some outstanding options, ranging all the way from Chocolate Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing to Chocolate-Infused Shepherd’s Pie:
Smoothies, yes! I don’t always drink smoothies, but when I do… I prefer to add chocolate. For my tastes and eating habits, outside of my daily chocolate snack, smoothies score top marks for healthy chocolate diet additions.
I confess, that’s largely because I tend to be in a hurry, and throwing a bunch of ingredients into a Nutri Bullet appeals to me much more than it probably should! Still, nowadays many of us enjoy a smoothie on at least a semi-regularly basis, and chocolate seamlessly finds a home here.
Experimenting with smoothies is both fun and easy, but if you’re looking for a superstar combination to get you started, I highly recommend this gem, the Cherry Choccolate Green Goddess Smoothie from nutritionist Cynthia Sass. I’ve modified the ingredients for the version that I personally make, but if you’re looking for more recipes (and especially if you’re looking to shed some pounds here in 2018), you can also pick up Cynthia’s book, Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast, right here: http://amzn.to/2qIM7wY
Cherry Chocolate Green Goddess Smoothie Recipe (Chocolate Connoisseur Version)
Pro tip – I’ll often add cacao nibs to smoothies as well, but sparingly, because although I personally don’t enjoy super-sweet smoothies, drinking a bitter one appeals even less.
5. Just… Eat… Chocolate!
If you’re a Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine subscriber, you’re already well in the know for this simple concept. If not, well first, subscribe to Chocolate Connoisseur ASAP, but beyond that, understand that the term “chocolate” can still be overwhelmed with the noise of mainstream, “unhealthy” chocolate (think a Hershey bar, Kit Kat, etc.). These are candy bars, not chocolate bars, and no they don’t apply here because they don’t truly represent chocolate… they represent sugar, which makes a big difference when one of your current life goals includes healthy eating.
Getting your daily dose of healthy chocolate in moderation offers a health boost, not a health hindrance, but you certainly need to know the connoisseur difference. For example, let’s compare Taza’s Chocolate Mexicano Cacao Puro Disc with a Hershey’s Bar.
The Taza bar contains only these ingredients:
Organic cacao beans, organic cane sugar
In stark contrast, here’s what’s in a Hershey’s Bar:
Milk Chocolate (Sugar, Milk, Chocolate, Cocoa Butter, Lactose, Milk Fat, Soy Lecithin, PGPR, Emulsifier, Vanillin, Artificial Flavor)
Obviously, those two chocolate offerings sit worlds apart, most egregiously in the aforementioned sugar category, where the Hershey Bar includes twenty-four grams per serving (yes, that’s literally six teaspoons), but the Taza disc contains only ten grams per serving.
Game. Set. Match.
If you purchase the right chocolate, you can partake in a guilt-free snack every single day, with a positive effect on your health and well being instead of a negative one. That’s a big part of the difference between calling yourself a chocolate lover and a chocolate connoisseur. Enjoy every bite! #chocolatetruth
After a good five months away from our On the Chocolate Regular features, it’s suddenly been all about Theo Chocolate over the past month here at Chocolate Connoisseur. In December, we featured four of Theo’s delicious, mouth-watering holiday bars, and, as I write this, I’m purposely prolonging a wee bit of that holiday spirit while I munch on one of my final Theo Gingerbread Spice squares!
If you know anything about Theo, you know they create quite the variety of chocolate, with whimsical flavors (or in chocolatier speak, “inclusions”), and simply showcasing all of their products could warrant a full article. But it’s the story behind the chocolate we’ll explore first today, before spotlighting their delectable offerings.
Two people own and operate Theo, Joe Whinney and Debra Music, who were at one time married, but instead forged a new relationship together, not only as divorced co-parents but business partners to boot. Their ability to rise above oft-limited ideas of what a divorced relationship looks like, in order to create a company intent on making the world a better place, serves as an inspiration to say the least.
How Theo Began
According to a Seattle Weekly article, after their divorce, they both lived on the east coast, but when the opportunity arose for Joe to start Theo all the way across the country in Seattle, he called Debra first.
With a nine-year-old son part of the equation, Joe decided not to move unless Debra also packed up as well, so they could head west with the family dynamic intact.
Debra didn’t take her decision lightly when she said yes to moving, especially as a forty-one-year-old single mom with a solid marketing job back east.
Theo Wonder Team — Joe Whinney and Debra Music
In Theo’s cookbook, Theo Chocolate: Recipes & Sweet Secrets, written in 2015 by Joe and Debra, the first chapter offers an inside scoop on their personal history. Debra shares in the cookbook that, even though they both love each other, in the end the two just weren’t meant to be a married couple because, whereas she puts two feet planted firmly on the ground, Joe is more of the adventuresome type, full of risk-taking ventures.
Debra adds, “What we share and have been able to preserve through all our relationship trials, is the mutual belief that rooted in gratitude and grounded in perseverance, resolve and dedication, we can take the gifts given to us in this life and make the world a slightly better place than when we found it. This shared idealism is what has enabled us to raise our son together and preserve a sense of family for him as a divorced couple, and it’s what’s enabled us to embark on the life-changing adventure we call Theo Chocolate.”
Theo Chocolate: Recipes & Sweet Secrets
To read their full story, I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of Debra and Joe’s cookbook.
In the cookbook, we also learn that, after the west coast move, they lived in the same house in Wallingford, WA, helping their son adjust to life in a new city without, as Debra puts it, “the added burden of two separate households.” Joe worked on the business and she worked on the house, which needed a lot TLC. As time progressed, Joe asked Debra to join the business with him.
Theo’s blog points out that with Debra’s marketing background and Joe’s history in sustainable agriculture, their combined skills were ideal for running Theo. Not long after the move to Washington, Debra met a new man, Brad, and they wed well over a decade ago now.
“Looking back, it feels a little like a good karma gift,” Debra said in the cookbook. “Joe got to realize his dream, and I got happily-ever-after with a guy who was rock solid enough to fall in love with a woman who was starting a business with –– not to mention living with –– her ex-husband.”
Also in the cookbook, Debra tells us she felt quite excited about building Theo. She’s never been a woman to firewall her personal values away from her professional life.
“It was thrilling on a philosophical level,” she said, “to be given the opportunity to create a brand that aspired to define the concept of ‘sustainable business’ in a changing world.”
So, what exactly did Debra mean by Joe’s “fearless” nature?
Joe shares in the cookbook that, as a young man, exploring all the world had to offer motivated him, not making money. An interesting side note – as senior class president in high school, he thought it was a great idea to drop out just before graduation and start his adventures, much to his mother’s chagrin!
“I made my way to New England in my old VW bug,” Joe explained, “and worked side jobs until I decided it was time for real adventure.”
He tells us in the cookbook that in his early twenties, he sailed around Belize and parts of Guatemala, and the more time he spent in southern Belize, the more he wanted to do something that would contribute to the country’s preservation and culture. He decided to volunteer for a small conservation organization, the Tropical Conservation Foundation.
Joe and Debra, the year they were married
“There I had a deep immersion in permaculture and in traditional Mayan ways of life, from hunting and farming to building dug-out canoes carved from giant trees. Learning to harvest cocoa was amazing.”
The cookbook also relays that before this experience, he’d never known where cocao came from or how it was grown. He didn’t have insight into what the lives were like of the people who grew cacao either. It was a brand new experience.
Joe learned much from Mayan Wisdom…
Joe also shares in the cookbook, “There I was in this tropical forest with Dr. Seuss-like trees towering overhead and wild birds calling all around. The sunlight scattered over the moss, giant composting leaves, and countless creatures living off of and digesting the forest floor.”
And according to a Seattle Times article, Joe then had a realization:
“It became clear that something had to be done. Not only was the rain forest and the culture endangered there, I learned it was endangered all around the world.”
So, according to this same article, Whinney helped create the U.S. market for organic chocolate in 1994, by sending cocoa beans from farms in Central America through a Brooklyn chocolate maker to customers, including Cascadian Farms and Newman’s Own.
Eventually, he realized he needed his own factory to buy directly from cocoa farmers.
“There were so many margin slices taken out in the supply chain that I was losing money paying farmers what I thought was a good price,” Joe explained in the article.
Theo on the Horizon
The answer to Joe’s dilemma? Create Theo, the first organic, fair trade-certified cocoa producer in the United States, back in 2006! They took the company name from the Theobroma Cacao tree, and subtly yet noticeably, also tucked a cacao pod within the logo.
The cookbook tells us Joe and Debra’s ideas for the Theo logo (sketched out on yellow loose-leaf paper with pencil) were brought to life by designer Zaara (KittenChops.com).
“I was really excited about building Theo,” Debra said in the cookbook. “There’s a profound irony in that while chocolate is one of our most beloved indulgences…the conventional cocoa industry has been responsible for devastating environmental degradation and human exploitation for many decades.”
Sign up for a Theo factory tour…
In creating Theo, Debra and Joe found their own way to address all the issues they felt weren’t being handled correctly in the cocoa industry. Educating consumers helps right some of those wrongs, so they added factory tours as a cornerstone in the company’s business plan.
As Debra notes in the cookbook, “It would have been a lot less expensive and much easier for us to be in an industrial park rather than in the beautiful, old historic building we occupy in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, but in order to conduct tours, we needed to be in a walking district.”
Phenomenal decision, as the tours continue to be a huge hit (click here for factory tour times, available on Theo’s website.)
“Ultimately. Debra added, “the goal of our tours is to unlock the mystery of chocolate making for consumers, and to help our visitors understand their consumer choices have an impact on other human beings and the planet we all share.”
May the Source Be With You
That leads us to the next topic… sourcing. Seventy percent of Theo’s cacao comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the remaining thirty percent from Peru. You can bet Joe and Debra sleep on lighter pillows at night, knowing that Theo continually spearheads positive changes in both the Congo and Peru. Here’s why…
Changes in Congo
First, according to Theo’s website, their efforts have already helped approximately 4,686 farmers and 32,802 family members in the Congo.
Their website also tells us that, along with Esco Kivo (ESCO) and the Eastern Congo Inititative (ECI), Theo began purchasing cocoa from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010. The Congo may be rich in natural and human resources, but it’s also been left desolate in many areas because of war, poverty and disease. Theo’s blog reveals that we’ve lost over six million Congolese men, women and children to war-related deaths, and despite democratic elections and multiple peace agreements, the eastern region still suffers from conflict. It all takes a significant toll, diminishing the availability of reliable, income-generating employment, as well as both education and health care.
Theo, ECI and ESCO recognized an opportunity to help the region emerge from crisis by joining forces with local farmers to cultivate cacao.
ESCO — Theo’s export partner, was the first buyer of smallholder cacao in the Eastern Congo. With ESCO, Theo supports cocoa farmers through provision of low-cost planting materials, farmer training, and of course, direct purchasing.
These farmers commit to rigorous sustainability standards and good agricultural practices, along with annual farm audits.
ECI — Founded by Ben Affleck, ECI is an advocacy and grant-making initiative wholly focused on working with and for the people of eastern Congo. ECI envisions an eastern Congo vibrant with abundant opportunities for economic and social development.
Theo’s blog reports that in their first contract for the Congo, back in 2010, they ordered just twenty tons, and it was a struggle to buy from farmers. At one point, cocoa farmers were sleeping in the safety of Uganda, then crossing the Uganda-Congo border to care for their cocoa farms during the day. Cocoa farming is the primary reason people returned to this area of the Congo during conflict.
Joe on a sourcing trip
Now, Congolese cocoa represents 70% of Theo’s total cocoa supply and, according to their website, can be found in every single chocolate product they make. People have confidence that ESCO and Theo will keep buying their cocoa in periods of unrest.
Other improvements, according to their website? Theo’s presence increased market prices for farmers. In fact, prices where they source are $260 more per ton than other nearby cocoa regions.
The company also helped farmers realize enough stability to begin rebuilding their housing. Between 2012 and 2015, farmers pooled their income from cocoa to purchase metal roofing sheets and build a house with local thatch materials for a farmer.
After building the house, they moved on to the next member. This group enabled families to get re-established after many lost their houses during the war.
Just recently, farmers created a new association, and they’re now using cocoa income to build houses together, with bricks instead of just thatch.
Also, new job opportunities now extend beyond farming. For example, Theo’s website tells us one hundred forty-two full time employees at ESCO work in non-agricultural, middle class jobs. More and more families send their children to school because they can afford the fees, and health care continues to improve.
It all adds up and demonstrates cacao’s potential for opportunity and prosperity in the Congo.
Possibilites in Peru
Theo’s website tells us that, In Peru, Theo’s efforts have already helped approximately 700 farmers and 4,200 family members.
Their site also states that, in some areas where they source, over 50% of the people live below the poverty line, and 80% of children are undernourished. Due to the food insecurity and lack of economic opportunities, families are often pushed off their farms and into urban environments where they hope to find work. Theo’s business and additional investments give farm families an opportunity for profitable livelihoods, a chance to provide for their families without leaving the farms behind.
Although Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine officially started way back in February 2013, its current incarnation just celebrated its first full year in 2017. As I took a step back in December and checked the rearview mirror, I realized wow, we covered a ton in our first full year as a monthly magazine.
That being the case, it also hit me that we really should start 2018 with a look back on all the key players we shined a spotlight on in the chocolate world, just to remind everyone what a wonderful world it truly is. In the January 2018 issue, you can read the full article titled Inside Chocolate: 2017 — Year in Review, where we touch on every single On the Chocolate Regular, Chocolate Shop, and In Focus chocolate maker and chocolatier from last year.
In this article, however, we’re simply focusing on one section — the announcements of our first ever 2017 Favorites, informal awards if you will, to showcase the chocolate that meant the most to us last year. Below the awards, I offer more insight into the process, but now, without further ado, let’s unveil the winners publicly for the first time…
2017 National Favorites
If we wrote an On the Chocolate Regular article on a chocolate company in 2017, its chocolate qualified for the National Favorites awards. We didn’t taste every single offering from each company, however, so if we missed one of your own personal favorites, feel free to stand up for it in the comments below!
GOLD: The TCHO Mokaccino Bar
As an On the Chocolate Regular bar, TCHO’s Mokaccino absolutely wowed us. I tasted the bar before we even researched TCHO, and found it no suprise that the bar pulled in awards as well.
The short tagline on the wrapper says, “Like a cappuccino with rich drinking chocolate.” I disagree. It’s like that, but better. Thank you to TCHO for the chocolate symphony that takes place with each and every bite of the Mokaccino… an easy winner.
We’re not alone in showering the Mokaccino with praise, either, as TCHO’s little square masterpiece brings home the hardware nearly every single year, including Silver at the International Chocolate Awards for three straight years.
Oakland’s own Blue Bottle Coffee deserves a little love here as well, since it’s Blue Bottle’s coffee that TCHO uses to create the bar. Regardless, whether it’s the coffee, the chocolate, or both (that’s our vote), if you’ve yet to try a TCHO Mokaccino, we strongly encourage you to remedy that situation immdeiately!
SILVER: Taza Vanilla Mexicano Disc
Taza’s stoneground chocolate offers a much different texture to your palate than you may be accustomed to, and that’s not a bad thing.
These discs actually made me feel guilty last year, because regardless of what other chocolate I explored during 2017, a Taza Vanilla Mexicano disc almost always sat right next to it on my chocolate shelf, there for regular indulgence.
Nearly every single trip to a Natural Grocers store, I picked up one more package of Taza Vanilla Mexicano Discs, as if the magical little spheres called out to me like a siren anytime I walked near the chocolate aisle.
From a sheer quantity standpoint, here at Chocolate Connoisseur we ate no other chocolate more regularly in 2017 than Taza’s Vanilla Mexicano Discs, making it a clear choice for our On the Chocolate Regular 2017 Silver.
BRONZE: Theo Gingerbread Spice
Yes, Theo’s Gingerbread Spice is only a seasonal bar, and yes we’re well aware that it clocks in at only 45% cacao, clearly a sweeter, milk chocolate bar. Hear me out, however, because two key connoisseur-creating elements vault Theo’s flagship holiday creation into our top three here.
First, save for a small contingent who despise gingerbread, Theo’s Gingerbread Spice bar does a phenomenal job of winning over the big chocolate crowd; translation – you can give this bar as a gift to someone who only knows chocolate as a Twix bar, and they’ll still be impressed. That catapults the Gingerbread Spice bar into rare territory – it can literally start a chocolate connoisseur journey.
Second, you can pick up a Theo holiday bar for as little as two dollars per bar during the holidays, which helps further that connoisseur journey by not alienating the seventy five cents for a Twix crowd it so masterfully recruits.
Finally, the bar tastes way too delicious for its (or my) own good, in a Christmas treat kinda way. It should taste like a treat, because with cane sugar as the first ingredient, and plenty of cocoa butter and milk powder as well, it’s most definitely a more sugary-sweet bar than we normally eat. For the purpose it serves, however, Theo’s Gingerbread Spice sits in its own perfect niche.
2017 Chocolate Shop Favorites
If we featured a chocolate maker’s or chocolatier’s offer in the Chocolate Shop in 2017, its chocolate qualified for the Chocolate Shop Favorites awards. We didn’t receive samples for every single item offered, however, so not every single Chocolate Shop entry actually competed here. By the way, we positively love some of both Singing Rooster and Rawclates chocolate, they just didn’t happen to crack our top three.
GOLD: LetterPress Belize Bar
Earlier in the year, I thoroughly enjoyed a Ucayali Bar while writing a feature on the Ucayali Bar and Ucayali River Cacao (see below). I absolutely loved that bar, as did Rene who also sampled one, and I knew in all likelihood that we had a first place frontrunner pretty early in the game.
In the Fall, however, right before we restarted our “chocolate” chocolate offers (after 33 Books Co. and Projet Chocolat), I enjoyed a Belize bar that David Menkes had sent over a while back. “Enjoyed,” meet “understatement,” because the Belize bar absolutely blew my mind. High quality 70% dark bars don’t tend to invite binging – as in eating nearly an entire bar in one sitting (!!!) – but the Belize bar tempted me… believe me, that first day presented quite the will power challenge. Positively divine.
Thankfully, I went the other way with the bar, one I know avid chocolate connoisseurs appreciate – making it last. I instead limited my daily intake to two pieces, stretching the bar out over more days. When I took the last bite, I saved the wrapper and knew we had a bar that would be tough to beat.
As I sat down to write this article, I discovered others shared my love for the Belize bar. Turns out David considers it LetterPress’ flagship bar, and in 2017 it won Silver Sofi Award and an Academy of Chocolate Bronze as well! Congratulations to David and Corey Menkes for creating a true masterpiece over at LetterPress!
SILVER: LetterPress Ucayali Bar
If you read the story behind David Menkes’ Ucayali Bar back in our May 2017 issue, then you undoubtedly already realize what a special set of circumstances surrounded the Ucayali’s creation.
As David tells it himself, when Corey and he were first working with the beans as part of initial tests on multiple cacao varieties (before they had any idea what they were dealing with), the Ucayali cacao immediately left a lasting impression.
“As we prepared the Ucayali, we noticed how incredibly clean and even the beans were. Then we started roasting. Oh my. Aromas of star anise, cinnamon, and fennel filled the air of our entire apartment… scents we’d never even smelled from any cocoa beans. We pulled the beans out of the oven and cracked a few open for tasting… my wife Corey looked at me and said ‘buy as much of this as you possibly can!’”
After finally perfecting the bar itself, David openly proclaimed, “Ucayali cacao is by far the best cacao bean we’ve ever worked with.” One taste, and we think Ucayali will win you over. It’s a testament to LetterPress’ quality that only one of its own could beat out the Ucayali Bar for our top 2017 honor.
BRONZE: Elements Truffles Raspberry Beet Root Infusion Bar
In my humble opinion, Elements Truffles ayurveda-inspired creations deliver a truly unique chocolate experience, and one that really hits home the influence of our own personal subjectivity on chocolate favorites. For example, I love the chocolate and mint combination, yet the first Elements bar I tasted, Peppermint with Lavender Infusion, just didn’t light my fire. Indeed, I found it difficult to even finish the bar, despite spreading my consumption out over multiple days in hopes that perhaps my palate was to blame. In the end, for my tastes, lavender and peppermint just didn’t play nice.
I’d already written an In Focus article on founder Alak Vasa, however, and knew that Elements worked hard to create high quality chocolate – so I wasn’t about to judge Elements by only one bar. Next up, I sampled an Orange Pistachio bar, much better, but the third entry from Elements, their Raspberry Beet Root Infusion Bar, vaulted past Singing Rooster’s Peanut Moringa and Rawclates Firecracker to take over third place.
If you even remotely enjoy a raspberry chocolate duo, then the combination of Elements’ Peruvian Criollo with raspberry essential oil, organic beet root powder, and organic freeze dried raspberries will delight. I enjoy the chocolate-raspberry combination, but rarely seek it out, yet this bar positively owned me once I took the first bite.
What can I say, ayurveda for the win! Keep doing what you do, Elements. We look forward to what’s next…
About Chocolate Connoisseur’s 2017 Favorites
Let me start off our first round of favorites, informal awards if you will, by stating the paradoxical here – I’m not a big fan of awards in this context. In the chocolate world, there will be always be better and worse, for two reasons. First, not all chocolate creators focus on ethics within their supply chain, use the highest quality ingredients, etc. It’s why the chasm between big chocolate and the makers we focus on in Chocolate Connoisseur will likely exist for as long as chocolate itself exists, and there are multiple layers, for which not all chocolate makers will home in on the same aspects.
Second, subjectivity rules chocolate, for each of us, separately. Even here at the magazine, I would never expect Marisa to pick the same chocolate for her favorite as Rene or I would. Respect the individual. It’s a constantly changing, wonderful adventure to try new chocolate on a regular basis, while still enjoying go-to favorites and learning more every day as well.
The fact is, however, that during the year we will inevitably discover favorites, and we will most certainly like to send a little love in those favorites’ direction each year. So this year, we’re starting with these informal favorites, and then in 2018, we’ll set up a more formal structure for our own Chocolate Connoisseur Awards, in which there will inevitably be more competition, plus we’ll also add In Focus Awards to the mix as well.
Regardless, we’re not looking to compete with chocolate judges at international award shows here. In fact, we’re not looking to compete at all, we’re simply giving kudos to the chocolate we appreciated the most last year, based on the chocolate we covered during that twelve month period. For everyone one on these lists – we very much appreciate you and thank you so much for the inspiring and oh-so-delicious work you do!
We kick off 2018 with Healthy Ways to Start the New Year with Chocolate in the Healthy Bean, bring Theo front and center in On the Chocolate Regular, take a look back at 2017 and present our first, albeit informal, awards… Madécasse returns once more with a delectable Sea Salt and Nibs Brownies recipe, Chocolate News questions the news on potential chocolate extinction, and much more…
“We cannot separate the pursuit of fine flavor from the pursuit of making a social impact. One begets the other.”
— Tim McCollum, Madécasse co-founder
Opening a window to the lives of artisan chocolate company founders, busy doing their own part to change the world… that’s my favorite part about writing for Chocolate Connoisseur magazine. I love uncovering great stories to share with all of you.
On my first, quick visit to Madécasse’s website, the chocolate company appeared to be an industry game changer, a brand making a real difference. Yes, looks can, of course, be deceiving, but after an interview with Tim McCollum, one of the company’s founders, this book most certainly matches its cover –– the Madécasse brand runs soul-deep, with a dual focus on impacting both farmers’ lives and consumers’ taste buds.
It should come as no surprise that Tim’s two favorite aspects of his work mirror those sentiments exactly. He loves how Madécasse changes the way a consumer thinks about chocolate upon first experiencing a Madécasse heirloom variety (the tastebuds-awakening journey away from a Hershey bar can be short but oh so sweet), and he also loves how his company changes the ways cacao farmers participate in the industry.
Madécasse in the Making
Tim’s upbringing took place far, far away from Madécasse’s base of operations in Madagascar. He grew up in New Jersey, and for the first thirty years of his life, Tim had absolutely no inkling that he’d work so intimately with chocolate later in life.
“Like many Americans, I grew up eating Snickers and Kit Kats, and whenever I thought ‘chocolate’ the thought of Halloween immediately came next.”
And to go right along with this all-American thinking, for a long time Tim thought he’d be a Major League Baseball Player.
“Seriously. I thought I’d be a Major League Player right through my junior year in college, which was when I realized there was never really a chance I’d get drafted. That’s when I decided to join the Peace Corps.”
Wait… from Major League Baseball to the Peace Corps?
“I’ve always been interested in other people. Personal happiness (while it’s present in me) has never seemed to be the point.”
Tim McCollum – Madécasse Chocolates
Now that’s an interesting comment. And commendable. Because for many of us, myself included, we tend to dig pretty deeply for personal happiness first, before contributing to other causes. But… that’s a topic for another magazine (Psychology Today…or O Magazine, perhaps?).
A Higher Education
Tim’s turn down a different, more self-enlightened path started during his sophomore year in high school, when his French teacher asked Joe, a former student, to talk to Tim’s class about the Peace Corps. Joe was home in the States on a vacation from the Peace Corps in Togo, and his little speech did, indeed, plant a seed in Tim’s mind.
Five years later, Tim found himself studying abroad in beautiful Scotland, during his junior year of college. His first trip out of the US opened his eyes still further. Experiencing first-hand all the cultural differences of another country, and some surprising similarities, intrigued him. For study breaks, he’d hike a mountain three to four times a week, at a park off-campus.
Rolling hills of Scotland
“The view and silence were spectacular. Sitting on top of the mountain, one day I started thinking about my professional career. Now that I knew baseball wasn’t an option, I had to think about other possibilities. I knew what I didn’t want – corporate, traditional – but didn’t know what I did want.”
At a high level, however, Tim knew he wanted to make a difference in the world, to do something that forced him out of his comfort zone and exposed him to things much different than anything he knew up to that point in life. Also a must… a little red-blooded adventure.
“Out of nowhere, ‘Peace Corps’ popped into my head –– that thing Joe, who visited my sophomore class, told me about. I didn’t know anything else about it, but it seemed more interesting than other options.”
Funny how a seed planted five years earlier quietly reaped a harvest at exactly the right time. So, the summer between his junior and senior years in college, Tim volunteered, teaching English in Mexico for a month. It blew him away, and after that adventure, he figured the Peace Corps would be a more intense version of his month in Mexico. He never considered anything else moving forward.
Quality cacao..helping improve farmers’ lives, one pod at a time.
In 1999, the Peace Corps stationed him in Madagascar to teach kids, and, just like Scotland and Mexico before, this country made an impact, but on a much deeper level. Madagascar, one of the top ten poorest countries in the world, offered a completely unique perspective. It also inspired, and Tim began brainstorming ways he could help lift Madagascar up from its impoverished state.
He thought perhaps creating chocolate in Madagascar could help alleviate some of the poverty, a thought affirmed once he learned the real value chain of a chocolate bar, as he realized just how little money made its way back to the farmer.
Clearly, cacao needed to be sourced ethically, yes, but much more than that, he believed cocoa production should change farmers’ lives.
Tim’s time in the Peace Corps, exposed to serious poverty on a daily basis, decisively changed the way he looked at business, industry, and profit. When he returned to the U.S. in 2001, a bachelor’s degree plus a wealth of Peace Corps experience in tow, he now hungered for a little “for-profit” work. American Express shined like a beacon to him… large and international. He accepted a job, and thrived, in the Amex Global Marketing Department.
“I knew I could learn a lot there and grow from it. I really enjoyed it for the 6 years I was there, even though I had a feeling, ultimately, I’d end up doing something that involved Madagascar.”
While Tim worked at American Express, his brother, an early believer in Tim’s chocolate mission, attended NYU Stern School of Business. Together they, along with the other Madécasse co-founder, Brett Beach, created a business plan, entered it into a competition at Stern, and won. The prize included $25,000 in seed money.
More than the money, however, the endorsement from people who knew a lot more than they did made the largest impact. It told them they weren’t entirely crazy.
“I think we won because it was probably clear to the judges we cared about the issue (poverty in Madagascar) and we were presenting a solution that could help fix it (bean-to-bar at origin). That is, of course, my own speculation as to why we won … it’s hard to say.”
Tim felt a bit terrified at first to leave American Express. The company treated him well, paid well, and he’d spent six years building up a career there. He most certainly did not take the decision to walk away lightly. But the next day after his big competition win, Tim told his employer he could only work another 4 weeks. Madécasse called.
Tim and Brett officially founded the company in Brooklyn in 2009, but the first months, and even years, proved challenging. Let’s just say they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Neither moved to Madagascar, but he and Brett rotated trips in and out of the country.
They wanted to make as large a social impact as possible there by doing everything from scratch, start-to-finish, in Madagascar.
Together they slowly built a network and gained a deeper understanding of what truly needed to be done for success. Both curious by nature, Tim and Brett asked a lot of questions and rarely accepted industry norms. Eventually, it all started to pay off. In the company’s third year, they hired their first full-time employee.
Madécasse now employees 7 full time employees and 5 part-time employees between the U.S. and Madagascar. 4 members on the current team were Peace Corps volunteers in Madagascar. And one starts their Peace Corps Service in February, 2018! The only American employed in Madagascar, Nate Engle, is one of the former Peace Corps volunteers and “an over achieving expat, “ as Tim puts it.
While Tim is the only original founder, everyone on the team shares the same spirit, purpose, and ownership of a founder.
Tim working directly with Malagasy farmers
“We started Madécasse to change the way the world experiences chocolate – from the cocoa farmer to the end consumer and everyone in between.”
All the experience and perspective gained via their work in the Peace Corps helped Tim and his team do just that.
“Our outside perspective, largely through our time in the Peace Corps, has enabled us to connect dots we likely never would have noticed if we had come from within the chocolate industry.”
Madécasse’s perspective creates industry change
An “insider’s” perspective on a country is invaluable when working to create change from the inside out within that country. Or as Madécasse puts it, “flipping chocolate right side up.”
Here are a few interesting snippets from Tim, on what he learned while with the Peace Corps. On one level or another, this experience helped Madécasse learn how to initiate effective change within the industry.
STAYING PUT MATTERS
“Vazaha means foreigner in Malagasy. Depending on tone, this can be pejorative. OK, so it’s almost always used as a slur. I got ‘vazaha’ a lot during my first few weeks and months in my village. That’s what people would yell at me on my way to school, at the market buying fish, on the bus, etc.”
But after about 6 months, people stopped calling him “vazaha.” The same people that used to call him “vazaha” started to call him “zoky,” if they were younger. That means older brother, and it’s a term of respect and endearment. If they were older they called Tim “zandry,” which means little brother. Again, very respectful.
Tim learned anything is possible if you’re not in a hurry. It also taught him the importance of showing up. In person. Everyday. Again and again.
BELOW THE SURFACE
“Most people in Africa, definitely in Madagascar, view foreigners as people who drop in from the clouds (literally) for a few days or weeks, impart some “wisdom,” take pictures, then vanish and never come back. I began making serious, lasting friendships (18 years and counting) with people in Madagascar I had nothing in common with on the surface.”
This taught Tim that humans, regardless of circumstance, are united deep below the surface of things.
LOSING THE WESTERN LENS
“In an effort to lower malaria, I saw well-meaning NGO’s distribute mosquito nets treated with mosquito repellent to rural populations. I then saw rural populations use the mosquito nets to catch fish and release chemicals into the water as a result.”
Tim can’t remember ever seeing a person in his village (other than himself) with a mosquito net around a bed. He learned to look at problems from the perspective of the people affected, instead of simply through his own inherent western lens.
CULTURAL DIFFERENCES WITHIN EDUCATION
“I also saw class sizes reduce by 75% between 3rd grade and 6th grade because of elementary school dropouts. We don’t even have that phrase –– ‘elementary school dropouts,’ in our culture.”
The 6th grade classes Tim taught had over one hundred students. His high school classes had fifteen.
“Parents either didn’t value education or couldn’t afford to keep their kids in school.”
Tim learned that knowledge for the sake of knowledge doesn’t work in a country with 90% unemployment.
AN INEFFECTIVE SOLUTION IS NO SOLUTION
“During a cholera outbreak, I saw the government hand out doxycycline to a community as a mandatory preventive. Doxycycline is a curative.”
Tim realized firsthand that the government wouldn’t solve very many problems in Madagascar.
With the combined experience and insight of the Madécasse staff, more change is certainly on its way within the chocolate industry.
“Only two things have ever solved systemic poverty, in any country, at any moment in history. 1) basic employment/income and 2) the expectation that if the basic employment/income is performed well, there will be further opportunity. The former deals with being able to afford food, clothing, shelter – independent survival. The latter deals with hope, aspiration, trust and the future.
Thankfully, as a big boon to their chocolate-making mission, Madécasse quickly discovered that its Madagascar harvests produce some of the most flavorful cocoa in the world.
Heirloom simply has more flavor
“Heirloom is earth’s original variety of cocoa. It simply has more flavor. Third graders can taste the difference.”
For a quick refresher, Heirloom basically refers to an original variety of cacao, never hybridized. There are three genetic varieties of cacao: foraster, trinatario and criollo – or heirloom.
“Forastero is about 85% of the global crop. You can say 85% of chocolate on the market is made from it. The flavor profile is bland and boring. It tastes like chocolate, so it’s not bad. Just blah.”
“Criollo – or Heirloom – can be considered fine flavor chocolate, and it represents less than 5% of the world’s cocoa supply. It’s more delicate and typically has considerably more flavor.”
“Trinatario is a hybrid between Forastero and Criollo. It’s better than Forastero but not great.”
Simply put, harvesting Heirloom cacao enables Madécasse to send a better-quality product to market. How Madécasse better engages farmers in the entire process, however, is anything but simple.
“Typically, farmers are completely disconnected from the end-product. We connect them. Not through giving them chocolate to eat (we do that too) but by training them on how their cocoa is made into chocolate.”
Farmers then pick up on the flavor nuances and begin to understand the implications of proper fermentation and drying.
Indeed, the entire process eventually focused on getting a better product to market, while doing so in a way that benefits the entire supply chain… something Madécasse thinks few other companies can do.
The company provides ongoing technical support, organic audits and ethical audits. They also bring cacao farmers from the northern part of Madagascar to the capital, home to Madecasse’s offices and labs, where they teach farmers how to make chocolate on small-batch equipment.
Over the years, they developed a Direct Trade sourcing model with farmers, also an extremely important part of the end-to-end process.
Ready for harvest
“We used to be “Fair Trade” certified, and this is a good concept on paper, but through implementation we came to realize that it’s a solution created in the northern hemisphere (where chocolate is made and consumed), to deal with problems in the southern hemisphere (where cocoa is grown and harvested).”
We frequently discuss Fair Trade and Direct Trade in Chocolate Connoisseur here, and when I asked Tim the difference between the two, he dove right in to offer his own take.
Direct trade puts more money in farmers’ pockets
Tim says the typical commodity cacao (roughly ninety percent of the world’s supply) tastes the same and has a boring flavor compared to Heirloom cacao. Being a commodity, the price is driven down to about $1.90 per kilogram. The average small holder holds one to three hectares and produces thirty kilograms per month.
“You can do the math on the income a cocoa farmer gets from that. It’s not enough to feed themselves or their families.”
Fair trade assigns a price premium to the $1.90, a premium of approximately ten percent.
“Ten percent on top of shit wages doesn’t change the underlying problem. It may make people who don’t know much about the situation feel better. But it’s not a solution to the problem.”
Madécasse is more interested in real solutions, and instead pays $3.25 per kilogram. They can get the price that high for two reasons: first, they grow better quality cacao, which produces a better bar of chocolate. They can easily justify paying more when the cacao creates a superior finished product.
Second, Madécasse needs no middlemen in their supply chain; instead, money goes from their bank account directly into the farmer’s pocket.
By being integrated, day-in and day-out, with cocoa farming communities, they’ve developed trust with farmers, writing their own playbook together.
“Farmers get 60% more income for themselves. And we get better quality and consistency.”
Back to the Drawing Board
Tim and Brett started Madécasse with the purpose of making chocolate in Madagascar, to help Madagascar, and as intended, from 2009 – 2015 they made 100% of their chocolate locally in Madagascar with a small contract manufacturer.
“That founding principle, of making chocolate in Madagascar, is as true on Day 3,285 as it was on Day One. The difference is that on Day One, we didn’t realize the limitations, challenges, struggles of manufacturing in Madagascar (infrastructure, skilled labor, capital requirements).”
By around Day 2,750 they most certainly encountered these limitations first hand, but they believed none of the reasons were show stoppers… only obstacles. Madécasse also believed those obstacles could be overcome if they went back to the drawing board and set up a state-of-the art factory, properly, from square one.
So, for much of 2016 and all of 2017, Madécasse produced all its chocolate in Italy with a different contract manufacturer, while building their new factory back in Madagascar.
Madécasse co-developed the recipes and spent time in the small manufacturer’s factory and lab, adjusting processes to match their target flavor profile.
Madécasse has fine-tuned its flavor profile
Once they found a match, it was simply a matter of following protocol at the factory, and they established systems to ensure consistency. Madécasse also set specifications for the cacao, and they work with farmers directly to ensure consistent post-harvest handling (fermentation and drying).
Right now, the factory project sits right on track, and they expect to once again make chocolate in Madagascar by June 2018.
In the upcoming months, they’ll also be training ordinary Malagasy people (who don’t even eat chocolate regularly at this point) on how to make chocolate. In the meantime, however, they’ve also doubled down on the work they do directly with cacao farmers in Madagascar, and they’re growing distribution in the U.S. and EU.
It’s All in..
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