AMA: Ask Me Anything (About Cocoa or Chocolate) #3 – Why Not W Africa?

DiscoverChoc

The Question:

Why is it rare for us to see bean to bar makers sourcing their cocoa beans from West Africa?Fatima Zohra-Hakam, Zora Chocolate

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There are many ways to answer this question – the most blunt answer is the presence of an elephant in the room: Unacknowledged chauvinism.

For several years now I have been talking about how much I dislike using terms like”fine“ and “cacao fino” when it comes to talking about cocoa and chocolate – both colloquially and institutionally.

The most common usage of fine/cacao fino refers to criollos and trinitarios, terms that are linguistic (remnants of colonial expansion) and not precise genetic references. These two groups of beans make up, depending on whose numbers you want to believe, about 5% of the annual harvest of roughly four million tonnes of dried cocoa, or about 200,000MT. [Note: The best estimate I have of the upper limit on the total purchase of beans by the entire specialty/craft industry is about 10,000MT. The lack of good data in this sector is holding it back, IMO.]

Taking this notion to its logical)?) conclusion results in a situation where 95% of the world’s cocoa is not “fine” and therefore, ipso facto, cannot be used to make fine chocolate – a notion I vehemently dispute. 95% of the cocoa harvest of forastero cocoa beans is produced by the vast majority of cocoa farmers around the world – most of whom are in the four W African nations that produce over 80% of the world’s cocoa each year, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria. 

So, one explanation is specialty/craft chocolate makers are implying by omission that the work of those farmers is not worth their attention because forasteros just can’t be used to make fine chocolate. Another explanation is that labor problems in the supply chain in W Africa can be ignored by sourcing from other origins around the world where those problems do not exist. (Can be be absolutely sure, though?)

Can Forastero Cocoa Beans Be Used to Make Tasty Chocolate?

My answer is in the affirmative: absolutely yes.

I visited Letterpress Chocolate in Los Angeles about two years ago and got a wonderful tour of their facility from founders Corey and David Menkes. Letterpress is known for producing a highly-awarded bar using Ucayali River beans from Perú. But David shared with me that their number one selling bar was made with beans from Ghana and their number two selling bar was Ghana with sea salt.

Why is that, we might wonder?

The answer is simple – Ghana (and more generally W Africa) is the reference flavor for cocoa and chocolate.

If you were to ask consumers (not just devotees of “fine chocolate” – average consumers) their picks for the world’s finest chocolate brands you’d find that companies like Lindt/Ghirardelli and Godiva, Neuhaus, and other global Belgian brands are going to be at the top of the list.

What that means is that average consumers’ perspective of the best chocolate in the world is based on W African cocoa. People like the flavor because, in part, they associate the flavor with the most famous chocolate brands in the world – the chocolate they eat every day and the chocolate they eat and gift for special occasions.

So to me it makes a lot of sense when David Menkes tells me that Ghana is the base their top two selling bars: the flavor is familiar and comfortable, and not everyone wants to eat (or, perhaps, pay a lot of money for) chocolate that challenges them.

Bonnat is the first craft chocolate maker in the modern era to make and explicitly market single-origin chocolate ... in 1983. Their classic/historic line (with the white labels) has included Côte d’Ivoire since the very beginning.

Can W African Cocoa be Great?

Again, my answer is absolutely yes.

If there is one thing we have learned from the International Cocoa Awards organized by Cocoa of Excellence it’s that genetics and origin are only part of the equation. Careful attention to maintenance of the trees and the soil, proper harvesting practices, and close attention to the post-harvest practices of fermentation and drying can result in cocoa that rises to the highest rungs of the world’s best cocoas. There may not be a lot of it, but it does exist. By the same token, just because a sample has predominantly criollo genetics does not mean it will earn recognition if the trees are not healthy and post-harvest was done poorly. (From personal experience, I know that criollos can be used to make atrociously bad chocolate.)

Perhaps one of the reasons there’s not more great cocoa from W Africa than there is is because specialty/craft chocolate makers avoid W Africa for one of the two reasons mentioned above – or perhaps others. One that comes to mind could be the difficulty of sourcing through COCOBOD in Ghana to locate, procure, and ship these cocoas.

This is a shame, as cocoa from other places in Africa – Tanzania and Madagascar especially – have long-held reputations for producing good cocoa. Origins including Uganda, Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are starting to gain more attention, as is Cameroon. 

Concluding Thoughts

Most consumers like (even prefer) the taste of chocolate made from W African cocoa beans. In order to grow the market for specialty/craft chocolate, makers (IMO) need to move towards where the customers are, not force customers to come all the way to their corner of the market. Greater usage of W African cocoa should be a part of every specialty/craft chocolate makers inventory of beans – if they want to be successful.

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What are your thoughts? Do you agree with me? Disagree? Are there drivers I am overlooking or minimizing? Share them in the comments below.

Links to Previous AMA/Ask Me Anything Posts in This Series:

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
zrtownsend
zrtownsend

Great reading as always. Of course when you say "consumers prefer the taste of W African cocoa beans" and "that average consumers’ perspective of the best chocolate in the world is based on W African cocoa" it's not that they are asking for/demanding chocolate made from W Africa cocoa, simply because the majority aren't even aware of this notion of "origin" or "bean types." And if consumers do unknowingly prefer these flavors, then I think one of the additional possible reasons craft chocolate makers avoid these beans and flavor profiles is simply for differentiation (Why be a small-batch producer and just produce chocolate that tastes like Lindt, for example.)

I've introduced thousands of people over the years to premium solid dark chocolates made from cacaos lending that tangy/berry flavor and countless (it's possibly the majority) prefer it over the ones they taste alongside those dark solid chocolates with more expected flavors. Many tasters seem to "perk up" when a good solid chocolate tastes not as expected.

For chocolate makers, I think it's also an expectation perhaps that if you're going to be a fine/small-batch producer, you use more rare, sought-after ingredients. Again, why produce something from an ingredient considered "average" in the industry and highlight that on your package? So perhaps it's part peer pressure and expectation that it's the rare(r) beans that you should be using.

I think it's good that chocolate makers are introducing bars with cacaos of unexpected flavors. I don't think they should be moving all the way over to where the consumers are, but perhaps meeting them halfway. Consumers' palates won't advance if not.

I do agree completely, however, that forasteros in the fine chocolate industry should not be ignored (If I read their information correctly, Valrhona's Jivara Lactée is made of forastero). As long as the best practices for growing and harvesting were followed, as you mention, then why not? Is it that they feel it's too challenging to produce a chocolate using an "average" cacao and make it stand out?

I'm sure if I asked some of the producers I know personally, sourcing would definitely be, as you mention, part of the issue, too.