Welcome to Part 1 of the next installment of the Dark Matters Tasters and Makers Series. I was originally planning to make this round all about white chocolate, and then ruby chocolate was announced, so I decided to go the route of current chocolate exploration in which the Tasters and Makers could comment on ruby chocolate, white chocolate, or other any topics along those lines.
This series continues to be a space to provide the Tasters and Makers a spot to let their own thought processes and styles shine through, and give the pleasure to the readers (and the other Tasters and Makers out there) of having multiple answers to the same topics presented side-by-side. This particular round includes a surprise chocolate expert guest contributor: Clay Gordon!
Now on to the current question!
Question: How do you feel about living in a time where new horizons in chocolate are being explored so widely (i.e. ruby chocolate, white chocolate, etc). What are the downfalls in this exploration by chocolate makers? What are the benefits?
(When I say, “white chocolate” my thinking was along the lines of how white chocolate has changed with single-origin cocoa butter occasionally being used, or no vanilla added, or less sugar, and so forth).
Mackenzie Rivers of Map Chocolate
Mackenzie Rivers: I’m happy to be making chocolate at a time when the status “quocoa” 🙂 is shifting. My personal take is that cocoa beans are a food that can be made into many forms, used as a diverse ingredient for many purposes. Chocolate is just the beginning. I love how many makers are using different types of sugar, inclusions, trying different origins, experimenting with new methods. I also think as the horizons broaden, more chefs, pastry chefs, bakers, coffee enthusiasts and foodies of all sort will begin to see that there is simply no such thing as “just chocolate”, in the way there is no such thing as just “beer” or just “wine” or just “bread,” but infinite iterations and possibilities.
The downfall is that the chocolate world is a land of contradictions, and for the consumer this is confusing. The bigger the entity the more apt to claim “artisan” or “craft,” while itty bitty not-an-automated-machine in sight small makers refer to themselves as factories. There are claims about health benefits and manipulated “new” chocolates that seem more marketing ploy than heartfelt, inspired advancement. There are old school experts and self-appointed experts and chocolatiers moulding bars from craft chocolate they’ve purchased and craft makers rolling truffles from factory couverture. So many lines are blurred, which is good and also, it could be said, not good. On the shelf we all pretty much look the same, so how is a chocolate buyer to know who is who and what is what? What is important is information; it all comes back to transparency. But honesty and business do not always share the same cup of drinking chocolate. Yet, many people want to feel they are buying/supporting a real face behind their purchase, whether it be chocolate or a great macchiato. All the more reason I think small makers are coming into their day.
Karen and Isobel Carse of Dormouse Chocolates
Isobel Carse: I think that this is a really exciting time for chocolate innovation. Its great to see boundaries being pushed and new options opening up to chocolate lovers. I don’t see many downfalls in the exploration of new ideas in chocolate. What does worry me is the potential motives behind large companies exploring new ideas. Its great to see innovation, but not because its a way to cut corners, reduce transparency or reduce costs by adding unnecessary ‘padding’ to a product – things like more sugar or vegetable fats. There is also the chance that people could fall into the trap of being weird for the sake of it, not because they are making a good product.
I think that its great to see so many people trying new techniques and exploring options. It gives consumers more choice and hopefully encourages them to explore more into the world of craft chocolate. It also gives makers more options and ideas to explore, keeping the industry fresh. The announcement of RUBY has given rise to lots of questions and we have found that more people are coming to us to ask about how chocolate is made, and what makes this new chocolate different. I think that this can only be a good thing as more people become curious about chocolate, and start to question what they are eating. In the long term I can see this having a positive effect as people learn more about what makes craft chocolate so different and hopefully encourages them to try a wider variety.
Sophia Rea of Projet Chocolat
Sophia Rea: One of my core philosophies is that everything in the universe – every industry, every bank account, every relationship, every sidewalk – cycles from contraction to expansion and back. This is the natural order of things, and both directions are healthy and good in their ways. No expansion can happen without the prior contraction, for this is where those seeds are sown. So I believe one of the tricks of life is to join that wave and do our best to enjoy it whichever way it’s flowing. Chocolate was at one time a delicacy available only to the royals and elite. Though its quality and creativity were very high (created for the first time, in fact), it was inaccessible, even unknown, to the masses. Most recently, we might think of companies like Hersheys and Mars as representing a contraction in that quality and creativity but an expansion in affordability and accessibility, which brought chocolate to mass production and market. What we’re experiencing now is the growth of the seeds planted then – the combination of widespread access to this once elite taste, combined with an inevitable reaction against that time – the return to innovation.
So: back to your question. We live now in what might one day be seen as chocolate’s greatest heyday: a time when this wonderful taste is still affordable but rising in genuine creativity in every direction. We’re seeing wonderful expansion in the quality of ingredients, fairness of trade, and thoughtful, even playful, experimentation with taste combinations either new or lost to history. So much fun! If there’s a downside to living in this time, it will be the downside we see with all expansion, whether of stocks or fashion or real estate or art: at some point the creativity demands a price point few can pay; and some makers’ effort to distinguish themselves will push the envelope of taste to downright silly. And so you’ll see us in a “back to basics” swing some day soon that has its own benefits. For now, I’m having a ball and hope all of you are too!
Clay Gordon Chocolate Expert and Founder of TheChocolateLife.com
Clay Gordon: I have been living La Vida Cocoa / my Chocolate Life for the past 23+ years. Back in 1994 – since before the small maker movement in chocolate began – I had the inspiration to become the world’s first professional chocolate critic after discovering the origin chocolates of Stephane Bonnat, whose family has been making chocolate since 1883.
I started working with the importer of Cluizel and Domori in the US in 1998, selling their couverture chocolates and confections into high-end hotels and restaurants in NYC. In 2001 I started publishing one of the world’s first, if not the first, professional (in the sense that I approached it as a business and not a hobby) chocolate review/blog site – chocophile.com. Started in 2008 after the publication of Discover Chocolate, TheChocolateLife community now counts members in more than 160 countries.
Since the very beginning, I’ve been aware of just how special it is to participate in the development of something new. While there are parallels in wine, beer, spirits, cheese, bread, and other foods and beverages, chocolate is unique in the respect that the industrial revolution divorced chocolate from its pre-industrial history for well over 100 years. While the industrial revolution made it possible to produce wine, beer, etc., on a larger scale with greater predictably and consistency, these products had long histories of appreciation and connoisseurship prior to the industrial revolution that survived industrialization, chocolate had no such tradition: Chocolate as we know it today is a product of the industrial revolution. The culture of appreciation taken for granted in wine, for example, in chocolate can trace its early roots back to the 1980s, gaining wider attention only in the 2000s.
My approach to chocolate can be called catholic in the original sense of the word: universal. I am not just interested in what is now called “craft” chocolate (however poorly that term is understood). What truly excites me about chocolate is that it’s hard for me to imagine an aspect of human existence that can’t be connected to chocolate in some way. Economics, geopolitics, religion, chemistry, physics, botany, genetics, cultural anthropology, history, health and wellness, archaeology – you name the subject and I am confident that there is a connection with chocolate. That’s what excites me about chocolate.
I think of myself as an equal-opportunity chocolate fan: I will give every chocolate a chance to impress: I do not judge before tasting. Over the course of the past 20+ years my preferences in chocolate have evolved. As a judge, I now prefer categories that many others like to avoid, including bonbons and flavored white chocolate bars. Part of this, I have come to understand, is that those categories align more closely with my fine arts background and my primary philosophy of art influence, John Dewey’s “Art as Experience.” I am now more interested in a gestalt experience than intellectual analysis. This tension has been a part of my professional experience throughout a professional career that spans four decades.
In my experience, there are no downfalls that can be attributed to exploration and the expansion of what chocolate can be and do. The dangers come from not innovating, in retreating into a position of defending a cultural patrimony – and the small maker craft chocolate movement now has a culture. I am not a fan of Deepak Chopra, but I do like a quote that is attributed to him, “In order to be truly innovative, it’s not enough to think outside the box. You need to forget what boxes are.”
It is way too soon since the beginning of the small maker craft chocolate movement – barely two decades – to decide that there is a best type of chocolate. It can be argued that there parallels between a fixation on high-IBU IPAs in a narrow ABV range and two-ingredient chocolate in a narrow range of cocoa percentages. There are many more styles of beers (I am very fond of sour beer styles) and many more styles of chocolates than two-ingredient (when I eat chocolate recreationally I will often reach for a dark milk or something with an inclusion).
At this stage in its modern history, chocolate can only benefit from more exploration and innovation, more inclusitivy and more diversity. From a universe of one example in the late 1930s, white chocolate is forecast to reach $17.5 BILLION in sales in 2017. Yes, it’s highly processed and many people don’t even think it is chocolate. (It is.) Ruby chocolate was introduced less than a month ago. It’s a universe of a single example, just as white chocolate was 80 years ago. What might ruby become in 80 years?
I have zero interest in demonizing ruby chocolate because the question of what it might become interests me. Many of the reactions to ruby have caused me to ask the question of where white chocolate would be today if there were Twitter and Facebook equivalents back in the late 1930s. I think the world be a less-sweet place and a poorer place.
If history has revealed to me one enduring truth, it is that the introduction of a new process or product usually results in experimentation which leads to new innovation, which leads to even more experimentation, leading to more innovation…Forgetting what boxes are can lead to this kind of virtuous circle. Rather than decry white or ruby chocolates, a world view that embraces innovation will focus on what can be learned from them.
copyright 2017 Clay Gordon
Thank you for reading, thank you to Clay Gordon, and all the Tasters and Makers for contributing! Stay tuned for Part 2 with more Tasters and Makers answering the current question (including my answer too).