Dark Matters Tasters & Makers: What is Craft Chocolate Part 1

Welcome to the Dark Matters Tasters & Makers Series.  This series will occur periodically over the next twelve months with each post looking at various craft chocolate topic questions and then featuring the thoughts and opinions of several craft chocolate reviewers, makers and writers on that question.  I love interviewing people in the chocolate industry and thought this would be a fun format to see variations in answers brought together in one place.  Will there be similarities?  Will the answers all be different?  Let’s find out!

Question 1:  The definition of craft chocolate varies so much person-to-person. How do you define craft chocolate and/or how do you think it should be defined?

Sophia Rea of Projet Chocolat

Sophia Rea:  This is a very good question.  Definitions have their cerebral aspects but there is also a felt-sense aspect to a definition.  Others will help with the first more than I, but I will share with you my experience of craft chocolate.  What comes to mind is the heart.  I can taste the intention, the memories and the stories of the craft-chocolate maker in their chocolate. Starting with the outside wrapper, to the foil, to the bar itself.  I always notice how the maker chose a particular cacao bean, the percentage, whether to add inclusions or not and of course the ingredients.  The size and thickness of the bar, the color of the bar, the mold, the color of the foil, the texture of the chocolate, the many prominent and subtle flavors the bar imparts and the design of the wrapper all come together for a mindful experience.  Craft chocolate is the art of making all the senses come alive!

Sophia Rea Projet Chocolat:  https://www.instagram.com/projet_chocolat/?hl=en

Dom Ramsey of Damson Chocolate

Dom Ramsey:  Much of the terminology around chocolate is very subjective and can be divisive, as there can never be clear definitions.  Ultimately, all chocolate is made from “bean-to-bar” and all chocolate is crafted.  For me, craft chocolate is made from scratch using carefully selected and ethically sourced ingredients, but I don’t think defining these terms within specific boundaries is necessarily important.  What is important are the intentions and transparency of the chocolate maker.  Being open about the sourcing and manufacturing process is much more important than trying to define such broad terms.

Dom Ramsey Damson Chocolate:  https://www.instagram.com/damsonchocolate/?hl=en

Patricia Baker of Eating the Chocolate Alphabet

Patricia Baker:  Defining craft chocolate is a tough question!  I recently watched “Craft: The California Beer Documentary” and I’m sure no one is surprised to hear that  industry also struggles with defining the word “craft”! Right now, the Brewers Association defines it as: small, independent, traditional (and set an annual production cap which has been increased multiple times to continue encompassing some big players that probably should no longer be considered “craft”).  Why do I mention craft beer?  Well, because I think that some of the same criteria also applies to chocolate.  

However, just today, I found an article entitled” “Craft Beer Definition that Launched a Thousand Arguments”…I certainly DO NOT want that to happen within the chocolate community, but here goes…

First of all, a craft chocolate maker is NOT controlled/owned by “corporate” mass-manufacturers in the chocolate industry.  To me, craft chocolate is made by a passionate individual or small team that is personally invested in and transparent about each step of the process, focuses on sourcing the best ingredients available, does not rely heavily on machinery/automation and cares more about the quality & integrity of the end product than “cutting corners” to achieve a profitable “bottom line”. 

I’m looking forward to hearing other people’s definitions and have some questions of my own:

  • How is “artisanal” different from craft”?
  • Is it possible to be “craft” without being bean-to-bar?

Patricia Baker Eating the Chocolate Alphabet:  https://www.instagram.com/myic2016/?hl=en

Estelle Tracy of 37 Chocolates

Estelle Tracy:  Unlike many other craft foods  that are formally defined (see for instance, the definition of craft beer here:  https://www.craftbeer.com/breweries/what-is-a-craft-brewery), there currently is no definition for craft chocolate.  The Slow Melt podcast devoted a whole show on the topic (https://theslowmelt.com/portfolio/the-craft-of-chocolate/) and although there’s still no consensus on what makes chocolate craft, two attributes stood out to me: inconsistency and an artistic component. 

As chocolate consultant Clay Gordon explains, cacao beans will taste different from one harvest to the next and craft chocolate embraces that.  Where industrial chocolate looks for consistency, craft chocolate doesn’t. 

Next, to Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate, craft chocolate also has an artistic component to it and I agree!  It’s a topic I already discussed on my blog (https://37chocolates.com/2016/06/22/what-is-bean-to-bar-chocolate-22/) and it is what makes craft chocolate special to me.  Realizing a maker could express himself through chocolate-making was a revelation to me:  spending $10 for a small piece of art felt like a bargain to me.

Estelle Tracy 37 Chocolates:  https://www.instagram.com/37chocolates/?hl=en

Mackenzie Rivers of Map Chocolate

Mackenzie Rivers: There is a definition of craft–and there are foods (like craft beer) that have defined it for use within a business aspect.  They’ve done so to differentiate their model of making from industrialized/factory processing and thus give consumers clarity when they ask the question “Who made this, and was it made by a person or industrialized processes, i.e., a factory?”  The phrase “bean-to-bar” is sometimes used by big brands to lend a “handmade” impression (because right now small is hip) while small makers with one tiny grinder on a washing machine in their laundry room will refer to their business as “a factory” because, according to status quo thinking, bigger=legitimate, therefore, better.  Right now craft is a term coined to gain attention, to imply bespoke, to prompt the end user to think “time and care and skill and thought went into this” and they will then willingly spend more to purchase the beer, coffee, bar.

This was, I think, the original intention at the heart of craft chocolate.  Factories made chocolate bean-to-bar, but did so mostly using aggregated cocoa of varying quality which they stretched and economized with fillers, flavorings, and additions such as lecithin that would enable large-scale industrial processes to work smoother.  The intent, even when making “good” chocolate, was quantity, and an evenly-keeled/easier to reproduce consistent flavor profile that we all came to know as “chocolate”. Easier to reproduce on a large scale is the great underminer of flavor.  Craft makers focused on quality, and  they did so by focusing on the bean, which of course, meant tasting origin, which meant introducing the chocolate world to a new way of thinking about flavor.

Let’s consider a plastic wrapped loaf of bread on a grocery store shelf vs a beautifully crusted sourdough boule in a small bakery.  One is a distortion (or, depending on the brand, abomination) of what the other offers, through historically both began looking a lot more like the handmade boule.  If you watched the last season of Chef’s Table, Nancy Silverton of La Brea bakery perfectly illustrated the difference in craft and industrial.  She began as a passionate and enthralled baker who worked her ass off to perfect her craft of baking bread.  She was obstinate about ingredients, and conveyed her love for what she made, literally, with her hands, in every loaf.  Then, she became popular, renowned, and her work was in huge demand.  Her capacity was exceeded by an ever-growing demand, both retail and wholesale.  She attempted to distill her “craft” into hiring and training workers, buying bigger equipment, and using more automated processes.  The bread did not rise in baskets on racks covered by flour-dusted cloths, but rose in temperature-controlled proofing vaults.  Bakers did not weigh the dough, machines did.  Bakers did not knead and shape the dough, machines did.  At the end of this transformation the viewer gets a peek inside the automated, gargantuan factory that La Brea bread was being “crafted” in, and the impression (and Silverton’s dismay) leaves no doubt that there was not a crumb of the original “craft” baking Silverton had been so good at, and had loved so much, and that made her so beloved a baker. 

So for me, craft is 100% about intention, and intention is what defines whether brewing beer or baking a baguette or creating a bar of chocolate is craft.  This is not to say craft is or is not machines.  It is only about the machine as long as the machine is managed by a person who uses the machine as a tool, not the other way around.  If all I have to do is push a button on a computer program, flip the switch on a conveyor, that’s not craft, it’s just a job, and I’d be the tool the machine uses to do its thing spitting out widgets.  If, on the other hand, my intention is to take a specific harvest of a specific origin of bean, and make a batch of bars that highlights the factors that went into that harvest and ferment by handling every step of the process from roasting through moulding, then what I’m working on is craft.  Note:  working on.  This is why my friends at Raaka, tremendously bigger than Map, are also craft makers.  The process is not refined down to “here’s your operator’s manual”. That is where craft and industrial chocolate part ways. 

To quote Seth Godin, “The job is what you do when you are told what to do…showing up at the factory, following instructions, meeting spec, being managed.  Someone can always do your job a little better or faster or cheaper…the job might be difficult, it might require skill, but it’s a job.  Your art (and here I’d say art=craft) is what you can do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it.  Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging that status quo(coa), and changing people.”

Think of a river.  You can drift a river in a small dory and row the currents with oars, which takes skill and experience, and a bit of artistry.  The view is beautiful and the experience is memorable.  Or, you can climb aboard a jet boat with 20 other people and race downstream.  In each experience the user might thoroughly enjoy themselves, encounter new things, be happy with their choice.  The difference is intention:  as the passenger in the boat, do you want a small, quiet float or a loud, motor-propelled speed race?  Do you want to watch the boatwoman steer skillfully and glide the waves or do you want to feel the power of a 200 horsepower motor?  As the oarswoman, do you want to offer a unique and rarer experience, show the passengers a different view and maybe, in a new way that enhances their enjoyment or sheds light on a potential to enjoy something they never knew they might like?

One, it might be argued, is it nourishing in the way we, as humans in an increasingly complex and automated world, need to be nourished.  But, to answer the original question and to define it in terms of industry, size matters:  batches, number of bars/scale of equipment, how many beans bought per year, number of employees, maybe even number of wholesale accounts. 

Mackenzie Rivers Map Chocolate:  https://www.instagram.com/mapchocolate/?hl=en

Thanks for reading and come back next weekend for What is Craft Chocolate Part 2 to read what  Hazel Lee, Isobel Carse (Dormouse Chocolates), Lori Romaine (Time to Eat Chocolate), and Sharon Terenzi (The Chocolate Journalist) have to say about craft chocolate.

Victoria Cooksey:  https://www.instagram.com/victoria.cooksey/?hl=en


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