FORT COLLINS — At some point in the past few years, Nuance Chocolate became what is believed to be the world’s largest maker of single-origin chocolate.
Not that founders Toby and Alix Gadd were keeping track. Their Old Town Fort Collins store and nearby chocolate factory literally feeds their passion to sample chocolate from all over the world.
They buy raw cacao beans from small farms and regional collectives. They sort the bad beans from the good, also taking out the twigs and rocks. They roast, grind and mix the cacao (for 90 hours a batch!) before shaping and tempering it, and then wrapping the bars in colorful foil. And they repeat the process, to create a bar made of beans from a single farm or regional collective.
“I wasn’t trying to create the largest selection of single-origin chocolate in the world. It was by accident. I had no idea that we even did it,” said Toby Gadd, who credits mentor John Nanci, the guru from Chocolate Alchemy who offers resources for the craft industry, for encouraging his curiosity about chocolate and noticing Nuance hit a record.
“I was talking to John and he asked, ‘How many origins do you have right now?’ ‘I think 24 on deck.’ And he said, ‘Nobody has anywhere even close to that.’ It wasn’t something we were trying to be,” Gadd said. “That was meaningless to us. It was just because it got out of control. Really what limits us right now is the space on the table.”
Single-origin chocolate isn’t new. That’s how chocolate has been made and enjoyed in cacao-growing communities for thousands of years. Craft chocolate makers like Nuance, or Cultura Craft Chocolate in Denver, Fortuna Chocolate in Boulder and Dar Chocolate in Thornton are part of a newer breed of makers who immerse themselves in the time-consuming process of making chocolate starting with the bean. They do it to enjoy the intense flavors, but it’s also about social responsibility and knowing where food comes from.
They don’t flinch at selling chocolate bars for $8, $10, even $15 because that’s the cost of financially supporting small farmers. They pay more for beans, and that’s helping the cacao-producing communities around the world, including West Africa, a region that produces most of the world’s cacao but has a history of unethical labor practices, including child enslavement.
“We’re small, a tiny little company,” said Gadd, who said a trip to Costa Rica to taste the real stuff turned the couple into hobbyists and eventually professional chocolate makers. “But I’m hoping that because there are more of us, that (ethical) plantation is getting a lot more money for their beans than the guys next door using child slaves. You have a choice. You can enslave these kids and be a horrible human being, or you can not do it and we’ll give you more money.”
Behind the sweetness
Chocolate comes from the beans of cacao trees, which thrive in places that are warm, humid and within 10 to 20 degrees north or south of the equator. That leaves few countries suited for growing cacao.
While cacao originated in the Americas, the top cacao-producing countries today are Ivory Coast and Ghana, which produce about two-thirds of the world’s supply and are the major sources for companies like The Hershey Company, Nestlé and Mars Wrigley Confectionery. Chocolate candy sales in the U.S. last year was a $19.5 billion industry, and up about 10% from 2014, according to market researcher Euromonitor International.
Cacao, often referred to as cocoa, is also a commodity, so prices fluctuate based on demand. Prices today are nearly half what they were in the 1970s. In some regions, slave labor historically kept costs low. Questionable practices continue though, especially in West Africa. A Washington Post report last year documented children who thought they were heading for school and got stuck working in cacao plantations on the Ivory Coast — nearly 20 years after the world’s largest chocolate companies promised to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.
“These issues are deeply rooted in complex, systemic circumstances on these family-owned cacao farms that are not easily reversed. But we know they are best addressed through large-scale, multi-stakeholder efforts to change the underlying circumstances that contribute to these inexcusable human and labor rights violations,” Jeff Beckman, a Hershey’s spokesman, wrote in an email. “No single company or entity alone can fix these problems.”
Hershey has been working on it. It has a certification program that uses an independent auditor to verify its sustainable practices. Hershey prohibits cacao sources from using illegal or forced child labor. Today, 90% of Hershey’s cacao is certified and sustainable and the company plans to be at 100% this year, Beckman said.
Many craft chocolate makers are aware of the environmental sustainability and poverty problems faced by farmers and their communities. And they’re attempting to change the value of chocolate, said Carla Martin, founder and executive director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute and a lecturer at Harvard University.
“These companies said, ‘What if we are able to pay more for the cacao by creating a different value proposition for consumers? We’re going to get you cacao that we know where it comes from, we know it’s a higher level of quality and the flavor is going to be something interesting,’” she said. “They’re pushing the envelope on the status quo of the cacao and chocolate industry. … It’s a complex story of whether or not that works, but that’s ultimately the sort of historical context of how (the craft industry) all came to be.”
With the rise of craft chocolate makers, conditions are changing in poor cacao communities, said John Nanci, who opened Chocolate Alchemy in 2004 as a resource for beans and equipment for chocolate makers. He now counts more than 6,000 customers.
“And only by the nature of there being more suppliers now are there more farms with good practices,” Nanci said. “From a percentage standpoint, though the needle has probably barely moved, because bulk chocolate has such a huge percentage and they are only now talking about moving to ‘slave free’ producers, in a large part, I believe, due to the waves the (bean-to-bar) market has made.”
Fair wages, fair trade
There are now stamps of approval from organizations like Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance, which certify products as being sustainable for the environment or ethically sourced from farmers for a fair price.
There are also collectives, like Uncommon Cacao, a Berkeley, California, company that strives to ensure cacao farmers make a living wage.
Uncommon’s cofounder Emily Stone traveled to Belize to work on a solution in 2010. The company set up Maya Mountain Cacao as a local farmer’s co-op and connected small farmers together to ferment the beans, which produces that desired chocolatey taste. By adding quality controls and centralizing the process, farmers were soon making about 20% more money than before, according to Uncommon’s 2013 transparency report.
“Emily was going around to villages in southern Belize convincing farmers to sell the cacao to Maya Mountain Cacao,” said Anjuli Dharna, sales director for Uncommon Cacao. “This was a big shift. But they would get a higher price for the wet beans than they would get selling the processed beans themselves because now it was going into a quality process to access the specialty market, which would pay a higher price.”
Two years later, the company had 70 chocolate makers on a waitlist for the beans. Belize couldn’t produce enough cacao. So Stone started another operation in Guatemala. And then Bolivia, then Haiti and then the Dominican Republic. Uncommon Cacao now has 13 sources across nine countries, including Ghana, where it works with fair-trade producer Abocfa. Participating farmers there get paid 13% above the region’s average.
Still, education is needed to help consumers understand how much food really costs. Uncommon has seen demand for the beans it sources grow 30 to 40% in Europe, but only grow 20% in the U.S., she said.
“People (in the U.S.) are not as willing to pay for more premiums and more ethics in the supply chain,” Dharna said. “I don’t know if that’s because American consumers are more trained to reach for cheap chocolate. But it’s a retraining and reeducation that has to happen. Two dollars for a Snickers bar is not a sustainable price. That is slave labor.”
Cultura Craft Chocolate, which debuted its retail store in Denver on Saturday, buys most of its beans from Uncommon Cacao. Despite the convenience of being able to source online, Cultura founder Damaris Ronkanen has visited every farm she buys beans from.
“There really are a lot of transparency issues within the chocolate industry, within mainstream chocolate and commodity chocolate,” Ronkanen said. “You really don’t know where it’s coming from.”
But Uncommon didn’t have a source in Mexico, where Ronkanen’s mother is from. Her mom would make Mexican chocolate for her while she was growing up. So she found Agrofloresta, which also set up a cooperative partnership with local farmers in Mexico. Having multiple single-origin bars from different bean suppliers, though, takes effort.
“It was logistically fairly difficult in the beginning,” said Ronkanen, who dealt with the FDA and U.S. Customs. “Fortunately, Agrofloresta did help me a little bit with that because they’ve worked with a couple of other companies who import cacao as well. But it is definitely more time consuming, more paperwork.”
The $8+ chocolate bars
If you’ve ever bitten into a bar of chocolate and it tasted bitter, it’s bad chocolate, Gadd said during a behind-the-scenes tour of how Nuance makes chocolate.
“Bitterness is a defect in industrial chocolate,” he said. “You take low-grade beans and it requires a very heavy roast to make them palatable.”
In a backroom at the small factory off North College Avenue, beans are sorted by region and stored in large orange barrels. There’s a tray to sort out defective beans or other non-cacao items. A jar with small rocks from around the world sits nearby.
Beans then head to the crack-and-winnower machine, which separates nibs from husks (“All our husks go to breweries,” he said.) and then the beans are roasted in a variety of ways before getting ground into a “chocolate liquor” and set in a melanger to mix for 90 hours.
The chocolate then waits for its future, be it a bar such as one of the spirit collaborations with Denver-based Leopold Brothers, or bite-sized truffles like the Snakebite, which is mixed with tequila, chili, salt and lime. A good chunk of the chocolate, of course, becomes a simple 70% single-origin bar that is pure cacao and cane sugar for $8.50.
“Right now, we have 23 different (single-origin) bars,” Gadd said. “It’s only 4% of the beans that we’ve played with. So literally, 96% of the beans that we’ve tried didn’t make the cut because they weren’t good.”
At the factory, some of Nuance’s nine employees temper chocolate. Two are pulling bars from the molds and carefully dusting off the edges before wrapping them in foil — often wrapping between 100 to 200 a sitting. Alix Gadd is the expert truffle dipper, and during the holidays, she would hand dip 800 to 900 a day.
“Originally we were focused on the bar aspect of it. But Alix, because she loved making truffles, she said we’re going to do truffles. And this is about half of our business,” Gadd said. “Alix and I are funny. Everything from design to what we sell to everything we taste is collaborative. … And we don’t do the nasty tasks. Like a lot of times, the guy runs the business, the wife ends up doing the books. We hired a bookkeeper so we can do the things we actually like doing.”
The two met on a 10th Mountain Division ski trip while both were in college 30 years ago. He had reverse-engineered Power Bars to add more chocolate and offered one to her. “That probably was the first food that we shared,” he said.
“It was very chocolatey,” Alix said on cue.
The types of chocolates sold by Nuance are only those the Gadds agree on. But he knows that taste is personal. The taste of chocolate is influenced by how the bean was fermented, how long it was roasted or mixed. And the flavor of the same piece of chocolate can change with a sip of wine or a bite of polenta.
And then there are chocolate bars, like Nuance’s bar from Nicaragua, which Gadd includes in one of the tasting flights offered in the cafe.
“People are super divided on this one. Those who love it think it’s the most amazing chocolate they’ve had before. But some people (during the tasting flight), they have a look on their face and I’m like, ‘You’re on Nicaragua,’” he said. “Think green leafy tobacco, molasses, nuts. There’s no tobacco in there.”
One guy in a smoking cessation program bought some of the Nicaragua bars to nibble when he craved a cigarette.
“It took him 24 bars,” Gadd said. “It took him a month but he’s like, ‘I finally beat it, thanks to your chocolate.’”
Standardless niche in a small world
A “milk chocolate” bar must have at least 10% cacao content by weight in order to be labeled as such, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
But other than that guideline, there’s no oversight or regulations for tasting or sourcing in the craft chocolate market. And that’s an issue that more consumer education can help, said Simran Sethi, a journalist and author of “Bread Wine Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love.”
“It’s a really intense flavor experience, and it has a lot less sugar,” Sethi said. “Relative to something like a Snickers or Hershey’s bar, where for example in the United States you only need 10% cacao content to call yourself a chocolate bar. So imagine the flavor differential when you’re like, ‘Here’s a 70% cacao bar.’”
Sethi, a chocolate lover, wants to make sure the craft market is done right and succeeds in reclaiming taste and quality of chocolate missing from mainstream options. She wants to avoid another Mast Brothers “debacle,” where two bearded brothers making bean-to-bar chocolate actually used pre-made chocolate from someone else.
“You’re asking people to spend $10 on a bar of chocolate (but) you guys haven’t figured out who you are yet,” she said. “How are we supposed to be able to trust that?”
Other industries, like wine, are regulated. Champagne, for example, must come from the Champagne region of France and there are special rules regarding production. Education is critical at this stage of craft chocolate where the varieties, percentages and social-impact may confuse people while the higher costs dissuade others, she said.
“I use coffee as an example because there is a certifying body that defines what specialty coffee is and it’s … around defects,” she said. “Whereas craft chocolate, it’s like you can slap a label on it that says ‘single-origin’ or ‘bean-to-bar’ or ‘small-batch’ and there’s nobody who’s overseeing any of that.”
The craft chocolate market is still small with around 225 players in business worldwide, according to the Chocolate Institute. The organization also estimates that the craft market is just 1-2% of the 4.6 million metric tons of cacao sold globally each year.
Martin, with the Chocolate Institute, said the vast majority of the nation’s chocolate, or 99%, is made from blends, and 95% is milk chocolate.
“It’s blended cacao from different origins that then has milk added so, in fact, the No. 1 ingredient is not cacao,” she said. “It’s sugar and milk.”
What may get more Americans to bite on these specialty chocolates is the taste. That’s how many of the craft chocolate makers got started.
Steve DeVries, a Denver resident and one of the early bean-to-bar makers, was studying in Costa Rica 20 years ago and searching for something to do on the weekend. He didn’t like coffee, so he decided to visit a cacao plantation. He took a bus to the coast and asked around until he met Mario Duarte who gave him some cacao beans from his farm.
“I brought some stuff back from him, just in my bags and made some chocolate. I ground it, I roasted it in my oven until it smelled like brownies,” DeVries said. “I got an admittedly crude chocolate. But there was a complexity of flavor that I’d never tasted in chocolate before. So I’m sitting in my kitchen going, ‘What the heck?’ These people (chocolate companies) have hundreds of years of experience, millions of dollars, what’s going on here?”
That got him started and by 2003, he remembers attending a food show and “there were like 46 companies showing chocolate and 44 of them were about how fancy the packaging was,” he said. But one of the standouts was Chloé Doutre-Roussel, a French chocolate taster who taught him almost everything he knows about chocolate. He set up DeVries Chocolate in what today is Denver’s River North Arts District and began making chocolate from the bean.
Back then, most chocolate companies were actually chocolatiers who bought chocolate before shaping it into something of their own. Chocolove, the chocolatier that started in Boulder in 1995, still buys chocolate for its bars from Callebaut in Belgium, according to the company.
“When I started in 2005, I was the 12th-largest chocolate maker in the United States,” DeVries joked. “I was also the smallest chocolate maker in the United States.”
DeVries Chocolate was a small venture and he later let the folks behind Ritual Chocolate open a retail shop in the RiNo location. Ritual has since moved to Utah and DeVries shut down the Denver operation due to his health. He’s now a consultant and offers tours to Central America that, 20 years later, prove just how small the craft chocolate world is.
“On my tour last spring, I was at a cacao plantation that was just a few miles from where Mario had lived,” he said. “So I said, ‘By any chance, do you know Mario Duarte?’ And the lady said, ‘Know him? He was my brother-in-law. That’s his son is over there.’”