Buzzwords and phrases fly around the chocolate industry and it can be a little confusing: Craft Chocolate; Bean to Bar; Fair Trade; Single Origin. What do any of them really mean, and why should you care? Let's dive in together, shall we?
Like so many of us in the States, I grew up on milk chocolate Hershey bars and kisses. Too artificially sweet, lacking in actual chocolate flavor, and ending with that mysterious mild burn in the back of your throat, a signal that what you just ate probably wasn't good for you. This is what you get from the mass market players in the industry. Cheap "chocolate" products that barely resemble chocolate at all.
Craft chocolate makers, on the other hand, treat cacao as the shining star. They are making chocolate after all, not candy. Craft chocolate is flavor-forward, often because it is single-origin, meaning the cacao can be traced to one region or estate. Like wine grapes, cacao beans come from different areas and have different flavor profiles. By opting for single-origin, one can get to know the terroir on a more intimate level and learn to appreciate the nuances in flavor. Hopefully it also means becoming more invested in supporting the agriculture and people that are responsible for growing and harvesting the ingredients. No farms, no chocolate, right?
Makers take pride in purposefully selecting what ingredients go into their chocolate. With so few natural ingredients, there's no room to hide anything that's less than optimal. It's why you'll often see organic cane sugar or, in my case, maple sugar, as the sweetener of craft chocolate, whereas regular cheap table sugar is used elsewhere. We should all care more about where our food comes from, and like with the "farm to table" concept, bean to bar, in part, goes back to the basics of just that. Chocolate makers actually make their confection from scratch, from cacao beans traceable to a particular place, whereas chocolatiers melt down already-made chocolate.
Transparency and traceability, perhaps, become two of the more important distinctions between mass market and craft chocolate. The big players want to feed people's indulgences, not caring at what cost. Have you ever stopped to think why they can get away with charging around $1 for a chocolate bar while those in the craft chocolate category typically sell for $7-$10?
Let me tell you that the steep price tag of craft chocolate isn't an ego or a bougie thing. You are paying for quality, for flavor, for passion, and you are supporting ethical practices, sustainability, and the livelihood of the farmers who grow and harvest the cacao.
There's no need to sugar coat things. The sad and unfortunate truth is that when you pay for that $1 chocolate bar, you're unwittingly supporting child labor, forced labor, gender inequality, and poverty in West Africa.* The mass market companies, like Hershey's, aren't paying fair prices for the cacao and they've failed for decades to eradicate these social issues.** The sad irony is, while the cacao farmers still live in squalor, the profitability of the chocolate market is in the billions, with the top CEOs bringing home a good chunk of that.
This is where Fair Trade comes in. By paying above market prices, craft chocolate makers are taking a stand for the ethical treatment of farmers and pushing back against the big boys of the industry. Yes, they may charge more for their products, but chocolate is a luxury and it shouldn't come at the cost of people's lives, especially children's. Within the fair trade construct, agreements are established that allow the farmers to have a say in their own pricing, giving them more control over their livelihood. Women are given opportunities for ownership and autonomy. Education is the main priority for children, not labor, and they are forbidden from participating in the work until they reach a certain age. As a consumer, choosing a company who is open about where they source from gives you a chance to opt for a more ethical product.
** Hershey's, Nestlé, and Mars are just three of the companies under scrutiny for not guaranteeing their chocolate comes without the price tag of child labor. Some of the others include Cadbury, Russell Stover, and Cargill. ***Updated 06.17.21 The U.S. Supreme ruled in favor of Nestlé and Cargill, therefore perpetuating child slavery. Disappointed yet again in the lack of basic moral standards.