Valentine's Day is upon us, which means that every time you walk into a grocery or drug store, you're confronted with a big heaping display of cheap chocolate from familiar brands like Hershey and Nestle. In years past, we've highlighted the dark side of these big chocolate companies and the use of child labor in their supply chains. This got us wondering: Are there any companies out there making delicious chocolate the right way, without hurting people or the planet? Thankfully for chocolate lovers and the lovers of chocolate lovers, there are.
To learn more about the bright side of the chocolate industry, I reached out to sustainable chocolate pioneer Pierrick Chouard of Vintage Plantations whose artisanal chocolate is trulybean-to-bar (unlike some trendy chocolate companies) and was developed to help protect small farmers and the environment. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow.
What inspired you to start Vintage Plantations?
In the mid-90s, I was importing chocolate to the US for a French company, and the more I talked to customers and professionals in the industry, the more I realized [they were unable] to discern a quality chocolate from an average chocolate. Most [people] relied on marketing noise and few would trust their own palate to choose chocolate.
I realized in order for these "brand"-washed professionals and consumers to really understand [what it takes] to make quality chocolate and cocoa, I needed to set up an education structure. I chose the name University of Chocolate to convey I was serious about the science behind chocolate and started enrolling the gate keepers of the aroma: the cocoa farmers who, by choosing the variety they grow, the pods they harvest, and how they ferment the beans, contribute to the majority of [chocolate's] flavor development.
I then [brought] scientists from [the] research institute to teach classes at cocoa farms for the farmers and professionals chocolatiers. [Through this work] I toured farms in Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Peru [and] realized how destitute small farmers were and wanted to help. I could not convince the French company [I was working for at the time] to invest with these farmers and we parted ways. With the few dimes I had left in my pocket, I started Vintage Plantations with the idea of buying directly from these farmers and transforming the cocoa beans myself.
Making chocolate with farmers in Ecuador ended [up] being impossible because of weather, logistics, energy issues, local entrenched cocoa traders network and corruption - just to name a few of my challenges.After trying hard for five years, I tried to restart production in the US, penniless, but rich with experiences and my drive unabated. In 2007 we finally gathered enough money to buy some equipment and [establish] a mini-production [facility] in the cheapest place we could find: Newark, NJ!
What does it mean that your product is bean to bar? Why is that important?
"Bean-to-bar" means you don't buy cocoa mass from a trader [to make your chocolate]. Cocoa mass is a soup of cocoa solid and cocoa butter, and because cocoa butter solidifies at 70 degrees, it is shipped in big block, which commercial chocolate makers melt and mix with sugar.
In order expose the subtleties of the 1,500 aroma molecules one finds in cocoa, it is important to buy raw beans which have been fermented properly in order to contain the precursors of the aroma molecules. The only way to do so is to engage farmers directly and work with them in improving their fermentation process in return for paying higher price for these beans.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a sustainable chocolatier?
As an entrepreneur, trying to jump from one aspect of the business [to another] - be it sourcing, to production, to administration, to leading the team. Our machine runs 24/7 and we are a small team so we are "on" all the time.
As a chocolate maker, the biggest challenge [I face is getting] access to the farmers' beans...[and] trying to [import] the beans directly... past the established network of people who make money exploiting those small farmers. Often these people are politically and legally connected and have prevented us many times [from] exporting the cocoa beans to the market. We tend to ruffle many feathers and [have] created a lot of enemies by insisting [on] buying small quality batches directly from farmers. Traders and the multitudes of middle men tend to buy these cocoa beans and mix them with mediocre beans to get a consistent "average" quality which is what all big commercial buyers are reduced to buy.
Financing is also an issue as it's a very long commodity chain. Between the time you buy the cocoa beans in advance and are able to finally get them to be transformed in quality chocolate, it can take five to six months. That means [this business] it is very intensive in capital and drains your cash flow.
What is Vintage Plantations doing to protect farmers and the environment that big chocolate manufacturers do not do?
This is a huge topic.
First, we try to buy Rainforest Alliance certified beans. By buying [directly] from small farmers you keep them in business and encourage them to not sell their properties to [foreign] investors who tend to consolidate all small farms into major plantations. Growing a unique cocoa genotype in high volume [on these large plantations] tends to minimize cocoa diversity and expose [the plants] to possible blight. The farmers are then reduced to laborers on their own land. We see this happening everywhere.
You require the entities you work with to be Rainforest Alliance Certified. Why are these guidelines so important?
Rainforest Alliance guidelines [don't just] address the economical part of the farm, or the crop, [they] encompass the entire management of the farm. [The Rainforest Alliance guidelines ensure that farmers protect all the resources on their farm] from water, to habitat, to the diversity of tree and fauna which are essential in creating a sustainable model not only for the farm, but for all bio-systems.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Jump starting the Rainforest Alliance cocoa program, the University of Chocolate, and starting the bean-to-bar chocolate [movement] in Ecuador... Many of the top figures in the chocolate world in the US were either students of the University of Chocolate or copied what we were doing in Ecuador and wrote to us to tell us so
It took me a lifetime to feel confident enough to launch Vintage Plantations chocolates and I, among others, led the path for [the] many young chocolate entrepreneurs [that] make our industry so vibrant. The US reinvented coffee and they are about to reinvent chocolate as well.