Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Taza Chocolate: A Small Chocolate Maker with an Outsized Impact

As many of you know, I spent a week in Belize at the Cotton Tree Lodge with Taza Chocolate. I have so many great cacao-related stories to share with you that it’s hard to choose which one to share next. I’ve decided that since this week’s chocolate happy hour theme is Taza Chocolate I should, well, talk about Taza Chocolate! Before I start, I’d like to throw down a challenge to our customers.

Lauren's Chocolate Challenge
This challenge is for everyone, but particularly for those of you who have tasted Taza Chocolate before -  I challenge you to try it again. If you’ve never tasted Taza Chocolate, I challenge you to taste it with an open mind (and palate).

As you taste this “perfectly unrefined” chocolate, focus on the flavor of the cacao. Taza purchases some of the best organic cacao in the world and minimally refines it to bring you closer to the flavor of the cacao bean. I’ve learned to embrace the crunchy texture of Taza’s unrefined style, and to enjoy the taste of great cacao. I encourage you to do the same.
Alex Whitmore at Maya Mtn Cacao

Direct Trade, Taza Style
As the organizer of chocolate week at the Cotton Tree Lodge, Taza Chocolate Founder, Alex Whitmore, had the bully pulpit for the week. On three nights, Alex gave talks on topics as wide-ranging as chocolate refining techniques, Mayan cacao farmers and Direct Trade versus Fairtrade. I have something to say about each of these topics, but for this post I’m going to tell you what makes Taza such an extraordinary company – its commitment to Direct Trade.

Taza is a small company. By small, I mean a blip on the charts of the world’s major chocolate companies. Taza produces very small amounts of chocolate using a fraction of a percent of the world’s cacao. At the same time, Taza is one of the largest craft chocolate companies, which puts it in a unique position. Compared to its artisan peers, who might use hundreds of pounds of cacao a year, Taza uses tons of cacao a year, enough to have an impact at the country of origin. And impact it has.

You may notice a Direct Trade logo on every bar of Taza Chocolate. This logo is not sanctioned by any particular group - it’s one that Taza created. Yet it has more meaning and impact than many of the sanctioned fair trade logos on the market. How does such a small company have such a big impact? Taza works directly with cacao farmers, sets clear quality standards for fermented cacao, pays more for cacao than the competition and hires an independent, third party to audit its direct trade practices every year.  As Alex pointed out, it all comes down to transparency. Taza is a fully transparent company.
But wait. There’s more!

Many of Taza’s craft chocolate peers aren’t able to purchase the same volumes of cacao, which severely limits their access to the finest cacao in the world. In the spirit of cooperation, Taza sells cacao to many small artisans, providing them with access to some of the same great cacao Taza is sourcing directly from the countries of origin for its own use. This ensures that more chocolate is being made with directly-sourced cacao. It’s a win-win-win for Taza, for its peers and for cacao farmers.

I admit I’ve looked at the Direct Trade logo on Taza chocolate bars many times without really understanding what it meant. Let me provide a summary of the power behind that small graphic label.
Maya Mountain Cacao does detailed flavor & fermentation analysis on every batch of cacao

Taza Chocolate’s Five Direct Trade Principles
Taza sources superior quality cacao beans that have 95% or higher fermentation rates and are dried to 7% moisture or less. In addition, Taza follows five direct trade principles.
  1. Works exclusively with USDA Certified Organic cacao farms that practice sustainable agriculture
  2. Pays a premium of at least $500US per metric ton above the NYICE price and a floor price of $2,800 per metric ton on the date of invoice directly to cacao farmers
  3. Physically visits each cacao farmer or cooperative at least once a year to build long-term, sustainable relationships
  4. Only buys cacao from farmers and farmer coops that ensure fair and humane work practices
  5. Never purchases cacao from farmers or farmer coops that engage in child or slave labor
Alex smells cacao drying at Hummingbird farm in Cayo
At great expense, particularly for a start-up chocolate company, Taza hires an independent, third party auditor each year to certify its direct trade claims, and it produces a report that's available for anyone to review.

Wow! What more can I say? A lot, actually.

The subject of fair trade versus direct trade is a long, complicated affair. Taza’s direct trade approach is a much more robust and impactful way to make change at the farmer’s level. I would be remiss if I didn’t compare Taza’s use of direct trade to fair trade. Without the comparison, you wouldn’t understand the impact.

In the interest of keeping you from nodding off, I’m going to summarize and make it as simple as possible. Please keep in mind that my over-simplified version is exactly that. But it’s a good start at helping my readers understand the pros, cons and limitations of many of the fair trade programs on the market.

An example of fair trade cacao pricing:

How is fair trade different than direct trade? I’ll summarize by sharing the price difference for a farmer selling at the fair trade price versus a farmer selling to Taza Chocolate. Please keep in mind that the floor prices stated are a minimum price. Historically, cacao has traded below these prices, but it's currently at some of its highest prices, so it's selling above both floor prices. Prices are approximate as of April 14, 2014.

Fair trade and Certified Organic cocoa price:
Fairtrade floor price: $2,000 per metric ton

$3,060US per metric ton (current market price)
+$200US Fair trade premium per metric ton
+$300US organic premium
$3,560US per metric ton

It’s important to keep a few things in mind when looking at this number:
  1. The cacao farmer does not receive the fair trade premium directly. The premium is given to the coop, and the coop Board determines how it will spend premium money. An example might be building new infrastructure (e.g., water wells) for member villages. In this example, the farmer would keep approximately $3,360US.
  2. Farmers not Certified Organic will not receive the Organic premium
  3. Farmers must pay a certification fee to the fair trade organization and to a USDA-approved organic certifier to receive either of these premiums. Certification can be expensive and out of the question for many small farmers. Farmers who are producing quality cacao and being paid more than market rates may not bother with fair trade certification because of the expense and the bureaucracy involved.
  4. While craft chocolate makers might purchase cacao that’s fair trade certified, they must also pay to certify their business to use the fair trade logo. This is an expense that’s often outside the budget of a craft chocolate maker. Some of the chocolate you’re eating maybe fair trade, but it may not have a logo on it.
A cut test on fermented beans to assess quality
Taza Chocolate Direct Trade price:
Taza Direct Trade floor price: $2,800US

$3,060US per metric ton (current market price)
+$500US per metric ton Taza direct trade premium
+$300US organic premium
$3,860US per metric ton

While this is the minimum amount Taza pays for cacao that meets its criteria, Taza may end up paying more. Some of the cacao Taza purchases is in high demand among the finest chocolate makers. Farmers selling fine cacao can command prices well above the world market rate, and a quality chocolate maker like Taza will pay the higher price. At the end of the day, selling well-fermented, quality cacao is what brings farmers a higher price.

There’s so much more to consider, but I’m going to stop here.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog post, Eladio Pop: A motivational Mayan organic cacao farmer.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

You Better Belize it! My cacao adventures in the jungles of Belize.

After six years in the chocolate business, I finally had an opportunity to immerse myself in cacao, figuratively and literally, by joining Taza Chocolate’s annual chocolate week in Belize.  Held every March at the Cotton Tree Lodge outside of Punta Gorda, the trip is open to anyone who loves chocolate and the outdoors, and
Lauren and Mark at Maya Mtn Cacao
has a sense of adventure. My husband, Mark Kotzer, and I had a fantastic time. I highly recommend it!

I’m embarrassed to say that I initially had visions of waking up to the waters of the Caribbean Sea lapping at our cabana doorstep. It didn’t take me long to realize that our lodge was 11 miles up the Moho River from Punta Gorda (“PG”) and the Caribbean Sea, situated in the middle of the Belizean jungle.  Not to worry, just saying the word “jungle” turned this trip from the ordinary to the exotic.

As our Delta redeye from LA approached the Belize City International airport, I could see many varied trees that formed a pin cushion of greens, each pin coming together to create a pattern of shades and textures. Lush forests were dotted with rivers, large and small. As the plane came closer to landing, individual trees became apparent. Some were tall and spindly and stood above the others. Many were palm trees. From the air, Belize takes on the look of a vast and untamed jungle. This trip was beginning to have “adventure” written all over it.

A street in Punta Gorda
Since I was finally making it to a cacao-growing country, and a Mayan one at that, I relaxed my ban on flying in small planes. Mark and I boarded a Tropic Air flight to Punta Gorda. We flew down the coast, giving us a birds-eye-view of the extensive coral reefs of the Caribbean on one side of the plane, and the endless jungle on the other. Our flight included a quick, bumpy stop on the dirt runway at the Belize Airport (not to be confused with the Philip S. Goldson International Airport where our Delta flight landed) to take on cargo such as flower wreaths, appliances and toilet paper. That was as close as we got to Belize City.

Upon arriving at the Cotton Tree Lodge, we moved into our cabana, which was a large, circular room on stilts that was wrapped with screens in place of windows. The screens left us feeling almost as one with the
Our cabana at the Cotton Tree Lodge
jungle and with our neighboring cabanas. Our beds were covered with mosquito nets, and the back porch offered two hammocks and some very comfortable Adirondack-like chairs. Like the roofs on the Maya homes we would see everywhere, ours was made of a significant thatch.

I took my first swim in the Moho River before the group met for our introductory dinner. The color of the river reminded me of the lakes I swam in as a child in Maine. Dark and murky, but cool and refreshing. One thing I learned about the jungle is that breezes are few and humidity is high. Swimming in the Moho is the best relief on a sticky, sweaty day.  It’s also the best way to see the many, many colorful birds that live in the area and frequent the trees on the Moho. Parrots are everywhere, once you learn to recognize their awkward flying. There are tanagers, Laughing Falcons, hummingbirds, and many birds I’ve never heard of before. We saw large iguanas sunning themselves in the treetops (although none of them as large as the six-foot orange iguana we saw in Placencia). While the national bird of Belize is the Toucan, it’s one of the only birds I didn’t see during our stay. As an avid swimmer, I was glad to find out the Moho River is crocodile-free.
Our Cabana

Jaguars are native to the area, but I knew the likelihood of seeing one was small. The owner of the lodge, Chris, has only seen two in 30 years, and both of those at night.  Howler Monkeys, on the other hand, are frequent visitors, particularly at night. I’m not sure who named them “howler” monkeys, because it certainly doesn’t sound like they’re howling. Darth Vader monkeys would be more appropriate. A local told us that the noise used for T-Rex in Jurassic Park was a recording of Howler Monkeys slowed down. That made sense. When they come swinging into the jungle, you hear the heavy breathing of Darth Vader getting louder and louder, with an occasional bark in between. They don’t always stay for long, but you know they’re there. I never saw them, but Shane from Taza did. They’re not that large, they just sound big.

Alex Whitmore, Taza Chocolate
We met our fellow chocophiles at dinner the first night, where we feasted on snapper poached in banana leaves. It was a wonderful group of people that spanned interests and generations. In addition to industry types, such as Bryan and Dahlia Graham from Fruition Chocolate and the guys from Raaka Chocolate, the group included chocolate lovers who found the trip online, and loyal Taza customers. There were 22 of us, including two Taza employees, Shane (a cacao roaster) and Suhayl (a marketing/social media/events evangelist for Taza Chocolate).
Taza, Raaka & Fruition walking in PG

After dinner, Alex Whitmore, the Founder of Taza Chocolate, welcomed us. In preparation for our activities the following morning, we watched a documentary about the cacao farmers of the Toledo district, which featured the farmer we’d be visiting, Eladio Pop (more about Eladio and the cacao farmers of Toledo in a blog post to come). Eladio is quite a character, and he’s an excellent example of an organic cacao farmer from a country that has farmed cacao and made chocolate for centuries. I recommend watching the documentary, “The Chocolate Farmer,” on Youtube.

In preparation for the rest of our evening, a very large bug landed on the screen while we were watching the documentary. I sketched a 3 inch version of the bug in my notebook and wrote “Bigger than this by 2x”. It was a HUGE flying bug. Its relatives awaited us back in our bathroom.

Nim Li Punit w/Agapito
Our week was filled with group activities that included hanging out on cacao farms, swimming in dark Mayan caves and visiting Mayan ruins. I’m going to break down our adventures into multiple blog posts, focused on the cacao and chocolate-related parts of the trip. There’s just so much to tell!

Since I can’t cover everything, I’m leaving you with my top 10 memories of our week of adventure, not in any particular order.

Lauren's Chocolate Week Top 10
  1. Getting my arms into a pile of sticky, hot, fermenting cacao to help MMC employees Carlos, Francisco and Mordechai move it to the final bin to finish fermentation. I’m still picturing Carlos as he cut banana leaves with his machete so I could cover the fermenting cacao.
  2. A cold and dark swim through Blue Creek Cave with a life preserver and a headlamp, swimming and scrambling over rocks while providing moral support to those less comfortable in water.
  3. A nocturnal jungle walk with Armando (insert ABBA song here) where I realized that the jungle is made up of a lot of ants and spiders, and that spider eyes look like emeralds and sapphires in the dark with a flashlight.
  4. Swimming in the Moho River while birds of every kind and color flew just above my head and hung out on trees around me. I’m just glad I wasn’t in the water when a boa constrictor fell off a tree and swam past Julie, a fellow Chocophile.
  5. Doing the Cotton Tree triathlon, which consisted of a very short run followed by floating down the Moho River with the current and kayaking back for our shoes.
  6. Hearing the howler monkeys every day
  7. Meeting with the former Association Chair of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (a non-profit coop). Truly a geeky moment for me. More to come in another blog post.
  8. Visiting Eladio Pop’s jungle farm, eating lunch with his family and helping his wife and daughter make traditional drinking chocolate. More to come in another blog post.
  9. Touring Maya Mountain Cacao after a great presentation by Emily Stone, Managing Director. More to come on Maya Mountain Cacao and the great work it’s doing with the farmers of Belize.
  10. A day trip to Hummingbird Hershey, a former Hershey farm that Maya Mountain Cacao will be operating as an organic cacao farm for at least the next 10 years. This was probably my favorite day of the entire trip! More to come in another blog post.
Stay tuned for more blog posts about cacao in Belize and our trip. In the meantime, I leave you with a rare, goofy moment from my husband, Mark Kotzer.
Mark in a light moment
Happy chocolate tasting,
Chief Chocophile

Saturday, September 22, 2012

What We’re Eating: Escazu Pumpkin Seeds & Guajillo Chili Chocolate Bar

Escazu Pumpkin Seeds & Guajillo Chili 74% Dark ChocolateIf you can’t decide between a crunchy snack and a piece of chocolate, than look no further than the Escazu Pumpkin Seeds & Guajillo Chili chocolate bar. The pumpkin seeds provide a satisfying crunch with a hint of salt. The guajillo chili, though mild, complements the pumpkin seeds and adds just pinch of spice to the bar. Of course you can’t forget the most important part, the chocolate. The chocolate is created using a wonderful blend of cacao from Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. Its smooth texture paired with the crunch of the seeds creates a delightful eating experience.

Stop by today from 11am-5pm to taste a sample of the Escazu Pumpkin Seeds & Guajillo Chili chocolate bar.

Chocolate Bar-ista

Friday, September 14, 2012

What We're Eating: Pralus Mélissa 45%

Francois Pralus Melissa 45% Milk Chocolate
We have plenty of delicious dark chocolate bars here at Chocolopolis, but every once in a while I like to indulge in some milk chocolate. At these times I head straight to the Southeast Asia section of the store for the Mélissa 45% milk chocolate bar by François Pralus.
Before trying this bar I thought that I only liked milk chocolate inclusion bars since most milk chocolate bars seemed bland to me. I was delighted to find that the Mélissa bar was more complex than any milk chocolate I had ever tasted before working at this store. It is creamy with notes of caramel and a subtle smoky taste. This is the perfect bar for milk chocolate lovers that are looking for something a little different.

Stop by Saturday from 11am-5pm to taste a sample of Pralus Mélissa 45% milk chocolate.

Chocolate Bar-ista

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What do Fairtrade & Direct Trade Have to Do with Quality?

One of the biggest challenges the artisan chocolate community faces is perception. Consumers have perceptions around many of the issues that define artisan chocolate, such as the monikers for "fair trade" and "direct trade". What do these terms mean? It depends upon whom you ask. They are complex issues that are not easily reduced to a sound byte.

And that's the problem.These terms often end up reduced to a label used for marketing hype. I can't blame the marketers. The issues are complex and messy. They don't make an easy story for marketing purposes. Unfortunately, when reduced to a simple moniker, such as "fair trade", they often take on perceived meanings that may not be entirely accurate. I thought it would be useful to provide some thoughts on how fair trade and direct trade affect the cacao industry. Since fair trade and direct trade are meaty topics that would fill many pages, I'm going to provide a few high-level examples from recent conversations I've had with experts on these topics.

Let's start with fair trade. As Dr. Kristy Leissle (a.k.a., Dr. Chocolate) pointed out at our recent Serious Chocolate Talk ("Is my chocolate bar Fair, Direct or Free?"), one of the challenges with the formalized certification body, Fair Trade International (aka, "FLO"), is that there are dozens of pages of administrative, environmental, economic and other rules that members must follow to earn the label of Fairtrade certified. The administration of these rules is something that's put together by chocolate consuming countries (e.g., developed nations) and imposed upon cacao producing countries that have little to no infrastructure. Dr. Leissle points out that FLO has done a lot to raise awareness of the plight of farmers growing agricultural commodities in the Third World. It has not, however, been the economic revolution it purports to be.

Fairtrade certification can be expensive and logistically difficult to maintain, and in most situations it does not provide incentives for the farmer to produce quality cacao. The current $200 per metric ton Fairtrade premium is typically used to fund development projects at the village level, such as installing water pumps or digging wells. These projects do benefit farmers, but they are not explicitly intended to improve cacao quality and have nothing to do with growing fine flavor strains.

By contrast, many of the small-batch chocolate makers pay 2-3x the world market rate for cacao, and they usually purchase more directly from the farmer. For some prized cacao, they're often paying much more than 2-3x the world market rate. The current bulk market commodity price for cacao is approximately $2,450 per metric ton (as of August 20, 2012). Isn't it in the farmer's benefit to receive $4,900 per metric ton (2x $2,450) for growing a fine flavor strain than it is for them to receive $2,600 ($2,400+$200 Fairtrade premium) per metric ton of bulk cacao?

But it's not just the farmer who benefits. Chocolate eaters benefit as well. Paying the farmers a premium for quality creates incentive for them to continue to produce quality varietals of cacao using excellent fermentation techniques. This results in some darn good chocolate.

So what, exactly, is direct trade? Not surprisingly, it depends upon whom you ask. Unlike Fairtrade, there is no certification body for direct trade. There are many different examples of what I'd consider direct trade. For me, it comes down to stated principles that provide the farmer with incentives to produce quality cacao and leave him or her with more of the profits, eliminating layers of middlemen. There are many different ways to accomplish this in the complex world of cacao sourcing. I offer a few as examples.

I'll start with a brief mention of Askinosie Chocolate, whose purchasing practices I discussed in more detail in another blog post. Askinosie develops relationships with farmers, purchases cacao directly from them and shares 10% of profits with them. That's about as direct as it gets.

Taza Chocolate, a small-batch American chocolate maker, purchases 90% of its cacao from a cooperative in the Dominican Republic called La Red. Taza has created its own certification called "Direct Trade Certified Cacao" based on its relationship with La Red. While creating your own certification might sound like a marketing ploy, it actually can work well in a situation like Taza's. By setting up criteria that are clear, simple and important to both Taza and the farmer, Taza is able to keep bureaucracy to a minimum and provide the farmer with incentives to produce quality cacao. Taza pays the farmer a premium to produce organic cacao using fair and humane labor practices with a minimum of a 95% fermentation rate and 7% or less moisture content. It's straightforward and it's focused on quality measurements.

I had a long phone conversation with Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolatier, one of my favorite craft chocolate makers, to better understand how he sources cacao. He produces some of the smallest batches of chocolate around, and he currently makes 4 different single-origin bars. His sourcing model demonstrates the many complexities of buying cacao, particularly as a small-batch maker who purchases small quantities of cacao.

Colin's cacao sourcing strategy varies depending upon the origin of the cacao. He buys from renowned cooperatives in some countries, shares containers that come from well-known farms in other countries, and buys directly in others. In situations where Colin might develop a direct relationship with a farmer, he usually hires a broker when it comes time to make a purchase of cacao from the farmer.

Why hire a broker? Brokers are better equipped to deal with importation logistics, such as customs and freight. As Colin put it, he doesn't have the scale or expertise to be an importer, and that's not where his time is best spent. Does Colin's direct relationship with the farmer classify as direct trade, even though he's hiring a broker? I would say most definitely "yes". In this example, most of the layers of middle men have been eliminated from Colin's purchasing process and the farmer receives much more of the value of his cacao in payment. In addition, Colin is often paying considerably more than the world market rate to the farmer for producing quality cacao.

As you can see, fair trade and direct trade are complex issues that really can't be covered in a sound byte or one blog post. So what can a conscientious consumer do? Look beyond the labels. Understanding the truth behind your chocolate takes a bit of research. If you really want to know, you'll need to do the work.

The best starting point is the chocolate maker's website. See what they have to say about how they source cacao, and if you don't see anything, ask. The way they answer the question and their willingness to talk about the issues will also give you an idea of how they view the issue altogether.

Make sure to also compare what you learn from different sources. For example, many of the largest chocolate companies in the world are members of the World Cocoa Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that was established to improve the incomes of poor cacao farmers. The World Cocoa Foundation has a number of nobly stated goals, but exactly what do they mean in practice? Is your bar of chocolate helping the farmers improve their incomes? If so, how? How does this approach contrast with the approach of the small-batch makers? Do these goals encourage the farmer to plant better varietals and improve fermentation?

You may be saying to yourself, "But I just want to eat my chocolate bar, already!". I don't blame you. It's a lot of serious talk for such a happy treat. Let me simplify this for you. Don't take labels at face value. I'm not saying you shouldn't purchase chocolate with labels like Fairtrade and direct trade. I'm just saying that you shouldn't assume that they're a panacea to a farmer's problems. They might be, but without doing the research, you won't know.

Happy chocolate tasting,
Chief Chocophile

Monday, September 3, 2012

Vote for Us for Best Chocolate in Western Washington

I'm not one to aggressively toot my own horn, so when it comes to shameless self-promotion I sometimes drop the ball. When you own a small retail store, though, you learn that shameless self-promotion of your business can be a necessary tool for continued prosperity. It's with this thought in mind that I'm going to do something I don't usually do. Ask for your vote.

King5 TV's Evening Magazine is running its annual "Best of Western Washington" contest. In the past we've been included in this contest, but we haven't mentioned it to anyone. That means we don't win or even make a respectable showing. But I think we've got some of the best chocolate around, be it our own confections, those of other talented chocolatiers, or chocolate bars from our very large collection of craft chocolate. We deserve to be a serious contender. So here goes,

Please vote for us!

Thanks for your consideration. It means a lot to us!

Happy chocolate tasting,
Chief Chocophile

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What We're Eating: Madecasse 70%

Madagsacar is one of my favorite origins for chocolate. It's the region that introduced me to single-origin chocolate and helped me understand that quality dark chocolate doesn't have to be unpleasantly bitter. While much of the cacao used to make Madagscar-origin chocolate comes from one very large farm, the cacao for the Madécasse 70% bar comes from a small cooperative in the Ezaka village that was set up by two former peace corps volunteers. The Madécasse 70%  shows off the wonderful tart cherry and citrus notes that I love. This bar has a bit of a chalky texture, so it's not quite as creamy and smooth as some other contenders, but the cherry notes are balanced and have a chocolaty finish. It's a very enjoyable bar that encourages poor farmers to produce quality cacao while also keeping all of the chocolate production in the country of Madagascar. This bar really gives back to the country of origin. 

Stop by today for a taste of Madécasse 70% and let us know what you think.

Happy chocolate tasting,
Chief Chocophile