One of the most prominent matters for the production of chocolate of different quality is that on the type of cacao*.
(* = ‘Cacao‘ and ‘Cocoa‘ are interchangeable to maximize the article’s online reach. Both terms refer to the Theobroma cacao beans used to make chocolate as a finished product.)
Based on independent observations and aggregation of facts and figures about the current status of the cocoa market provided by trade organizations such as the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) and the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI), chocolate professionals can grasp a better understanding of the value of cacao beans in relation with the type of chain and quality of the finished product.
Commodity or Bulk Cocoa
- Over 90% of the world’s cocoa production is classified as ‘bulk’ and traded in London and New York City’s soft commodity exchanges, making it highly subject to price volatility. Bulk cocoa is produced in high volumes and usually of bare minimum quality.
- West Africa—in particular, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana—represents the region producing bulk cocoa in mass; however, that doesn’t imply that all cacao beans from West African countries inadequately lack something to make high-quality chocolate. The unfavorable mix of factors makes cocoa from West Africa a snubbed origin for niche top-quality chocolate producers. Local governments there make it harder to buy and process cocoa beans in small amounts and excellent quality.
When nicely processed, this type of cocoa predominantly confers an essential but intense fudgy flavor to chocolate products. Yet, big traders and grinders interested in producing volumes of chocolate rather than its quality often mix different lots of low-grade bulk cocoa. Once in their extensive facilities able to process tons of cacao per hour, the big processors heavily roast the cocoa to sterilize it quickly and homogeneously tame funky off-flavors in it. The roasted cocoa is then treated with alkali to remove acidity and astringency under a bearable threshold. Eventually, the resulting cocoa mass finishes working with sugar, milk, vanillin, or enhancers characterizing the uniform aspect and flavor of mass-market chocolate.
- Certifications are massively used in the bulk cocoa chain as a marketing requirement to hook consumers on a label with sustainable-sounding tags. The reality is that cheap chocolate with certification stickers doesn’t guarantee the absence or the improvement of critical sustainability issues concerning farmers’ ethical labor, a fair price paid for farmers’ work, and the respect of the environment where farmers grow and harvest cocoa. Achieving the lowest costs while maximizing margin profits is, in fact, the top priority of mass-market chocolate brands and retailers.
Premium or Specialty Cocoa
- The premium or specialty cocoa market takes up less than 10% of the total cocoa market. Specialty cocoa is not traded as a commodity but has its supply chain that generally commands a premium over the price paid for bulk cocoa. Farmers involved in specialty cocoa put extra attention into growing and harvesting the cocoa trees to minimize quality defects in the beans and preserve the identity of individual lots originating from specific geographies or varieties.
- Specialty cocoa is recognized as such if the whole supply chain cares about aspects encompassing genetics, origins (terroir), harvest and post-harvest techniques, higher quality, and more precise traceability than bulk cocoa. Except for the growing demand for organic, certifications in the specialty cocoa segment are generally considered an unnecessary economic and bureaucratic burden for the farmer.
Specialty cocoa production and trading consider schemes that can benefit the farmer more significantly than through third-party certification and often contemplate a more holistic approach that can respect or regenerate the environment and sustain all of the stakeholders involved in the chain more equitably.
- For Latin and Central America is the mother place of Theobroma cacao, most specialty cocoa is sourced in that region. The cacao crop is native to wild places like the upper Amazon rainforest, where some trees even remained virgin to humankind’s manipulation throughout the history of cacao domestication. However, specialty cocoa grows and thrives well virtually everywhere, from North America, such as the Hawaii Islands, to Africa (Madagascar, Tanzania, etc.) and the Asia-Pacific (Vietnam, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, etc.)
Ultra-Premium or Fine Flavor Cocoa
- Within specialty cocoa, there is a niche category of exceptional quality, bringing specific flavors and aromas to chocolates and couvertures: fine flavor cocoa. Fine flavor cocoa represents the high end of the global cocoa production, accounting for less than 6% (285,000 tons in 2018/19.) The unique profile of fine flavor cocoa can be described as a combination of fruity, floral, spicy, nutty notes—and more—that stand out from the ordinary cocoa flavor base.
To this day, there is no official harmonized international standard or terminology to assess cocoa quality and flavor. However, the finalization of the International Standards for the Assessment of Cocoa Quality and Flavour, an initiative coordinated by The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT with the guidance of cocoa producers’ associations, traders, chocolate makers, and research organizations, will better address the shortage. The protocols cover all aspects, from sampling and sample preparation to physical and sensory evaluation of cocoa and chocolate derivatives. Having a common lexicon concerning the quality evaluation of cacao will hopefully make communication easier among all of the actors involved in the supply chain and, consequently, enable them to address quality improvement issues more objectively with a validated method.
- Like specialty cocoa, fine flavor cocoa is directly-traded between farmers and buyers for the high value of its quality and positive impact on the supply chain. The same applies to a lesser interest in certifications.
- Origins and farms producing fine flavor cocoa tend to seek officiality to recognize the value they offer to the high-end chocolate industry by participating in the Cocoa of Excellence Awards or getting designation through the Heirloom Cacao Preservation program. These achievements are also crucial to increase the number of countries associated with fine flavor cocoa globally, as reported by ICCO in their updated list of countries exporting Fine Flavor Cocoa.
As education, storytelling, and understanding of chocolate quality have increased in recent years thanks to social media and blogs, the demand for better-tasting chocolate strongly depends on makers sourcing higher-quality cocoa. By choosing healthy and innovative chocolate products and being willing to pay a little more for companies and brands working with recognized specialty and fine flavor cocoa origins, consumers have the power to push the market of chocolate to increased transparency and sustainability and shift the trend toward traditionally exploited regions for cocoa production like West Africa.
For example, for the 2019 buying season of Ghanian farmer cooperative Aponoapono Biakoye Organic Cocoa Farmer’ Association (ABOFCA,) specialty cocoa trader Uncommon Cacao paid a premium 43% higher than Fair Trade and Organic certification premiums combined.
ABOFCA’s cacao beans’ story is different from that of most other bulk cocoa origins in that the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) doesn’t allow local farmers to outsource the centralized fermentation of wet cacao beans. The only way farmers can collaborate with independent specialty cocoa partners like Uncommon Cacao is to train themselves to ferment and dry cacao beans in a way that can meet higher quality standards and follow a mixed trading scheme that starts with a contract based on commodity market pricing and ends with the receipt of premiums based on quality and eventual costs of certifications already in place. Farmers can then reinvest part of the incentives obtained to update their skills and build more resilient social-economic conditions for their families.
Education, creativity, and flexibility in the cacao industry will be crucial to disrupting the segment of specialty and fine chocolate even through countries or regions typically associated with ‘bulk’ cocoa.
What do you think of the market and differentiation between Bulk Cocoa, Specialty Cocoa, and Fine Flavor Cocoa? What additional ideas could drive more people to appreciate and pay more for chocolate products made with higher-quality cacao?