Interview With Jeff Stern, Chocolate & Cacao Consultant

Approachable chocolate makers and independent chocolate/cacao experts certainly represent the best source of information for chocolate aficionados today.
Eclectic professionals with hands-on experience at various levels of the chocolate chain (from farm to bar) are as much precious to find as the heirloom cacaos they know.

Californian-born Jeff Stern is a chocolate and Ecuadorian cacao expert of the highest caliber in today’s industry. I have been following Jeff’s in-depth insights as a chocolate expert since the inception of his blogging activity on LinkedIn. The esteem that Jeff gained through his providing the readers with a straightforward and unbiased information about the world of chocolate led me to invite him for a thorough interview about his past and current activities in the chocolate segment, and his vision on the actual and future market of fine chocolate.

Jeff Stern close to cocoa trees

 
Antonella: First and foremost, thanks for accepting my interview, Jeff.
You lived in Ecuador from 1994 to 1995 at first while getting your Master’s in Community and Regional Planning, and then returned to work for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) after graduating. This is also the period in which you knew Maria, your Ecuadorian wife and partner in life.
You kept traveling to Ecuador almost annually until 2007 and, after observing the market in Ecuador during your trips in 2005 and 2006, you found there was a good market for chocolate. So, you moved your life and family there in 2007 and founded Gianduja Chocolate, your first chocolate business.

chocolates in a row - credit: Jeff Stern

Reading your story, I have understood that at the time you started, you did not have enough volume of production to afford couverture from only Nacional cacao, so you also had to work with couvertures made from mixed CCN-51 and Nacional beans.
Is accessing quality cacao and other raw materials still the main problem for someone trying to establish a small chocolate business in South America—or anywhere else for that matter, in general? (Red tape apart)!

fresh cocoa pods - credit: Jeff Stern

Jeff: Thanks very much for inviting me, I am always flattered when people seek out my opinions.
Accessing quality cacao and other raw materials is probably one of the biggest issues chocolatiers and chocolate makers face—which goes hand in hand with accessing affordable quality. And I say affordable in a very specific way. Affordable, in the sense that you can come up with a final product that can be priced affordably for the public. In South America, and, ironically, especially in a country like Ecuador (famous abroad for its high quality cacao), there is very little concern for quality. In Ecuador, “chocolate is just chocolate,” a sweet treat to be enjoyed, but there is not the sophisticated consumer market you might find in the US, Europe, or some other parts of the world. Still, this market of sophisticated consumers wanting to hear and know the story of the product they are consuming, well, it’s limited. It’s a niche market, still pretty much limited to those who can afford to spend $8 and up on a 50g or 70g bar of chocolate. So you’re working with expensive raw materials in small batches without economies of scale, which limits your margins tremendously.
But back to the specific question…, getting quality raw materials at an affordable price while paying producers fairly and being able to produce a product at a price people will buy, the challenge is that the entire industry is based on (and in many ways requires) economies of scale, from beans to fermenting, to transportation, to production, to packaging, and marketing. Producing “micro lots” (i.e., 20 to 100 kg)—say of quality beans—is difficult because of the technical side of fermentation. You can’t ferment just a few hundred pounds, then transport them cheaply, then make a few hundred pounds of chocolate with packaging specific to those beans very cheaply. It’s not nearly as simple as coffee, where you get a few hundred pounds or even less, and can roast very small amounts, bag them up, and sell them. There are so many more steps involved in making chocolate, and neither the transportation costs nor the production equipment nor the marketing/sales/distribution chain lends itself well to very small amounts. In essence, we are not really talking about a local product that has a short route from farm to consumer.

A.: I particularly appreciated your remarks on the tenuous links that most chocolate manufacturers (the big players) state they have with the sources of their beans, as they can buy a whole farm or cooperative’s production, make a chocolate out of it and call it “Single Estate,” though that doesn’t mean it might not be mixed with other beans.
In fact, one of the most debated topics when it comes to fine chocolate, is urging a non-arbitrary definition for “single-origin”. If chocolate makers identify this expression with a certain country, region, location, or estate, then often the varietals of the cacao beans used for a batch of chocolate bars remains vague. Even more so, most artisan chocolatiers (those who work starting from couvertures) still lag behind in their knowledge of the cacao variety! That’s a pity, since not all couvertures are created equal and some of them come directly from small processors located in cacao-growing countries or high-end manufacturers in industrialized countries. From the artisan chocolatier’s side, I’ve noticed it’s just enough to provide the consumer with the information of the country of origin of the cocoa mass, whereas more relevance on the label is often dedicated to the local origin of the non-chocolate ingredients (nuts, milk, dried fruits, natural flavors, etc.).
So, what are the latest developments regarding gourmet chocolate with traceable origins? What responsibilities would everyone in the chain need to take on in order to fill such an unacceptable gap?

J.: Well, that’s a really tough question. I applaud all those chocolate makers who are sourcing beans directly, then trying to use other local ingredients when available for making their chocolate, packaging, etc. If larger producers were to try to fill this gap, it would require an enormously costly infrastructure of random audits along the whole supply chain to ensure that all cacao being used in a final product is consistently and constantly traceable. There would have to be some kind of realistic, but enforceable standards (including labeling) that all those along the supply chain would agree to adhere to, and random audits to enforce traceability. We can’t expect the public sector to step in and enforce such a specific set of requirements, it would have to be something that private industry voluntarily agrees to. But in contemplating such a system, I fear the development of just another third party certifier that ultimately might have only its own interests as top priority, surrounded by many of the contentious issues Fair Trade certification and others face.

A.: In 2008, you founded Aequare, with the intention of exporting the chocolates made from your company in Ecuador to the US, your native country. Unfortunately, your artisan products made in Ecuador ended up being perceived as another consumer packaged good by Americans. You pinpointed the difficulty in being appreciated on the US market was the lack of a physical presence in the US, and an adequate budget to conduct public relations.
Certainly, having success in the current saturated gourmet market is not a piece of cake. In any sector it seems more important to execute your distribution and marketing strategies well and establish the right connections, rather than the quality of the product itself.
In retrospect, what’s the percentage of time/financial resources you’d dare to assign to the marketing/PR and communication side for successful high-quality chocolate production?

J.: Excellent point and question. I would easily say you need to assign at least 50% of your overall budget to marketing and PR if you want to make a big splash and build a strong brand in a 3-5 year period. Making the product is really the easy part of the business, marketing it and getting traction is the hardest part.

A.: In the same period of your Ecuador companies, you also founded—and still manage at the present time—The Cocoa Pod, the only supplier of dried, preserved cocoa pods in the world.

dried cocoa pods - credit: Jeff Stern

The pods you sell can originate from either Nacional or CCN-51 cacao from Ecuador and represent a great way to educate consumers and classes about chocolate, or as a revenue source in specialty gourmet shops.
How did you come up with the idea of selling dried cocoa pods? Are you offering this service internationally? If so, where are most of your clients located? Is the response something above or below what you initially expected?

J.: I came up with the idea when I first found the pods through a contact in Ecuador. Then, at Bazaars and other events where we were present in Ecuador, people began to ask me if they could buy them, even though they were only on display. I then figured, “OK, I’ll just put up a website and see if people find it”. They did and started contacting me directly. After some time doing everything manually, I finally realized they warranted a full-fledged site on an e-commerce platform, which streamlined the whole process and made selling them much easier.
Most of our clients are in the US and the UK. But I frequently get international orders and do ship globally. We have shipped to Russia, China, Japan, Romania, Spain, Canada, and many other countries.
I had no idea the response would be so good. Clients include not only chocolate lovers, but college professors, chocolate manufacturers, chocolate shops, museums, amusement parks, and many other places looking to build or make some kind of educational display about chocolate.

A.: At a certain point of your path as a chocolate entrepreneur in Ecuador, you realized your knowledge expanded far beyond just the technical know-how of chocolate making. From knowledge of bean-to-bar operations, identifying quality cacao, import/export activities, and marketing strategies, you understood what chocolate was and how its flavor was developed by going to plantations and tasting several chocolate liquors obtained by different fermentation and drying.

Ecuador - credit: Jeff Stern

Since 2010, you have been working as a cacao, chocolate, and confectionery consultant and public speaker. Your main focus and experience as an expert remains on the Ecuadorian cacao, especially Nacional. Are there other cacao origins you got interested in along the way?

J.: I have been more interested in Colombian cacao, as Colombia is a huge producer and consumer (especially in the form of drinking chocolate). I’ve had a lot of interesting samples from Colombia, and it still seems to be rather unexplored territory.

A.: Another independent activity you have been involved in since 2013 is organizing cacao and chocolate tours in Ecuador. That sounds really exciting and challenging!
What do people expect to learn when visiting the direct source of heirloom cacaos? What has been your greatest satisfaction in doing this job so far?

J.: I think what people take away is that getting traceable cacao from origin is much more complex than it seems. There are so many steps along the way where your beans can become adulterated, it’s important to have a supplier and exporter (and anyone else along the chain who may be handling the beans) that you know personally and can really trust.
My greatest satisfaction in running these tours is sharing what I know and seeing the surprise and delight people get when they realize that chocolate really does come from a tree.

A.: I was impressed to read that last year you led Irvine-based ChocXO, whose entire operation you had run for two years, to win multiple bronze and silver awards in both the Americas Competition of the International Chocolate Awards, and the Academy of Chocolate in London!
Was that experience inspiring to your founding in the US of Oso Goloso—a chocolate & confections company—in the same year? What is the scale of your production? In your opinion, what is the most distinctive aspect of your products?

Jeff Stern Confections

J.: I learned a lot in a little over a year at ChocXO. Not just the technical side of things, where I was fortunate enough to receive a lot of hands-on training from Buhler and Duyvis-Weiner (two of the giants in chocolate processing equipment) technicians in chocolate making, and also other consultants. The experience allowed me to see how to keep overhead and fixed costs low when starting up. Right now we are just a one-person company and produce small-batch quantities of bark made with Guittard Chocolate. Ironically, the most distinctive aspect of the company is that we are not trying to be a niche product other than we are using premium couverture and ingredients. We do not carry any special certifications, but our product is 100% handmade and local to California. We are not mass-produced like some other bark products out there, and aim for a more distinguished clientele than products you might see in regular grocery or other US big-box stores like Costco or Target. We take familiar flavors that the American public knows and loves in chocolate.

A.: Let’s discuss about the current and future situation of gourmet chocolate in the market.
Two articles you wrote last year particularly caught my attention, because they synthesize what I sense are the thorniest topics surrounding chocolate. One is titled, “Cacao Beans and the 1%”.
You described well a reality, that is how most chocolate makers stress the small, artisan quality of their product and their direct trade relationships with farmers. However, upon a closer examination, the reality is much more nuanced than it appears. In fact, many of the top quality farms gaining traction as suppliers of quality beans are not small producers, but large farms and cooperatives (200-500+ hectares) with professional management and economies of a large scale for production of beans, know-how in shipping and logistics, and a marketing outreach to the international markets.
That’s so true! Considering that I have not tasted hundreds of fine craft chocolate bars, but just a few from different brands, there was probability to read the same names of cacao purveyors over and over again on the chocolate labels! I guess this aspect is less risky for the business of small chocolate makers, since the large-scale farming operations produce a consistent and high quality cacao material year to year.
As you well pointed out on your article, the consequence of this paradoxical situation is that the very artisan chocolate community is doing a disservice to both itself and the farmers it claims to support. In fact, the beans from small holders, who may either sell into a local cooperative or directly to a regional broker or exporter, are more likely to have less uniform quality and then likely to be mixed with other beans presenting lower quality specs in terms of fermentation and drying.
So, what can chocolate makers do to overcome the large-scale cacao sourcing paradigm? Can we the consumers trust claims like “Rare Cacao Collection” to favor smaller cacao farmers?
What do you feel the impact is of recent online initiatives like Yellow-Seed.org to establish new connections between makers and farmers through technology?

J.: In response to the first and second questions, overcoming the large-scale paradigm is going to require educating the public on why they should pay $8 or more for a 50-70g bar of chocolate. Only then will small-scale purchasing and production become more viable. As well, it’s going to be very hard to continue to find small-medium size operations that can provide quality beans if there is going to continue to be a growing number of producer farms. I think a claim like “Rare Cacao Collection” or others we see out there are often tenuous, or the context of what exactly is “small scale” is not well-explained. By that I mean, small scale could be a 2,000 or 5,000 kg production for some of the larger chocolate makers, whereas a small scale run of 100-500 kg by some small artisan producers might take them several days or weeks to produce. But there are very few if any farms out there provides under 1 metric ton quantities for a single batch of single origin chocolate. There are probably numerous artisan makers buying 100-500 kg of a type of bean—thus, total production is of several metric tons.
I think Yellow-Seed.org is an interesting concept and I have had several conversations with them. What I’m still unsure of is how are they going to be sustainable in the long-run, if they don’t make any money but simply act as a meeting place for cacao producers and artisan chocolate makers… I think it’s important that they are working to establish a platform that can deliver trust and transparency. But again, the low volumes being moved, the lack of economy of scale, I’m just not sure how it’s going to work still.

A.: Let’s now switch focus on quality and flavor in chocolate.
A recent slide presented during a cacao conference pictured well how many variables are involved in making up the final chocolate flavor profile!

#chocolateflavor #terroir

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Let’s remember that chocolate is the most complex food in terms of palate sensations, with about 600 different flavor compounds naturally present! Just before arriving to the chocolate factory, the combination of genetics, terroir, agricultural practices, harvesting, fermentation and drying of the cocoa beans create a unique mix that make even the same varietals bred in the same farm a bold jigsaw of factors to dovetail in order to release consistent quality by the cacao farmers.
What happens once the cacao accesses the chocolate facility is yet another code of interpretation by the maker. From roasting and conching to the selection of the non-chocolate ingredients, different makers working with beans coming from the same purveyor can just carve out their own trademark of flavors! This relates to your other article that got my attention, “When It’s Just Good Enough”.
You say that for the small makers, the equipment they currently use for grinding cacao nibs and sugar and producing chocolate is “good enough”. Specifically, most small craft makers use melangeurs from some of the small companies producing or importing them to the US, or use reconditioned or rebuilt equipment. The newest technology is out of reach financially for most small chocolate makers, and it’s not coming down in price any time soon.
The result is that, as long as good enough equipment works for the small makers, the end product is “good enough” for the public. Hence, chocolate makers differentiate their product first and foremost through story and origin of their beans, and what may be lacking in quality is not important yet.
Well, if that’s the actual situation, then let’s figure out how far the quality of chocolate in terms of flavors and taste can be virtually further improved with state-of-the-art equipment just at level of the chocolate factory!
What do you foresee for the quality of chocolate as expression of flavor improvement for the small chocolate maker?

J.: I’m sure someone out there is working on smaller scale conches and other processing equipment. The problem again is scale: even when scaling down such equipment, the costs and the technology remain the same. I’ve had discussion with the engineers at Buhler, one of the biggest chocolate machinery making manufacturers in the world. And even if they were to scale down their small 200 kg batch conche to—say—a 50 kg conche, it would still cost the same amount of money. I’m a firm believer that a modern conche, as well as a roll refiner, provides the best processing methods in terms of allowing the chocolate maker the greatest power over the flavor and quality of the final product. Many makers are using melangeurs or universal machines—and you can make “a good enough” chocolate in these types of machines. As well, it is much harder to make chocolate with these types of machines for anything other than bars, because you have much less control over qualities like viscosity and particle size. In conclusion, you’ll never get the level of quality control and finesse you can bring out with more modern equipment.

A.: The last question is about chocolate education and culture.
There’s a lot of deceiving marketing gravitating toward chocolate. Many types of certifications or arbitrary claims saturate the label with a plethora of messages, with the intent to guide the consumer towards making their purchasing decisions. The problem is that most consumers, if not part of the high-end ones, are ill prepared to recognize what’s good from bad. Even for those with “advanced” experience of fine chocolate tasting of different brands, new concepts jeopardize their former convictions about good chocolate.
From the chocolate gourmet’s side, is participating in guided chocolate tastings enough to form a complete culture about good chocolate? Because I think sensory training is a good start, but it may describe only half of the picture if someone does not also visit cacao-growing countries and experience the tastes freshly created at the origin (for example, different cacao masses from different stages of fermentation and drying). Would you agree with this statement, vision, and concept?
The second aspect is related to the mainstream public. Most people are too often misled by chocolate companies that describe how their products are artisanal and containing local non-chocolate ingredients, but still too little about the traceability of the chocolate part. Many folks can’t figure out how the “artisans” create chocolate in their laboratory, without knowing what’s the origin or form of the cacao material!
So, in summation… What do you feel is crucial to spread a wider education for the public to recognize fine chocolate from a mediocre version?

J.: Attending guided tastings is a good way to develop your palate for chocolate. But it’s certainly not enough to really get a clear picture of the whole culture of chocolate, i.e. where it comes from, how complex it is in so many ways. And one of the biggest eye openers for me was tasting chocolate liquor or cocoa mass, before it’s been made into chocolate. Seeing and smelling beans during fermentation. All these components are key to really understanding and getting a clear picture of chocolate. I would definitely agree that visiting cacao-growing countries and seeing cacao beans, and all the different stages of processing is really crucial to developing a true understanding and knowledge of chocolate.
First, many artisan makers focus on the craft of making chocolate, without explaining the difference between fine flavor beans and bulk beans. I think this point is—just as, if not—more important than how it’s made. So first off, fine flavor beans make up only 5-10% of world production (figures vary depending on the source you consult), and bulk beans comprise most of the world’s production. Yet no one seems to really explain this difference—and it is hard to explain, because there are no strict definitions of fine flavor beans out there that can be scientifically measured.
Second, and I may differ with many artisan makers out there, but I still think technology in the form of modern roll refiners and conches can produce a superior product than the more manual methods such as using a melangeur. There is no shame in using the best equipment—the produce still demands the same amount of care and attention to make, it’s just processed differently. The different methods have their pros and cons, and people should understand at least the basics about how chocolate is made.

 
Jeff Stern can be contacted for his consolidated experience in organizing visits to cacao farms in Ecuador and professional consulting services in chocolate making and Ecuadorian cacao sourcing:

  • email: jeffreygstern [at] gmail [dot] com
  • phone: (+1) 714 925 5236

cocoapodshop.com

(Photo credits: Jeff Stern, CocoaPodShop.com)