The proliferation of artisan chocolate companies these days is rather astounding. It seems like most cities, and even some small towns, are home to at least one small chocolatier or craft candy company, turning out charming little bon bons, tins of sweets, and bean-to-bar chocolates. Like so many idioms thrown around in various specialty food spaces, “bean-to-bar” is a phrase we’ve seen again and again, and like “farm-to-table” or “grain-to-glass,” it’s tempting to assume these words are a de facto synonym for quality. But don’t all chocolate bars come from beans? Does the phrase definitively infer a higher level of value? These are questions I find myself asking as I work towards being a critical and conscientious food enthusiast.
I wanted to investigate this of-the-moment expression, and the best place to start is with a quick look at some historical context:
Chocolate is a commodity with a fraught history. While use of the cacao bean dates back as far as 1750 BCE, chocolate as a luxury product didn’t become popularized until the 16th century, when Christopher Columbus encountered cacao beans on one of his expeditions to the Americas. As drinking chocolate became widely desirable in the 1600’s in Spain, and then Western Europe at large, cacao plantations thrived in South America and West Africa, but only due to exploitative practices, namely the use of slaves and poor wage laborers. From that time until the present, the farming of cocoa beans for commercial candy has relied on terrible practices, including child labor, inhuman working conditions, and extremely low pay. Responding to these appalling systems, many modern chocolate companies have developed practices of Fair Trade and Direct Trade to help negotiate better pay and conditions for the marginalized workers at the start of the cocoa supply chain.
One such company is French Broad Chocolates, a chocolate maker, chocolatier, and retailer of other tasty things based in Asheville, NC. They produce all sorts of dazzling chocolate creations: herb and honey-infused truffles and caramels, buttery toffee, gooey brownies, artisan chocolate bars – and that’s just on their website. The French Broad Chocolate Lounge in downtown Asheville serves their confections as well as ice cream, cakes, pastries, beer, wine, coffee, and a whole menu of drinking chocolates. They are transparent and up front about their sustainable and responsible sourcing practices (check out their manifesto), so in this quest to learn more about bean-to-bar, I picked co-founder Dan Rattigan’s brain about what the term means to him, and what direct sourcing actually looks like.
So, what is bean-to-bar really all about?
I think it’s important to note that bean-to-bar doesn’t itself imply a certain sourcing philosophy. Across the chocolate industry, it serves as an indication that the producer makes chocolate starting from whole, dry cacao seed, choosing to keep all aspects of the production of finished chocolate in-house. Some of us in the craft chocolate industry take it further, imbuing the term with our shared beliefs about craft production methods and intentional ingredient sourcing.
At French Broad, we make our chocolate from scratch, and do it from the raw ingredients to foster a closer connection to the source of our food, and the producers at the source.
Sometimes, you’ll see the terms “tree-to-bar,” or “farm-to-bar,” meaning the agricultural aspects of chocolate making are in a company’s direct control. Examples could include Cacao Prieto (based in Brooklyn, but with ownership of a plantation in Dominican Republic), or any of the Hawaiian makers who use Hawaiian beans. We own a small cacao plantation in Caribbean Costa Rica, currently under gradual rehabilitation, which would eventually allow us to claim that some of our chocolate is tree-to-bar or farm-to-bar, if we chose to highlight that.
Did you always incorporate this ethos into your business?
At the outset, Jael [Dan’s partner] and I made confections and pastries with other companies’ chocolate, always keen on fair and wholesome ingredients. With chocolate, the backbone of our business, the deep connections to the source eluded us while we bought this product from other makers. We came to realize that making our own chocolate was to be our path, as arduous and uncharted it is for producers of our size. Then, and only then, could we develop deep relationships with producers at the source of our most important food.
To source directly from farmers, does someone from your team travel to South and Central America?
I am our sourcing director. Jael and I have traveled together to visit most of our producers, but I tend to handle more of the ongoing visits. I’ve taken a few of our chocolate makers to Costa Rica, where we have the deepest ties, and we aim to make origin travel more accessible for our dedicated staff. It is truly transformative to go to the heart of our business, and we are eager to share that with more people as the means become available.
Our sourcing trips involve coordinating with a representative on the ground, who typically treats us as esteemed guests beyond what we deserve! Often, a good deal of travel is involved in reaching the remote locations of the farms and fermentaries, and the trips always involve muddy boots and mosquito bites. Many of our hosts graciously prepare a lunch, but we always share a meal, even if it’s at a local eatery.
How do you vet the beans before committing to purchase?
While visiting, we will discuss quality with producers so they know what we look for, and how to self-assess. Before purchasing, we receive a small representative sample for testing. We inspect the sample using a regimented procedure, ultimately roasting and grinding a tiny batch of chocolate liquor for taste tests. In an unadulterated form (no sugar), lightly processed cacao shows its true colors and hints at its potential.
What are the standards of quality you’re looking for?
Though it may sound obvious, the first thing we check for is that it’s free of apparent defect. Defect is usually a result of suboptimal handling post-harvest: under- or over-fermented, incompletely dried or dried too slowly, possessing mold or insect infestation. If free of obvious defects, we can then evaluate the flavor potential, asking ourselves: Is it deeply chocolaty, nutty, floral, bitter, fruity, etc.? The most interesting stuff will hit several flavor and aroma notes.
How is what you do different than a massive chocolate company?
Some big chocolate companies have exemplary sourcing practices, though most are buyers of commodity beans with little or no quality grading. “Quality,” perhaps, is differently defined by the biggest commodity buyers and the small folks like us. When we make such relatively small quantities of higher-cacao-mass chocolate, the quality of every gram of cacao makes a difference to the flavor. In huge batches, or when diluted with sugar or roasted to oblivion, disagreeable flavor from lower quality cacao can be masked.
What middlemen or other exploitative practices does this direct relationship sidestep?
Asked in this way, the presumption is that middlemen are a source of exploitation. This is sometimes the case. In south and central America, these dudes are called Coyotes. They carry a wad of local currency, and a gun, and offer a non-negotiable price for beans of no particular quality. And they show up when it’s convenient to them. It’s typically an imbalanced transaction.
Middlemen are not inherently bad. In fact, as our understanding has developed, we’ve realized that “direct relationship” can itself be misleading. Many hands are necessarily involved in the conveyance from a far-flung cacao operation to a chocolate maker in another hemisphere, and to be honest about this is to acknowledge that each participant in the supply chain is deserving of a share of the value.
The problems come when the participants aren’t looking out for one another. But the length of the chain is only one factor in a fair supply chain. We try not to delude ourselves (or our customers) into thinking we have this figured out, and justice done; we try to remain open to what connections and innovations bring us closer to an equitable model of trade.
See here for more on French Broad’s sourcing practices.
Photos by Katrina Ohstrom for French Broad Chocolates