Is your cheap chocolate cheerful?

Ottar Roasted Cacao Beans

Have you ever thought about where the often stale chocolate stick in your morning croissant came from or questioned the gritty chocolate chip in your brownie? If the answer is no, it’s no great surprise. It just means like millions of other chocolate lovers around the world the real truths about chocolate production has been deliberately kept from you by an industry working hard to keep you in the dark.

It’s complicated. If cheap consumer pricing alone was the barometer of poor quality, unethical chocolate we’d have a much easier time navigating from bad to good. But sadly, poor quality, unethical chocolate is endemic – all beautifully presented and glistening - selling in high-end department stores, airport lounges, top-drawer restaurants and chocolate shops for small fortune. Where does one even begin?

The fact that you are already here is a great start! By choosing to purchase your chocolate, bakery produce and desserts from chocolate makers, chocolatiers and restaurants who care about real chocolate means that you have contributed enormously to a chain of events that is helping sustain, stabilise and improve the lives of farming families across the globe. Which means you are a properly decent person.

Be curious. Be a nuisance. Ask who produced the chocolate in your chocolate bar, dessert, pastry or brownie. Ask if the chocolate brownie you’ve just ordered even has any chocolate in it – yes, that’s a thing. Write to your takeaway lunch chain or supermarket and ask them about the chocolate they use, ask for their purchasing policy. It’s your right to know how your money is being spent and what it’s contributing towards. 

Caring, ‘no secrets’ producers, chefs and bakers will eulogise about the chocolate they use and where it comes from. I promise you. And if anyone declines to engage in real chocolate conversation, they probably have something to hide. 

In the end the buck stops with all of us – bean to bar producers, chocolatiers, chefs, confectionery buyers, retailers and you, the consumer. Unless we all play our part in sustaining the future of cacao production by paying the farmers true prices, generations of experience and wisdom in harvesting wonderful cacao is in real danger of being lost forever. 

Cacao Farming 

We believe the words cheap and cheerful just don’t belong together when it comes to chocolate. 

Too many impoverished cacao growing families the world over are farming their land eking out a meagre existence. Ineffective farming practices, rudimentary tools, poor soil and unpredictable seasons do not make for bountiful cacao yields and aggressive plant diseases and monsoons only exacerbate the problems. It shouldn’t be too hard to comprehend just how precarious life and income-source must be for cacao farmers and their families.

Once the farmers have harvested, fermented and dried their cacao beans (sometimes they will not ferment or dry them) often their only option is to sell at unregulated port markets where prices are beaten down to impossibly low levels. To put this in to context, the lone cacao farmer, unsupported by a cooperative or without any links to direct trade, typically survives on approximately $1 per day – well below the threshold of absolute poverty. 

(Source: Make Chocolate Fairer)

Faced with so many challenges, farmers need all the help that they can get and that doesn’t come cheap or for free. But child labour does. Education for children of cacao farmers is too often secondary to survival and it is not unusual for children as young as five to be put to work. It’s therefore no surprise that numeracy and literacy skills in adults living in cacao growing regions tends to be extremely poor.

Paying a price that matters

We purchase real chocolate from reputable producers who purchase their cacao beans directly from the farmer or at the very least at cooperative level. Crucially we want to know where the beans come from, that the farms are being regulated and inspected and in most cases assisted in other areas - providing access to better quality tools, more effective irrigation, soil testing, the latest farming know-how and better understanding of their crops through education. And last but definitely not least we want farmers to be paid justly for their beans and earn a decent enough living so that he/she can employ local people and put their children through school. 

It’s why we choose to work with some of the most ethically conscious and caring producers in the world. But it doesn’t come cheap. For a bean to bar producer such as the brilliant Duffy Sheardown to secure a regular supply of quality beans from a farmer who has spent time properly fermenting and drying them – two key components in developing bean character and essential to the quality and vibrancy of real chocolate – he can pay anywhere between $7 to $10 per kilo of beans. That’s up to $8 per kilo more above the base rate of Fair Trade and way above any rate given at the port which can be bought for below $2 per kilo.

Do check out the trading policies of Duffy and Pump Street Bakery. They set benchmark for how things should be done.

Unlike unethical and unsustainable chocolate making often on an industrial scale, where cheap, poor quality, unfermented, artificially dried, untraceable, mixed variety and origin beans are very quickly made into chocolate to save time and therefore money (some pride themselves on being able to do this in 24hrs) for smaller scale, small batch, bean to bar producers it’s a very different story. Once the purchased beans have arrived in their country of production, the bean to bar producers get to work on the lengthy and meticulous business of turning cacao beans into chocolate – sorting, grading and washing them, roasting and tasting, cracking and removing the brittle outer shells, grinding and conching the nibs (a process in itself that can take up to four days) resting and maturing – re-melting and tempering – molding – wrapping, package and despatch. The whole process takes many weeks if not months. As it should.

Consequently the chocolate we finally get to purchase at Ottar reflects the true price of cacao – because real and ethically produced chocolate can only come to be if the right elements are fully aligned.

This means that our chocolate and sweet pastry is/can be more expensive than mass-made chocolate. But knowing how this type of chocolate is made and the human cost involved, it's no surprise to learn that we wouldn't want to be a part of such a destructive and exploitative industry.

Andrew Abrahams