Friday, July 18, 2008

Chocolate Think Tank: Fancy Food Show Interviews

Chocolate maker Steve DeVries (left) operates according to the slogan "100 years behind the times." In the context of DeVries Chocolate, that means, returning to preindustrial artisan methods. But in a larger context, the phrase is perfectly suited to my own life because it suggests mindful work, patience, and sometimes just simply running behind schedule. So a full three weeks after the event, here are excerpts from my conversations with Steve and some of his colleagues at the annual Fancy Food Show in New York:

DeVries Chocolate
Tell me about the chocolate meeting yesterday?

Steve DeVries, founder: It was a meeting of the FCIA, Fine Chocolate Industry Association. Art [Pollard, from Amano] was there, and Shawn [Askinosie, from Askinosie Chocolate] was there, and Alan [McClure, from Patric Chocolate] was there, and Larry [Slotnick, from Taza] was there, and I was there, and Gary Guittard [from Guittard ] was there. Frederick [Schilling, of Dagoba] was there. So that was seven or eight small chocolate makers. And Gary is not a small chocolate maker, but he’s like fourth generation! I mean, I don’t even know what my grandfather did for a living! You know, and he’s probably working with some of the same equipment as his grandfather.

So here’s a question, do you want to get bigger and distribute more, or do you want to maintain this equilibrium between small production and high quality that you have? Because it’s kind of cool.

Steve: Well, I can only speak for myself, but I really am trying to work with being able to do as good a chocolate as... I’m still in the process of learning what good chocolate means. The chocolate that we’re dealing with today is really the result of 100 years of industrialization that I don’t necessarily think was good for chocolate itself. In the plantations, there was 100 years of unlimited competition between cocoa growers, and they were just beat to death. Cocoa prices in the 1950 were like forty cents a pound. We saw those same prices in the late 1990s! People said "Don’t worry about quality, give us quantity." So, I mean, everybody’s going to be different. We cannot compete with the big companies on quantity. So it’s obvious that you’re going to have to stay with better quality. For me, it kind of all started with the heavy anomaly of bringing cocoa beans back from Costa Rica, roasting them in my oven, and grinding them. It was a rustic chocolate but there was a complexity of flavor that I’d never tasted in chocolate before. So the starting thing was "how could this possibly be? There’s companies with a couple hundred years' experience, multi-million dollars, and they’re flat compared to what I’m tasting here."


Grenada Chocolate Company

Can you tell me, why did you start the chocolate company, why chocolate, and what’s the distribution chain?

Mott Green, founder: Okay, well, I lived in Grenada for many years, just tinkering around, growing food on this mountainside, living in a bamboo house. I fell in love with cocoa trees and processing cocoa, at the time in a very simple way, which I learned in Grenada, actually--just to make a beverage, what they call "cocoa tea" in Grenada. And I fell in love with Grenada too. And I saw the whole cocoa crop in decline, and all of my cocoa-farmer friends were hardly getting anything for their cocoa, despite the fact that it was getting exported at some of the highest prices in the world. Because they were exploited and because the economy of scale of growing cocoa in Grenada is difficult. And for one reason or another, it went further into decline and the government kind of let go of agriculture. So over the years I developed this dream of making a small-scale, homemade chocolate factory right in Grenada, as a radical way to revolutionize the connection between growing the bean and the finished, highest-value product. And I had that dream for a long time, and then in '99 started researching and picked up a tinkering partner named Doug. And we went to his place in Oregon, and we started building machines and learning to make chocolate on a small scale. And over the years ended up a combination of antiques and machines that were sort of designed for other things and homemade machines, and then after years of work with kind of a shoestring startup, the budget took us to September of 2001, when we started the company. And we’ve been growing slowly. We went organic in 2003, thanks to the connection of a big cocoa farm down the street from the chocolate company, called Belmont Estate. And we helped them certify organic, to create the first organic-certified cocoa in Grenada. And we more recently started a cooperative, and now we have five organic farms, and every year we're trying to get more organic farms so we can grow. Our growth is very slow because we have to literally go through all the work of certifying one farm at a time, and we want to stay organic. As far as the distribution chain, it’s been really limited, we’ve only until now exported a small percent of what we’ve made. And we’ve made until recently about ten tons a year. And now all of a sudden we’re making thirty tons a year. And we’re going to export probably about two thirds of that. So things are changing. So far, we’ve just sent small air cargo shipments to people like Steve, our distributor here in Manhattan, and to a guy in California, a guy in Oregon who does some web sales, a couple of specialty shops in London. Very isolated little distribution. The reason we’re here [at the Fancy Food Show] is that we’re just getting to the next step where we’re, in a month, going to send out our first container, with probably about seventy-thousand bars, and stockpile that with an importer, and actual connections will start hopefully with regional distributors, and then we might start to get into a little bit bigger markets like Whole Foods and more places around the country. So we’re really in transition.


Taza Chocolate

Tell me about the chocolate event yesterday that everyone's talking about.

Alex Whitmore, co-founder: A bunch of us new bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturers, more artisan chocolate makers, in the United States, we all tried to get together and gather. And it’s kind of the first time that it’s happened that we’ve all been in one place and we all wanted to talk about maybe forming some sort of an organization or trying to work together to really make people aware that this whole movement of new chocolate-making exists, that we’re really different from all the other chocolate that’s out there. So that’s the big reason that we all got together. And then there’s all sorts of other reasons, like dealing with various issues of cocoa-bean sourcing, and all the stuff that we all have to do on the farm level or otherwise. And this is something that happened 20 years ago, maybe 25 years ago, with the craft brewing industry for the beer guys. I mean, when they first started out, there were all the big breweries. And then there were like a few little guys making amazing beer. But they weren’t being recognized. So they all banded together and really generated awareness of what craft brewing was. And that’s sort of what we’re trying to achieve ourselves.

Alright, so what’s happening next?

Alex: Well, we don’t quite know what’s happening next. We had a very productive meeting. We took a lot of notes. And we’re all going to stay in communication over the coming months. And hopefully we’re going to regather again out in San Francisco at the end of the summer.


Claudio Corallo Chocolate

James Clark, US Distributor: People are discovering that chocolate has distinct flavors depending on where it’s from, and how it’s processed, and who grows it, and everything else. Claudio’s chocolate is one of two, maybe three, companies in the world that actually do a plantation-to-bar operation.

Who are the other ones that you know of?

James: There’s one in Madagascar, and then El Rey in Venezuela.

I’ve read about Claudio Corallo in Mort Rosenblum’s chocolate book, but I’ve never seen the chocolate anywhere. So that’s changing, I take it?

James: Yep, Yep.

Where is it available and how are you facilitating that?

James: Well, because we’re physically located on the West Coast that’s where we started distributing. We have several shops in Seattle, wine shops, specialty cheese shops, obviously specialty chocolate shops. Also in San Francisco, Portland, you know, those areas. We have one in DC now. The New York market we’re finding difficult to break into.

I think it’s a funny market.

James: Yeah, yeah, it is. Fickle market. So we’re not quite established here in New York, but we’re working on it.

And you can buy the stuff online?

James: Yeah, there’s a couple of websites actually. There’s, which is done by Claudio, that’s more informative about the whole process. And then there’s, which is the e-commerce site, and you can buy it online.


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