With dizzying regularity I find another bean to bar chocolate maker. Recently I found four, yes FOUR new ones in New Zealand: Captain Pembleton, Ocho, White Rabbit Cacao and the Wellington Chocolate Factory. Within two seconds on Facebook searching for 'bean to bar' I found another. In the UK last week I came across a maker on the Isle of White and know I found another in the UK but cannot even remember who they were. They pop up every other day in the USA and I simply cannot keep track of them all.
But what I find most startling is that virtually all (but not all) have a deep desire to source cocoa ethically. They talk about directly trading with co-operatives, their export vehicles, or directly with family owned plantations. But not all labelled 'bean to bar' is ethically superior to 'confectionery chocolate'. There are some that talk about 'Fairtrade' in passing as if they're thinking that's all they need to do. Saying that their chocolate is 'organic' is something else you can glibly throw at a chocolate and expect it to sell.
For years I, and others, have been 'harping on' about increasing the number and variety of chocolate makers from the bean (as Clay rightly says) which source their ingredients directly from the growers and it great to see the explosion in makers over the past year. We take a great deal of time (and expense) sourcing chocolate from around the world, pulling apart makers' claims and testing their products fully. The problem we have is that we such a huge variety of interesting chocolate being made, it is just an impossibility to keep on top of it all - despite spending far too much time that is viable searching for new makers the sheer volume of new makers is staggering.
We face a dilemma. The big names are profitable. They're relatively easy to acquire - we just call up our wholesalers, place an order and the chocolate is here the next day. For many international suppliers it's a bit more difficult - we have to work with them on international shipping, taxes and general bureaucracy. Whilst sourcing the truly 'sexy' chocolate gives me nightmares. We've started working directly with growers who produce chocolate themselves and the legal issues with packaging requirements, laboratory testing for contaminants, shipping from the middle of no-where is just head-spinning.
Even though there are seemingly countless numbers of new makers in the 'Western' world, there are hundreds of thousands of family-run enterprises where the cacao is being grown, in countries with little developed infrastructure and a lack of financial infrastructure. So whilst the goal is to move as much as our range as close to the maker as possible, it just isn't a possibility.
Over this year we'll be concentrating less on the big names you can find elsewhere in the UK and more on the new names, those that are struggling to find an international voice and those that absolutely deserve the attention, but nobody is either willing to take a 'punt' on them, or the financials just don't work.
So in the near future except to see some new, interesting and unusual names being added to our list, virtually all of them will be ultra-small batch whilst the rest may have a handful of employees, but make exceptionally good chocolate. The good thing is that craft chocolate is still in it's recent infancy, it has masses of potential to improve the lives of growers - I hope we can be part of that.
If your're interested, here are the sort of people we try and help: