You've got the Packaging Awards 2013 and the International Obfuscated C Code Contest - whatever that is. But nothing instills a sense of excitement than awards for chocolate. Monday sees the return of the European round of the International Chocolate Awards which aims to reward excellence in the chocolate industry.
Of course, every other industry has its awards. I've been to quite a few of them and most are seemingly attended by people wanting a few beers on company expenses and not to make the world a better place. But not the International Chocolate Awards - they've got serious work to do. And its work that I feel many millions of people, both in consuming and producing countries benefit greatly from.
This year I'll be judging in the European Semi-finals again. This year it did cross my mind to question why I take a couple of days off from my day job, travel down to London when I don't get paid a penny for my efforts, especially when there's just so much that needs doing in the office? The rewards, however, aren't pecuniary. It's so much more than that, and here's why:
1) Excellence Deserves Recognition
Chocolate makers risk their own money and time to perfect their craft. Of course they generally love what they do, and so many other workers don't. But when you spend a fortune on cocoa and it’s not what you expected it to be, if your roaster breaks down as you're trying to fulfil a large order, or your stock gets accidentally tainted, I suspect being a chocolate maker is far from an enjoyable occupation.
These people spend hundreds of hours perfecting their art. They're tweaking conch times, sugar levels, roasting times. They scratch their heads and wonder how they can make their chocolate the best they can.
Skilled chocolatiers will spend their days altering the ingredients to get the right balance of ingredients. They’ll be researching recipes to come up with a ganache, caramel that nobody has tried before. Perhaps they face a greater challenge than chocolate makers as the demand for new filled chocolates each season must be overwhelming. I’ve tried Demarquette’s pre-production ganaches and caramels and know the level feedback he seeks and how much he is intent on finding perfection with the assistance of select friends. I'm sure his also characterises Paul A. Young, Damian Alsop and others. These guys never rest and those that excel in the creation of fine chocolates should certainly have their efforts recognised.
An award bestowed on them by the finest chocolate brains surely must go some way to mitigate those frustrations? Anyone who has received praise by their peers surely must be inspired to continue striving for excellence?
2) The World Needs to Be Made Aware That Great Chocolate Exists
The Daily Mail online has mentioned Cadbury in 1,980 articles, Nestle 859 and Hershey 98 times, including a story about Amanda Knox enjoying a bar of Hershey's 'chocolate' and some toothpaste (possibly to take the taste away). Since 1996 they've also had seven articles about 'fine chocolate' published, three of which were about celebrities, one about cruise holidays and the other was an intriguing, but irrelevant story: "My dinner guests treat me like an Espresso bar". The Guardian does slightly better when you're looking for "artisan chocolate", but there's a heavy bias towards Italy. What about France, Vietnam, America, Ecuador, Australia? Furthermore, the Telegraph has covered 'artisan chocolate' in just eleven articles - only the one would I call actually about artisan chocolate, however.
Last year saw the inception of the International Chocolate Awards. As with anything, the first year is about process and this year will build on the great work already done and continue to promote great chocolate. Some 119 websites covered and linked to the 2012 International Chocolate Awards website - mainly blogs, but 90% of consumers say online reviews do impact buying decisions. The point is, as the mass media are so unwilling to expound the virtues of great chocolate, it is essential that an organisation such as the International Chocolate Awards exists to help consumers navigate the maze of miss-information and state clearly that chocolate is so much more than confection.
3) Great Chocolate Isn't Cheap, People Need to Know Why They Should Pay More
If you searched the MySupermarket website for 'finest dark chocolate' you'll be given the option to buy 125g of Cadbury's Fingers made with Bourneville Dark chocolate for £1. If you're determined to find 'plain' dark chocolate you may choose Tesco Finest 72% Swiss Plain Chocolate which you'll pay just £1.50 for. Why would anyone want to pay £9.85 for the Friis-Holm Nicaragua 55% if they didn't know that it won a Silver last yearand weren't encouraged by press coverage to consider fine chocolate?
Producers such as Friis Holm and Madre display on their product pages that their chocolate has won an award. I'm sure that it helps actively persuade people to part their money if the chocolate is $10 for a 1.5 oz. bar. If chocolate makers and chocolatiers couldn't show credibility that an award gives when consumers view these not inconsiderable prices, the alternative is that people keep buying the rubbish supermarkets sell in the belief it’s the best they can get, and that only benefits the supermarkets and nobody else.
4) Awards Spur Innovation, Investment and the continued existence of 'heirloom' cacao
Although the chocolate industry is generally very friendly and cordial, it’s incredibly competitive. Unfortunately we're still only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of demand for fine chocolate. Despite current under-supply in fine cacao there is a great deal of potential capacity. There could be a gap of five years between planting and harvesting. Without consumers demanding fine cacao from makers now, those makers will not demand fine cacao from farm/plantation owners who will, in turn, have no incentive to maintain or expand supply. They will have no financial reason to keep the genetic line of fine cacao alive. Essentially, there would be no compulsion to invest in research and development for protecting these cacao strains. Instead, as more money is being spent by consumers on poor quality chocolate, large companies will see the financial benefits of investing in expanding the population of poor quality cacao. We'll see the cacao we've been blessed with become rarer and the chocolate it produces become even more expensive to consume. The truth is, demand fine chocolate now to guarantee its supply in the future.
5) Awards recognise those chocolate makers that give back to growers and support communities
Individually companies such as Åkesson and others have their own farms/plantations and can pass some of the financial benefits on directly to their workers, other companies such as Amano, Marou, Bouga Cacao, Friis Holm, Pacari and Duffy etc. who have a direct relationship with growers, do pay more than they would otherwise need to for their beans and are passionate about the communities that grow cacao. This raises the standard of living of the grower communities faster than overtly commercial chocolate.
Poverty is a very real problem in these cocoa growing communities. Two-thirds of Madagascar live on less than $1 a day. Fine cacao can make a difference, we just need more people to spend their money on great chocolate rather than with companies that have very little apparent concern for local communities or their livelihoods.
6) To support the people that make this all happen
Judges for the International Chocolate Awards don’t just turn up on the day with no effort taking place ahead of time. Seventy% and Chocolate Week, with the support of an advisory board and committee, put a huge amount of effort to ensure the processes are as accurate, fair and productive as possible. A couple of months before the awards start each year the judges are given a huge questionnaire requesting feedback on the previous year and how the coming rounds could be improved. It’s this desire for impartiality, accuracy and fairness that I support. The credibility of the awards are based on this, and as an insider to some degree (as a judge) I couldn't be more satisfied that the results of the awards accurately reflect the quality of the chocolate judged.
The International Chocolate Awards raises the profile of great chocolate, which in turn protects the diversity of cacao and improves the standards of living of some of the poorest people on the planet. If that's not a reason to support the International Chocolate Awards, I don't know what is.