COFFEE AND CACAO: A MATCH MADE IN THE TROPICS

During the first year of a burgeoning love affair with coffee, my go-to drink was a double espresso with chocolate syrup. It feels like a confession to tell you about that drink – I inwardly cringe as an avowed coffee and chocolate snob, but everyone starts somewhere.

Later, when I got a student job as a barista in the specialty coffee industry, I really had no idea where it all would take me.

Now, working in chocolate, I have the privilege of experiencing first-hand the similarities between these two ancient stimulants.

I am currently with Conexión Chocolate. We create couverture and semi-finished products in Ecuador. Using a direct trade model, we provide maximum traceability, pay above Fairtrade wages to farmers, and create terroir-driven chocolate in origin.

Coffee and chocolate both have an incredible capacity to signify more than just their material components and are oft-employed to express the most intimate and non-commodified iterations of love or friendship.

Of course, the celebrated and storied commonality between coffee and chocolate extends far beyond the mocha.

There are so many similarities between coffee and chocolate.

Both are commonly referred to as beans (perhaps these are the magic beans of Jack, the Giant Killer), and both must undergo processes of fermentation, husking, roasting, and grinding in order to create what was originally enjoyed as a beverage.

Conexión founder, Jenny Samaniego, talks with a farmer at the cacao drying area. (Conexión Chocolate)

One thing I noticed very quickly while working in specialty coffee was the way it could transcend commodity status. I remember finishing a frothy design on a latte with a flourish and the satisfaction of a customer gasping and snapping a photo. Most people hadn’t a clue that a cappuccino was just coffee, milk and steam, but they could appreciate the skill and craftsmanship displayed in crafting a unique beverage for them.

Coffee began to signify for me, not a commodity but a way of creating a relationship. I’m still friends with a few of those photo-taking customers.

Chocolate, of course, has long been a way of creating and maintaining a relationship between two people. Though it’s only recently with bean-to-bar and the artisan chocolate movement that it has risen above the fetishism of commodity to create a relationship between maker and consumer.

Coffee and chocolate both have an incredible capacity to signify more than just their material components and are oft-employed to express the most intimate and non-commodified iterations of love or friendship.

Recently I have been thinking about how to pair chocolate and coffee together in a more elevated fashion than that old classic mocha. How to allow both products to stand alone but complement one another.

Cupping with Metropolis Chicago, and Conexión Chocolate. (FCIA)

One difficulty as I think through such pairings is the similarity between the two things. Which is why playing with origins in pairings would be an incredible way to highlight the influence of terroir on the flavor profile. I imagine pairing the fruity blueberry taste of a natural process, light roast Ethiopian coffee, with a nutty 70% dark chocolate from Colombia. Or a washed, medium roast pour-over of Papua New Guinea, with its herbal and earthy organoleptic qualities, with a delicately floral Virgin 70% Los Rios from Conexión, Ecuador.

The pairing possibilities are endless. If you take a note from the sommelier’s notebook, you can go with complementary contrast or intensifying similarity. You could take a fruity, citric 80% Madagascar chocolate with a red-fruit-forward Kenyan coffee. Or you could complement the nutty bitterness of a shot of espresso roast from Brazil with a sweet and fruity 64% Fortaleza light roast chocolate from Conexión.

The origin map. Photo by FCIA

One of the most disturbing similarities between chocolate and coffee is their abiding Neo-colonial status. By this I don’t simply mean the child slavery that companies like Cadbury or Nestle still surreptitiously condone. Rather it’s built into the nature of the market for these commodities.

The vast majority of both coffee and cacao is sold in a raw, unprocessed form to large multinationals to repackage and resell back to the very origins of the raw agricultural material. For example, over 95% of the beautiful coffee grown in Kenya is destined for export, though in Kenya, the most common coffee beverage is Nescafé instant coffee.

In most cacao producing regions, very little of the value addition takes place in the country of origin. Meaning that less than 9% of the retail price of a chocolate bar actually stays in those countries between those crucial 20s latitudes (this depends, 9% is on the high end, for Fair Trade chocolate bars, it’s less than 2% for most conventional bars). Truly the same can be said of a cup of coffee. A paltry percentage stays in the country of origin.

Arriba Nacional cacao pods. (Conexión Chocolate)

Of course, the direct trade movement and increasing connectivity the world over are allowing for fairer wages to be paid to the producers of these agricultural commodities. Yet still, the value chain for these products allows most profits to be captured by actors in the ‘global north.’

By way of comparison, imagine if the vast majority of wine produced in the world was made in Northern Europe, where grapes grow with difficulty. Imagine Scandinavians or Danes making wine from grapes purchased at rock bottom prices from Bordeaux, Tuscany, and Catalonia. I think the French might have a fit: they are, after all, disposed to revolutionary activity.

Yet this is precisely the global model we have built around both chocolate and coffee. Part of our mission at Conexión is to change this global model, to show the possibilities, opportunities and benefits of locating more of the value chain in between the tropical latitudes.

For example, to improve the sustainability of the industry, it seems inefficient in both greenhouse emissions terms and financial solvency to continue shipping unprocessed beans. Think of how much weight is lost in the roasting and winnowing process. After you roast away the 7% moisture content and remove the husk from the cacao seed, you’ve lost close to 15% of the total weight of a transatlantic or transpacific shipment. Building capacity to add value in origin is vital in many ways. Imagine the money saved and emissions reduced if it was mostly cacao paste being exported from cacao producing countries.

Three years ago, Conexion Chocolate founded the Cacao & Chocolate Summit to bring together all the stakeholders of the cacao and chocolate value chain. Today, with our partners Rikolto-MOCCA, Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate, and FCIA, we are hosting this event for the fourth year and fostering more meaningful conversations that make a positive impact. It represents one of the few opportunities for farmers, academics, and chocolate makers to convene and discuss the biggest issues facing the industry today.

The chocolate and coffee industries have much to learn from one another. This year, the Cacao and Chocolate Summit is focused on building resilience in the fine chocolate industry. It will be a perfect opportunity for stakeholders in both industries to contribute toward building a more sustainable future for all of us.

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