One of the most commonly cited differences between commercial chocolate and artisanal chocolate is that big commercial producers use beans from West Africa and craft chocolate makers do not, preferring beans from New World sources such as South America, Central America and the Caribbean. The implication here is that West African beans are of poor quality and suitable only for mass-produced industrial applications. It is a refrain that gets repeated time and again, but is it really true?
There are three main reasons given for the poor quality of West African cacao and we think it is time to take a closer look at all of them.
1-“West Africa grows an inferior hybrid Forastero tree which produces flavourless, bitter beans”
While there is certainly plenty of low grade cacao coming out of the Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, and their neighbouring countries, to state that a region larger than the entire European Union, with millions of farmers and tens of millions of cacao trees, is uniformly bad makes no sense. After all, we are talking about over 70% of the world's cacao production. Surely there are quality-conscious farmers here who select and propagate superior trees just like there are in every other cacao growing region on Earth? Perhaps not many, but there have to be some. As a contrast lets examine Ecuador and Brazil – two origins commonly seen on craft chocolate bars. Both countries grow an enormous amount of very indifferent hybrid-Forastero cacao as well as much smaller amounts of the "good stuff", or fine-flavour cacao. Sound familiar? And yet chocolate makers seem to have no problem cherry-picking the quality producers in these countries and leaving the industrial bulk beans to those who are less choosy.
Perhaps, too, it is time to put to rest the whole anti-Forastero bias. While that term has largely been retired already by those who work in the field of tree genetics, it is still widely used in the chocolate industry. Forastero, or “foreigner”, has been the term given to any tree that is not clearly a Criollo or Trinitario: however, this implies that 90% of the worlds' trees are members of the same family. This is not true at all. The past few years have seen many top bean-to-bar chocolate makers releasing bars that are complex, delicious, and made with Forastero beans. We've even seen some intriguing bars made from CCN-51, Ecuador's much maligned Forastero hybrid. Could it be that all along it was not the tree at fault, but the post-harvest techniques?
Oddly, much of the historical bias against West African cacao seems to have come directly from large industrial producers: the very people who rely on these beans for the bulk of their output. The websites and packaging of many commercial chocolate makers proudly state that their West African base chocolate is enhanced by the addition of 10% “flavour” or “noble” beans from South America: not exactly a ringing endorsement for the other 90% of your product. Many years ago, I attended a workshop given by a representative for Callebaut where he explained this recipe. I asked why, if these “flavour” beans were so fantastic, didn't they try to make a bar from them alone? He replied that the resulting chocolate would be “insanely expensive” and “too intensely flavoured to be enjoyable”. I can think of a few hundred chocolate makers who might disagree with his assessment...
2- “West African cacao is inferior because the tree is not native to the culture and diet. Farmers there do not have the historical/cultural background to truly understand it”
There is a whole minefield of racist attitudes at play here, yet this is a sentiment often seen in older books about chocolate and expressed by chocolate professionals, especially in Europe. Stories abound about the almost mythic quality of the cacao harvested by Mesoamerican peoples at the time of Spanish contact in the 1500s. After those peoples were decimated by disease and oppression, slaves from Africa were brought in to harvest cacao and the quality declined tremendously. The implication here is that the African slaves failed to grasp the complexities of the cacao tree. The reality is that European plantation owners lost interest in cacao as a road to riches and turned their attention to other crops like sugar cane, cotton and tobacco.
The argument linking culture, diet, religion, and cacao quality really falls apart when we look at the cacao-growing world as a whole. Some of the finest beans on the planet are grown now in places like Madagascar, Viet Nam, Papua New Guinea, and central African countries such as the DRC and Tanzania. Cacao is native to none of these places and typically arrived during the colonial era, brought by Europeans. It was originally grown by slave labour and is a mish-mash of trees introduced during many phases of settlement. Just like it is in West Africa. The biggest difference between Tanzania and the Cote d'Ivoire is not in peoples or culture, but in economics. One group of farmers have seen a lot more influence by western corporate interests than the other.
3- “West African cacao is produced using inhuman labour practices and is grown in ways that are environmentally unsustainable"
Yes, much of it is. This is the real dilemma facing modern chocolate makers and chocolate consumers. Do we simply abandon millions of farmers and their families to the vagaries of corporate slavery and paramilitary regimes, or do we try to educate the farmers and upgrade their approach to cacao production? It is easy to walk away and dismiss West African cacao. Far more difficult is to diligently seek out producers in those countries who want to rise above the sea of indifferent cacao production and do something better.
Yes, most of West Africa is massively corrupt, but if that was a criteria for choosing our chocolate we'd have to take a long hard look at many popular sources. Most of central Peru is overrun by cocaine cartels who are “encouraging” farmers to grow coca, not cacao. Drug money runs much of the economy in Colombia and southern Mexico. The Venezuelan government has been in free-fall for years now, abusing basic human rights and imprisoning dissenters. Yet we happily buy chocolate from all those places and often laud them as prime sources for quality beans. And I'm not saying we shouldn't. It just seems that our moral compass is a bit askew when slavery and pesticide use is abhorrent to us, yet running a dictatorship on the proceeds of cocaine production and imprisoning civilians is more easily glossed over.
There has been a lot of writing recently on the subject of West Africa. A simple google search will turn up many articles in which you may explore this subject in detail. We encourage you to delve deeper and come to your own conclusions. As with everything else in West Africa (and the world) though, there are no easy answers.
For more information, we suggest listening to "The Slow Melt" podcast by Simran Sethi, specifically the two-part Episode 9 "Your Chocolate is Probably African" and Episode 4 "The High Price of Cheap Chocolate".