As we've been preparing for our huge craft chocolate retrospective we have planned for November 18th and 19th, I have been overwhelmed by the response and level of input from many of the world's finest chocolate makers. In the process of soliciting bars from them I have been asking why they keep at it, what advice they would give to up-and-coming chocolate makers, and what they feel is the future of the craft chocolate industry. Their responses have been enlightening, to say the least.
A few constant themes have emerged and I feel informed enough to draw up a brief summary based on their input. Here goes!
A Craft Chocolate Makers Credo:
Constantly be trying to improve your craft;
Engage the world with curiosity and wonder;
Give back to the communities who support you;
Share information, techniques and ideas;
Be as transparent as possible about the source of your materials;
Do not blatantly self-promote;
Do not put profits above quality.
By and large, every chocolate maker I know adheres to these principals, and the almost Amish humility seems to be a part of what attracts certain people to this lifestyle (not to mention the very fun, do-it-yourself craftiness of it all.) I mean really, who hasn't laid awake at night dreaming of new and better winnower designs? Of course there are limits. You are not expected to share every little manufacturing secret with anyone who asks and when you make something you're proud of you should be comfortable letting everyone know about it. There is a big difference, however, between a post on your website which reads "We just made a great new Guatemala bar – you've got to try it" and one which reads "WE MAKE THE BEST CHOCOLATE IN THE WORLD!!!!!".
On the rare occasions when a chocolate maker oversteps the bounds of the credo outlined above, the resulting slap-down from the community can be swift and painful. Sometimes its just that everyone stops returning your calls. Sometimes your name gets splashed across magazines and blog posts. It can - and does - get ugly.
Which has me thinking about the world of Chocolate Awards and how they play into all this. There are a number of organizations that taste, rate, and issue awards for chocolate bars and confections. The two most prestigious are the International Chocolate Awards (ICA) and The Academy of Chocolate Arts (ACA). Interestingly, both are based in Britain, although the ICA does employ experts from around the world who handle the local judging in their region before the winners get to the London finals. You might think of these two as the Oscars and the Golden Globes of the chocolate world.
Chocolate makers submit their works for judging, entries are not solicited by the ICA or ACA. Not all of the world's top chocolate makers submit bars to be judged, so the results can only represent a rating for those who did enter - thus these awards represent only a segment what is available. There are many pros and cons to chocolate awards – here's a summary:
Cons: Awards are subjective. As much as we try to quantify the requirements for a perfect chocolate bar, it still comes down to personal taste. As judges we can certainly agree on flaws that we don't want to see in a bar, but it is hard to take two technically flawless bars and explain why one is better than the other. Also, the very structure of the tasting format – dozens and dozens of samples over many hours – tends to bias the judges towards bars which are "strong tasting" or "edgy" or somehow stand out in their "extremeness". Plus, our palates are shaped by our experiences and tasting history. I feel pretty confident tasting bars sourced from South and Central America as I taste them often, but I have found myself utterly at a loss trying to assess a flight of five bars all made from Forastero from the Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana, as I rarely taste chocolate from these regions. Same with sweet milk chocolate: I just don't ever come across it so don't have a background to critically assess it.
Pros: Awards help new chocolate makers get recognition and give them a chance to have their works rated against their better-known peers. It is certainly fantastic exposure (witness what happened to little Hummingbird Chocolate Maker in Ottawa after one such award was written up in the Globe and Mail) and can help to get your bars out into markets where they could not go before the award. Plus, chocolate making can be demoralizing, lonely work, and some recognition in the form of even a bronze medal for a bar can make the months spent agonizing over the creation of that bar a bit less painful of a memory.
As a retailer, educator, and occasional judge at these events I can see both sides of the argument. My worry is that shoppers will become "award buyers"; only wanting those bars which have won gold medals and shunning other bars (even those by the same maker) which have not. As a professional taster I may have a more experienced palate than some, but that doesn't make a bar that I like right for everybody. Often we have sampled an award-winning bar at The Chocolate Project and I will hear someone try it and say "well I don't like it but it won an award so I must be wrong". This is really not how we want to be developing an educated customer base.
Finally, lets refer back to the Chocolate Maker's Credo and apply all that to the awards process. Is even entering your bars an act of hubris? Is advertising the fact that you've won a big award just rubbing it in the face of your friends and colleagues who didn't win? Should your website list how many international awards you've won on the main page, and then get to your thoughts about sourcing, roasting and conching a few pages later? Should you reprint the packaging of an award winning bar to reflect the fact that it is an "AWARD WINNER!!!!!" (and yes, this has been done).
You can see the slippery slope of ethical behaviour that even having an awards system, albeit a flawed one, can create.
We stress daily at The Chocolate Project that everyone needs to develop their own palate and then learn to trust it. Often the biggest hurdle to that is not with finding a bar you love but in moving on from that bar and discovering new ones. As the world of craft chocolate making becomes ever more crowded and shelf space becomes ever tighter, chocolate makers will have to chart their own course between the self-promotional sales and marketing-savvy necessary to make a bar stand out in a crowd, and the desire to be a simple, humble, chocolate maker ever-striving to improve the craft.