How Scottish firm The Chocolate Tree developed a pioneering approach to chocolate-making
East Lothian chocolatiers develop bean-to-bar chocolate making by sourcing high-quality and ethically sound cocoa beans
When the packaging of any chocolate bar posher than a Dairy Milk talks of ‘carefully selected beans’, ‘sustainable sourcing’ and ‘fair pay’ to cacao farmers, it isn't easy to pin down what these claims actually mean. For Ali & Friederike Gower of The Chocolate Tree in Haddington it means going beyond labels like Fairtrade and organic to trace the cacao they use back to the trees it grew on and the farmers who cultivated it. Only this way can they feel confident that they're making their chocolate from the best, most ethically grown beans.
Friederike manages chocolate production, while in a recent tweet Ali described himself as: ‘ice cream maker, photographer, graphic designer, wrapper, delivery driver, retail manager and parent’ (they have two young children). He runs the business side of things, in short, while Friederike ensures they have something to sell.
It began at a Beltane Festival in Edinburgh, where the couple met shortly before the end of their university degrees (Friederike: maths, Ali: photography). Friederike baked, and they started pitching up at music festivals selling first her cakes, then adding hand-made chocolates, the technique learnt from a book she found in a charity shop. In 2009 they opened a much-loved shop and tiny café in Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield, and became well known for their Spanish-style hot chocolate, French macarons, Italian gelato and, alongside, hand-made organic bars and individual chocolates, wrapped by hand employing some smart origami techniques.
This hand-wrapping – each bar has the date written onto it – is a sign of the self-confessed perfectionism the Gowers insist upon in every aspect of their business. When they couldn’t find any Scottish ice-cream that met their standards, they bought a machine and started making their own. Stabilisers are out, as are bought-in flavours – Friederike bakes amarettini, grinds pistachios into butter and cooks down raspberries before stirring them through the ice-cream. Macarons use only natural flavourings; each chocolate is decorated by hand; every cellophane wrapper sticky-taped in place (though they’re finally on the verge of automating wrapping). They make a chocolate of the type that everyone else calls ‘raw’: they call it ‘unroasted’. They’d sell much more of it if they too labelled it as raw but they see that as misleading people as, controversially, it’s not strictly possible to make chocolate without ever heating it above the headline-grabbing 46°C. After all, the climate in countries that grow cacao can top that, and the fermentation process often reaches 50°C or even higher.
This attitude is coupled with a determination to avoid not just the obvious tragedies of the chocolate world (which include child labour and slavery), but to strive to improve the cacao industry by making it worthwhile for farmers to invest in heirloom and native varieties. Bean-to-bar chocolate was the obvious next step in satisfying these twin goals of impeccable ethics and flavour.
It is a widespread misconception that chocolatiers make chocolate. In the original sense of the word, yes, chocolatiers took cacao beans and turned them into chocolate: there are five such craftsmen in France fighting to protect this as the term’s meaning. Over here, that battle is lost. The vast majority of chocolate businesses begin their 'making' with chocolate block, buttons or powder, or couverture (chocolate with a high cocoa butter content). The Gowers are one of just a handful of outfits making chocolate in the UK who start out with cocoa beans, and the only company doing so in Scotland. So few people realise that it’s unusual to make chocolate as well as crafting it into beautiful and delicious shapes. When they excitedly announce to customers that they’re now making chocolate from bean they’ve been met with blank stares, and asked: ‘But what were you doing before?’
In early 2012, heavily pregnant with their second child, Friederike started playing with a little cacao bean grinder, producing ‘amazing’ chocolate as a result, she says – to the couple's taste it rivalled Valrhona’s. That summer they moved to new premises in Haddington, and invested in the machines to roast, winnow, grind and conch (in that order) cacao beans into chocolate. While she still makes macarons, cakes and couverture-based chocolates, watching her at work creating chocolate from scratch it’s clear that this has become the heart of the company.
In October 2013 – to squeals of protest from some quarters – the Edinburgh café was pared down to just a few seats to allow the Gowers to concentrate on their chocolate production, and in summer 2014 they aim to fulfil their first export orders. Bean-to-bar has been a decision influenced by principles, ethics and flavour, not by commerciality, and it isn’t making any money yet: it costs at least twice as much to make a bar of chocolate from bean than it does to make it from even organic, best-quality couverture.
Currently, ten per cent of their chocolate is bean-to-bar, with the rest made from organic couverture. ‘What we would like to do in a few years’ time is make all our chocolate bean-to-bar’, says Friederike. ‘At the moment we are not big enough to do that. We would like to grow big enough to make a real difference to the farmers. There are just not enough people in Scotland to buy our bean-to-bar chocolate, so we’re looking to export to Europe and then the United States, where there is already an established market.
‘But at the same time we need to tell people why it is expensive, so they are happy to pay more for it. Most important are the beans – without those all is lost. It is quite easy to make good chocolate from excellent beans, but it is very difficult to make excellent chocolate. There is art as well as science in chocolate making.’
They have been hearing their suppliers’ stories first hand, the better to tell them on. In 2013, they travelled to the Marañón Canyon in Peru, where a cacao variety thought to be extinct had recently been rediscovered. Pure Nacional was once a bestseller in the fine chocolate world, but in 1916 disease decimated the tree population, killing 95 per cent within three years. In 2007, Dan Pearson and Brian Horsley discovered trees from the ‘lost’ strain, and started working with local farmers to cultivate them and make chocolate from the beans. In 2013, the Gowers started buying the beans: they paid $13 per kilo for the sacks in their storage container in March 2014, compared to the average New York futures trading price for standard cacao beans of $2.90.
In early 2014 Ali headed to Ecuador searching for the ‘golden bean’ – pure Arriba cacao. Ecuador’s heirloom variety, it is locally called Sabor Arriba, meaning ‘higher flavour’, and accounts for 30 per cent of the country’s cacao export: The Chocolate Tree made it into a gold-sprayed egg that Easter.
They buy it from Golden Bean Cacao, run by a duo who grow, market and ship the beans while also publicising what makes them special. Roberto and Juan-Carlo farm organically, pay their workers ten per cent more than local rates and see the variety’s lower disease resistance and higher labour requirements as the necessary trade-off for better quality and the bean’s heritage link to the land. The careful fermentation, drying and storage Ali saw here compared starkly to the sight of CNN-51 cacao fermenting unhygienically on tarmac on the hard-shoulder. A cheap, inferior, but disease-resistant and productive bean widely grown for the multinationals, it was piled by the roads in sacks oozing with water – the beans had been drenched to increase their weight, even occasionally urinated on by dogs. Big companies generally roast their beans at a high enough temperature to kill off any bacteria – as well as a lot of the flavour – before adding milk powder, sugar and flavourings to add make it taste like the chocolate we know and love. The Chocolate Tree pays Golden Bean almost double the New York rate for their beans for good reason, and that’s before the expensive logistical nightmare of shipping small quantities: it costs $1.50 per kilo to ship ten bags of beans, but 7p a kilo to ship a container.
Tasting Friederike’s finished product, there’s good reason for the extra cost of buying from The Chocolate Tree too. The idea of chocolate tasting of more than chocolate is not one most of us are familiar with, but just like wine or whisky, excellent chocolate has flavour notes too. A Peruvian 80% tastes of wood, and the forest; Madagascan 73% has distinct notes of raspberry and citrus, while a Tanzanian 75% has so much cherry though it you’d believe her if she told you it had added flavourings. The organic couverture, on the other hand, just tastes of good chocolate.
Ali has written an article on why chocolate should be expensive, suggesting: ‘It is in our power as consumers to essentially vote for the kind of world we want to live in via our purchases.’ That is what the claims on The Chocolate Tree’s packaging mean, and why they are going further than anyone could expect to justify them.
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