Gemma Rose meets two entrepreneurs – chocolate makers with a difference, making a difference.
Before I eat a piece of Mike & Becky’s chocolate, they instruct me on how best to do so: “Find a calm moment. Relax. Our chocolate should not be consumed in a rush.” Whilst I’m carefully chewing, they advise me to close my eyes and “enjoy the full flavour experience”. The chocolate is 50% dark milk, 100% organic, and made from cacao beans grown in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I note the strong aftertaste. That’s good, assures Mike & Becky’s instructions, written on eco-print packaging; it means that it’s real, honest chocolate.
The chocolate tastes, well, different. Having munched on Cadbury’s chocolate and Côte d’Or for most of my life, it takes a while to re-orient my taste buds and fully savour Mike & Becky’s. The quality is evident: it’s smooth, light and there are no greasy traces. I lay the blame of my ungrateful taste buds at the door of the mass chocolate producers: I am so used to sugary chocolate that I am slow to appreciate the real stuff.
“There used to be hundreds of artisan chocolate makers, but today there are very few, due to the industrialization of chocolate production,” says Björn Becker, a.k.a. Becky, noting that many of the most popular chocolatiers buy their chocolate from multinationals such as the Barry Callebaut Group. Barry Callebaut is considered one of the largest suppliers of chocolate in the world. In Belgium, it sells chocolate to Guylian, Leonidas and Neuhaus, who then mould the chocolate into their signature designs.
The tide, however, is slowly turning away from such industrial-scale production, likely due to the levels of sugar and oil content. In the United States, Frederic Loraschi, French pastry chef and former instructor at Barry Callebaut’s chocolate academy, notes on Confectionerynews.com that consumers are getting tired of mass production and are more susceptible to smaller businesses. These businesses are not only more local, they also tend to be more environmentally-friendly and socially conscious. What seems to best describe the ethos of artisanal chocolate makers is the ‘bean-to-bar’ movement, which Mike & Becky are a part of.
The bean-to-bar movement started at the turn of the century in the US and it has finally reached Belgium. At the movement’s most ideal state, chocolate makers do everything themselves: from visiting the plantations, shipping the beans over and roasting and processing the chocolate. Mike & Becky buy their cocoa beans from single plantations in Belize, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, India and Peru. They trade mostly directly with the plantation, meaning that they buy straight from the plantation or cooperative; they pay above market value for the beans; and they do not work with plantations that employ children.
Whenever possible, Mike & Becky use organic cacao beans, sugar, cacao butter and milk powder to make their chocolate. Their chocolate does not contain vanilla, palm oil or soy lecithin, ingredients that they describe on their website as “nonsense”, used by big companies to “mask bad beans, cut costs or speed up the process”.
The bean-to-bar movement also consists of a supportive community of like-minded chocolate makers. The community helped Mike & Becky get on their feet: recommending good plantations to trade with and giving advice and encouragement when the going got tough. It was surprising to hear of such an open community, considering that they are all competitors. Not necessarily so, says Julia Mikerova, a.k.a. Mike: “There are infinite ways to work with cacao and the end result can be so different. Chocolate making is as much a science as it is an art, so there’s no point in being secretive about it.”