With bean-to-bar chocolate billed as the food trend to watch for 2015, Sian Griffiths catches up with the king of cocoa…
Spencer Hyman, co-founder of Cocoa Runners, is somewhat of a bean-to-bar champion. With a list of previous career highlights that includes translating Monopoly into Japanese, being chief operations officer of Last.FM and setting up parts of Amazon in the UK, I hoped to find out what sparked his interest an interest in chocolate.
Cocoa Runners are purveyors of some of the finest chocolate on the planet, and Spencer has tasted over 3,000 bars from across five continents – surely the ultimate job perk. There’s a whole world of bean-to-bar cocoa products out there, but it can be a bit daunting to the initiated. That’s where Cocoa Runners come in, to help us discover new producers and new chocolate experiences. If you do anything this Valentine’s Day make sure you’ve found your perfect match – chocolate match that is!
So, tell us a little bit about Cocoa Runners – what’s it all about and how does it work?
Cocoa Runners is all about the world’s finest chocolate. From Brooklyn to Budapest, Saigon to San Francisco, Warsaw to Woodstock we seek out the world’s best growers and makers. We’ve tasted over 3,000 bars and selected less than 300. Every month we pull together a selection of four which we send out to our members and everyone is also welcome to buy individual gift boxes and bars. So, for example, if you know someone who loves chocolate and the finer tastes in food why not treat them to one of our Valentine’s Day boxes with bars from Peru, Hungary, Madagascar and Austria?
We’re hearing a lot about ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate at the moment – why do you think that is?
It all started with the 18th Century luxury drink, from which ‘cocoa’ consumption morphed into a regular treat in the form of standardised, mass-produced chocolate bars and confectionery. By the end of the 20th Century, sales of chocolate in the UK were over twice that of the books and music markets combined. But over the last few years, chocolate has been undergoing a revolution similar to that enjoyed by coffee in the 1990s. A small group of dedicated growers and chocolate makers work to handcraft single estate beans into chocolate bars which highlight the magic flavours of the best cocoa beans.
Is this a 21st Century chocolate revolution?
I suppose so! Before the turn of the century, it was extremely hard to secure consistent supplies of high-quality cocoa beans as the cocoa industry was (and indeed still largely is) controlled by large government monopolies who are more concerned about quantity and price than quality. However, since the late 1990s, the likes of Mott Green (in Grenada) and Bertil Akesson (in Madagascar, and later Bali and Brazil) have provided regular supplies of high-quality beans to chocolate makers such as Valhrona, Pralus, Mast Brothers and Tcho – and chocolate is now able to challenge wine and coffee with the distinctiveness of its flavour notes.
Moreover, the cost of chocolate making equipment has also declined – when Willie Harcourt-Cooze set up his first factory in the early 2000s he had to invest hundreds of thousands of pounds. Now new British Chocolate Makers such as Pablo Spaull of Forever Cacao or Michael Longman of Chocolarder can make single estate, small batch bars in their own houses for thousands, as opposed to hundreds of thousands, of pounds. And all over the world more and more great chocolate makers are taking advantage of access to great beans and inexpensive chocolate making machinery to launch new chocolate companies. The US alone over the last year has seen over 100 kick-starter chocolate programmes.
How exactly does bean-to-bar chocolate differ from most chocolate you’ll find in the supermarket?
Single estate, small batch chocolate is all about coaxing the individual flavours out of the beans – focusing on the harvest, terroir, fermentation, drying, roasting, grinding and tempering of the beans to bring out subtleties of flavour that are – sadly – blended out in commercial, mass-produced bars.
You can compare it to wine or coffee – in wine, the wine maker crafts different blends each vintage, similarly the coffee roaster adapts his technique for each batch. By contrast with commercial, mass produced instant coffee the goal is to create a uniform, consistent flavour that is always the same. Similarly mass produced chocolate bars are all about making sure that the ‘brand’ always tastes the same. Single estate chocolate is all about the depth and difference of flavour that can be crafted from great beans.
You mentioned wine – can you draw any parallels between the enjoyment of this and chocolate?
Enjoying chocolate, like enjoying wine, is about tantalising and using all your sensory perceptions – smell, touch, sound (the snap) and, of course, savouring the taste. Chocolate has even more flavour nuances than wine, so there’s even more to enjoy. Plus, tasting chocolate involves no risks of a sore head the next morning!
Have you always loved chocolate?
Yes! Although I’ve never been a great pudding person, I’ve always liked to end any meal with a little treat – and a few squares of chocolate are ideal. In the 1990s, when I was selling video games in Japan and learning Japanese, I was fortunate to share a language teacher with a Frenchman, Philippe, from Bongrain, the company behind Valhrona. From time to time, he would let me try some of this chocolate – and that really sparked my passion.
How did you get started in the world of chocolate?
When I came back to the UK from Japan, I was fortunate to be hired to set up Amazon’s software, video games, electronics and toys businesses – so that, combined with my experiences at Last.fm, got me started in ecommerce and on the web. Then, about two years ago, my business partner, Simon Palethorpe, and I realised that to date ecommerce was all about people searching for (and buying) what they already knew they wanted.
No one was doing what we call ‘guided discovery’ – no one was doing what, for example, Tony Laithwaite and Hugh Johnson did for wine with the Sunday Times Wine Club or what Randolph Hodgson does for British cheese with Neal’s Yard Dairy. So, supported by the likes of Duffy Sheardown (Duffy’s Chocolate), Philipp Kauffmann (Original Beans), Mikkel Friis Holm and Bertil Akesson, we launched Cocoa Runners in October 2013. The timing was fortuitous – any earlier and there wouldn’t have been enough variety and quality, and as the opening of Bertil Akesson’s London Store and imminent opening of Mast Brother’s in Shoreditch were fortunate to be at the forefront of a wave of interest and passion.
You’ve sampled thousands of different bars from all over the world, but how do you choose which ones to go into the boxes?
We’re sampling more and more bars every week, but we only choose those that we think will really ‘wow’ our customers.
What makes the perfect bar of chocolate?
We don’t think that there is a single perfect bar – more there are great bars that are expressions of their makers and growers hard efforts.
Are certain types of chocolate better at different times or day?
All good chocolate is good any time of the day! I’m told that palates are better in the morning, and I suspect that this is true. But for me, any time of day is great for a few squares.
I guess that means chocolate for breakfast is ok? What would be your dessert island chocolate bar, if you have a favourite?
Even on Desert Island Discs you get six choices! And I’m not even sure with six that I can really cover all my favourites… but here goes for today’s favourites:
1. Akesson’s 100 per cent from Madagascar
2. Fruition’s Maranon
3. Duffy’s Honduras Indio Rojo
4. Forever Cacao Singature bar (72%); this is full of Pablo’s Welsh wizardry and antioxidants (it’s a raw chocolate, i.e. unroasted, so has more antioxidants)
5. Original Beans Cru Virunga (not just a great milk chocolate – but one that results in a new tree being planted in the rain forest for every bar planted)
6. Mast Papua New Guinea (be warned – this one’s for those who like barbecue sauce!)
7. Chris Brennan’s (Pump Street Chocolate) Crayfish Estate
What’s your greatest discovery since starting up Cocoa Runners?
We’ve had so many great discoveries that it’s hard to pick just one – above all it’s about the bars and the people. The single estate, small batch chocolate market is full of really passionate people, and that’s not just the makers, growers and we retailers but also the consumers. That makes every day a delight.
So, what’s next for Cocoa Runners?
More great chocolate for our customers! More great makers, more great beans, more great sensations. Oh, and many of our makers are now creating great chocolate drinks – I strongly recommend Duffy’s chocolate drink. We’re also really excited about other hot chocolate creations planned by Mast Brothers, Pump Street and Akesson’s for their hot chocolate creations.
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