Raw Chocolate Is a Myth, but Business Is Still Booming
With small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate seeing a renaissance lately, unroasted chocolate has come to occupy a tiny niche within this world. But "raw" chocolate, it turns out, is a myth.
All photos by the author.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2016.
Happiness is unroasted.
I don't know what this means, but it looks very pretty painted on the wall outside Raaka Chocolate's Red Hook, Brooklyn factory. When I walk in, The Killers are blasting and a bearded white man who looks very happy (probably thanks to the lack of roasting) is eager to help me find who I'm looking for: head chocolate-maker Nate Hodge.
Raaka, as the factory exterior attests, does not roast its cacao. Usually this would result in a label boasting its status as "raw," but here they choose "virgin." It will probably make you roll your eyes, but Hodge explains it was a very conscious decision rooted in the reality of chocolate-making. "Most cocoa beans, and most quality cocoa beans, are fermented," he tells me. "During the fermentation process and depending on what style of fermentation they're doing, you're getting temperatures routinely in the 130s, and with raw food the cutoff is somewhere between 115 and 120 degrees [Fahrenheit]."
Raw chocolate, it turns out, is a myth.
Chocolate has its roots in the Aztec empire, where cacao beans were used as currency and turned into a potent drink. After Montezuma welcomed the conquistadors, the Europeans added Caribbean sugar to suit their palates, and, eventually, chocolate as we know it became a billion-dollar business.
With small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate seeing a renaissance lately, unroasted chocolate has come to occupy a tiny niche within this world, and Raaka—"raw" in Finnish—has emerged as the most successful.
Its transparency about what makes chocolate raw differentiates Raaka from other unroasted chocolate-makers. There are plenty of raw foodists selling chocolate who make health claims that aren't scientifically backed up, grounded in the idea that consuming an item in its most unadulterated state is healthiest. "I personally do not believe in the raw food trend," says food scientist Allison Brown. "Science has shown that some foods, nutrients, [and] minerals are better absorbed after heat processing."
Bushwick, Brooklyn's Fine & Raw has its origins in the world of raw food, where owner Daniel Sklar first started to work with cacao. Now, however, he's trying to escape its limitations. The company's new line of Brooklyn Bonnies contain 50 percent "raw" and 50 percent roasted cacao and has proven a hit; but the smaller, completely unroasted bars—easily found at Brooklyn's more upscale bodegas—are still the best-sellers.
Both Fine & Raw and Raaka just had their biggest holiday seasons, meaning that people are either buying into the idea that unroasted is better—or that the chocolate really is good. Raaka is making a good case for the latter with its approach, which results in glossy bars with the satisfying snap of perfect tempering, as well as discs that are sold to chefs and bakers. The company doesn't roast because it wants to preserve the flavors of the beans it's using, which have very specific origins.
"Terroir's important to chocolate in the same way that it's important to wine, or apples, or grain," says Hodge. "A lot of the beans that we use, if you roast them—a light roast, which is what a lot of craft chocolate does—you get similar flavors. But for our chocolate, it's just a lot more magnified. In traditional chocolate, the reason you roast is to roast out any variance." That lack of variance is useful and necessary for chocolatiers and others seeking uniformity of flavor, but it doesn't have to be the only approach.
Raaka's bars retail for $8 each, putting them on par price-wise with small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate-makers who do roast. This is still exceptionally expensive to those who are accustomed to a cheap Hershey's bar, which contains only about 11 percent cacao. The company also knows exactly where its cacao is coming from and has relationships with the farmers in the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and other cacao-growing countries. "You go to a small cacao farm and they're not just farming it for cacao but for sustenance, as well," Hodge notes. "They're trying to maximize that plot of land in order to grow corn; they're growing bananas that shade the cacao trees, which also provide them with a little extra cash crop."
In Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet, Carol Off writes about the young people who pick cacao beans in West Africa for little to no money and who have never seen a chocolate bar. She tells them of the young people in the US and Europe who, similarly, have never seen a cacao bean. The trend of small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate has been an attempt to bridge that gap while educating the public on why they've historically been able to pick up a bar at the grocery check-out line for next to nothing. It appears to be working: "Every year we get less and less sticker shock," Hodge says.
The cost of craft chocolate is still a source of contention, though, with many mocking the very concept of "bean-to-bar." It's a technical term with no moral implications, though; it simply describes chocolate-makers who create a finished product from the cacao bean to the prettily packaged bar. While "organic" and "fair-trade" have become lofty in our collective minds and require filing often-expensive paperwork to put them on your package, "bean-to-bar" is supposed to be straightforward. Still, in the wake of the Mast Brothers scandal, it caught a lot of flak, with Gawker writing, "Ten dollar chocolate is worse than Martin Shkreli."
With artisan chocolate still occupying a strange cultural space, it seems like it would be hard to carve out an even smaller niche. But Raaka opened up shop in 2010 and has experienced consistent growth, making 150,000 bars per year and growing 38 percent in 2015 alone.
"There are chocolate factories popping up everywhere to build communities around the idea that chocolate can be more than a snack that you pick up at a gas station," says Hodge. "It can be a communal experience in the same way that coffee and wine are communal experiences"—whether unroasted or roasted, happy or unhappy.