Here’s the remainder of the interview with Alan McClure of Patric Chocolate. This segment focusses on cacao sourcing and marketing.
Many thanks to Alan for his thoughtful answers to my questions. I hope to sample his chocolate soon!
Are you orienting your bean sourcing towards sustainable, fair-trade, or organic producers?
All of the above.
However, I am far less concerned with whether something is actually designated “fair-trade” and “organic” and am more interested in actual fair trade and organic. To me real fair trade means paying more than official fair-trade prices, and in my personal sourcing, this is a focus of mine. However, while I work on solidifying consistent personally-sourced cacao supplies, I am having to rely on some brokered cacao as well, and I have far less control over the price paid to farmers in that case. I think that there is a misconception that all micro-producers are using personally sourced cacao exclusively. I also think that, as a group, we haven’t necessarily tried our best to correct this perception.
I, myself, may have been guilty of this silence, as it is tempting to let people believe even that which is incorrect if it makes your company look good. However, I don’t feel comfortable being misleading, and so have tried to convey my major focus on the importance of personal relationships with cacao growers while at the same time not claiming that all of my cacao, at least at the moment, is due to these relationships.
In fact, the only American chocolate maker that I know of who sources all of his cacao directly, and that has product on the market, is Steve Devries. I have had the pleasure to talk with him quite a bit over the past year and his business model has had a large impact on my way of thinking about things as well. I fully agree with his approach on spending a large amount of time working directly with farmers to teach them the skills they need to harvest, ferment and dry cacao “just right,” which also varies for every origin. This is the way to obtain the very pinnacle of cacao in terms of quality. However, while Steve has been able to focus on this aspect of his business for the past 5 to 7 years before bringing product to market nationally, I personally don’t have the resources to support the business for such a long period without income.
Therefore I have chosen to purchase small quantities of the highest-quality brokered cacao that I could find while at the same time traveling to Mexico, Central and South America to discover excellent-quality cacao from a genetic standpoint, and then work at establishing longer-term relationships with the farmers that allow me to play a much more active role in dictating fermentation and drying processes. By far I would say that direct-sourcing of perfectly fermented and dried cacao has been my greatest challenge. It would be far easier if I just wanted to show up and sign contracts for a container load of whatever is on hand, but not only do I not work with such large quantities of cacao, but additionally, such cacao could be anything from under-ripe, under-fermented, and machine-dried, to insect-ridden and washed rather than fermented. If anything it would likely be consistent only in its inconsistency. I’ve seen a great deal of cacao in my travels and most of it is nothing that I would ever buy.
Retouching on the issue of organic, there is still a stigma attached to using organic cacao in fine chocolate bars for some reason. I’ve read such nonsensical statements claiming that organic cacao somehow inherently has negative qualities because chemical controls are not instituted to “keep it in line.” If anything, I think that the idea of the inherent bad quality organic chocolate is primarily due to the types of companies that are producing it in mass-marketed quantities. There are some fine chocolate makers using organic cacao to some extent, though, Devries being one of them and Domori another.
Another problem is that many farmers may have organic cacao but it costs money to have it inspected and officially designated organic, so the small farmer loses out unless he is a member of a co-op that will pay the fee, and this doesn’t always happen. The short of it is that I fully support organic cacao, and am pushing for a future where all the cacao I use is organic.
However, everything that I am currently using is not officially organic, though some of it is, and that is another point: some fine chocolate makers are undoubtedly using cacao that is organic in actuality, but simply is not officially organic. In that case, it simply flies under the radar. Yet, I will not go so far as to make the claim that all or even most cacao that is used in fine chocolate is organic, as I don’t believe that this is actually the case, though this is also an urban myth that is common enough, and seems to conflict with the idea that all organic chocolate is sub-par in terms of quality.
Do you think there’s any real Criollo left in the world, or has it all crossed into Trinitario?
There may be an extremely small amount of pure Criollo off in the bush somewhere, but generally speaking I refer to cacao as Criollo-heavy-Trinitario (CHT) or Criollo-heavy-hybrids (CHH), Trinitario, or Forastero, and I think that 99.99% of cacao would fit into this scheme.
Working with farmers, do you see more awareness of artisan producers and the standards of beans they are looking for? Do you see any trends away from bulk production?
I think it is still too early to talk about trends. As more micro-producers begin producing chocolate they are going to carve out their own niches. I like to consider what is going on in Europe. There are a number of fine chocolate companies, and there are certainly similarities between them, but there are also many differences. One similarity is a focus on cacao quality, and a move away from bulk cacao, in the sense of mass-produced chocolate, but not all of them even handle this issue in the same way. Some source directly, some work more closely with the farmers, some buy brokered cacao exclusively, some do a mix of everything. There are different processing techniques and preferences for which each company is known. I think that this is the way it should be as it makes the fine chocolate world more interesting. I am hoping that as all of these small companies start up, that they each focus on what is important to them, and this will undoubtedly be different from what other chocolate-makers are doing. We don’t need American-made Valrhona or American-made Domori. We need our own styles based on our own preferences. I look forward to seeing what happens over the next 5-10 years.
Undoubtedly some companies will fail to bring much of interest to market, but others will re-invent fine chocolate in a new and interesting way that will be more than just a passing fad, and then there will be every permutation in between these two.
How do you see the chocolate market changing in the United States? There certainly is at least a mini-boom in artisan chocolate in San Francisco. Do you see the same thing happening in your area?
I don’t really think of the fine chocolate world as being confined by geography. Due to the advent of the Internet, it is incredibly easy to have an on-line presence, sell on-line, and, as a very small business, have greater exposure than would ever be possible if one were to focus solely on working out regionally from a particular city and expanding from there. As for chocolatiers, again, as opposed to chocolate-makers, I don’t pay all that much attention to what they are doing, though I know that there are some new ones starting up, and I have talked to some of them. One notable, and relatively new, chocolatier near me is Christopher Elbow in Kansas City. I find his chocolates to be beautiful works, and quite flavorful as well. There are others that I appreciate too, and I hope to be able to provide some chocolate to a handful of chocolatiers in the future, though my focus is certainly on eating bars.
As for chocolate-makers, there certainly are a lot starting up at the moment. When I first made the decision to move in the direction of opening Patric Chocolate I thought that Devries Chocolate and Jacques Torres were the only micro-producers in the US (I don’t count Scharffen Berger). However, I quickly learned that there are many more. Off the top of my head I’d say about ten that I know of, and then probably half as many that I’ve heard rumors about. That certainly is an explosion.
Artisan chocolate seems to be a conscious move back from the industrial chocolate recipe of cacao, butter, sugar, lecithin, and vanilla. Have you considered going back farther to a Mesoamerican style with chiles or nuts?
I have considered it, and have experimented with making such chocolate as well, and I do enjoy dark chocolate with ground chiles, but it is not something that I am interested in doing at this very moment. Right now I wish to showcase the beauty of cacao using sugar as a sole support. In the future I may well add bars with other components and I am not opposed to them in principle.