Sharing Gola Rainforest Chocolate: Part II

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Chocolate tasting with the Gola Rainforest cocoa team; photo by Katie Sims. All photos below by Felicity Butler, second from left in back row.

When I took the role of cocoa marketer for Twin & Twin Trading, and began working with the Gola Rainforest cocoa producer organizations and others in Africa, I decided that I would host chocolate tastings for my colleagues. Having traded specialty coffee for the better part of three decades, Twin has an in-house coffee lab, where the quality control manager analyzes samples and hosts weekly cuppings for the coffee marketers and traders. Several of the staff are certified Q Graders, a program that has done a great deal to standardize coffee assessment methods and vocabulary to describe quality. But with no Q Grader equivalent for cocoa, and with Twin increasing the variety of cocoa origins it was trading, I thought that the time was right for dedicated chocolate trainings.

I developed a series of courses—Chocolate 101, 201, and 301—and held them at the London office last summer. We explored the bean to bar process, as well as chocolate types, the meaning of cocoa percentages, various origins, and even roast profiles. And, of course, we tasted bars to illustrate all of those.

It was just as important for the producers organizations I was working with in Africa to do chocolate tastings, so I began to think about how to make those happen. As I have discussed in my book, Cocoa, farmers and buyers—the most “upstream” people in the cocoa-chocolate supply chain—typically have little opportunity to engage with chocolate. Many growers I have spoken with over the years have described for me the metrics for assessing cocoa quality, including fermentation level, bean size and weight, insect damage, mold level, and so forth. But very, very few discuss flavor. If the members and staff of cocoa producer organizations could experience dedicated chocolate tastings, I felt they would better understand the flavor priorities of potential buyers. With that understanding, they would be in a stronger position to negotiate sales.

When we were doing the chocolate courses in London, one of the Twin staff members, Katie Sims, was preparing to spend a month in Sierra Leone, to assist with the Gola season review and to prepare for the prospective buyer visit from Greg at Dandelion and Gino at Meridian (Katie is now the Gola Rainforest cocoa project manager, based in Kenema). When Katie set off, I equipped her with a selection of craft chocolate bars (thanks to the range on offer at Cocoa Runners in London) and a flavor wheel or two. Katie led a tasting to introduce the Gola cocoa team to connoisseur methods and vocabulary, and to prepare them for conversations with Greg and Gino. When they arrived, Greg led another tasting. This was, of course, before the sale happened, so the Gola Rainforest bar did not yet exist; instead, the team tasted other Dandelion bars.

When I went back to Sierra Leone last month, for the end-of-season review and to share Dandelion’s now newly made Gola Rainforest chocolate bar, some of the team members had thus experienced two tastings. But in my opinion, there is always room for more chocolate.

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Preparing for chocolate tasting with the Gola and Jula teams in Kenema

After our season review at Lalehun research center in the Gola Rainforest National Park, we returned to the town of Kenema and the Gola head office. There, the agricultural extension officers and cocoa buyers sat down with me for our chocolate tasting. The buyers and team leaders had, for the most part, participated in both Katie’s and Greg’s tasting sessions. Most of the agricultural extension officers had not, and nor had one of the farmer organization executives, who joined us.

Tasting chocolate is not the same as eating it. When I was growing up, I ate as much chocolate as I could, as fast as I could so that I could eat more. Tasting chocolate involves, among other things, slowing down the experience. When we slow down, we can taste flavor and experience texture more keenly.

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Tasting chocolate involves letting it melt in your mouth. I’m emphasizing, “Don’t chew!”

I began by outlining the methodology that I like to use for chocolate tastings, which involves all the senses. We discussed looking at the chocolate, to observe the features of its molding (for example, patterns of pods or leaves, or a company name) and to inspect it for bloom or the shininess that indicates good temper. We smelled the chocolate to see if any particular scents came through, and rubbed it with our fingers to experience the moisturizing sensation of the cocoa butter. We snapped pieces in half next to our ears to listen to its temper. And then, of course we tasted.

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Basic flavor wheel, with major categories often used to classify chocolate

One of the goals was to see what flavor notes we would identify in each bar. To make sure we were all using similar flavor categories, I drew a basic flavor wheel. After I wrote “chocolatey” as a base flavor word, I began to fill in quadrants of the wheel with other typical flavor categories. I wrote “earthy,” “fruity,” “nutty,” and then paused, momentarily blanking on the next category. Immediately, several of the cocoa buying offers chimed together, “Floral, it’s floral!” When I remarked that they had commanded connoisseur methods already, one buying officer said, smiling, “Greg taught us well.”

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Prepared for tasting with palate-cleansing water and notebooks; note the Chocolopolis flavor wheel on Janneh’s laptop screen!

In addition to the Dandelion Gola bar (which of course we tasted again), we tasted other dark bars and a few milks and inclusions. My colleague from Twin, Felicity Butler, had brought bars from the UK, and I had brought several from Ghana, so we had an unusually large number of chocolates to taste—ten or eleven in all. After tasting each one, we discussed the flavor experience. We had a remarkable degree of consistency, with most everyone agreeing if a bar was, for example, nutty or floral. We also tasted several inclusion bars, including the Golden Tree Akuafo bar from Ghana, which is lemon-flavored. I have served the Akuafo bar at many tastings over the years and, as usual, there was the ardent love-it/hate-it split.

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Listening for the well tempered snap
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Looking at, tasting, and listening to chocolate

By the time we finished, it was well past lunch time. As we gathered up our things, we chatted about the chocolates and named our favorites. The winning comment came from Fodie Brima, the producer organization executive who had joined the tasting. For my whole life, I have felt that there could never be too much chocolate. But when I asked Fodie which type of chocolate he preferred, milk, dark, or inclusion, he replied, “I am tired.” Tired! After tasting so much chocolate, he explained, he had no room left to eat rice.

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With Fodie Brima, GACFA chairman, who was tired of tasting chocolate

 

Sharing Gola Rainforest Chocolate: Part I

As a scholar of cocoa and chocolate, it is not often that I get involved on the trading side. But since early last year, I have been working with the UK-based organization Twin & Twin Trading, whose vision is development through trade, facilitating specialty chocolate market access for cocoa farmer associations in Africa. That means I help farmer groups to promote and sell their cocoa to specialty buyers—who may be paying premium prices for quality, and who may make these farmer groups visible to chocolate shoppers by putting their names on single origin bars.

Apart from Madagascar bars, it is relatively rare in the US to find specialty, single origin chocolate that uses African cocoa, at least compared with bars that use cocoa from Central or South America, or the Caribbean. I started writing about the invisibility of West African cocoa in premium chocolate some years ago; little did I think at the time that I would be part of a team helping to promote the region to specialty buyers.

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Gola’s warehouse manager, Vandi, scoops up a handful of cocoa beans to assess them

But one container at a time, that’s what we have been doing, starting with Gola Rainforest cocoa producer organizations in Sierra Leone. With assistance from Twin and other partners, farmers in four chiefdoms on the edge of the Gola Rainforest National Park have organized into three associations to sell their cocoa: Malema chiefdom, Gaura chiefdom, and Tunkia and Koya chiefdoms, which, being a bit smaller than the others, joined together to sell their cocoa. Together, these farmer associations are working to conserve the Gola Rainforest, which is home to many threatened and endemic species, including the elusive pygmy hippo, and to strengthen their cocoa business practices.

Twin and its partners in Sierra Leone have been working for several years with these farmer associations to provide agricultural training, and to support best practices around cocoa harvest, fermentation, drying, and storage. My role has involved building capacity for farmer associations and the Gola staff around marketing, so that they can strategize from an informed position when negotiating with buyers.

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Vandi with bags of cocoa at the warehouse awaiting shipment

When I started this work, bags of cocoa were sitting in the Gola warehouse in Kenema. Knowing we had superior quality cocoa and a unique opportunity to launch Sierra Leone onto the specialty cocoa map, we aimed high—the first container, the team agreed, should be pitched to the US craft market. To the best of our knowledge, no craft maker in the US had produced a single origin specialty chocolate bar from Sierra Leone before. As confident as I felt in the cocoa, though, I wasn’t sure if any of them would be willing to consider it. In my work over the past fifteen years, I have found that, apart from a very few exceptions (such as John Kehoe and Gary Guittard at Guittard Chocolate, or the folks at Tcho Chocolate), people are generally dismissive, wary, or simply uninterested in West African cocoa for any kind of premium product.

But some people in the chocolate industry are starting to think—and act—differently when it comes to African origins, and especially West Africa. In our conversations about Gola cocoa, these individuals spoke with humility, recognizing that they had a lot to learn about West Africa’s vast cocoa farming systems, and they were eager to begin. Among them were Greg D’Alesandre, who sources for Dandelion Chocolate, and Gino Dalla Gasperina, who founded Meridian Cacao Company. I had a lot to learn from them, too—and all of us had something to learn from the people growing the cocoa and the Gola staff who work with those farmers. Greg and Gino decided to visit Sierra Leone, to see the farms, learn about the  trainings, and discuss priorities and visions with the Gola team, as buyers and sellers of cocoa.

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Photo with Greg (Dandelion Chocolate), Gino (Meridian Cacao), and the Gola team, on the wall at the Gola Rainforest Lalehun research center, where we held the season review last week

And then Greg made the decision to buy the cocoa, which meant Dandelion would make the first ever Gola Rainforest Chocolate bar! Will you forgive me for saying how very proud I am, how even now I have tears and goosebumps, remembering the collective effort it took, and from my gratitude to everyone for working with such dedication and tirelessness, such faith in Gola cocoa? So many people gave this their all, from the cocoa farmers through the Gola buying officers, the agricultural extension team at Jula Consultancy, the trading team at Twin, and right up to Ron Sweetser at Dandelion, who developed the profile for the bar—and, by doing so with enormous care and love, showed everyone just what Sierra Leone Gola Rainforest cocoa can do as a single origin craft chocolate bar.

I will leave it to others to give their assessment of the chocolate, as my own (five star) review of the (most profoundly chocolate) bar (I have ever tasted) will necessarily sound biased at this point. But if you are one of those people who likes chocolate, I do think the Gola Rainforest bar might be one that pleases you (so much that you buy out all the stock in your local shop and eat it for breakfast and create fashion accessories out of the wrappers).

Greg and the team at Dandelion took the first opportunity to share the chocolate with the women and men who had grown the cocoa. The three Gola Rainforest cocoa farmer associations held their season review last week, and I traveled to Sierra Leone to participate. Part of the work was to celebrate the successes of last season, and part of it was to strategize for the coming season. For this, I led a session on chocolate markets, outlining the different categories of chocolate and what advantages and disadvantages there would be to selling into each value chain.

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Presenting to Gola cocoa farmer associations, while business manager Yambasu translates into Mende; photo by Felicity Butler

We talked too about the relationship between Gola and Dandelion, and with other potential buyers, and what they had discussed with Greg and Gino when they visited. I showed maps to chart the journey the Gola cocoa had taken once it left Sierra Leone, and photos of Dandelion’s Valencia Street factory, so that the farmers could see where it was manufactured into chocolate.

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Showing where the Gola Rainforest bar is for sale at Dandelion’s Valencia Street factory; photo by Felicity Butler
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Photos showing farmers their chocolate bar on sale at Dandelion’s Valencia Street shop
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Admiring the Dandelion Chocolate bar wrapper, which says “Gola Rainforest, Sierra Leone”; photo by Felicity Butler

Staff members had taken turns translating my talk into Mende. But when I said that theirs was the first specialty chocolate bar from Sierra Leone in the US craft market, no translation was needed—the cheers and smiles were immediate!

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Celebrating Gola’s success at the season review meeting; photo by Björn Horvath

 

Then it was time to share the Dandelion Gola Rainforest chocolate bar.

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Dandelion Gola Rainforest Chocolate! Photo by Felicity Butler
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Aminata, Supervisor of Cocoa Extension Team & Gender Coordinator for Gola, shares Dandelion’s Gola chocolate with her colleague Janneh; photo by Felicity Butler
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Mohamed Fofanah, Managing Director of Jula Consultancy, tastes Dandelion chocolate; photo by Björn Horvath

So much of my teaching, research, and writing has been about the negative stereotypes that persist about Africa, and how these damage or undermine so many possibilities for real, material change. Superior cocoa grows in Sierra Leone, and farmers work hard to cultivate and process it. It is not easy to swim against the tide of negative stories about Sierra Leone and indeed all of West Africa. But this is necessary work.

Do the people who work so hard every day to grow excellent cocoa, and who buy and haul and store it, who steward it until it sails away on a container ship—do they not deserve to have their experiences, their labor, their cocoa recognized and esteemed? We all want to be seen, and for our work to be valued.

I think that even more than when they tasted the chocolate, when the farmers, buying officers, and agricultural extension staff saw the words “Gola Rainforest, Sierra Leone” on the Dandelion bar wrapper, they felt what they had achieved. I saw people’s faces light up with pride. I hope that there is more of the same to come.

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Madame Jebbe, Women’s Leader of the Gaura Cocoa Farmers’ Association; photo by Felicity Butler

It is my privilege and joy to work with the farmers and association executives in Gaura, Malema, Tunkia, and Koya chiefdoms; with the staff (especially Björn Horvath and Katie Sims in Kenema) at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which has worked for decades to conserve and protect the Gola Rainforest and whose idea it was to start a cocoa business in the forest edge communities in the first place; my excellent colleagues at Twin & Twin Trading (especially Hannah Davis, who managed Twin’s contributions from the start, and Deborah Bickler, who kept us all going); Gino at Meridian Cacao, who has been generously helping to build capacity and cocoa expertise for both Twin and Gola; and, of course, Greg and the team at Dandelion Chocolate. Thank you for bringing Gola Rainforest Chocolate into the world.

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Team members from Twin & Gola, looking forward to the future of Gola Rainforest Cocoa!