It has taken rather a long time, but the place of chocolate in the café-bar trade has begun to be regarded with greater respect – chocolate is on a roll, and at last the concept of ‘great’ chocolate, as opposed to a simple generic product, is becoming spoken of. As when the artisan coffee roasters began to appear, we are now beginning to see coffee-house operators making a point of saying whose chocolate they use.
The trend is of a move away from generic chocolate, and it has been predicted for many years, although the major brands continue to campaign for their traditional product. At a Beverage Service Association meeting a few years ago, just before it became the Beverage Standards Association, a speaker from Cadbury’s stood up and put forward an apparently quite credible argument as to why his brand’s drinking chocolate fitted the British taste – low cocoa content, lot of sugar. The problem with that argument, says the rest of the chocolate trade, is that it only became the ‘British taste’ because Cadbury’s effectively blanketed the country with it after the war. What is happening now, say the artisan chocolate makers, is that the taste is shifting, perceptibly, to darker chocolate with high cocoa content, brewed with milk and not with milk powder already in it.
For serious chocolate fans, the UK’s chocolate festivals are now very big business – the big one is Chocolate Week, which runs from 8-14th October, with the Unwrapped show in London as part of it; and the annual chocolate festivals in Ramsbottom, Lancashire, run by local chocolatier Paul Morris, have attracted 28,000 people each April. Yael Rose’s events at the South Bank in London have drawn 60,000 (the next is 7-9th December).
This interest is reflected in the way that several suppliers to the café trade are now encouraging the appreciation of better, and in some cases ‘great’ chocolates, for both drinking and eating.
Notably, the coffee roasters are taking an interest – in this year’s Great Taste Awards, two of the three gold stars awarded for hot chocolate came from coffee roasters, Bewleys of Dublin and Bailie’s of Belfast.
The suppliers to the trade are also reviewing how they sell chocolate. In a unique move, Regency Coffee of Manchester is to develop its new distribution of the Ghirardelli chocolate brand by hiring the café trade’s first chocolate equivalent of the barista trainer.
“The exciting thing for the trade is that they are going to be able to go out and sell more than ‘just hot chocolate’,” remarks managing director Jarrod Normie. “We’re not just here to sell a box of chocolate powder – gone are the days of chocolate which is mainly sugar. You still get a lot of ten per cent cocoa content around, but the truth is that nobody will stand for sub-standard chocolate any more.”
Rococo is a trade supplier which is allied to the now-famous plantation in Grenada which is carbon neutral, works from solar and wind-powered energy, and occasionally uses a very natural form of cool storage – the chocolate may be held in a sailing ship, beneath the waterline!
Although Rococo is known for its high-quality and high-priced chocolate – it has produced chocolate bars at £18, and an advent calendar at £70 – it has made the point that even in the practical café setting, the requirement now is for ‘class’ chocolate, not ‘any old’ chocolate.
“The whole point of this is that we are promoting ‘real’ chocolate, and we are taking the trouble with it. We’ll do a mixed box of a hundred bars for a coffee shop, and while the wholesale price is probably 65p, we know operators who put them in a box near the till, promote them as something special, and sell them for £1.50-£1.80.”
The same attitudes works for one notoriously mistreated product category, says Rococo – the chocolate covered coffee bean.
“The key to the chocolate-covered coffee bean is flavour – a bad bean and bad chocolate will give you a lousy result. Most people put an average bean inside a dark chocolate, but if you do that, you miss all the contrast in taste between the chocolate and the coffee.
“So, we use a Papua New Guinea coffee bean, inside a milk chocolate.”
And that, says Rococo, is how you achieve a high retail price from what is too often sold as a commodity item!
Just as the names of artisan coffee roasters have become known by those who frequent the chic coffee houses, so is chocolate becoming known – the current ‘in’ name to be stocking is Kokoa, an extremely new brand from Paul Eagles. Indeed, the café which won the ‘best hot chocolate’ prize in the recent BSA awards did so with his chocolate.
He offers only four chocolates, all for melting and drinking – but each is a single-origin with a story.
“I have set up a collection of hot chocolates so that a coffee-house operator can offer a customer a drink that suits their preference. No longer dare anyone go into a coffee shop and simply ask for ‘a coffee’, and the same goes with chocolate.
“My chocolate varies from the sweetest white, to which the natural Madagascar vanilla adds flavour, through the Venezuelan (58 per cent cocoa, a character of almond, plums and fruit) to the Ecuador which is darker and what I call the ‘flat white’ of the range with a more intense flavour of nuts, vanilla, and spice.
“The Madagascar at 82 cocoa has the lowest sugar content, so really appeals to those who love chocolate but don’t want the sweetness so commonly found in hot chocolates – probably not Cadbury’s fans.
“It’s just in the UK that coffee shops serve exactly the same powder as available at home or in a vending machine – I have seen a coffee shop with a La Marzocco coffee machine and a tub of Cadburys sitting at its side!”
Does the concept work? David Littlejohn of the LJs coffee house in Soho told Coffee House magazine of a customer who came in for one hot chocolate, was told the stories of the various single origins, and went right through the menu – he spent £15 on hot chocolates in half an hour.
We can expect single origin chocolate to come from unexpected locations soon – the Daintree Estates of Australia farms 1,400 trees which were planted several years ago, and the business has now matured into a full chocolate factory. It is still a small operation – one feature on Aussie TV this summer produced so much demand that the estate actually ran out of stock, and one effect of that seems to have been to delay its arrival in the UK.
The highlighting of really great chocolate could be a major step ahead for many cafés, says Paul Morris of the Chocolate Café in Ramsbottom, the site of that big northern festival. He actually is both chocolatier and barista, creating his own chocolate products onsite.
Being in the front line gives him the opportunity to assess what chocolate meets the British taste. The café trade always hears a lot about ‘the continental taste’, and many suppliers hopefully claim that we should be converting British customers to it, and selling dense liquid hot chocolate in shot sizes – but what does the British consumer really want?
“Cadburys dictated the British taste at first, until people began coming back from holiday in Italy and now they are even looking for more than names like Gharardelli and Barry Callebaut.
So the old British idea of ‘hot chocolate’ is no longer acceptable – certainly, now that even the local greasy spoon can serve a half-decent filter coffee, you are not going to get away with any old chocolate.
“Different origins produce very different tastes – a Colombian is very different from a Venezuelan, and from Papua New Guinea, which is a smoky chocolate, from volcanic soil.
“So it took us months of playing with recipes to find out what the British customer wants, and we now serve a wonderful 34 per cent Colombian which serves very well as a general house chocolate.”
Most chocolate fans specify their chocolate by the cocoa percentage – however, Paul Morris reports having recently heard two ladies talking in the shop and saying: ‘they shouldn’t be selling 100-per-cent chocolate as it’s illegal… it’s like cocaine’ !
Arousing interest from chocolate is the attitude taken by virtually every maker. Even Thorntons, the operator of retail stores all across the UK, has created its Great Chocolate Britain competition, inviting consumers across the country to submit chocolate creations based on the flavours they think best represent their own region. The winners get to make their suggestion with a master chocolatier, and in theory, likely recipes include chocolate based on Kendal mint cake, Lincolnshire plum loaf, Devon cream tea, Pontefract liquorice, Grasmere gingerbread or Staffordshire oakcakes… however, Thorntons have confirmed to us, all these are speculative and none has yet been attempted.
Realistically, what should the average coffee shop do to make better business from chocolate?
The recommendation comes from Paul Morris in Ramsbottom:
“I very seriously suggest that the serious coffee-shop owner learns how to temper chocolate – this is essentially melting chocolate to ensure that all the constituent crystals are uniform, thus giving the right visual appearance, smoothness, and mouthfeel.
“This will open up a whole new revenue stream for you. Even if you just create a range of chocolate-covered coffee beans which is unique to you, not something you’ve bought by the ton, then you’ve created something the big boys won’t be able to reach.”
Paul Morris has his own unique product – the chocolate cigarillo, a thin sliver of chocolate shaped into a pipe, which he places on the saucer where the conventional biscuit might sit.
“It releases its flavour immediately – we’ve now started selling them by the box.
“You must always have something that people can buy and take away and remember you for – we created a chocolate pizza, and we also sell real cakes covered in our own chocolate. The big cafés haven’t a chance of competing with you on anything like this!”