The Inaugural Academy Of Chocolate Conference

The Academy Of Chocolate Conference

I’m a self-confessed chocolate geek. The natural history, the cultural history, the economics and, of course the politics of chocolate are a vice to me. Now I couldn’t call anyone I know the Larry Flynt of chocolate but there are a good number of people pushing the boundaries and putting more passion into the industry than there has ever been.

Some people like to quantify the chocolate industry in the amount of money that is spent on it in a given year. The figure is about £3.7bn per year – just in this country. What has never been gauged has been the sheer joy that fine chocolate brings to people. Similarly what often goes unnoticed are the costs of bringing those luxurious moments to our lips. 54p. The price of a “Fairtrade” Kit Kat 4 Finger Chocolate bar. That’s all that that the average cocoa farmer in Ghana earns per day according to Tony Lass MBE who started with Cadbury some forty-plus years ago and is an expert on “cocoa”.

This is what I loved about the day. There was a fantastic balance of talks that would satisfy even the most ardent of chocolate geeks. Tony Lass gave a wonderful talk about the economics of cocoa with particular attention to the roll of speculators and how their assets can be juxtaposed with the poverty that many cocoa farmers have to endure. Craig Sams also gave an interesting talk about the natural history of chocolate that I find fascinating (I’m currently reading The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History).

Faitrade v Organic ChocolateFollowing on from the genetics of chocolate, through to the economics of cocoa production we then flowed onto the marketing and buying patterns of chocolate and how it has changed over recent years. Having a degree in economics and been marketing as a job the past 13 years I found the talk incredibly interesting. Especially how people have responded to media coverage by demanding more Fairtrade chocolate, but staggeringly, less organic chocolate.

It was also interesting to see what type of “claims” chocolate producers were making, i.e. which market segments they were targeting to boost sales. What came out of the data is that more chocolatiers and chocolate makers (there is a difference) felt that it was more important to assert the suitable for vegetarians feature for their chocolate. “Premium” seemed to have fallen and ethical is on the rise.

One set of data wasn’t surprising to see is that dark chocolate lovers are more affluent and older than those that prefer milk chocolate. Other information that was presented were the reasons why people buy chocolate. The largest two categories were as treats for one’s self and as treats for children other than as traditional gifts. Surprisingly chocolate for cooking was higher than I thought it’d be. Richard Perks from Mintel also gave the socio-demographic data for who bought the different types of chocolate for the different reasons – but I think you’ll have to contact Mintel for that information or visit the Conference next year?

We then had a couple of presentations from Sophie Tranchell MBE who is MD of Divine Chocolate and Lynn Cunningham who is the People & Communication Director for Hotel Chocolat. Most of us were probably aware of the ethical stance that Divine has. In the past they’ve engaged very well with me and I’ve been encouraged to read about their ethics. For Divine their part ownership by the Kuapa Kokoo farmers in Ghana is their USP. What I didn’t know what the full scale of their engagement with the local producers and how much direction the producers give the company. And I must stay how they’ve managed to get a co-operative running with such success is truly astounding.

Engaged Ethics

Everyone knows the Hotel Chocolat brand. They’re omnipresent in the market. And for my mind they don’t play enough on their ethical stance. What I didn’t know about was their engaged ethics programme for their cocoa farmers in St. Lucia. Before Angus Thirlwell spoke to me before the talk I didn’t know they pay a considerable premium to those producers and that they treat their local suppliers as partners. They should be more vocal about this, and not to a select group of self-confessed “chocolate nuts” in an exclusive environment.

William Curley Demonstration

From the seriousness of the financial and ethical elements of the chocolate industry, we went on to the fun element. There was a great demonstration by William Curley who made some rosemary flavoured chocolates as well as let us try some others that were pretty damn fab – and which I’ll be buying (if I can’t blag some) at Chocolate Unwrapped this weekend.

Paul A. Young And then we had a great couple of talks from William and Paul A. Young about their path to chocolate greatness and a fascinating talk it was too. If Paul ever failed at being a chocolatier, he could well do anything in TV, the guy is engaging. I could see Paul doing great on the cookery slots on Blue Peter!! William was a great hit too. He may be a bit more reserved but has an equally fascinating story to tell. The themes that ran through both of their presentations were about obsession with quality, being original, taking yourself out of your comfort zone, being your own man and always striving to be original. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

We then were met by a panel to talk about the thought process behind matching flavours and ingredients. This again included Paul A. Young whose notoriety increased with every unusual flavour, including the Marmite XO Dark Chocolate Bar, the Marmite and the Port & Stilton truffles which you can find within his House Selection. Also was on the panel was chocolate pioneer and Rococo Chocolates founder Chantal Coady and the man with the hardest job in chocolate: Keith Hurdman. This was another interesting talk about inspiration and having seen both Paul and Keith in their native environment it was great to hear what goes on even before they’ve reached their kitchen and what drives them to create unusual combinations – even though many never actually make it onto the shelves.

The talks continued with Martin Christy showing us his holiday slides. Martin’s holidays don’t involve beach towels and tanning lotion – more of looking at the genetics of theobroma cacao and a hands-on reconnaissance into how cacao farms operate around the world. To say I’m jealous is an understatement.

And then one of the highlights of the “show”: Duffy Sheardown – who makes some fabulous chocolate – from the bean no less (coincidently I’m actually enjoying nibbling on his latest creation – the Honduras 72% bar – which is fantastic by-the-way). Duffy spoke about his relaxed and somewhat hit-and-miss attitude to chocolate making. He covered how it’s been a fabulous experience during the year or so he’s been making chocolate and how an enjoyable the experimental process is. We got to try some chocolate he’s made with different conch times and how it mellows over as you conch it for longer as well as how you can develop different tastes roasts.

If that wasn’t good enough the day ended with talks from Anne Weyns about how to grow rapidly as a business whilst still focusing on producing excellent chocolate. Her views were not only relevant for chocolatiers but also other businesses. Angus Thirlwell followed up with a very interesting insight how Hotel Chocolat has grown over the past 6 years, their views on creating an attractive brand and achieving growth throwing taking the brand its logical conclusions – The Hotel Chocolat. You must admire what Angus and his team have achieved to date.

If there wasn’t enough food for thought during the day a number of us stayed behind for a wonderful supper at the dining rooms of the Royal Automobile Club which entailed fine food and more networking. We kicked off our shoes (literally) and let our hair down. I must say the whole day was a tremendously enjoyable, entertaining and informative. Perhaps next time we could have a bit more time to have debates about the topic du jour and get really into some of the issues and problems that the industry face? But for the first conference of its type it was an un-mitigating success.

If you didn’t go this year for any reason I’d certainly encourage you to go next year. It’s a great way to really get to know what the chocolate companies stand for, see the real personalities in the industry and do some great networking. If only more events I go to were like this?!

p.s. a big thanks to Kate for inviting me.

Lee McCoy

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