CACAO CRUSADER: Sharing the origins of ethical chocolate, from bean to bar

In Victoria, taste ethically sourced, single origin chocolate bars at The Chocolate Project, a retail store offering more than 300, artisan bean-to-bar choices from around the world.


By CINDA CHAVICH


When I first met David Mincey he was just launching The Chocolate Project, offering workshops and tastings in a downtown pop-up shop in Victoria.

You could find him every other weekend, passing out bite-sized samples of some of the world’s most exclusive chocolate, and proslytizing to anyone who would listen about why buying good, ethically-sourced chocolate matters.

While offering free tastings of rare bean-to-bar chocolate is remarkable in itself, what’s even more remarkable is the breadth of artisan chocolate Mincey has amassed in his store — now a fixture in the Victoria Public Market — the best selection of artisan chocolate bars for sale in one place, anywhere in the country, perhaps the world.

Growing from those pop-up shops in 2014 (and 15 years before that traveling, speaking and teaching about heirloom strains of chocolate and farmers around the world), Mincey now is one of the country's top chocolate experts, continuing to educate with tasting events and workshops. Today The Chocolate Project carries a curated selection of over 350 different bars from more than 60 bean-to-bar artists from around the world, an every-changing offering to buy in the retail store or on line.

But I remember those early, informal drop-in tastings, too, where both curious and committed chocolate lovers got a chance to nibble chocolate from Mincey’s carefully curated collection, new discoveries and some so rare they came from his own chocolate “cellar”, likely never be seen again.

“This is the Antica Dolceria, each bar made entirely by hand one at a time, by monks in Sicily - it took me years to get 12 bars and this is the last one,” said Mincey, proffering a taste of the rustic bar. A nine-year-old boy, a “regular” here with his family, put the gritty, dark sliver into his mouth and pronounced it “rich.”

That Sicilian bar may no longer be among his offerings, but it's an example of the hottest trend in the chocolate world and every bar in his store — from bean-to-bar chocolatiers who source the world’s best cocoa beans direct from growers, then roast, grind, conch and mold them into pure, dark and unique chocolate bars.

Mincey is not a chocolate maker but has certainly become an expert when it comes to this type of rare, artisan confection. A longtime Victoria chef — former owner of Camille’s Restaurant — with a passion for farm-to-table cooking, Mincey began his quest for the best chocolate 25 years ago.

“As a chef, I knew exactly where my meat and eggs and vegetables were coming from, but my suppliers couldn’t tell me anything about the chocolate we were buying,” he says. “I became a little obsessed about where to get good chocolate.”

And so the work of researching, collecting, tasting, sharing and finally selling craft chocolate began. By 2016, Mincey estimated there were about 100 good bean-to-bar makers in the world, and he was importing bars from about 60 of them to sell in Victoria. That was when there were only a couple of makers in Canada (Toronto's SOMA a pioneer). Now there are at least 40 bean-to-bar makers in Canada, with Victoria's Sirene Chocolate one of the finest examples. Now he estimates there are more than 300 artisan bars in his retail rotation.


(photo The Chocolate Project)

WHAT IS BEAN-TO-BAR CHOCOLATE?

This kind of Direct Trade chocolate goes beyond single plantation, organic, or even Fair Trade parameters. It’s made in small batches, from beans with sustainable and ethical provenance, purchased directly from the small growers at fair prices.

“People want to know where they can get better chocolate,” Mincey says, “and when they try some of these bean-to-bar products, it’s a revelation. It’s just fantastic chocolate.”

I’ve had my share of fine, single origin bars, chocolate from famous chocolatiers like Michel Cluizel or Valrhona, but these small makers are the garargistes of the chocolate world, breaking rules and making unique bars that stand out with distinctive labels and the kind of flavour variations that spring from the cacao bean's terroir.

It’s a new generation of chocolate makers, mainly in the US and Canada, with near cult followings — company’s like the Mast Brothers in Brooklyn, Dandelion and Dick Taylor from California, and Patric Chocolate in Missouri.

In Canada, there are notables beyond SOMA and Sirene, too — from Quebec's Chaleur B Chocolat to Ontario's Hummingbird Chocolate Maker, Victoria's rustic Uncouth chocolate bars and Vancouver’s East Van Roasters, a social enterprise that’s creating delicious bars while helping women with employment, housing and healthcare on the downtown east side.

All are available from Mincey’s chocolate retail shop and online store, with several selections also available at Chocolat & Co. on Fort Street, a collaboration of three chocolate makers/purveyors including The Chocolate Project, Uncouth Chocolate and Terrible Truffles.


WHY BUY ETHICAL CHOCOLATE?

At the other end of the spectrum are Nestle, Lindt & Sprungli, and Kraft – huge confection companies that now own upscale brands from Ghiradelli and Scharffen Berger to Green & Black’s – and Barry Callebaut, the couverture wholesaler to the world. While the largest of them do buy beans to make their bulk chocolate, most of the world’s chocolate bar makers are mere “melters” — buying and blending this industrial chocolate to create their own branded chocolate bars, truffles, filled chocolates and other confections.

The sad reality is that much of this bulk chocolate is sourced from cocoa plantations in Ghana and Ivory Coast where child labour and slavery are rampant.

But consumers, especially those committed to sustainable and ethical eating like Mincey, want better. While it’s a little more difficult to make farm-to-table connections halfway around the world, that’s exactly what these bean-to-bar makers do. Many have direct relationships with cacao farmers or their grower co-ops, paying premium prices and helping producers improve the quality of their beans, to realize even better profits. This Direct Trade arrangement puts cash directly into the hands of cacao farmers and cooperatives, provides value-added jobs and enhances small communities and their local infrastructure, from cacao processing to schools and medical facilities.



HOW IS BEAN-TO-BAR CHOCOLATE MADE?

Marisa and Kent Goodwin have been importing organic, Fair Trade chocolate to make their Organic Fair bars in Cobble Hill for several years, and recently acquired the small scale roasting and grinding equipment they need to make their bars from scratch.

“We used to blend Fair Trade chocolate from Dominican Republic and Peru,” says Marisa, “but now we buy our beans direct from growers.”

Making chocolate bars is never simple but Goodwin says the bean-to-bar business is particularly complex.

“We roast, crack, winnow, grind, conch and then we have to temper and mold the chocolate,” she says. “Chocolate is very picky – it’s not simple to work with chocolate.”

She points to the terroir and unique flavours of the world’s cacao as her inspiration. Like craft beer and gourmet coffee, craft chocolate is booming, but Goodwin says it won’t grow as quickly because “it’s just so much more work to make chocolate.”

Mincey agrees, saying there’s both technical skill and art involved in making great chocolate. Not all of the bean-to-bar products he tastes make the grade.


WHAT DOES BEAN-TO-BAR CHOCOLATE TASTE LIKE?

The 80% Sicilian bar we are sharing today is one of the world’s oldest craft chocolates, still ground on a millstone by hand, just as Italian monks made the first chocolate from Aztec beans delivered by Cortez in the early 16th century. Others on the tasting table have less history but are equally rare — a bar of 70% Nicaraguan chocolate from Hummingbird, a new maker in Ottawa; a Madagascar bar made by Raaka in upstate New York with flavours of blackberries and port; a Belizean bar tasting of raisins and figs from Tocoti; and the Zotter 90%, an intense, smoky bar made from beans sourced at the El Ceibo Co-op in Bolivia.

Like a fine wine tasting, Mincey has arranged the chocolate from mild and fruity examples, to intense, earthy bars with very high levels of cacao. When I get to the 97% Venezuelan bar, created by artisan makers at Rozsavolgyi Csokolade in Budapest, Hungary, I’ve almost hit my limit. But it’s the 100% Bonnat bar that literally takes my breath away – pure chocolate with no sugar to mitigate the intense tannins that dry my tongue like sandpaper.

It can be challenging stuff but Victoria’s new chocolate connoisseurs are trying and buying these chocolate bars, even with prices ranging from $9 to $24 each.

Retiree Bill Huot is a convert, educated by Mincey and happy to pay for the provenance, ethics and flavour of better bars.

“I learned how artisans make better chocolate, by buying from the growers and helping them make better cacao,” Huot told me, admitting he rarely goes a day without chocolate.

“It’s more expensive but for less than $20 I can taste the best chocolate in the world. You can’t say that with scotch or wine.”

Danielle Lukovich and her two young children are avid chocolate tasters, too. Only the 100% bar gets a negative reaction from her three-year-old daughter.

“We’re pretty choosy about the other food we buy, and there’s really no comparison when you try this chocolate, ” she says. “Our kids have pretty discerning palates.”

Which is exactly why Mincey continues his chocolate crusade.

“It’s so important to get people to understand the world of chocolate.”