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Jael Skeffington was making chocolate truffles in her kitchen in Minneapolis over a decade ago when she had a moment of perfect clarity. By her own admission, Skeffington isn’t someone who looks at life through a spiritual lens, but it’s hard not to invoke mystical language in describing what happened to her that day, as she engaged in the meditative physical ritual of rolling truffles, passing them from hand to hand.
“I was in this zone and rhythm and I felt my hands begin to tingle. I opened my fingers and looked at them and said, ‘Chocolate is the thing that will make me happy.’”
Shortly after that realization, Skeffington and her then husband Dan Rattigan relocated to Asheville, North Carolina, and founded French Broad Chocolates, named for the river that wends its way through this city on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. French Broad Chocolates is a bean-to-bar chocolate company making bars, bon bons, and other chocolate confections using ethically sourced cacao exclusively.
But what is bean-to-bar chocolate, what does it mean that it’s ethically sourced, and what the hell does this have to do with beer? The answer to the first two questions peels back the wrapper on the harsh realities of the industry that are often invisible to consumers, while the answer to the third pops the tab on a growing segment of the craft beer world that is just beginning to be explored.
THE REALITIES OF CACAO Chocolate is a familiar delight in the Western world. This childhood treat morphs seamlessly into an adult indulgence full of nostalgia, sometimes transporting us back to younger, more carefree moments, sometimes comforting us after hard days and sometimes helping us celebrate great ones. It is given in apology and in appreciation, in flirtation and in friendship. As ubiquitous as chocolate is, though, most people have no idea how it’s made, what it’s made from, and how it gets from its place of origin to grocery store shelves. Those details are often nowhere near as sweet and innocent as our associations with chocolate would have us believe.
“The most important thing is understanding that chocolate comes from a tropical fruit that is the livelihood of millions of families around the world,” says Emily Stone, founder and CEO of Uncommon Cacao. She founded the company in 2010 as an intermediary between cacao farmers and the growing number of craft or bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Most of the world’s cacao at that time was being grown as a homogeneous commodity crop for a handful of multinational corporations. It wasn’t of the quality craft makers needed, and, most importantly, it was destroying the lives of a whole lot of people in the Global South.
“There’s no problem with the fact that these companies are mega-billion-dollar corporations. That’s capitalism. That’s how money works,” explains Mackenzie Rivers, a bean-to-bar chocolate maker who ran Map Chocolate for years before launching Spoon & Pod, a company supplying ethical cacao products to bakers. “The problem is they’re mega-billion-dollar corporations that are paying cacao producers pennies, and the cacao producers live in the worst forms of poverty that exist on the planet.”
Beyond poverty, the chocolate industry hides another insidious truth: Much of the world’s cacao is harvested and processed by child slaves and other exploited labor. Statistics are hard to track, but most experts estimate over 70% of the world’s cacao has labor abuses in its supply chain.
“On the one hand, there’s a philosophy of slavery where they’re just not going to pay the farmers any money,” explains Rivers. “And then there is the literal slavery. It’s well-documented by the U.S. government and other large entities. There’s been a lot of legislation that has tried to prohibit cacao being brought to the U.S. that has used child slave labor, children stolen and forced into slavery.”
There is currently a case before the U.S. Supreme Court evaluating the complicity of major chocolate corporations in child exploitation, but up until now, no measure has succeeded in shaking up the status quo. The big chocolate producers continue to promise change, and continue to extend their deadlines for accomplishing it.
THE ORIGIN OF CRAFT The bean-to-bar movement sprang up in the early aughts to both make better chocolate—chocolate that would be crafted all the way from dried cocoa beans to finished bars and confections (hence “bean-to-bar”)—and to make it with ethical, traceable cacao. After launching in 2010, Uncommon Cacao is now the single largest broker for this cacao, working with around half of the world’s 500 or so bean-to-bar makers. Many makers also forge relationships directly with farmers and co-ops in the cacao belt (a region spanning the globe between 20 degrees north and south of the equator) to source their cacao.
Skeffington at French Broad does both for her single-origin bars (which highlight the terroir of particular growing regions) and inclusion bars (which use additional ingredients for flavor, such as fruits or spices). You can think of the difference between these categories as analogous to classic beer styles and more experimental styles like adjunct Stouts, fruited Sours, or spiced beers. And that similarity is where bean-to-bar chocolate becomes relevant to craft brewers and fans, particularly as cacao itself is being used in more and more beers.
“My husband is a homebrewer, and when we first started looking at breweries at Ethereal, I was spending a lot of time in homebrewing stores. I picked up some cocoa nibs from the shelf and compared them to what I knew we were making, and I knew there was a huge difference. We started talking about how we can get these into brewers’ hands.”
— Marisa Allen, Ethereal Confections While cacao and chocolate have been used in beers as far back as the 1980s (though Mesoamerican peoples were making a form of beer from cacao thousands of years ago), the use of these ingredients has rapidly increased in recent years with the emergence of dessert or “Pastry” Stouts and related styles. While chocolate flavors play a big role in these beers, brewers still tend to think of chocolate as a single flavor concept and order the cheapest or most available cacao they can find, which often isn’t of the best quality.
Marisa Allen is the sales manager for Ethereal Confections, a bean-to-bar chocolate maker and chocolatier (a chocolate maker makes chocolate, a chocolatier makes things with chocolate) in Woodstock, Illinois, on the northwest side of Chicago. Ethereal Confections now provides cacao to over 150 craft breweries, and Allen recognized the market opportunity after seeing the poor attention being given to cacao quality in homebrewing.
“My husband is a homebrewer, and when we first started looking at breweries at Ethereal, I was spending a lot of time in homebrewing stores,” she explains. “I picked up some cocoa nibs from the shelf and compared them to what I knew we were making, and I knew there was a huge difference. We started talking about how we can get these into brewers’ hands.”
“Brewers are buying from a distributor or a brew supply house, and maybe they care about where their hops come from but not where the cacao comes from,” says Ethereal co-founder Michael Ervin. “I would say there’s a little bit of fear in working with cacao for brewers, because not everyone knows a lot about it. Part of our job is to educate people about where it comes from and what the distinctions in cacao actually mean.”
BEER AND CHOCOLATE French Broad’s chocolate factory sits in South Slope, a region of Asheville that has blossomed with craft breweries in recent years. Beer has been Skeffington’s beverage of choice since her days drinking New Glarus in college in Wisconsin back in the mid-90s. She has built relationships with most of the breweries in Asheville, and provides cacao nibs and other chocolate ingredients for numerous brewers around Beer City USA. Her most notable ongoing creative partnership is with Burial Beer Co.
Burial seems to do just about every style of beer well, but it’s best known for its luscious Hazy IPAs and complex dessert beers. The latter have proven a fertile ground for collaboration with French Broad, and have led to close friendship between Skeffington and Burial co-founders Jess and Doug Reiser (along with third founder Tim Gormley). Their back-and-forth creative exchange finds a host of cacao products being used in Burial’s beers—well beyond the typical cacao nibs—and has even seen French Broad produce bon bon bars infused with Burial’s beer (bon bons are filled chocolates, and French Broad occasionally releases longer versions in bar form).
The most common cacao products Burial gets from its neighbors are nibs, husks (the brittle shell around a cocoa bean), and fines, a more powder-like by-product of the chocolate-making process that is a combination of husks and nibs. The type of beer and the desired chocolate character determine which product Burial uses.
“We do a lot of decadent Stouts, so we choose something like nibs or fines for those, because you’re going to get a more rich, prominent flavor,” says Alia Midoun, head brewer at Burial’s Forestry Camp location. “The husks we often use for our more nuanced beers, like sours. That would be an example where we wouldn’t want to overdo it.”
Midoun is excited about the idea of making a series of lighter beers that highlight the nuances of different cacao origins, similar to making a series of single-hop IPAs. “Fruit and chocolate always goes together, so experimenting with IPA and just brushing with that cocoa flavor would be really cool,” she says. “These days IPAs are a lot richer than [they used to be], so we’d want to tone that down a bit so you could still showcase the cacao flavors.”
Burial has even experimented with a cacao product previously assumed to be unusable in beer: cocoa butter. The pressed fat of the cocoa bean can be richly aromatic, but fats and oils are usually thought to be anathema to the brewing process because of their detrimental effects on beer foam.
“It’s pure fat, but it’s a highly aromatic fat, sort of like coconut oil, so we wanted to experiment with it,” says Doug Reiser. While some of these attempts have failed, they’ve had success with chilling the butter and cutting it into finger-sized blocks and then resting the beer on it. Reiser says this extracts the aromatic surfaces oils without the deeper fats, and allows them to replicate the flavors of white chocolate, which is made with cocoa butter rather than cocoa bean solids.
KNOWLEDGE NEEDED Few brewers work as extensively with cacao as the Burial team does, but the increasing popularity of dessert Stouts has seen a proliferation of chocolate-flavored beers hitting the market, and a recent study funded by several large breweries projects this trend will continue for years to come. While plenty of these beers are delicious, many of the brewers behind them—and the drinkers craving them—still see chocolate as a single, abstract flavor, rather than the product of a tropical fruit grown around the world in varying microclimates, with all the diversity and nuance springing from such variety.
“Chocolate is very much like coffee. We grew up with it. It surrounds us and feels accessible. But when you really sit down and think about where it comes from, it’s much more than that.”
— Jess Reiser, Burial Beer Co. “Chocolate is very much like coffee,” says Jess Reiser. “We grew up with it. It surrounds us and feels accessible. But when you really sit down and think about where it comes from, it’s much more than that.”
Stone at Uncommon Cacao agrees, but sees the bean-to-bar chocolate industry as a whole as several years behind its craft siblings in public awareness.
“The craft chocolate movement is still early. If you compare it to craft beer or third-wave coffee, we’re still pretty immature as an industry, both in consumer knowledge that we even exist, and our reach into more mainstream channels,” she explains.
The growing pains and questions facing this industry—built by scrappy, DIY makers pushing back against massive corporations—will be uncomfortably familiar to anyone aware of the evolution of craft beer since its early days. How do you define “craft”? How big is too big for a “small” maker? How do you explain your varieties of style to consumers who are used to your category being one thing? How do you celebrate quality without being a snob and turning away the curious? How do you defend significantly higher prices? How do you maintain positivity when ill-qualified makers are putting out subpar products to capitalize on the segment’s growth?
As in any small but growing industry full of proud and talented artisans, there is often more turmoil and tension beneath the Instagrammable surface than meets the eye, with adherents defending their particular positions on the above questions. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing bean-to-bar chocolate, however, is its ongoing invisibility, and the invisibility of the ethical problems that led to its genesis. And this is especially true of chocolate’s use in craft beer. It is common for beers brewed with chocolate or cacao to say only those two words on the can or bottle and nothing more. Mention is rarely made of origin, source, or format of the cacao. No nod is given to sensory diversity. “Chocolate” is accepted as a single, monolithic flavor concept.
Stone mentioned craft chocolate is well behind third-wave coffee, and cacao’s erasure within brewing is a perfect example. It would be rare at this point for a brewer not to include the name of the roaster they partnered with to source beans for a coffee beer. Coffee is no longer just coffee. It’s Ethiopia washed process, or Guatemala Huehuetenango, or China Yunnan honey process. Most of the time though, cacao is still just cacao.
That’s beginning to change however, as more craft brewers work with bean-to-bar chocolate makers like French Broad to source their cacao. Parallel to that growth is another single source of cacao that complicates this relationship of beer to origin one step further.
A LIQUID SOLUTION Cholaca was founded in Boulder, Colorado, in 2012 by Ira Leibtag. The company’s biggest focus has been its eponymous liquid product of pure cacao emulsified in water. Leibtag initially marketed the product to coffee shops for use in mocha drinks and still finds success in that field, but the business blossomed around 2016 when brewer Tim Matthews asked to use the product in a chocolate beer at Oskar Blues Brewery. It didn’t take long for breweries to make up close to 80% of Cholaca’s business. The product makes cleaning tanks much easier than the sludge left behind by nibs.
Leibtag has established his own cacao supply chain in South America, building exclusive relationships with farms in Colombia and Ecuador. He is passionate about both paying his farmers well above the market rate for cacao and establishing regenerative agriculture guidelines for the cacao he buys (there are ecological concerns around cacao cultivation that are beyond the scope of this article). And he’s buying a lot of it.
This volume allows for blending and consistency, meaning brewers can count on Cholaca to provide a consistent flavor profile, a promise single-origin nibs can’t offer with their seasonal variances. This makes the product a desirable option for larger brewers or breweries looking to use chocolate in a core beer. It does, however, iron out some of the nuances that make single-origin cacao intriguing in the first place.
Jason Pellett of Orpheus Brewing in Atlanta uses both. For quirkier special-release beers, he uses single-origin nibs. For packaged beers that will end up in can packs, he uses Cholaca.
“We find some beers [using nibs] are hard to scale up to full production,” he says. “It ends up being a huge mess. The nibs are more nuanced, but dealing with all that sludge is a mess.”
The reduced mess, as well as consistency, have established Cholaca as the industry standard for larger brewers. “Those breweries are starting to scale their flavored beers,” explains Leibtag. “When you’re going to make thousands of barrels using nibs, they know the problem with it. They’re looking at Cholaca and seeing the benefit, from Molson to Oskar Blues to Great Divide.”
Leibtag is something of an eccentric entrepreneur-type, a mad scientist with a keen knack for business. He’s not shy in explaining why he thinks his larger-volume model is doing more to improve the ethical problems in global cacao than boutique, mom-and-pop bean-to-bar chocolate makers.
“If I’m a bean-to-bar guy who travels down to South America once a year and buys a pallet from this person and 100 lbs. from this person, yeah, that’s great, you’re creating awareness and feeding your ego, but how much difference are you actually making to those people?” he asks. “We’re going down there and saying, ‘As much as you can produce, we’ll buy it all.’”
Bean-to-bar makers see their efforts as the snowflakes that combine into an avalanche, but Skeffington acknowledges that the desire to do more good is a factor in wanting to grow as a company and an industry.
“It motivates us to grow to know that that means we can buy more cacao that is more supportive of a healthier supply chain,” says Skeffington. “If we buy one bag of cacao, we’re not making a big difference. If we buy several containers of cacao in a year, we’re making a much bigger financial impact.”
HUSKS AND FOEDERS Cholaca’s classically chocolatey flavor is a great option for large-batch Stouts, but many brewers still opt for cacao from bean-to-bar makers for more esoteric beers. In New Belgium Brewing’s storied foeder room in Fort Collins, Colorado, Lauren Woods Limbach has brewed several high-concept wood-aged Sours with cacao, and has partnered with bean-to-bar makers to get the sourcing details right.
Limbach is known for her prowess in blending wood-aged Sour Ales, and has used Felix (New Belgium’s single-foeder Golden Sour Ale) and La Folie (its Brown Sour Ale) as the foundations for several cacao-infused beers. Supporting Midoun’s explanation at Burial, Limbach has found cacao husks to be best for these complex Sour Ales, such as the recently released Fernandito, a La Folie-based beer aged in Leopold Bros. fernet and bourbon barrels (there is a direct relationship between the flavor character of an origin’s cacao nibs and its husks, even if they aren’t identical). Limbach began working with husks several years ago at the recommendation of Toby Gadd at neighboring Nuance Chocolate, a frequent collaborator.
“If you’re going to say you’re using this single origin and then put it into a sour beer, the nuances aren’t there anymore [after fermentation]. With Venezuela, I love the jasmine and lavender notes, and I could put that on the label and somebody’s going to totally say they get it, but it’s not there. It makes sense if you’re going to add something that detracts every nuance from that origin, why not just go with the most chocolatey cacao?”
— Lauren Woods Limbach, New Belgium Brewing “He kept expounding on how much husks he ends up with and how aromatic and luscious they are,” she recalls. “So I went over there and would taste different origins and try to think through what kind of beer they would work in.”
She explains the reasons for using husks in terms any brewer can appreciate: “Fat content. And price. They’re both happy accidents.”
The lack of fats in the husks in comparison to the nibs means head retention isn’t impacted, an important consideration for sour and mixed-fermentation beers in which the protein and dextrin structures that contribute to foam may already be diminished by the fermentation process.
“When I’m creating a sour beer, by the time it comes out of the foeder, the beer has nothing for the foam to stand on. The last thing I need to do is add another obstacle with the extraction of oil from the nibs,” she explains. “And because the husks are a by-product, the price immediately goes down. Husks are relatively cheap, so I tend to overdose with husks for a short period of time. You could never think about doing that with nibs. That would be extravagant and dumb. You have this wiggle room and luxury with husks to be like, ‘I’ll double that order.’”
That need for volume dovetails conveniently with Nuance’s abundance of husks from an origin known for its straight-ahead chocolatey flavor: Ghana, in West Africa. Nuance uses Ghana for most of its bon bons and other confections because it provides a recognizable, comforting chocolate backdrop for other flavors without competing for attention.
“As luck would have it, what we have the most of is what brewers want most,” says Gadd. “The smaller brewers I’m pushing more to use different origins and be more experimental. New Belgium is usually looking more for a traditional chocolate, roasted flavor. It’s a lucky coincidence.”
Limbach points out that even if she wanted to add more nuanced cacao flavors to her beer, there might not be much point to doing so in her sour, mixed-fermentation environment.
“You put a beer into a foeder, and it just rips and tears everything apart. Anything that’s flavor is food,” she explains. “If you’re going to say you’re using this single origin and then put it into a sour beer, the nuances aren’t there anymore [after fermentation]. With Venezuela, I love the jasmine and lavender notes, and I could put that on the label and somebody’s going to totally say they get it, but it’s not there. It makes sense if you’re going to add something that detracts every nuance from that origin, why not just go with the most chocolatey cacao?”
Since establishing its Asheville location in 2016, New Belgium has also partnered with Raleigh, North Carolina bean-to-bar chocolate maker Videri Chocolate Factory. In 2020, Limbach worked with Videri on Exquisite Extraction, another La Folie-based Dark Sour that also utilized coffee from Raleigh’s Black & White Coffee Roasters. For this beer, Videri co-founder Sam Ratto suggested Limbach try a blend of nibs and husks he’s been fine-tuning specifically for brewers.
“I’ve been working to create this product called Brewer’s Bullion, which is basically a tea product produced from the cacao winnowing process that is 90% powdered nibs and 10% husks,” explains Ratto. The product is very similar to the “fines” French Broad offers to Burial. “The finer the nibs, the more surface area for extraction there is. Brewer’s Nibs is 97% nibs and 3% husks, and that’s what Lauren used.”
For this beer, Ratto selected cacao from Zorzal Estate in the Dominican Republic, known for its berry-like acidity (and as an added piece of romance, it’s grown in a bird sanctuary). While acknowledging origin nuances may not always come through directly in a sour beer, Ratto believes the Zorzal cacao combined with the Black & White Roasters coffee to yield a cherry-like note to Exquisite Extraction, as well as a deep cocoa character.
“One of our main jobs is to be a chocolate lumber mill,” says Ratto. “We want to make the best lumber for somebody else to make a great dessert or beer. Lauren was able to put those puzzle pieces together and make that beer taste the way it did.”
At Orpheus in Atlanta, Pellett took a very different approach to producing a sour beer with cacao. Rather than using processed nibs or husks, he added the wet pulp and seeds of fresh cacao fruit directly to one of his Méthode Traditionelle sour beers. Artifice of Eternity is a 4.6% Lambic-inspired beer that aged on the raw fruit, and it picked up the unmistakable lychee and passionfruit flavors of cacao pulp. Pellett then dried, roasted, and winnowed the seeds, and turned half of them into chocolate bars (which bore the influence of the spontaneous fermentation), and returned the other half to Artifice of Eternity Inversion, a bourbon barrel Imperial Stout.
Exploring the flavor cycle of cacao in this way was a fascinating experiment for Pellett and a rewarding flavor exploration for invested beer and fermentation geeks, but proved difficult to explain to consumers. The release was Orpheus’ slowest-selling bottle release of 2020. When I asked him what will come next in his cacao experiments, Pellett responded wryly, “Selling this one.”
This problem points to the biggest challenge in adopting ethically sourced, single-origin cacao usage in craft beer: visibility and return. Most consumers are not aware of quality and ethics concerns in cacao or the existence of bean-to-bar chocolate, so the increased cost of purchasing cacao in this way may be difficult to justify for some brewers. Why spend more if there isn’t an immediate, tangible reward for doing so?
TELLING A BETTER STORY As with many aspects of selling beer, consumer education is key. Craft chocolate now is where craft coffee was in the 1990s and 2000s, and where craft beer was even earlier. Those industries grew up somewhat alongside each other, so it’s now natural for a beer consumer to read the phrase “washed process” on a coffee beer label and have some understanding of what that means. Getting there with cacao will take time, but brewers can capitalize on one universal appeal with this ingredient right away: story.
“I see a lot of breweries talking about ingredients and working with specific farms, and I think cacao can enter that category. I see storytelling being a way that brewers can make their products distinctive. You can sell the beer not just on the source of your core ingredients, but on the source of your cacao and other spices. That sourcing matters.”
— Michael Ervin, Ethereal Confections “Any time the words chocolate or cacao and education come together, I think about origin, and I think about people,” says Skeffington. Human beings and their stories and struggles, the land they live on and work, and the pride that goes into their craft are all relatable and appealing factors of the cacao-sourcing process that can instantly draw a customer in. And being able to feature the name and logo of a bean-to-bar chocolate maker can help as well. Ervin at Ethereal Confections sees an advantage for brewers not only in the quality of traceable, single-origin cacao, but in the opportunity it provides for marketing.
“I see a lot of breweries talking about ingredients and working with specific farms, and I think cacao can enter that category,” he says. “I see storytelling being a way that brewers can make their products distinctive. You can sell the beer not just on the source of your core ingredients, but on the source of your cacao and other spices. That sourcing matters.”
Jess Reiser at Burial agrees. “French Broad has allowed us to collaborate from a brand standpoint also,” she says. “We had to think about taking two different brands and meshing them into an image that translates across consumers. That can attract people who don’t normally drink beer or don’t know who Burial is.”
Chocolate’s childhood nostalgia often leads to the tasting experience being governed by whimsy and curiosity, and—like many fans of a niche interest—bean-to-bar chocolate lovers are excited when new people discover their area of passion. If a brewery works with a bean-to-bar maker’s cacao, that maker’s fans will likely try the brewery’s beer for the first time, which is thrilling at a moment when craft beer appears to be struggling to find new audiences.
Then there’s the benefit of using cacao that wasn’t harvested by enslaved children, and from which farming families can make a meaningful living. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but, well … I don’t have to be. The simple fact is this labor abuse and child exploitation are rampant in the cacao world. When we talk about “craft” in chocolate, we need to be honest about what’s at stake.
Words by David NilsenIllustrations by Ben Chlapek