Chocolate is about to get real: Classifying cacao ‘diamonds’ from duds

Finished dark chocolate is shown atop cacao beans at the new TCHO chocolate factory in San Francisco, Calif., Monday, Aug. 25, 2008.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
A new effort is underway to separate the diamonds from the duds in the complex world of chocolate. Here’s a look at what’s happening and how it will affect your taste buds – and your wallet.

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Shown is a selection of multi-colored heirloom tomatoes at the Oxbow Produce and Grocery in Napa, Calif., Monday, June 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Head to your nearest farmers market or peruse the produce aisle at the grocery store and you’ll likely see signs identifying heirloom tomatoes, beans and apples. This year, another product will join the esteemed heirloom ranks: chocolate.

A new project, called the Heirloom Cacao Preservation (HCP) initiative, distinguishes fine chocolate — made from quality cacao beans — from its conventional candy bar counterparts. And it’s doing so by analyzing chocolate’s flavor and genetics.

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

In this undated image, a chocolate pod filled with cacao beans, is shown in Puerto Rico. Use of chocolate goes back to the Mayans, who considered it a gift from their god of air, Quetzalcoatl. The Spanish were the first Europeans to get hold of chocolate pods and, fifty years later, figured out what to do with them. (AP Photo/Lee Reich)
Jessica Firger, a staff writer at Newsweek and author of “Why does your chocolate taste so bad,” says that cacao farmers have long been concerned with keeping up with the demand from the chocolate industry. Therefore, they’ve focused on propagating high-yield trees.

“Because of that, the flavor [of chocolate] has suffered,” Firger says.

While the cacao from these high-yield trees is fine for making candy bars and chocolate coatings, “it’s not quite suitable for producing a high-quality chocolate bar with minimal ingredients,” Firger says.

(AP Photo/Lee Reich)

Undone Chocolate is a bean-to-bar craft chocolate maker in D.C. The company makes its chocolate using two ingredients. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
These days, there’s growing consumer interest in high-quality bars that are valued more as a superfood and less as a dessert. And craft chocolate makers are rising to meet that demand.

Read: Crafting healthy chocolate: D.C.’s new chocolate makers

(WTOP/Rachel Nania)

In this April 16, 2015 photo, a cacao pod hangs from a tree at the Agropampatar chocolate farm Co-op in El Clavo, Venezuela. While many growers complain that exports are over-regulated, others say the government has been slow to protect the crop’s reputation. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
So what’s the HCP initiative and how will it affect the chocolate industry? The HCP initiative is a partnership between the Fine Chocolate Industry Association and the USDA Agricultural Research Service. The goal is to identify and distinguish cacao that has excellent flavor.

Those identified as such will be classified as “heirloom.”

“[The HCP] has essentially been formed in reaction to concerns in the industry that the quality of chocolate is going down, and for a very long time, the chocolate industry has been primarily concerned with growing trees that will produce a lot of crop and trees that are resistant to disease and drought,” Firger says.

(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

In this April 16, 2015 photo, cacao beans dry under sun at the Agropampatar chocolate farm Co-op in El Clavo, Venezuela. Today the country exports just 8,000 tons of cacao a year, for revenue of about $30 million, slightly less than it earns from exporting another signature product, rum. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
To apply for heirloom status, growers must submit their best beans to the HCP lab, which processes the beans into chocolate for sampling. A tasting panel evaluates the flavor quality of the beans, and the USDA confirms the genotypes of the beans and the trees from which they come.

“This is the first initiative ever in the industry to use genotyping to identify which cacaos have the finest flavor and which ones could presumably be considered heirloom,” Firger says.

Since HCP launched in 2012, it has identified seven heirloom varieties from around the world.

(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

In this April 6, 2015, photo, Marta Crebilo, left, and Jason Thompson prepare chocolate molds at Olive and Sinclair Chocolate in the East Nashville area of Nashville, Tenn. The East Nashville neighborhood houses an eclectic collection of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bakeries and stores, mixed into a residential area of 1950s and 1960s homes. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
What’s the point of heirloom status? If people are willing to pay more for high-quality chocolate, more farmers will be motivated to plant and cultivate quality cacao trees.

According to Bloomberg News, a ton of rare cacao beans sells for $11,000. In comparison, the same amount of conventional beans sells for $2,700.

Chocolates made with heirloom beans will be labeled with an HCP Heirloom Cacao badge starting this year, Bloomberg reports.

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

In this April 6, 2015, photo, Scott Witherow, founder and owner of Olive and Sinclair Chocolate, operates his stone grinders to grind cacao beans in the East Nashville area of Nashville, Tenn. The East Nashville neighborhood houses an eclectic collection of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bakeries and stores, mixed into a residential area of 1950s and 1960s homes. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
While a chocolate bar recently sold for more than $200, consumers likely won’t see much of a price hike above other artisanal and craft chocolate bars.

Expect bars made with heirloom cacao to hover in the $8 to $11 range. The HCP label will just guarantee flavor and careful cultivation, certified by the experts.

But before long, the label might not be limited to a select number of specialty bars. Firger says the interest in heirloom beans and quality ingredients may even trickle down to big-brand products.

“With many food industries we’re going to start to see the concern of quality sneak into some of the major makers of chocolate, like Hershey’s. And in fact, a lot of the bigger companies have ended up purchasing fine-chocolate maker companies to get in on the fine chocolate industry,” she says.

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Finished dark chocolate is shown atop cacao beans at the new TCHO chocolate factory in San Francisco, Calif., Monday, Aug. 25, 2008.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Shown is a selection of multi-colored heirloom tomatoes at the Oxbow Produce and Grocery in Napa, Calif., Monday, June 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this undated image, a chocolate pod filled with cacao beans, is shown in Puerto Rico. Use of chocolate goes back to the Mayans, who considered it a gift from their god of air, Quetzalcoatl. The Spanish were the first Europeans to get hold of chocolate pods and, fifty years later, figured out what to do with them. (AP Photo/Lee Reich)
Undone Chocolate is a bean-to-bar craft chocolate maker in D.C. The company makes its chocolate using two ingredients. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
In this April 16, 2015 photo, a cacao pod hangs from a tree at the Agropampatar chocolate farm Co-op in El Clavo, Venezuela. While many growers complain that exports are over-regulated, others say the government has been slow to protect the crop’s reputation. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this April 16, 2015 photo, cacao beans dry under sun at the Agropampatar chocolate farm Co-op in El Clavo, Venezuela. Today the country exports just 8,000 tons of cacao a year, for revenue of about $30 million, slightly less than it earns from exporting another signature product, rum. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this April 6, 2015, photo, Marta Crebilo, left, and Jason Thompson prepare chocolate molds at Olive and Sinclair Chocolate in the East Nashville area of Nashville, Tenn. The East Nashville neighborhood houses an eclectic collection of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bakeries and stores, mixed into a residential area of 1950s and 1960s homes. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
In this April 6, 2015, photo, Scott Witherow, founder and owner of Olive and Sinclair Chocolate, operates his stone grinders to grind cacao beans in the East Nashville area of Nashville, Tenn. The East Nashville neighborhood houses an eclectic collection of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bakeries and stores, mixed into a residential area of 1950s and 1960s homes. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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