What does Uncommon Cacao do?

by Emily Stone

For the long form version of this article on Medium please click the link below:


Historically when I’m asked this question, the first thing that comes to mind is “We’re an intermediary.” But then I don’t say that. I say “We’re a supply chain company.” I find myself avoiding the words that would accurately place Uncommon Cacao in the supply chain -- in the middle -- because of the stigma associated with being a middle(wo)man. But today, I’m proud to declare our place in the supply chain as middlewomen, as the link, and the intermediary.

Here’s a truth about the relationship between specialty cacao producers and craft chocolate: most craft chocolate makers are not bringing in one or more full containers of cacao from each origin they use, and most specialty cacao producers find it challenging to ship in anything but full containers. This presents a clear potential problem: how does craft chocolate get access to the cacao they need, when they need it, in the volumes they need - sometimes as little as one or two sacks? And how do specialty cacao producers achieve stability and sustainability for their businesses while accessing this important, but highly segmented market?

Without an intermediary in the middle, what happens here? Origins air-freight to makers, sometimes to various makers around the world, using valuable time and resources that could be spent improving quality and simply running stable businesses that bring in the cacao needed and pay farmers fairly and on time. Makers pay exorbitant shipping rates to receive the beans, and may or may not decide to use those beans (or pay for them beans to be air-freighted) again.

As Minni, director at Maya Mountain Cacao, one of Uncommon’s origins, shares: “Between facilitating communications among a network of 400+ small farmers, managing a full-time operations team, spearheading agroforestry research projects and processing cacao to top quality, I don't have the time or resources to manage details for all of Maya Mountain Cacao's often complex global sales and logistics, which range from orders of a few sacks to many tons and involve a diverse portfolio of chocolate makers.” The need for the middlewoman is clear.

We’ve also seen makers “collectively” bring in a full container, but in this case one maker typically registers as the importer of record (and thus signs up for all the risks if a container encounters any problems during shipping or import), pays for the container, collects money from the rest of the makers, and then has to organize the logistics for the container to be distributed among the group. Oftentimes, makers will do this once, then the headache of having done it (and the lack of cash flow caused by paying for all the cacao outright) prevents them from buying this way again.

Uncommon Cacao connects the dots between small farmers and small chocolate makers, weaving the relationships together and match-making volumes, flavor profiles, and pricing to create stability and success for all in the supply chain. As Minni notes, “What makes our model workable for chocolate makers, staff, and farmers, is that each link along our supply chain takes full responsibility for key roles, weaving a net of interdependence that truly sets us apart.”

We closely plan our supply and demand each year based on the best projections we can develop for what beans which makers will want and when. We make a commitment at the beginning of the year to all origins for a certain number of containers to be shipped at a certain price point. We do this even if we don’t know where some (or even most) of the cacao is going to end up yet. We rigorously test all cacao to meet our quality and flavor standards before we bring it in -- and if the cacao passes, and it’s within the volume we set at the beginning of the year, the origin can count it as sold.

By making these commitments, we are effectively de-risking the supply chain for both cacao producers and chocolate makers. Our goal is always to be purchasing at least the same amount from each origin every year, and ideally to be growing that volume.

In the same way that producers and small specialty cacao origins are at real risk from instability in the market, small chocolate makers are as well. Makers keep their teams and operations as efficient as possible to reduce overhead costs and seek to build sustainable businesses. The role of Uncommon Cacao is key for them, too -- we often hear from makers that they consider us their in-house sourcing team, even though we are technically a separate company.

In addition to the stability of supply that we offer for chocolate makers, Uncommon Cacao plays a key role for our customers by selling cacao through both spot and forward purchase, offering financing terms to makers, handling shipping logistics from our warehouses in the U.S. and Europe to their factories, and creating both our own and custom-tailored impact reporting and marketing material for makers to promote their use of these incredible beans.

In the context of the massive, dehumanized commodity market, the Transparent Trade model Uncommon offers garners the values that makers seek to embody through a “direct” relationship, without creating instability for producers on the back end or cash flow problems further downstream. So far, Uncommon Cacao is still the only intermediary in the market willing to invest in and openly share all of our pricing, margin, and social and environmental impact information with all of our customers. We believe in this approach so strongly, that it’s written into our foundation as our Company Guarantee: “We promise to provide you any information you want to know about our supply chain.”

Working with an intermediary like Uncommon Cacao that uses verifiable and published “Transparent Trade” practices, and actively sharing information with your chocolate consumers about your supply chain, allows craft chocolate to embark on an ambitious and honest path to building real value over the long-term for cacao farmers globally, creating a bright future ahead for fine flavor cacao and obsessively good chocolate.

Meet the Arhuacos -- One Great Idea | To Transform the Cacao Industry

Want to learn more about the Arhuacos people, the stewards of our latest cacao out of Colombia? Watch this incredible short video produced by Acumen about Cacao de Colombia & the Arhuacos community in their efforts to transform the cacao industry. We’re thrilled to partner with these incredible change makers and offer you beans from this origin. We invite you to learn more about their incredible story.


Quality Control & Evaluation in Cacao

Let’s talk about “Quality” in the cacao industry, which, as it stands now, is an amorphous topic. In any widespread premium food or beverage industry, it’s virtually unheard of not to have common quality standards regulating the grade and evaluation of the product. Wine, beer and coffee all have defined criteria and standards, which help everyone from suppliers to end consumers understand and appreciate the quality of their products.

At the end of the day, cacao producers are growing and processing their cacao for others, not for themselves. The vast majority of chocolate makers are not in control of processing their own beans at origin; they can only control their chocolate making process. Each party needs the other to truly perfect their craft, and without industry standards and a common language around quality the possibility of problems in the supply chain increases.

While we at Uncommon Cacao have internally set standards for the work we do, we have yet to see agreed-upon industry standards take hold, even as more cacao steadily streams into market for ultra premium and craft chocolate makers.

Since Uncommon Cacao represents a “gatekeeper” so to speak in our industry, we hold ourselves highly accountable to the evaluations we conduct and have studied various methods for quality evaluation. We actively incorporate the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Industry (FCCI) bean quality protocol and the TCHO/USAID/Equal Exchange liquor evaluation protocols into the steps outlined below. However, the lack of a shared set of standards in our industry on quality and flavor evaluations is an enormous gap. Therefore, we’d like to discuss!

The protocols and standards we use internally apply to:

  • Physical evaluation of raw beans at origin and in pre-ship and landed container samples

  • Tasting cacao (sensory evaluation) in liquor format (100% cacao mass) in the early stages of each harvest to evaluate flavor impact of fermentation protocols and make protocol changes if needed

  • Sensory evaluation of cacao liquor from individual fermentation batches to approve for blending into container lots (in the case of Cacao Verapaz)

  • Sensory evaluation of liquor from pre-shipment samples of cacao

  • Sensory evaluation of liquor from landed samples of cacao to match to the pre-shipment liquor flavor profile

  • Sensory evaluation of liquor to vet and approve of new suppliers.

Consistency is the backbone of quality, and thus is the most important factor to measure and ensure -- alongside optimization of flavor driven by quality from the farm, fermentation, drying, storage and logistics. Climate, agricultural production cycles, and other factors outside of human control can affect the flavor profile and quality of cacao from harvest to harvest, but using best practices in sensory evaluation can still help cacao producers and chocolate makers get the most consistent flavor possible from their beans. Tasting cacao liquor from the same producer using standard sensory evaluation protocols across multiple harvests, and evaluating lots from a single harvest, is the best approach to ensure as much consistency as possible.

The challenge, however, is that our method is not necessarily the same method that others use across the industry. To date, there are no standard protocols or criteria for evaluating quality and flavor. We don’t have a Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) for cacao. As an industry we have come to expect certain practices in the processing of specialty cacao, such as centralized fermentation and careful drying, but we lack a common language and approach to evaluate the actual outcomes of these practices.

The degree of nuance required to effectively evaluate each origin takes a long time to nail down. For example, we’ve worked with Guatemalan beans long enough to know that the purple color inherent in the beans from some regions does not mean they will taste under fermented. In fact, a well-fermented tasting Guatemalan bean may still have a purple hue. Physical evaluation of cut tests will not tell us all the information we need, which means we must taste liquor to determine whether the beans are actually “good” or not. We seek to match the physical evaluation results with the flavor profiles in liquor, so we can best train producers on fermentation protocols and visual inspections of beans during post-harvest, determine the optimal overall fermentation rate at which this specific bean tastes its best, and ultimately consistently produce the flavor chocolate makers expect and love.

Confounding the situation further, we’ve found different variables, which would seemingly label one outcome as poor quality and another outcome as good quality, can actually both produce fantastic sensory results. And, while what primarily matters to most chocolate makers is flavor, sensory standards can vary greatly from person to person because at the moment all flavor evaluations in cacao are essentially subjective. This is one reason we love the TCHO tasting form: it includes both an objective “intensity” grade and a subjective “quality” grade. Over time, our team has become calibrated in understanding how an intensity grade in bitterness or acidity registers for others on the team in terms of quality. We hold bi-monthly sensory evaluation calibrations with our teams in Belize, Guatemala and the U.S. to keep our palates fresh and calibrated.

Outside of industry professionals, we’re also starting to see that end customers are building a knowledge and preference for the different flavor profiles expressed through high quality cacao. Only through tight control over quality and flavor evaluation of beans can consistency be maintained, so that chocolate makers and end consumers alike can continue to rely on their favorite origins for specific flavor characteristics.

Uncommon Cacao recently took a first attempt at differentiating quality in our supply chain by describing the quality of our cacao as pertaining to one of two buckets, either “Ultra premium” or “Premium.” Ultra premium beans achieve a highly consistent flavor profile across harvests, and we will reject fermentation lots that do not strictly match the target flavor profile. Ultra premium beans are always centrally fermented, are held to a strict physical evaluation standard, and are hand-sorted at origin to ensure peak cleanliness. Premium beans, on the other hand, have a bit more “wiggle room.” While we still test all pre-shipment and landed containers with both physical and sensory protocols to evaluate flavor profile and quality, these beans are not necessarily centrally fermented. They are not hand-sorted. Less financial investment has been expended in the processing of the beans, and thus they are more competitively priced. It is simply more expensive to produce ultra premium beans than premium.

We are still only scratching the surface when it comes to an in-depth look at the full spectrum of quality that exists across cacao globally. We’d like to see this collaborative understanding grow so the entire supply chain is clear on what makes quality cacao. In our supply chain, we know that it’s the people behind the beans, and behind the bar, that make quality cacao and chocolate happen. We are highly supportive of the ongoing efforts in the industry that are seeking to create international standards for cacao quality and flavor evaluation.  We believe it is only through this collaboration that cacao producers, supply chain actors, and makers can produce and have access to the highest quality cacao available to make the best chocolate that keeps consumers coming back for more.

Cacao on the road Podcast: Interview with our founder Emily Stone

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“10 years ago, 15 years ago, chocolate makers wouldn’t say where their cocoa came from… I think you’re doing a disservice to a cacao producer if you’re a chocolate maker and you don’t say where you get your beans from.”

-Greg D’Alesandre, Dandelion Chocolate

Podcast: Play in new window | Download

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“10 years ago, 15 years ago, chocolate makers wouldn’t say where their cocoa came from… I think you’re doing a disservice to a cacao producer if you’re a chocolate maker and you don’t say where you get your beans from.”

-Greg D’Alesandre, Dandelion Chocolate

Up until just a decade ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to find the name of a country of origin on a chocolate bar wrapper. These days? It’s standard practice for anyone starting a chocolate company.

But most small batch chocolate companies are going even further than just country of origin by naming the cooperative, estate, or producer from which their beans were sourced. On their end, many of these producers are now specifically targeting the high-end market. They’re carefully harvesting the ripest pods, fermenting & drying beans with the weather in mind, and storing their cacao in climate-controlled conditions. But even will all of that extra effort, will it be enough to attract buyers?

In this episode, we talk to 4 leaders in the craft chocolate & cacao industry about the slow development of cacao brands. Each of them has worked firsthand with farmers to improve their post-harvest handling of cacao, and has seen the amount of quality cacao on the market soar. Cacao producers began looking for a way to differentiate themselves, and in the process, they began approaching their product just like the chocolate makers do.

To read the article which inspired this episode, click here.

A chocolate bar made from single origin cacao: region specified, but farmers, not so much.

Topics We Cover

  • the definition of cacao brands

  • how instability in the cacao market can affect farmers in the short-term, and how businesses are combating this

  • the role of branding in growing any business in the cacao industry

  • how to start your own cacao brand

  • farmgate vs. export prices, and what that difference means on the farmer level

  • the power dynamics between cocoa producers and chocolate makers, and everyone in between

  • how cacao can take from industries like wine to shift power dynamics and growing techniques in the cacao industry

  • the differences between single origin, cacao brand, and terroir

  • the forces playing against craft chocolate’s success

Show Timeline

0:00-1:50~ Episode introduction

1:50-11:30~ Looking at how chocolate makers can help support the cacao producers they source from with Simran Bindra of Kokoa Kamili

11:30-26:45~ Diving into branding 101 and the why behind Maya Mountain Cacao & Uncommon Cacao with co-founder Emily Stone

26:45-40:40~ Discussing historical & current power dynamics between cocoa producers and chocolate makers, and how we can shift these to build a more equal industry moving forward (Greg D’Alesandre)

40:40-48:40~ Looking at how Vincent Morou & his business partner started Marou chocolate, and how they’ve built up the business alongside a bevy of Vietnamese cacao identities

48:40-52:00~ how cacao brands could play into the future of craft chooclate

Listen to the full interview here: https://damecacao.com/chocolate-on-the-road-cacao-brands/

Maya Mountain Sails to Europe

This week @mayamountain was proud to make history in Belize and be a part of the #missionzero project organized by @chocodelsol. From buying fresh cacao, fermenting, drying, and sorting to organizing the logistics and delivering on-boat our team was there to ensure the highest quality for the long voyage ahead. Sailing cacao across the Atlantic is a win for the environment and a win for consumers who want to support better, more sustainable, game changing chocolate.

Enjoy the beans @zotterschokoladen, @herufekchocolate and @chocodelsol!"

Snapshots from ABOCFA, Ghana

We're excited to be working in a brand new geographical region, and look forward to sharing more about this new partner in months to come! Take a look at some snapshots from our recent trip to this new origin.

Featured is Edward (or “Chicken Soup” as his fellow Board Members call him), the current president of the ABOCFA cooperative. We visited one of his farm plots while he and fellow farmer cooperative members cracked freshly harvested pods. Above is also a group shot of our group visiting the Chief of Apunapono, who gave us permission to visit the area with the ABOCFA cooperative leadership.

Learn more about ABOCFA below