Rise of the Artisan: New Wave Coffee and Chocolate

Throughout history we have enjoyed and even loved fermented products, due in no small part to the intoxicating alcohols they produce. Fermented grape juice, more commonly known as wine was the original and first of these to find a place in our historic hearts although, this lived alongside and in great harmony with fermenting yeast and its edible counterpart bread. It was a whole continent away but not long after, that Mesoamericans began drinking the fermented juice of the cacao bean and spreading this tree across central and South America, much like the Europeans spread grape vines throughout the Mediterranean.

It was much later however, that an Ethiopian goatherd would stumble across the much coveted coffee bean in the 9th century, if the legendary stories are to be believed. Like cacao, coffee must be fermented in order to extract a bean ready for roasting and begin its journey from the forest to our mouth. It is this journey which they take, which enables us today, to walk into our local supermarket and purchase coffee from Indonesian islands like Sumatra or chocolate from far off exotic countries like Venezuela.

The globalisation, industrialisation and commodification of this journey began in the mid-19th century. Previous to this, the luxury of drinking chocolate and coffee was saved for the rich, or, was in short supply from independent merchants and retailers. The mid 19th century gave rise to the first industrialising companies ready to mass market chocolate and coffee to the general public. These companies did not know it yet, but they would become instrumental in the way coffee and chocolate is produced, manufactured, marketed and distributed today.

Mass production came out of necessity. Supply chains, manufacture and distribution were required to service an ever increasing population with increasing leisure time and disposable incomes. This brought about innovations in infrastructure, energy became cheaper and more readily available with the expansion and exploitation of fossil fuels. Water was more easily transported with innovations in plastic for cheap piping. Electricity became more practical with the creation of alternating current. Coupled with the production line assembly, this paved the way for the ability to mass produce both chocolate and coffee for the general consumer.

It wasn’t only industry that was innovating, coffee and cacao beans were going through their own innovations too. Growers were experimenting with varietals in attempts to increase both disease resistance and production yields. This meant increasing the production of Coffea Canephora more commonly known as robusta or using this species of coffee to cross breed with the more desirable Coffea Arabica. Robusta beans contain more caffeine and are therefore better at fending off disease, they do however, have less favourable flavour characteristics.

Producers had also begun taking the shade grown trees and shrubs of both cacao and coffee and exposing them to the sun to speed up production cycles, again reducing the amount of favourable flavour characteristics. Coupled together this meant that low quality, but more importantly, low cost beans could be produced in large quantities and sold to mass manufacturers to freeze dry or cut with milk and sugar, in order to produce low cost consumer products. What was produced was consistent, repeatable and reproducible but in no way in the direction of perfection.

Coffee and chocolate were now accessible, available and affordable. This Triple A was not however, a sign of quality. As we approached the later years of the 20th century consumers began to demand more in terms of quality. An increase in disposable incomes and in information had given rise to a more discernible customer, this had begun a desire for a focus on flavour. Those interested in flavour and quality began to look to the Europeans for a lesson in taste. The Italians and the French had for many years been enjoying coffee and chocolate in their cafes and bars, with the focus on pleasure and flavour.

This influence began to bring about higher cocoa percentages in western chocolate bars, while encouraging the growth of baristas honing their craft on the espresso machine. New Italian sounding names such as macchiato and cappuccino gave a desirable intrigue to the innovations happening within the cup and brought a new education of coffee to consumers. Coffee and chocolate were now heading in the right directions, they were, however, still prone to over roasting and being hidden beneath milk and sugar.

It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that the pioneers of coffee’s third wave really appeared and understatedly, chocolate just got better. In 1995 Counter Culture Coffee and Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea were founded, with Stumptown Coffee Roasters opening in 1999. Likewise in chocolate 1990 saw the founding of Amedei, 1997 Domori and while the Cluizel family had been making chocolate since the late 40’s, Michel made his first single origin bar in 1997. Similarly Francois Pralus after making chocolate for many years introduced his single origin bars in 2003. What had changed? Was it the passion of individuals? Was it the demand of customers? Was it the gap in the market? Or was it just simply, that the innovations made in the industrialisation of these commodities in terms of infrastructure and machinery, had now made it possible for micro companies to exploit the opportunity of becoming artisan cottage industries, occupying a niche on the periphery with their high standards of flavour and quality, while maintaining sustainable and traceable production?

This era had emerged as the staging point for industries focused on perfection, these pioneers proved that with knowledge, determination and an unfaltering dedication to improvement, that anyone could become a micro roaster and producer of both quality coffee and chocolate. As the excitement around these industries amplified, so did the magnetic pull of individuals drawn to these industries to hone their crafts as baristas, tasters, writers, connoisseurs, roasters, importers and manufacturers.

This major innovation and change had brought forth the idea that what was important now, was the sourcing of quality beans and the relationships between those that cultivated them all the way through to those that consume them. As the internet grew and began to educate us, so did it begin to connect us, the consumer.  It was no longer a case of finding a cup of coffee we liked or a bar of chocolate we enjoyed, we were now, all of us, part of a process and an industry, nay, a responsible community. Where the simple choices we make resonate with huge worldwide ramifications. Thankfully though these artisans and pioneers had paved a route between ethical, sustainable, traceable and quality production and consumers’ palates.

These pioneers had bred a new generation of purists looking for perfection in the cup or in the form of the single origin chocolate bar. New artisans appeared, Steve Leighton of HasBean coffee, began his coffee journey in 1999, Square Mile opened in 2005 and Grumpy Mule in 2006. Chocolate gained added competition and expertise with Willie Harcourt Cooze beginning to make 100% Cacao bars in 1998 and Duffy Sheardown leaving motor racing to pursue chocolate production in 2007, elsewhere Cinagra launched Menakao in Madagascar in 2011 and two Frenchmen based in Vietnam founded Marou.

The coffee and chocolate industry has changed. While still enjoyable it is now exciting and innovative. It is full of specialists and artisans who began a revolution of taste and flavour. It is full of stories and characters. Full of growers, cultivators and farmers. Full of exporters, sourcers and shippers. Full of importers, tasters and wholesalers. Full of roasters, buyers and providers. Full of retailers, baristas and customers. It is full of dedicated individuals working tirelessly to bring us, the consumer, the Coffee and Chocolate we love and desire.

Now thanks to the code of the artisans, who went in search of perfection, I too following the code of the connoisseur can go in search of their ambitious creations.

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