The SOW community is full of Members who have spent years going deep on problems most people only consider in passing. Samantha Luc is one of those people: she developed expertise in fine chocolate production as the Head of Traceability, Tastings and Education at Soma Chocolatemaker. Today, Samantha works on traceability more broadly, supporting companies in food and beverage, beauty and personal care, and cannabis as part of Wherefour ERP. She maintains a deep love for the world of chocolate, and recently shared her knowledge with the SOW Member community in an AMA.
Chocolate is a familiar (and beloved) food – but the full chocolate making process is convoluted and obscure. Cacao pods are harvested, then the pulpy fruit is fermented to develop the flavor of the cacao bean within. The beans are then dried before being shipped around the world for processing. A chocolatemaker roasts the seeds, then cracks them to separate the nibs from the shell. The nibs are ground into cocoa liquor, which is then "conched" to incorporate the fatty cacao butter with the cocao liquor and milk or sugar. The result is chocolate, but requires tempering to crystalize into a hard solid that gives a satisfying snap when you take a bite.
Our conversation with Samantha traversed the ethical challenges inherent in the chocolate supply chain, the ways flavors develop throughout the chocolate making process, and nitty gritty details about production. The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.
Ruth Grace-Wong: If you were ruler of the world, what would you change about the chocolate supply chain?
SL: I think the chocolate supply chain is remarkably complex, and the way it has historically been built up is piecemeal. This means that unless a company is capable of doing quite a bit of due diligence or vertical integration, it's hard to be certain that your supply chain is ethical throughout. Even for chocolatemakers that are really committed to the process, there are points in the chain where you have to decide what matters to you.
I think a lot of people look at chocolate and think "well, there's no ethical consumption under capitalism" (one of my least favourite phrases of all times) and think that you just can't have ethical chocolate.
In particular, I would love to always know what region or farm (if possible) chocolate bars come from, even if they're not from a specialty maker. That's a marketing thing, but it's also a signal that it's not just comingled lots of cacao from the lowest possible bidder. In general, there's a lot of chocolate consumption that happens because it’s easy. To me, chocolate has become a special treat because I know the high human capital cost that comes with farming and producing it. There's no world where a $2 chocolate bar is ethical, no matter what audits or ethical processes a company has gone through.
Dave Cox: What aspects of production do you think could benefit from more automation? Are there things that might benefit from less automation? I'm always fascinated to see where we have humans in the loop of manufacturing and where we have machines.
Sam: I think sorting would definitely benefit from automation. For many, many years, sorting was entirely a hand process and it took about four hours to do one 50 kg bag of beans. Mostly sorting for foreign material, so rocks, sticks, bugs, checking for moldy beans, etc. which is all something that probably can be automated but is still difficult!
A lot of the grinding and roasting can also be automated now, if not done entirely robotically, which is nice. Some roasters will still test as they go and sample every couple of minutes starting around the 10 minute mark, but if you're working with a pretty standard harvest, once you decide on the protocols you can program an oven and it'll just do its thing.
Tempering and molding are tricky because chocolate reacts so much to heat — so much of it is automated these days, but if you run into an issue, then you're really still stuck doing the fix all by hand. In general, I'd guess that chocolate lends itself more to supervised automatons rather than true robotic automation.
Victoria Dower: What are some innovations in the space that you’re excited about? Wary of?
SL: Honestly, the biggest anxiety I have about innovation in chocolate is the move to cacao-less chocolate. I've seen some of this pop up in the CPG [consumer packaged goods] space where people are trying to replace the hard part of the industry with synthetic chocolate compounds. To me, chocolate is a messy and challenging industry but certainly is not worthy of being abandoned. The long and rich history of chocolate has had such an impact on us as a society, shaping how we consume sugar, how we view luxury, and in so many other ways. It doesn't feel fair to deem it too hard to do and abandon the farmers and people who have put in quite a bit of effort to make the industry better for themselves and us.
For innovations I'm excited about — it's not likely that I'll get a lot of visibility into this anymore, but I think that cacao fermentation is at a turning point. Fermentation happens after harvest, where beans are laid out in wooden boxes for 5-7 days (for fine flavour cacao). We're starting to see a lot more control becoming possible with scientific improvements in this area, and I know of a few people who have become fermentation specialists, experimenting and challenging how traditional fermentation is done. We should get some really interesting (if small batch) chocolate out of this and hopefully, the practices can spread as well.
TW Lim: This is super interesting – are the experiments driven by farmers and happening on farms, or are interested parties shipping cocoa pods elsewhere? What kinds of impact do you think the fermentation experiments will have?
SL: They're usually done on-farm, which is the best part — it's definitely a way of doing value-add right on the farm that can have a huge impact for the farmer. Of course, it's a more expensive and time consuming process as well.
I think we'll get some really interesting flavours mostly — fine tuning of tasting notes, consistency, and better mold prevention. I would wager that there's a lot of excellently grown forastero variety cacao that with some better fermentation practices would lead to more interesting tasting chocolate. To me, there's very little in the flavour paradigm that signals "good," interesting is always the key. I think most chocolate, when post-harvest is done well and the chocolate is made well, can be made to taste excellent.
Laura James: As a chocolate consumer, what should I look for or ask about when I’m choosing chocolate? And if I am talking to a friend who likes chocolate but doesn’t think much about it, what’s the one thing I should tell them to select for or look out for when buying?