Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Learn More about Askinosie Chocolate

On Saturday, July 5th, we'll be looking at a limited edition treat from Askinosie Chocolate that is very timely but I thought it might be a good time to also introduce you all to one of the folks behind the company and to learn more about what they do.  I hope all of you who read this will leave a comment to let us know what you think or to ask a question.

Sisters and Brothers, please join me in welcoming our guest to The Chocolate Cult, one of the people behind, a chocolate company whose creations you will discover here on this coming Saturday and for several Saturdays to come, Ms. Cash.

Ms. Cash, would you please tell us who you are and what your role is at Askinosie Chocolate?

Allison Cash, Chief Operating Officer

Askinosie Chocolate goes beyond Fair Trade practices. How exactly do you do that?

First and foremost, we treat farmers as partners in our business. We travel to each of our four origins at least once a year to maintain the personal relationships he has built with each of our farmer partners over the years. We work together with the farmers to craft exceptional chocolate from exceptional cocoa beans. To do this, we are dedicated to Direct Trade, which means we not only know the regions from which the cocoa beans come, but more significantly, we can build long-term and mutually supportive relationships with the farmers who grow some of the world’s best cocoa beans.

Secondly, we pay the cocoa farmers significantly above the per-ton Fair Trade market price for their cocoa beans. And on top of that, we also profit share with these farmers! At the end of the selling cycle, which also happens to be the time to inspect the new crop, we visit the farmers and pay them directly. Because we also do not use a broker, this is just another example of removing layers of middlemen. With our model, it’s just us and the farmers. This way, we both have more control and the farmers make more money.

Finally, at origin, our farmers partners collaborate with other farmer groups and teach them the techniques they learn from us, from moisture reduction to proper storage. In turn, this creates better beans. Because the beans are better quality and because our company pays more for them, this allows the farmers to leverage a better price for them. In some cases, this has created a ripple effect that raised cocoa bean prices for the entire country to a much more fair and reasonable price.

We practice Direct Trade because we think it’s the right way and the best way to run our business.

One of the great things that Askinosie does is that it offers single origin chocolates so that we can taste the difference that environment and farming practices make on the final product.  How did you get the idea to go beyond single origin and specify the location of the farms that produced the cocoa beans?

Since we have a direct relationship with the farmers (and farms) it just made sense to talk openly about the location of the farms. We know where the beans come from, first-hand, and want everyone who experiences our chocolate to know too. Knowing intimate details about origin enhances the chocolate experience for everyone.

Which community did you partner with first and why did you choose them?

Our first-ever origin was San Jose Del Tambo, Ecuador. Shawn Askinosie, founder and CEO, visited this storied town in 2006 and has been excitedly journeying back every year since. 

As for why we chose them, we feel Shawn answers this question best: “Ecuador was the first place I traveled in my journey to discover chocolate in Aug 2005. I met and talked to a lot of people on that trip. I went back in 2006 and learned even more than on my first trip. Since I knew we would be directly trading with farmers and I was looking for unique, high quality, special cocoa beans, the best place to start is where I had the most contacts.”

How much of the production of chocolate is done at the cocoa farms?

The work that is done at the farm is all about the beans. After finding small farmer groups with top-notch beans, we work with them on proper fermentation and post harvest techniques. To accomplish this, we travel to the countries and works with the farmers directly. We examine and classify beans in the field and also use the old-fashioned method of looking at the beans, taking a handful, crushing them together and taking in the aroma. Moisture content is very critical also. We determine the moisture content of the dried beans at the farm and check the temperature of the beans that are fermenting. Finally, we taste the raw beans repeatedly for flavor and consistency. Then, the beans head to our factory in Springfield, MO, USA where we roast, winnow, conch, temper, mold, and hand-package the chocolate you know and love. 

We know what you give profits back to the cocoa farming communities but how hands on is Askinosie with the cocoa farmers?  Do you have oversight for the farming practices or the initial stages of chocolate production?

We are very involved with the farmers. For us to make exceptional chocolate, the cocoa bean quality must be perfect and meet our standards for sourcing. In addition to everything outlined above, the farmers adhere to our very detailed specifications, which means we have input on all of the facets that impact flavor, such as fermentation and drying. We are intimately involved with these processes, which means modifications can be made early on to ensure the resulting beans taste as perfect as possible.  Our farmers sign a contract agreeing that they are committed to healthful and responsible cultivation method and that no child labor is used (among other things). Although many of our farmers cannot afford organic certification, our cocoa beans are grown using organic, pesticide- and chemical-free practices that are ecologically responsible. We know this because we see it firsthand! Our chocolate is 100% traceable, which means we know the name of every farmer in the groups we work with and can trace our beans directly back to the farmers from whom we purchased them. We have the opportunity to reject defective beans at the farm, and he has done this before. Plus, we can help identify and solve problems before they become unmanageable (e.g. suggestions on ways to combat disease and pests which could wipe out a crop). We have input on how the beans are stored before shipment, another detail that has a big impact on flavor. And we control the types of bags that the cocoa beans are shipped in, which impacts air flow, moisture content and ultimately the flavor of the bean.

Would you please explain the Chocolate University to our readers?

Sure – Shawn started the Chocolate University program shortly after the first chocolate bar rolled out of the Askinosie Chocolate factory. He and the Askinosie Chocolate team began seeking (and have never stopped!) opportunities to serve the local community, specifically students, in our bean to bar adventure. We didn’t have to look too far to see the Missouri Hotel, Springfield’s largest homeless shelter, was only one block away from the factory on Commercial Street. As many as 80 children sleep there on any given night, and those kids and teens attend schools within walking distance of our factory. 

We were inspired to begin a program that would involve young people from our community in our small, international business, and the idea for Chocolate University was born.  Chocolate University is an experiential learning program with a worldwide reach for local students. The goal is to inspire students through the lens of artisan chocolate making to be global citizens and embrace the idea that business(es) can solve world problems. We involve neighborhood students from Boyd Elementary, Pipkin Middle School and local high schools in our business through visits to their classrooms, field trips to our factory, updates from origin, visits to origin and much more. The goal is not for these students to become bystanders during a lecture on chocolate making. It’s to provide them with a hands-on experience that takes them from the inner-workings of the factory to the cocoa bean farms across the world.

Each year, Chocolate University accepts applicants from local high schools to participate in a special course that will take them from the campus of Drury University to the lush cocoa bean farms in Tanzania. The cooperative program brings the students to the Askinosie factory for immersion learning sessions. During summer break, the students stay in Drury dorms for a week and are coached in a crash course of direct trade methods, cacao agronomy, Tanzanian culture, Swahili and more. Then, Shawn, Drury faculty and the students make a 36-hour journey to the Mababu region of Tanzania where they are introduced to our farmer partners and their community. The students participate with Shawn and the farmers in the cocoa bean inspection and profit sharing meetings before witnessing firsthand the benefits of our Direct Trade relationship with the farmers.

How did you personally get into the chocolate business?

I met Shawn in 2008, while I was attending Slow Food Nation in San Francisco. He was there with his chocolate and it was the first time I had tasted it, though we are from the same area, Southwest MO. I was immediately blown away by the chocolate and his approach to business. We kept the conversation going and I joined his Advisory Council back in 2008. I have always worked in food & beverage so joining the team full time as COO in late 2013 made perfect sense. 

How many years have you been making chocolate?

I have only been making chocolate since I joined the team in 2013, but have been part of product development since I joined Shawn’s Advisory Council back in 2008. 

Popular culture says that chocolate is difficult to work with but have you found that to be true?

I think chocolate can be difficult to work with, but that is in part due to the fact that we are not satisfied unless it is exceptional. It can be fickle, to be sure and is not for the faint of heart. The biggest challenge with chocolate production is scale. Many people have hand-tempered at home. When you scale that up to our capacity, for example, it’s an entirely different ballgame and creates its own set of challenges, as we still do everything “by hand.” We are fortunate to have Shawn’s expertise as a chocolate maker and innovator as well as our Head Chocolate Maker and Production Manager Kyle Malone. They, along with a very small product development team, take concepts and turn them into delicious reality. 

Of the various products that Askinosie creates and sells, what is your favorite and why?

My favorite bar is our 72% Mababu, Tanzania Dark Chocolate Bar. One square of this bar is a nightly ritual for me.  I love the smooth texture and fruit notes that perfectly complement the soft hint of graham flavor. 

Finally, is there anything else you'd like our readers to know about Askinosie Chocolate?

Askinosie Chocolate is a small, family owned craft chocolate factory that is truly and uniquely dedicated to creating outstanding chocolate while positively impacting everyone we encounter. I have been witness to countless conversations and discussions about “what else we can do” locally, regionally, globally. It’s invigorating to work with someone like Shawn (and the whole team) who can take an idea – whether it be for chocolate or social impact – and make it happen. 

Thank you so much for your time, Ms. Cash.

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