A Retail Ethnography of the Peruvian Craft Chocolate Boom
By Amanda Jo Wildey
Peru has a longstanding reputation for its quality cacao. In the past decade, it has also attracted attention as a craft chocolate hot-spot with a tantalizingly long list of must-try makers. Indeed, from 2015 through 2019, a boom of more than 50 craft chocolate brands emerged. I’ve spent the last several years studying this boom from the inside as the resident anthropologist and chocolate specialist of El Cacaotal, Peru’s first and only craft chocolate specialty shop. To date, we work with around 30 Peruvian chocolate makers and host regular tasting events. These experiences, infused with cacao’s signature theobroma stimulant, have revealed how local particularities have defined the Peruvian craft chocolate boom. Understanding them, from the blessing of easily accessible cacao to the curse of low chocolate consumption habits, is key to understanding what’s next for the Peruvian craft chocolate boom.
Prelude to the Boom: Genes and Geography
To date, the timeline of craft chocolate in Peru features two concrete milestones: the emergence of the craft industry in 2012 and the beginnings of a boom in 2015. The brand Shattell became Peru’s craft chocolate pioneer when chocolate maker Lisi Montoya began working with the now-famed Piura white cacao (Piura Blanco). Forty years ago, the idea that a Peruvian cacao would achieve international attention would have seemed nothing short of fantastical. Like many Latin American countries, Peru reserves high esteem for imported goods; “local” is all but synonymous with “inferior.” The world of gastronomy was not immune, until a mid-1990s revitalization of Peruvian cuisine stimulated pride in classic dishes. This embracement of local ingredients paved the way for the craft chocolate industry when, some 20 years later, native cacaos like the Piura Blanco, the Cusco Chuncho and the Amazonas Cacao would attain celebrity status.
As appreciation for unusual cacao flavors grew, the diversity of Peruvian cacao morphed into a form of commercial currency. Its rich genetics were highlighted both at macro and micro levels: plant biologist Juan Carlos Motamayor and a team of agronomers identify and map 10 cacao genetic clusters throughout the Americas in their 2008 article "Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree (Theobroma cacao L),” and the Peruvian Cayetano Heredia University profiles the genetic and sensorial nuances of 12 different kinds of Chuncho in the breakthrough book Cacao Chuncho del Cusco (2017). Further amplifying this excitement about varieties of Peruvian cacao is the fact the Peru hosts a myriad of flavor-shaping microclimates across its ample terrain. Peruvian chocolate makers jumped at the chance to explore these sensorial treasure troves, and the possibilities for creating unique chocolates seemed limitless.
Cacao thrives in 14 of Peru’s 26 regions. Due to Peru’s geographic diversity, this means that cacao grows in climates ranging from dry, coastal semi-tropical forests to cold, high-altitude jungle to hot and humid lowland jungle.
The Peruvian Craft Chocolate Boom
In terms of its cacao, Peru boasted the sensorial Holy Grail of diverse genetics and geography. But while Peruvian cacao was getting attention, local public opinion held that Peruvians lacked the skill of their European counterparts to create good quality chocolate. The first craft chocolate makers carved out a niche by winning customers over at pop-up-events, sample by sample. The boost of a lifetime came in 2015 when Peru won its first gold medal in an international chocolate competition in London. This global validation set off exponential growth in the number of Peruvian craft chocolate companies—growth that would continue, unbridled, for almost five years.
The Peruvian craft chocolate boom was under way and capital city Lima was its epicenter. Access to cacao plantations was a short plane-ride away, and makers began experimenting with origins, varietals, inclusions and even post-harvest techniques with increasing sophistication. A four-day cacao and chocolate salon became the annual mixer for the who’s-who of the chocolate world and preferred venue for debuting a new brand or product. Numerous international development projects and public-private partnerships spread the chocolate frenzy throughout cacao-producing regions by funding an array of activities including cacao and chocolate sensory training, packaging design consultations and sponsorship for attending an array of international fairs. Of particular interest to these programs were farmers and co-operatives located in areas where coca was once harvested for narcotrafficking supply chains—a remarkable transition recounted in Angie Higuchi’s article in this ReVista issue.
This extension of the craft chocolate wave beyond Lima also saw a new maker profile emerge: cacao farmers-turned-chocolate-makers. The boom was in full-swing when the first tree-to-bar brands cropped up in 2017. The same programs operating in cacao-growing regions quickly expanded to support the movement, allowing budding makers to bypass the classic obstacles: budget-breaking machinery, tricky techniques and uninspired packaging designs. “We grow our own cacao” became an increasingly common refrain in the craft chocolate circle. For perspective, eight of the 30 brands we currently collaborate with in El Cacaotal are tree-to-bar. The benefits of being tree-to-bar are a perfectionist’s dream: unmatched control of the primary material and the possibility to supplement chocolate sales with cacao bean sales combine quality and financial security. These farmer-chocolate makers enjoy an additional marketing edge by elevating geographic and varietal buzzwords to new heights of legitimacy. They level the unique cultural currency of “being there” dissected so memorably by Clifford Geertz (Works and Lives: the Anthropologist as Author, 1988). Tree-to-bar markers are as real as one can get, and their advantage might stretch farther than we realize.
Yes, the boom has brought about an origin-conscious era in the Peruvian craft chocolate sector. Retailers and marketing consultants have not been slow to tap into the trend and will almost as a rule cite origin and even cacao variety on chocolate packaging to capture the consumer’s eye and imagination. What has this meant for the craft chocolate market? Indisputably, the keener traceability of cacao is a positive shift in a value chain that is rife with farmer exploitation. The danger, however, lies in the absence of a vetting procedure to ensure that a chocolate is truly in line with the buzzwords on its packaging.
In Peru in particular, for instance, the fluidity of access to cacao has led to a loose, if not unscrupulous, use of the term “tree-to-bar.” There have been cases where makers will brand themselves as tree-to-bar by virtue of having taken several trips to a cacao plantation, arguing that their maintained relationship with the origin means they effectively work from the tree to the bar. These situations underline the void in the industry in terms of how to define—and uphold the definition of—this relatively new category of chocolate.
The Boom from a Retail Perspective
In all of its trendiness, the addition of a cultural allure to Peruvian cacao and chocolate revolutionized Peru’s craft chocolate retail sector. The first significant change was in how Peruvian consumers approach chocolate. Through 2016, cacao percentage tended to be the defining feature of a chocolate bar. Customers were still getting acquainted with the concept of the percentage, mostly selecting chocolates at or below 70% cacao. This shifted in 2017 as the boom progressed: instead of asking about cacao percentages, customers asked where the cacao comes from and, incidentally, asked specifically for chocolates at or above 70% cacao. In 2019, we even began to see customers applying flavor profile criteria to their chocolate search.
El Cacaotal opened in Lima right as the boom experienced its origin-awareness crescendo. From the beginning, we arranged our chocolates according to cacao origin to emphasize the diversity of Peruvian cacao not only by sustaining transparency throughout the value chain, but by celebrating the uniqueness of each brand with which we collaborate.
Chocolates at El Cacaotal are divided first into northern cacao origins (left stand) and southern (right). Then, along each shelf, smaller black placards corral chocolates into groups according to specific regional origins. Above, portraits of the cacao and chocolate producers from each brand help customers put a face to the chocolate bar name.
Stimulating the latest attention to chocolate flavor profiles has also been an important part of our retail experience: our regional “flavor wheels” offer a general guide to how cacao tastes throughout the country. These wheels are also helpful for our customers as they start to articulate the flavors they are experiencing—often for the first time—in chocolate.
Chocolate tasting class participants have an assortment of regional flavor wheels on the table for reference. For each wheel, the region appears in the center and three layers of tasting notes, in increasing specificity, form a rainbow ring. While the wheels obscure the cacao diversity found even within one region, they are an important starting point for those who are just learning that cacao can have a different flavor depending on its origin in general and for those who are beginning to familiarize themselves with the vast variability of Peru’s cacao.
While this change in customer interaction has fueled Peru’s craft chocolate boom, a comprehensive look at local market behavior portends a more ominous direction for the industry. Despite Peruvian chocolate’s repeated stellar performance in international chocolate competitions, an unavoidable roadblock remained by way of Peru’s abysmally low per capita consumption of chocolate—only around 500 grams yearly. And as if Peruvians weren’t disinclined enough from purchasing chocolate, the elevated price point of craft chocolate presented an extra inhibitor. It is worth noting that, with a maximum price of around $5.50 for a standard 2.5 oz (70 g) bar, Peruvian craft chocolate is comparatively less expensive than many of its craft chocolate counterparts around the world. For the average Peruvian household, however, this price represents a significant portion of income that the majority are still not ready or able to allocate for craft chocolate.
With the emergence of each new craft chocolate brand in Lima, there came a heightened sense of stifling due to overwhelming competition. By 2018, many makers started looking for strategies to stick out. A common tactic was a punchy rebranding, as observed in the following images.
A before (left) and after (center) look at Q’uma’s subtle rebranding, debuted in 2018 after three years in the market. Q’uma was the first Peruvian brand to utilize the packaging interior (right). Its complementary information details geography, cacao variety, farmer partners and even a sensory spiderweb.
Miroshnik, a family tree-to-bar brand, debuted a rebranding in 2019 after two years in the market. The new design (right) maintains the same rainforest components that evoke their origin-based legitimacy, but incorporates them in a more aesthetic way. A keen eye will also note the makeover’s unshrinking placement of the “tree to bar” status strategically below their brand name.
Beyond any doubt, the Tribar (pronounced TREE-bar) rebranding is one of the most complete and dramatic. Not a single element from the original packaging (left) migrated to the new look (right) that debuted in 2018 after two years in the market. The transition to a landscape orientation catches customers’ attention for the novelty of its envelope appearance. A more sparing use of the gold leaf element evokes a refined taste. The tree-to-bar nature of Tribar, aside from being declared almost literally in the very name of the brand, is emphasized for the customer’s sake under the origin of the cacao. Finally, the name-change from “Tree Bar Qaqaw” to the succinct “Tribar” resolutely obscures any evidence that these bars are the same chocolate.
To date, of the 30 brands we work with at El Cacaotal, only three have maintained their original packaging design.
Makers also looked to expand their sales reach beyond the standard circuit of organic or gourmet food markets in Lima. Coffee shops were the next logical leap, followed by limited sales to hotels, rest stops along popular interstates and even Lima’s most renowned museum, the Museo Larco. Some brands started offering their chocolate in bulk for pastry chefs. A few Lima-based brands had success placing products in other large Peruvian cities like Arequipa and Cusco in the south, and Trujillo in the north. Brands developed outside of Lima were generally confined to local sales for lack of commercial clout to penetrate markets already saturated by popular Lima brands and their impecable (and international-medal-studded) packaging.
Volume supermarket sales became another source of hope for brands with higher production capacities willing to compromise on prices and terms of payment. Today, five craft chocolate brands can be found on the shelves of select higher-scale supermarkets. More promising still has been to look beyond national sales altogether towards exports. Indeed, with the rising popularity of Peruvian craft chocolate, Peru experienced a greater increase in craft chocolate exports than in cacao bean exports from 2017 to 2018. However, profitable exportation requires a production capacity out of reach for the majority of Peru’s small-scale craft chocolate producers. Only five brands export regularly.
The fate of sales within Peru depends on one common demographic: international visitors. Craft chocolate sales have been oriented towards Peru’s tourism sector since the very beginning. In 2012, pioneer Shattell’s biggest customer was the agency that ran the train service to Machu Picchu and offered miniature versions of the chocolates as a snack for passengers. The novelty of craft chocolate as a souvenir enthralled craft chocolate connoisseurs and novices alike. This intrigue was compounded by the triple threat of the aforementioned competitive price point, Peruvian craft chocolate’s raging international reputation and the impossibility of finding the majority of the brands outside of Peru. The result is an international customer all too eager to snatch up Peruvian craft chocolate on their visit. And until local interest picks up, makers and retailers are all too eager to receive them.
2020: The Boom’s Third Milestone?
From 2015 through 2019, Peru’s craft chocolate scene experienced a growth so dynamic, its trajectory seemed limitless. The thrill of the geographic closeness of the primary material paired with repeated victories in international chocolate competitions made it easy for makers to tune out the grim local realities. But by late 2019, sales were trailing. The low chocolate consumption was impervious to creative packaging designs and sales locations, and makers began to shut their workshop doors. Those that remain are currently looking to online sales in the hopes of maintaining their foothold—however tenuous—in the market, but local customers’ low online retail engagement represents yet another commercial barricade. Only time will tell if Peruvians will start using e-commerce in numbers significant enough to offset the sluggish sales of saturated storefronts.
The unrelenting crises of 2020 have exposed the precariousness of a supply chain rooted in populations without access to food security and basic health services and economically dependent on tourism. It is a cautionary tale for fellow origin countries and the craft chocolate industry as a whole. Strategies for how to move forward, however, might be closer than we think. Turning no further than to the last important stage of Peru’s craft chocolate boom, the tree-to-bar-trend, we see the power of fomenting a value chain that ensures that real, meaningful added value extends back to the farmers. For the craft chocolate world, this producer protagonism is an opportunity to bring the origin-centric discourse full circle. After all, as an added bonus for the bean-to-bar chocolate makers, centering farmer relationships can often lead to greater collaboration during and after the harvest when cacao beans' 'flavors are developing. Let’s talk about local microclimates, varieties and the farmers behind each bar, and let’s make sure that their inclusion is genuine instead of anecdotal. If there is a third milestone to be had in the timeline of Peru’s craft chocolate history, let it be this tree-to-bar movement that, in 2020, confirmed that people come first.
Amanda Jo E. Wildey is an anthropologist, founder of El Cacaotal, certified cacao and chocolate taster and consultant for projects related to cacao and chocolate value-chain strategies.