Cacao Sourcing, Preservation of Biodiversity, Ethical Trade & Chocolate Making by Ali Gower

The Chocolate Tree began trading at music festivals in Scotland. We built a geo-desic dome tent which housed our mobile chocolaterie.

The two owners, Alastair Gower & Friederike Matthis, met whilst performing as “red men” in the Beltane festival of Edinburgh. The positive reactions we received at the festivals highly motivated us, and we progressed The Chocolate Tree to become our full time passion and business.

Ali And Fredericke

We went on to attend local farmers markets and craft fairs selling a range of hand made chocolates and organic certified bars, which led to selling our chocolate to the local farm shops and delicatessens in East Lothian. We have always been organic certified and used certified or otherwise ethically accountable ingredients. We now sell our chocolate bars across the UK and occasionally overseas, to stockists who are either small family ran businesses or otherwise engaged in the ethical conduct of their business. We have a simple “no” policy to supplying supermarkets.
On Alastair’s birthday, in November in 2009, we opened a boutique chocolaterie at 123 Bruntsfield Place in Edinburgh. In the 3 years we have had the building we have gained a popular reputation amongst residents of Edinburgh, and have even heard of people travelling miles to visit us!
During these 3 years we have developed the shop to offer not only high end ethical chocolate, but also a wide range of expertly made cakes, Italian style gelato and locally roasted coffee. At 123 Bruntsfield Place, our produce can be enjoyed 7 days a week, from 8am until 8pm. We sit directly opposite a large costa coffee chain, and hope to provide a locally owned and attractive alternative to the multinational across the road.

chocolate tree bar
chocolate tree bar

We now employ 18 staff, including chocolatiers, wrappers, managers, bakers, waiting staff and a driver. Although our business is driven on low margins and we can’t offer high salaries, we do offer a sense of belonging to our staff, and a relationship that promises an opportunity to voice opinion and be a part of our progress. Decisions although finalised by the owners, are usually brought to the table before hand so there is an opportunity for staff to help make the right decision. We do insist on a strong working ethic from our staff, as this is essential in keeping standards of quality, service and presentation as high as our customers would expect. We hope to eventually offer shares in our company to our employees.

As we have grown our little chocolate seedling into a young sapling, we have shaped it as required to maintain the growth in a direction we find suiting to our original ethos. Our idea for the future is not to get bigger and bigger, but rather to get better at what we do, and maintain a size of business that is not only manageable, but also reasonable.

The subject of cacao & chocolate is highly topical. Despite being a food that is renowned for it’s pleasure giving properties, it has a dark cultural history. In the history of the Maya and the Aztecs of South & Central America cacao was highly respected and sought after. When introduced to Europe, the Europeans evolved the processes of manufacture to create sweeter more palatable chocolate, which then boomed to mass production during food industrialisation. More recently, cacao enthusiasts are discovering rare and highly aromatic cacao, whilst researchers are discovering the true health giving properties of cacao. There is a small movement of artisan chocolate makers emerging, putting ethics and quality before profits, giving consumers the opportunity to re-discover chocolate in a way that can not only bring immense pleasure, but also a clear ethical conscience.
Every year there is a new door to open for us; recently our bank, Triodos, lent us enough money to invest in a building in the centre of Haddington. We converted the building into an small chocolate factory and purchased small conching equipment from India. This conching equipment has given us the opportunity to become one of the first UK chocolatiers to make chocolate in small batches directly from the cacao bean.
“Bean to Bar” Chocolate making, as it is known, means that instead of working from chocolate which is produced typically in Belgium or France, we can make our own chocolate here in East Lothian, before turning that chocolate into a range of products, be it a bar, truffle, cake or ice cream. This is great, not only because we can have more control over the chocolate we are producing, but because it means we can begin to remove the middle men from the picture and start direct trade of cacao with the growers.

Cocoa tree
Cocoa tree

There are over 10 varieties of cacao, originating from throughout South America. Most of the cacao being encouraged to farmers right now is that of a disease resistant strain which has been bred to provide consistently high yields. That might sound good, but it doesn’t make the aromatic chocolate that the new wave of bean to bar chocolate makers are seeking, and it’s effect on the biodiversity of the farms can be devastating. Through unwanted cross pollination and mono-cultures, we are facing the extinction of the aromatic native cacaos.
Thanks to recent developments in genome testing, researchers at a cacao in Florida are able to trace the various strains of cacao back to their origins, and find out more about how this powerful plant evolved over the past centuries. This is has made it clear that the variety of cacao types is much more diverse than previously thought. It has become the goal of fine chocolate makers to learn more about their raw ingredient, and pass that information through to the consumer. As a small batch bean to bar producer, we have an opportunity to go direct to the growers and give them much better prices if they continue to grow and care for the native, aromatic cacaos that we know will make the finest chocolate. Through our endeavours we can provide the growers with a better income, and keep the biodiversity of the farms intact. In this case, it is imperative that consumers are able to make an informed choice about the products available to them, which can be done through more accurate labelling of products.
We have seen a large shift towards certification of cacao, thanks to the demands of the consumer to know that the chocolate is ethically sourced. This has come as a result of the exposure of exploitative practises which are shocking to find still carried out in a modern world. In the poorest parts of Africa, particularly in Ghana and the Ivory Coast where most of the worlds cacao is grown, we have seen documentary evidence that the practise of slavery and child labour is still very much alive. Certification has helped to abolish these practises which contravene basic human rights, however there is another side to certification, which encourages the farming of poor quality cacao, prioritising instead the fulfilment of the certification.
Ethical trade of cacao does not stop at certification, and the new wave of bean to bar chocolate makers seek to establish direct trade with the growers. The paperwork and expenses incurred through certification get in the way of a direct trade that aims to provide better profits to the farmers in exchange for a focus on producing better quality cacao, using rare and delicate strains which rely on biodiversity and a high level of care.
We are travelling to Peru in February 2013, during the height of the cacao harvest, to make our first visit to the farmers of the Maranon Canyon. Here we will visit a project started by 2 Americans, who whilst working in the area stumbled upon a strain of cacao that was thought to be extinct. Through their efforts with the farmers in the region, the nacional strain of cacao has been rediscovered and preserved. It has become one of the most sought after cacaos in the world. We are privileged to become the first UK chocolate maker who will be able to work with these highly aromatic beans. There could be no better achievement than to make a personal visit to each supplier to ensure that we are happy with the conditions, and it is our intention to eventually visit in person each cacao grower that we trade with.

There are micro-batch chocolate makers popping up across the world who are endeavouring to preserve the native cacaos and produce fine chocolate, and initiatives’ such as the direct cacao movement to support direct trade, but unfortunately the bigger picture is being driven by the multi nationals who are struggling to keep up with the demand for their industrially processed chocolate themed products. These products usually contain only a small quantity of poor quality cacao, and are mainly composed of other sweet confectionary ingredients, making them very distant from the flavours of real chocolate. Unless a major change in consumerism occurs, it is likely that the powers of these multi nationals will be far greater than the efforts of the micro batch producers combined. If however the market for aromatic cacao continues to grow, then there is still chance of preserving some of the cacao culture and biodiversity.
At The Chocolate Tree, we are often asked if we get tired of working with chocolate, or bored of it, (or why are we not enormous by now!) but it couldn’t be further from the truth. We never tire of working with or eating this amazing food, it continually surprises us with the diversity of flavours that can be achieved, and creative channels with which we can use chocolate. The health benefits of cacao are mostly untold, and far from it being the confectionary indulgence that we have been brought up to think will rot our teeth and make us fat, it is in fact a powerful nutritional aid to a healthy diet. Raw chocolate, which preserves the enzymes usually burnt off during the roasting of the beans, is known to have one of the highest levels of flavonols / antioxidants in any food known to date. Cacao is good for our hearts, our brains and yes, even our teeth! Well, it prevents cancer in our gums to be precise…
I hope you will join us at The Counting House on March 7th, 5 days after our return from Peru, where I will give a talk on the subject of cacao sourcing, preservation of biodiversity, ethical trade & chocolate making from bean to bar.

Don’t worry, I won’t forget to bring samples!


The Chocolate Tree

123 Bruntsfield Place
EH10 4EQ
0131 228 3144

Opening times:
Mon-Sat 8am to 8pm
Sun 9am to 8pm

[email protected]