So it would be OK if it really were special chocolate?

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DallasFood.org's 10-part expose of NoKA Chocolate is making the rounds. For those of you not familiar with this story, NoKA is a hyperexpensive luxury chocolate, coming in at between $309/lb and $2,080/lb (other high-end chocolates come in under $100/lb). Aside from a flashy box, the NoKA branding comes with a number of claims about the high quality of their chocolate. Here's the relevant FAQ section:
What is Single-Origin Chocolate?
Each NOKA truffle or chocolate contains dark chocolate made of the finest cacao from select plantations in a specific origin. For example, our Vivienté truffle is made from the finest Venezuelan dark chocolate (min. 75% cacao): from the luxurious ganache (center of the truffle) to the thinly enrobed shell and delicate shavings that decorate its exterior - only pure Venezuelan dark chocolate is used. By using only a single- origin chocolate it enables the tasting of the terroir or "true essence of the origin". A fitting analogy to our single-origin chocolate is to that of tasting fine wine - for example, a bottle of Californian Merlot will have a different flavor profile than a French Merlot - the resulting differences are due to a number of factors including soil and climate. The same is true with the finest single-origin chocolate.

How is your chocolate different than other dark chocolate?
Regular dark chocolate contains a blend of cacao from a variety of different origins. Most regular chocolate also contains vanilla, added to round out quality imperfections and create a consistent flavor. We focus solely on the highest quality single-origin dark chocolate and as such there is no vanilla in any of our chocolate. Our passion is tasting real chocolate, in its rarest and purest form, unadulterated by vanilla and any other flavorings.

Anyway, Scott at DallasFood.org did a bunch of background research on NoKA. First, NoKA doesn't actually make the chocolate. Rather, they buy pre-made chocolate (called couverture), temper it and pour it into molds. They don't hide this fact, but Scott makes the case that they imply that they have a larger part in the production process than they do (in particular referring to couverture as "semi-refined" when it's the finished product). Second, the claims that NoKA makes about their chocolate aren't that unusual (and not necessarily benefits). A number of chocolatiers can make similar claims. Finally, Scott uses the descriptions of each of the offerings plus taste testing to make a very persuasive argument that Noka's chocolate is simply couverture bought from Bonnat—which chocolate can be bought far cheaper directly from Bonnat (though without the shiny box).

Naturally, this revelation has provoked a fair amount of anger and feeling that NoKA misrepresented their product. I suppose that's true, but say they hadn't. Say they were actually manufacturing the product themselves or had outsourced production to Bonnat with some custom recipe of their own design. You'd still be paying an outrageous price for the product, but you wouldn't have the option of buying it cheaper under a different name. Presumably that's what NoKA customers thought they were getting, right? So, what's the problem?

Here's another way to look at things. Say you're in the market to buy some high-end chocolate. Presumably you buy some small quantities and taste it and then buy whatever you like the best. If after you've followed this procedure you still end up buying NoKA, then either your background research failed (you didn't try Bonnat) or your taste isn't very good.

8 Comments

Say they were actually manufacturing the product themselves or had outsourced production to Bonnat with some custom recipe of their own design

So, if you were purchasing a security product that you thought came with, say, custom attention, (at what percentage price? 25%/year?) you'd be fine with it when it was a third party who provided it.

This is not to disagree that the chocolate market is weird. But misrepresentation, even if only technically/legally OK, isn't OK.

If you're buying NoKA chocolate--or pretty much any high-end chocolate--for yourself, then you're either a complete idiot or so rich that you can afford to completely waste that kind of money. Most likely, though, if you're buying high-end chocolate, it's for someone else--and in that case, the fact that you're spending outrageous amounts of money is part of the point.

An obvious analogy is the diamond market. Why do people pay so much for features that are only discernible under a microscope? If you're buying a diamond for yourself, then chances are that you don't bother. But if you're buying one for someone else....

What I'd like to know, though, is whether NoKA uses single-origin lark's vomit.

Wow. Anyone buying high-end chocolate is a "complete idiot." Amazing. I can think of a few reasons why one might want to go completely overboard and part with a whopping $6 for a bar of Valrhona or even $8 for a bar of Domori or Amadei:

1. That cheap chocolate is made of African Forestero beans, which is hardy, disease resistant, but also a completely different biological animal (or plant, rather) than the Criollo or Trinitario beans produced in Jamaica, Ecuador, or Venezuela. Criollo makes up about 2% of the world's chocolate production, but was the original chocolate that migrated to the new world. Don't knock it until you've tried it.

2. Those cheap Forestero beans (at about $1000/ton) are made cheap by the wonderful economic efficiency of child slave labor. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1272522.stm)

3. Cheap industrial chocolate tends to improve it's margins by including a lot of bean hull along with the nib. (Still technically "chocolate", after all.) That hull contains a lot of phenol and fatty acids incompatible with the fats in cocoa butter. Solution? Pregrind the beans, and roast the cocoa liquor very hot. No need to keep the aromatics around that actually give the chocolate flavor.

4. Cheap industrial chocolate is typically refined by a five-roller press in a few minutes, resulting in that nice sandy texture on the tongue. Those evil high end "lark's vomit" producers are deluded into refining their chocolate in stone conches for upwards of 30 hours, producing a noticably smoother texture. It certainly was forward thinking of Rodolphe Lindt to think up that gimmick in 1859 so he could fool people with too much money in the 20th century.

Okay, point taken--you might want to buy high-end chocolate for yourself, if your intent is to pull it out and eat it in front of gullible, impressionable people with low self-esteem, all the while explaining in great detail how much the chocolate costs, what makes it so much better than midrange-priced chocolate, and how much pain your exquisitely sensitive palate suffers on being subjected to anything so....crude as a chocolate bar that only costs a couple of bucks.

But really, why would you want to hang out with such easily-impressed losers in the first place?

So the point of buying chocolate is to find the cheapest variety that you can choke down? In a world where a cup of coffee now goes for $4, and Bugatti can sell out of $1.2M Veyrons that probably will never been driven at their top speed, better chocolate for a few bucks seems like a pretty forgivable luxury.

Should the world be working on a cheaper, crappier, chocolate instead? You can buy couverture with the cocoa butter extracted and replaced by palm oil, which in bulk would be far cheaper than anything you are probably eating now. Should I send you some, to assuage your pain on knowing that you are now a deluded "genuine" chocolate eating snob?

Again, I'll concede your point that there are far, far more efficient ways to waste one's money than throwing it away on expensive chocolate. (I wonder about the Starbucks's example, though--I'm not a coffee drinker, but it's not obvious to me that what you get for $4 from Starbucks is less than half of what you get for $8 from Domori. Is number of beans per dollar a correct comparison? If so, how do they compare? If not, what's the right measure?)

As for when it's reasonable to pay more for chocolate, the obvious answer is: if one can easily distinguish between the best chocolate (by one's own standard of taste) available for $x and the best available for $y in a blind taste test, and it's not economically ruinous to do so, then it's not necessarily wasting one's money to make the choice of paying the larger amount for one's chocolate. I surmise, though, that for the vast majority of the population, the price at which this taste test criterion rules out higher expenditures is a lot lower than the cost of those high-end chocolates you mentioned.

I don't think that beans/dollar is the right number. Ultimately, of course, it's utility/dollar, but since pleasure is hard to measure, let's take doses/dollar. The 2.64 oz (75g) Domori bar goes for around $7. Now, most people would eat a quarter of the bar or so. Let's say it's 1 oz, which is rather more than most people would eat. That's $2.65/oz, which is about the same price as the Economist reports for a tall latte at Starbucks: $2.80.

I used to eat your classic American chocolate bars, like a Kit Kat, Mars bar, Snickers, Milky Way or some Canadian variant like Coffee Crisp or Aero. It seems these cost $0.75 these days. Actually I wouldn't usually buy such bars because I knew I'd eat the whole thing, still crave more, and in the long run gain weight. I did tend to pig out at Halloween or anytime such treats were available such that the barrier of pulling out my wallet wasn't around to bolster my weak self-control.

Around about 2000 I discovered the 70% cocoa Lindt bars, which can cost $3.30 but you can often get them for $2.00 a bar (BevMo used to be quite reliable for this). The startling thing to me was that I could eat a square or two of this and stop. Put it back in the cupboard -- even though it was sitting there, mine, paid for, and even opened! A bar would last me at least a week, maybe more if I didn't get a chocolate craving for several days in a row. So my favourite Lindt chocolate ends up being at most $.50 a "hit", cheaper than a standard milk chocolate bar, and much better for my waistline and guilt complex.

Today I find a have a slight preference for Chocovic Unique Origin bars. EKR picked some up at Trader Joe's, and I said they were better than the Lindt 70% so now they're the standard thing he brings home (such a sweetie, as you all know). Now that I look it up, it appears that although the price to order online is $3.00 to $3.50, Candyblog says they're $1.79 at Trader Joe's. I guess EKR is actually being cheap and here I was all impressed by the money he spent on me!

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