Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Gwendoyln and the Sustainable Chocolate Factory

It was my pleasure to tour the fascinating Taza Chocolate Factory last week, conveniently located next door to Boston in adorable Somerville, MA. Taza is a chocolate company that produces organic, direct trade, stone ground, Mexican style chocolate disks, bars, nibs, and other goodies. Although they offer tours to the public regularly, I was attended with volunteers from MA Farmer's Markets, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to Farmer's Markets in the area.

I had to run to get there on time, (it's rude to be late!) but the visit and tour was basically all I've ever wanted in life and I can't stop thinking about how cool it was. If you're in the area, or visiting, you should absolutely make a point to check it out.

The front of the Taza factory is, in fact, a gift shop. Well, a chocolate shop. A chocolate gifty place to buy things, I should say. It also has samples. Millions upon millions of samples.

As you peruse the store, you can try all of the flavors they have out, from Orange to Salt and Pepper to Chile, or the chocolate covered nibs. Or, if you ask, you can try anything that's not already out. They also have interesting products like bitters, for cocktails, or chocolate extract, for coffee or baking, and these things:

Then, once you've wandered around the shop trying all the chocolates, it's time for the tour (which is also filled with samples) to begin. You're first escorted to the entrance of the factory proper, where our tour guide explained where the cacao pods come from.
As shown by the mural, the pods are picked, the insides are scooped out, and the beans are fermented and then dried before being shipped to the factory. Most of the cacao Taza gets comes from cooperatives in the Dominican Republic. Taza is also Direct Trade certified, which is similar to Fair Trade, but without the middleman. Our tour guide told us that the owners of Taza travel to the cacao farms in the Dominican every six months to check on the farms, but also to check on the welfare of the workers. She also told us that they may be able to bring some farmers to the factory in the near future.

We were handed dried pods to hold and feel (which are also for sale in the shop), and we were given samples of their bars and disks to try, which have slightly different textures since the bars are slightly more processed (via stone grinding).

Next we moved to the drying room, where we saw the machine that makes the beans into nibs, below, a process called winnowing. We were then given more samples, this time the chocolate covered and plain nibs. I found the plain nibs too bitter, but I found myself absent-mindedly snacking on the chocolate covered ones. Although I have seen recipes that call for nibs, they are rather hard to find and unavailable in most grocery stores, so it was fun smelling and trying them.

Next on the agenda, we moved to the packaging room. All of the bars and disks are hand wrapped. This is insane. Since Taza has grown so large that it is available in 48 states, we were told they would soon be investing in a wrapping machine. For now, however, every disk is actually covered by a person. Our tour guide also pointed out that all of the wrappers are environmentally friendly wax paper, and many Taza chocolate deliveries are made by bike. So, if you order Taza chocolate from their website, it will likely arrive via bike messenger. She also noted that if you live in Tuscon AZ and it's 105 degrees outside, your chocolate delivery will likely be delayed until it is no longer 105 degrees.
Finally, we came full circle back into the shop and learned about the processing of the chocolate. Although there was not any chocolate being made, we saw through a viewing window how the beans are stone ground, where the other ingredients were added (like vanilla bean or sugar), and how it was pumped into the bar or disk shape.

Originally, when I first got into the shop, I told myself I would not buy anything because quite honestly this is very, very expensive chocolate. Furthermore, all of Taza's chocolate is dairy free, and thus very dark, and I am a simpleton who enjoys Hershey bars and super sweet pastries, so I was hesitant about whether I would even want to buy a big bar of the stuff. That being said, I consumed about three chocolate bars worth of samples, and the tour was so fun and informative, I felt that I should make a purchase for the sake of it. However, throughout the tour, I think my taste buds got rearranged- I found myself appreciating the deeper flavors in the chocolate despite the bitterness, and I loved the texture. (Since the disks are minimally processed, the chocolate is not super smooth; it is almost grainy, which I actually loved.) Ultimately, I purchased a cinnamon chocolate disk, which is 50% dark and 100% amazing. Furthermore, because natural chocolate contains a stimulant, I felt pretty wired by the end and really couldn't have stopped myself from buying something even if I had tried.

Aside from the foodie factor, I was incredibly inspired by the Taza business model. Unfortunately, a lot of the chocolate we consume is produced by workers who are exploited, or by enslaved children. Taza not only produces chocolate which does not result in human rights abuses, they have made it profitable, despite the extra cost it entails. By working with farms directly, they ensure that the lives of those affected by the production of the chocolate are not endangered, and that farmers do not need to resort to extreme measures to make a living wage, such as putting their kids to work.

Bottom line: Be sure to check it out if you're in town, or check it out in your local progressive coffee shop.


  1. You took some killer photos! Love the pods in the hand!

  2. Wow thanks! It was a very picturesque place. Although I got in for free, it's normally only $5 to the public, so you should check it out sometime if you can.