Unlike the coffee business, the chocolate sector has a limited number of significant public conferences. Except for one section, the business is still highly private. The speciality chocolate sector, often known as the bean to bar chocolate industry, is a subcategory that has developed its client base on the principle of transparency. It seems to reason, therefore, that one of the few big conferences celebrating bean to bar is so easily accessible.
The other two major bean-to-bar events are the new Artisan Chocolate Experience in San Francisco and the longstanding NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle. Most other chocolate events across the globe are available to anybody interested in purchasing a stall, such as the worldwide Salons du Chocolat. Yet each year, Chocoa is brought together in the pursuit of one goal: a better chocolate system.
Chocoa and the Netherlands
Chocoa has focused on ethical chocolate-related enterprises since its inception in 2012. This year, in 2020, the event included a variety of enterprises, ranging from cacao juice and cacao bean manufacturers to vegan bean-to-bonbon makers selling chocolate beverages. The chocolate celebrations spanned 5 days in late February, from Wednesday the 19th to Sunday the 23rd, in Amsterdam’s lovely Beurs Van Berlage. If you just had one day in Amsterdam, I would suggest spending some of it exploring the vibrant surrounding neighborhood and its many coffee shops!
The festival itself provided a number of possibilities for customers, professionals, and those interested in working in chocolate in the future. Although there were numerous Dutch chocolate producers and chocolatiers in attendance, the great bulk of the firms were from outside the nation, including many from outside of Europe. This is part of the festival’s goal, which is reflected by the tagline excellent cocoa, great chocolate.
Nowadays, this is one of the few chocolate festivals in Europe that focuses on the origins of the cacao used to manufacture chocolate, let alone the cocoa growers themselves and their economic requirements. Further information on the festival’s broader aims may be found by clicking here. The Netherlands, the festival’s native nation, is really one of the world’s top cacao processors and exporters, with Amsterdam serving as the major center.
Amsterdam, being a port city, has a long history of receiving raw materials for Europe’s various artisans to convert into handmade items. Of course, chocolate has been one of them. Nonetheless, the Dutch government is collaborating with cocoa importers to restructure the supply chain to be 100% sustainable by 2025, with consumer education being one of the first steps toward that aim.
Calendar of Activities at the Chocoa Festival
Although the Chocoa event schedule varies and extends each year, everything normally takes place over the course of five days, from Wednesday to Sunday. On Wednesday, there are many programs ranging from the Women in Cocoa & Chocolate event to the European Markets Academy session, which exposes prospective buyers and sellers to the major European markets. These activities vary from year to year, but they always take place in the days leading up to a weekend, when the chocolate festival is available to the public.
The major professional activities take place from Thursday to Friday: the conference and trade exhibition, as well as some particular speeches by other specialists. This year’s seminars included themes including Brazilian fermentation methods, cultural interaction with the Filipino diaspora, and spirit pairings with aged chocolates. The final conference agenda was announced the week before the event, and although I did not attend the conference, I had a great time visiting the trade fair.
The exhibitors at the Trade Fair and those at the public event overlapped by around 20-30%, so I was happy to be able to visit both. There were a lot more cacao farmers and importers, some equipment manufacturers, and numerous chocolate makers searching for broader worldwide distribution at the Trade Fair. Participants attending one of the conference’s three tracks were escorted around the trade show early in the morning, and then often transported to other cacao-related locations surrounding Amsterdam (according to some friends who attended).
Thousands of customers wandered through the several halls of Beurs Van Berlage during the public event on Saturday and Sunday. The festival takes place in the same two huge halls that were used for the trade fair, with the other hall remaining available for meals, relaxation, and a few kid-friendly activities. There was also karaoke, which I steered away from. Along the right side of the wall, festival-goers may spend one dollar to taste and rate five hot chocolates in a friendly competition; I was too full of samples to even think about participating.
Some of the superfluous activities which took place throughout the later three days were a barista master class, the professional supper, an FCCI cacao grading intensive, the chocolate producers forum, and the cocoa auction. The majority of these activities were not advertised or completed until the last few weeks, if not the week before the festival. As I attempted to attend one of the sessions, I was informed that I needed to go to the front to check in and get a ticket for the speakers. To be honest, it was all quite complex and difficult to understand.
If you wish to attend the Chocoa Festival in Amsterdam, I suggest that you book your flights and accommodations early and hope for the best. Allow for a few additional days to see other cities in the Netherlands, and accept any disorder as part of the way art reflects reality. I was fatigued just looking at all the alternatives, and I can’t image attempting to arrange and implement all of this. My hat is off to the organizers, and I will be better prepared next year (or maybe the year after).
2020 Chocolate Trends
This was my first trip to Europe in seven years, and the closest I could get to handmade chocolate back then were a few chocolate museums in Barcelona and elsewhere. Nonetheless, I have kept up with developments online, in the Americas, and subsequently in Asia. In comparison to the festivals I went in 2019 and what I’ve seen online, there were a lot more white chocolates at the public festival.
In addition to the more traditional single origin chocolates, I saw many more differently flavored or otherwise modified cocoa butter-based chocolates, milk substitutes, and bags of cacao beans. Craft chocolate manufacturers are also needing to be more cautious with labeling as they run up against the limits of legal chocolate standards. This is especially true for chocolates prepared with milk substitutes such as oat, almond, and coconut milk.
It’s worth noting that there was hardly no ruby chocolate at Chocoa. Every exhibitor’s packaging and presentation was excellent; everyone realized they were there to sell and that consumers purchase with their eyes first.
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It was inspiring to see so many chocolate manufacturers and cacao producers from outside of Europe and the United States attend the fair. Arvicacao, a Venezuelan chocolate producer, Koa Impact, a cacao juice processor, and Biji Kakao Trade, an Indonesian cacao importer, really pleased me. All three of those firms have stayed with me as businesses to watch, and not only because their goods are delicious.
Freebird cacao juice, cacao pod necklaces, cacao pulp-based pates de fruits, single estate cacaos from tree to bar chocolate producers, and many other single origin bars debuted at Chocoa 2020. But if I went over each product individually, we’d be here for hours. My advice is to come back next year and see for yourself!
Bring both cash and a credit card to the event, since some sellers only take one or the other. It’s also a good idea to bring your own reusable bag to carry purchases, as well as a plastic bag for bonbons, brownies, or other loose delights, to reduce our environmental effect. Check out professional chocolate writer Clay Gordon’s Chocoa article for another viewpoint (from someone who is really active in the event).
Thank you very much to the Chocoa organizers for allowing me to visit the pre-festival Trade Fair for free; all other tickets and chocolate & cacao items were paid by myself. I’m excited to attend the conference segment in 2021 or 2022!