Another year is about to end.
Fall is usually the season where craft chocolate makers, after the melting summer, come back to the market stronger than ever. They have traveled, experimented and got inspired. So it’s during these chilly months that they decide to freshen up their brands: new packaging, more flavors, different origins, additional products. This is the time to rethink old strategies and change things up for better results.
And when you have more than 100 craft chocolate makers under the same roof, it’s easy to spot new popular trends in the industry.
At its 10th anniversary, the Northwest Chocolate Festival managed to bring inside its doors more than 10.000 attendees, who were ready to indulge with their palates and wallets in the highest quality chocolate in the world. Dubai, Iceland, New Zealand, India, Russia, Colombia, Vietnam and many more countries were represented, as well as the most renowned US brands from New York to San Francisco.
Standing at their booths side by side, there was little to zero competition in the air. Exhibitors were eager to satisfy every attendee, and curious to try the delicacies of their neighboring colleagues. They all had different reasons to be in Seattle: some returning exhibitors came to cash in on their popular products; others were looking for US distributors; some more wanted to increase their brand awareness; international brands wanted to find out the preferences of US chocolate consumers.
The weekend left a big smile on everybody’s face. But it also revealed the biggest trends that professionals in the craft chocolate industry are following. Let’s check them all out:
From Raaka Chocolate and Fruition Chocolate in New York, passing through SOMA Chocolate in Canada to Hogarth Chocolate in far New Zealand, a lot of craft chocolate makers are changing their packaging.
Every chocolate brand has its own reasons for craving a new look.
Some of them have switched to packaging made with stronger materials that will ensure greater safety during handling and transportation. Others have reached a stage where they are more aware of who they are and what values their brand represents; so they change their packaging to use different or additional words in their message. Some more are aware of the fierce competition and want to take advantage of a more catchy and appealing design. Others have had the same packaging for a while and simply felt the need to freshen up.
Whatever the reason might be, chocolate brands are refining their packaging with better messages and prettier designs. Which means that all the other chocolate companies will need to step up their game to get noticed in the crowd.
When chocolate is made starting from the beans, even countries of origin are part of the trends. It takes just two or three makers for one origin to become an instant success that everybody else wants to work with. This season, everybody’s obsession is Uganda.
Interestingly enough, the Uganda trend wasn’t about the chocolate bars on the table, but the chocolate bars under the table. When asked what they were working on, many makers would take out a mysterious bar, wrapped in an anonymous packaging, and suspiciously declare: “This is a Single Origin Uganda I am about to launch!”.
The impression was that there must have been something illegal about those Ugandan beans (just kidding), or that those bars must be kept a secret until their release on the market. Even the source of those beans was unclear. Many different names were mentioned, from big distributors to small suppliers, from known people in the industry to never-heard-of-before farmers or cooperatives. The only things we can say for sure about this trend are:
- the companies that have a Uganda bar in their assortment say it’s a best-seller.
- the companies that don’t have it yet are working to release a Uganda bar soon.
- consumers have great things to say about Uganda as an origin.
- the anticipated popularity of Uganda as an origin can encourage the demystification of Africa as an origin of solely bulk cocoa.
Dark-milk chocolate is technically milk chocolate with a percentage of cocoa mass greater than 40-50%. In its ingredients list, cacao will be listed as the first ingredient, followed by sugar and milk powder. If this chocolate “hybrid” has been considered a fun novelty in the past couple of years, now it’s a stable presence in every maker’s assortment.
Every craft chocolate company now has a dark-milk bar to sell. Friis-Holm in Denmark, French Broad Chocolates in the US, Green Bean-To-Bar in Japan, Soklet in India, Omnom Chocolate in Iceland and so on.
This is an international trend that satisfies consumers all around the world. Why?
Because it’s in these bars that the intensity of dark chocolate is mitigated by the creaminess of milk chocolate. Dark chocolate lovers appreciate a little more roundness and less bitterness. Milk chocolate lovers appreciate the higher cocoa content for a treat that is healthier than regular milk chocolate. And with a touch of sugar and intriguing inclusions, the success is guaranteed.
It’s extremely hard to survive solely on the profit margins of chocolate bars. This is why craft chocolate makers are differentiating their assortment. Hot cocoa mixes, cocoa nibs, cocoa teas, chocolate covered fruits and coverture for professionals are only some of the many creative products that these companies are selling along with their bars. But if you walked around the booths of the Northwest Chocolate Festival, you would see clearly the 2nd most popular product after chocolate bars: drinking chocolate.
Craft drinking chocolate usually comes in the form of either pastilles (like coverture) or powder to be mixed with water, milk or dairy-free alternatives. Almost every chocolate booth at the festival had small bags of drinking chocolate on their tables.
Some brands have had this product in their assortment for a long time, while others had just launched it during this Fall/Winter season. Some others even re-branded their drinking chocolate with a more appealing packaging. No surprise that this product is a best-seller during the cold holiday season. However, some makers claim that the sales of their drinking chocolate stay up and strong throughout the rest of the year. Brands like Markham & Fitz Chocolate, Fresco Chocolate, Dick Taylor Chocolate and Amazing Cacao are taking advantage of this profitable market segment.
Have consumers lost their preference for healthy, all-dark, even 100% chocolate bars? As rich and delicious inclusions are making their way back into milk and white chocolate, plain dark chocolate seems to be loosing out in the market. Chocoholics are asking for real treats again.
More chocolate booths compared to last year have added some delicious inclusions to their assortment.
If last year single origin, 70% to 100% cacao, minimal ingredients chocolate was the protagonist, in 2018 milk and white chocolates with rich inclusions are marching their way back on the main stage. Not only healthy ingredients like nuts, seeds and dried fruits, but also more yummy inclusions like caramel, peanut butter, gianduia, bread & butter, and mocha. Most importantly, the tendency is to add one to three different inclusions in one single bar, for an over-the-top pleasure for the palate.
As the holiday season is fast approaching, seasonality might play a big role, but don’t let this reason fool you. Even last year the Northwest Chocolate Festival was held in the middle of November, yet this incredible amount of rich chocolate bars was nowhere to be found. Are consumers growing a sweet tooth back? Only time will tell…
Craft chocolate might be a niche market, but it’s constantly evolving and launching new trends for the entire industry. From new origins to fancy inclusions, there is only one certainty: 2019 is going to be an exciting year!
What is your current favorite trend in the craft chocolate industry?
I did NOT get paid and did NOT receive any kind of favor for writing this article. These are my honest opinions at your service.