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The $100 chocolate bar

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Special batch of cocoa helps benefit Trinidad program that preserves gene pool.


COURTESY PHOTO  - Cocoa is a very fragile product and has to be preserved on living trees.We often pay exorbitant amounts of money for fine wine and whiskey, but a $100 chocolate bar?

If you’re a true chocolate nerd, you won’t even bat an eye.

One of Portland’s biggest players in the craft chocolate movement is peddling a $100 chocolate bar as a fundraiser to help ensure the future of sustainably sourced chocolate around the world.

It’s called the Trinidad Fundare (foon-DAH-ree) Bar, and 100 percent of proceeds from each sale will go to the maintenance and stewardship of the International Cocoa Gene Bank in Trinidad, the island nation 4,200 miles from Oregon, off Venezuela's coast in the southern Caribbean.

Charley Wheelock, owner of Woodblock Chocolate in Southeast Portland, came up with the idea five years ago during his first cacao sourcing trip to Trinidad.

"You hear a lot about 'We're not going to get chocolate in the future,' " Wheelock says. "These guys are doing something about it."

The gene bank is located on 100 acres at the St. Augustine campus of the University of The West Indies in Trinidad.

There, seven employees do research on conservation, characterization, evaluation and utilization of the 2,400 different cacao varieties in their collection.

The varietals come from Central and South America, including the Amazon rain forest and other regions.

The gene bank’s research “helps farmers all over the world with their cacao,” Wheelock says.

(Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. After it's roasted at high temperatures it's called cocoa powder.)

With no direct source of funding, the gene bank is underfunded and shortstaffed, Wheelock says, and their trees were in disrepair, unpruned, with fruit falling on the ground and rotting.

"If you ever see cacao, you get super excited when you see it on the tree," he recalls. "When you see it not getting harvested, you think, 'What a waste.' "

The maintenance needs are high, due to the fragile nature of the fruit.

“Cacao seeds cannot be stored in a cold drawer on a shelf,” Wheelock says. “Varietals must, therefore, be kept alive in a living collection that is cared for on a daily basis.”

The goal of the fundraiser, Wheelock says, is to raise money for the research center and grow awareness of its mission, which is to keep ancient and interesting cocoa varieties or genetic resources for posterity in a safe environment.

Farmers can use genes from the gene bank to improve their yield and quality, improve the health of their product and develop disease resistance or build resilience to climate change in new cocoa varieties.

COURTESY: WOODBLOCK CHOCOLATE - A baby cocoa pod sprouts from a cocoa tree in Trinidad, where Charley Wheelock and his team at Woodblock Chocolate sourced the beans for their extra-special Trinidad Fundare bar. Mining the cacao gene pool

With help from the Cocoa Research Center, Wheelock set about making the Fundare bar with cacao beans harvested from several different varietals at the gene bank.

(Fundare is a Latin derivation for "fundamental," which Wheelock believes represents their conservation mission.)

One of Woodblock's production workers, Duncan Ellinwood, harvested cocoa pods from the Gene Bank at their optimal maturity, fermented the pods at the gene bank's small-scale cocoa-processing facility, and sun-dried the pods on a roof-top dryer overlooking the mountains.

They then ground it all into cocoa liquor (imagine melted cocoa butter) at the flavor lab and managed to bring the 10-kilo bricks of cocoa liquor back to Portland, despite looking just a bit suspicious at customs.

Back in Portland, Wheelock and his team added sugar, refined it, and conched it into 65 percent dark chocolate before casting it into bars.

Just before Christmas, Wheelock launched the fundraiser with 300 Fundare bars for sale.

"Honestly, chocolate is very underpriced," Wheelock says. "Symbolically, we went for $100," just to grab people's attention, he adds. "The problem is the way people were introduced to this kind of chocolate — the bar has been set very low, and the price for chocolate has been unsustainably low. It's cheaper stuff, cut with a bunch of stuff, not representative of the kind we're making. You can't base it on commercial chocolate."

@jenmomanderson