Melting down the great chocolate scare Never fear. The 'food of the gods' is not really endangered, just mismanaged

Popular Culture

May 10, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

The Spaniards kept chocolate a secret from the rest of Europe for over 100 years. The Aztecs in Mexico, from whom they got it, never told anybody about it either.

Word got out, though, early in the 17th century, after Spain's Emperor Charles VI introduced the Austrians to chocolate. Europe went mad for the "food of the gods," as Swedish naturalist Carl von Linne named it. Later, North Americans would discover it and become its No.1 consumers.

(That's just overall. In per capita consumption, we are no match for the Swiss, who eat more than 21 pounds annually, or the Austrians, at nearly 20 pounds apiece. The average American eats a mere 11.2 pounds of chocolate a year.)

But now, after nearly three centuries of such indulgence, comes news that the world may be facing a chocolate shortage. Demand has been growing and, it seems, is outpacing the industry's ability to provide the gooey treat. Producers are running out of rain forests to grow cacao trees in; plant diseases are taking their toll.

A "disaster of gigantic proportions" may impend, the New York Times calmly reports. So is the chocolate industry worried?

The Chocolate Manufacturers Association of the United States betrays no overt apprehension. It has a more positive spin on the great chocolate scare.

"We want people to know that chocolate will be available," says spokeswoman Susan Snyder-Smith. "What we're trying to do is to make sure sustainable cocoa crops will keep pace with demand."

The problem, it seems, has to do with the current method of growing cacao trees - in vast, unshaded plantations where big trees once grew. It isn't efficient. It encourages destructive fungi and attracts aggressors. A new industry strategy is to grow more cacao trees on smaller, shaded farms.

This pleases conservationists; the rain forest gets breathing space; the chocolate tastes better.

Snyder-Smith's association represents nine of this country's major chocolate producers, including Hershey's and Mars. U.S. chocolate is big business: It employs upward of 50,000 people and generates about $13 billion a year in sales. Chocolate consumption in the United States, Snyder-Smith says, has grown 30 to 40 percent in the past decade.

Albert Kirchmayr's experience reflects that increase, and more. Kirchmayr makes fine chocolates in a small establishment on Baltimore's North Charles Street. He's been at it for 11 years.

"We have grown about 15 to 18 percent a year in our retail business," he reports.

"In the beginning we had more of the richer clientele," Kirchmayr says. "Now it seems just your Joe Blow, your average person, is buying chocolate from us."

A cadre of chocolate connoisseurs has emerged. Chocolate seems to be going through the same evolution as coffee in recent years. Coffee enthusiasts - snobs to some - buy and brew their own beans, or pay $3 and more for lattes and such.

For chocolate snobs, the old Whitman's Sampler just won't do. In some places, such as New York, certain irritating people demand ever more bitter chocolate, ever higher cocoa levels. The blue-collar Daily News recently ran a list of restaurants and shops where only the finest chocolate is sold.

Albert Kirchmayr buys his chocolate in Europe, from a German company named Lubeca. It and others, like France's Valrhona (reputedly producer of the world's finest chocolate) process the cocoa beans, brought from places like Ghana, Nigeria and Brazil.

He uses about a ton of this stuff each month in the winter - chocolate's high season. And though his costs have fluctuated over the years, they've not gone up much, he says. A recent call to his supplier produced no hint of alarm about a coming chocolate doomsday.

Kirchmayr compares chocolate to another product of which he is fond: beer.

American chocolate companies, he says, produce only for the mass market. "It's exactly like the beer," he says. "Americans have the capability to produce great beers, but they don't."

Why? It's easier and more profitable to sell a large quantity of average-quality beer than to market a smaller, more expensive, high-quality beer.

So what does Kirchmayr think keeps him in business?

Simple, he says: the addictive quality of fine chocolate.

"Once people get accustomed to better chocolates, they can't leave off. Once you get used to import beer, are you going back to Budweiser?"

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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