Interview with Alastair Gower, Chocolate Tree

For our first ever chocolatemaker interview we spoke with Alastair Gower from Chocolate Tree in Scotland. Alastair and his wife Friederike have been making award-winning organic chocolate since 2011, with a strong focus on heirloom cacao and supporting biodiversity. Their beautiful bars are firm favourites of ours and we’ve been honoured to distribute them since 2018. It was great to catch up with Ali and find out what’s been happening behind the scenes…

What attracted you to making craft chocolate?

We started back in 2005 using organic fairtrade couverture for our chocolate. In 2011, when I became aware of the machines becoming available for us to make small batches of our own chocolate from beans, it was an immediate ‘Yes’ moment! We started with two grinders, a simple oven and a homemade winnowing setup, launching a new range of ‘bean to bar’ chocolate. For us it was the ability to take ownership of this part of the process and detach ourselves from the big industry chocolate couverture we were using. We were fuelled by a simple passion for understanding the process of making chocolate. It also presented the opportunity for us to visit cocoa farms and farmers, enabling us to better understand the social and agricultural impact our business was having. We are both quite adventurous and the idea of setting off to South America was appealing.

How has the chocolate industry changed over the years you’ve been involved?

It’s changed a lot over the years. When we started there were very few chocolatiers focusing on single origin, and even fewer making chocolate from bean to bar. I think we were the second company to start making bean-to-bar chocolate in the UK, now there are dozens, which is awesome. It’s great that more companies are making authentic ‘bean to bar’ chocolate so we can be recognised as a serious part of the chocolate sector. It has of course become more competitive compared to when we started, however it’s not the other bean to bar chocolate makers we are competing with, it’s the big industry who have muscled in on the marketing style and gone after the craft chocolate market share. The problem is people are easily misled by manipulative marketing, and bigger companies have the resources to invest in lucrative strategies to capture consumer attention.

How do you decide where to source your cacao beans?

We have settled with sourcing all our cacao from organic or agroforest smallholder farms in South and Central America. There are a few reasons for this, the first being that we love to travel in South and Central America, and that interesting genetic diversity in cacao comes from South America (where cacao originated). It’s also because supporting smallholders and obtaining our cacao from smaller cooperatives means we are supporting the creation of more biodiversity through agroforestry systems, as opposed to mono-cultures favoured by large plantations.

What’s it like to visit the farmers and companies you source cacao from?

Visiting our cacao suppliers and the farms at origin is probably the most exciting part of our work. We are planning to get back to Peru this year, and really looking forward to it. Beyond understanding the impact our business is having both environmentally and socially, it’s really interesting to explore new cultures, especially the food. We both have adventurous tastes so we love a simple meal or some tropical fruits with the farmers we visit. We find that food connects people everywhere.

Why do you feel it’s important to support and preserve heirloom cacao?  

Just like any food on the edge of extinction, it’s very important we work to keep it available for future generations. Nature loves diversity and does not react well to monocultures. Preserving a diverse range of cacao varieties will not only provide us with a wide range of superior flavour chocolate, but – perhaps more importantly – will provide the biodiversity required to prevent diseases running rampant across mono-cultures and the resulting insecurity of our food. This is true of all foods. There is a good book called Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino which explains well the folly of relying on only a few varieties of crops for our future food security. Besides, some of these old genetics such as the Venezuelan Porcelana taste wonderful; it would be a real loss to see them disappear.

Has consumer awareness of chocolate ethics and quality increased over the past ten years?

Yes, significantly I think, which is exactly what is needed if consumers are going to choose a better chocolate. This is due to the work of journalists such as Miki Mistrati and human rights lawyers like Terry Collingsworth, who have been working hard to bring the unethical practises of big chocolate to the consumers attention, through documentaries such as The Dark Side of Chocolate and more recently The Chocolate War. We need this exposure to continue to really change consumer habits.

How has Brexit affected your business?

Brexit has been awful for us; we have lost significant wholesale trade to the EU, and all of our direct-to-consumer e-commerce business, which was booming for us just before Brexit kicked in. The paperwork is suffocating, especially as an organic certified business, then there are the shipping delays, increased export costs and general feeling of gloom in the UK that has prevailed since Brexit. The mainstream media are not reporting the truth about how much of a disaster this has been for Britain, and as a Scot I can’t help but feel we’d be much better off as an independent nation, re-joined to the EU with a more Nordic style of political leadership.

What’s one of the best chocolate bars you tasted in the past year?

We receive the monthly subscription box from Cocoa Runners, which is great, so all our team tries chocolate from all around the world. The favourite’s have been anything from Fjak in Norway and French broad in the US. We love the chocolate from our Glaswegian competitors Bare Bones, and the Gorse Flower bar from Chocolarder in Cornwall is a firm favourite.

Which of your chocolate bars are you most proud of?

The Porcelana 85%, which won a silver in this year’s International Chocolate Awards. I’m proud of it because I know this cacao is grown under the supervision of Iraima Chacón, the ‘Queen’ of Porcelana in Venezuela, and it’s treated with such care right through to the finished bar. The flavour is exceptional – quite nutty with a creamy texture, and very light in hue due to the white beans. For an 85% is surprisingly easy to enjoy.

What’s your favourite thing about being a chocolate maker? 

I love being in the factory making chocolate when all the orders have been fulfilled, emails answered and there are no other distractions around. The factory has a calm to it, the air is full of volatiles coming off the cacao, the constant rolling hum of the grinders in the background. I will put on a podcast and hours can disappear while I routinely roast, winnow and grind the cacao. It all puts me at ease, and I find it easy to love this work. I also get to eat really good chocolate all day.

Thanks so much to Ali for taking the time for this interview. Be sure to check out Chocolate Tree’s range in our wholesale shop.

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