Dark chocolate price jump may melt sales gains: Popularity surges, but cocoa bean supply shrinks and costs rise

-In order to eat chocolate properly, Terrence Mootoo suggests first sipping water from a reverse osmosis tap. The filtered water cleanses the palate, readying the taste buds for a 70 percent cocoa truffle filled with a hazelnut-almond ganache. He splits the truffle in half, making you wait 30 seconds between bites so that your mouth and brain can acclimate to the purities in the chocolate.


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"Do you feel it just vaporizing on your tongue?" asked Mootoo, who flies to Europe almost monthly to restock his Chicago store, Baladoche, with chocolate bearing the seal of Belgium's royal family.

Chocolatiers and chocoholics contend chocolate is entering into the same realm as fine wines and cheeses, indulgences connoisseurs treasure for their subtleties. "There's more romance with dark chocolate," said Ken Cotich, vice president of corporate sales for Barry Callebaut, a chocolate-maker. "When you change from milk to dark, it's not about price. It's about the fact that your tastes have changed."

Dark chocolate sales jumped 35 percent, to $829 million between February 2007 and February 2008, while all other chocolate sales inched up 1.5 percent, to $5.8 billion, according to Nielsen Co. And because dark chocolate contains a higher concentration of cocoa, the increased demand for it has sent cocoa bean prices surging by 46 percent since October, to $2,787 a ton, according to the IntercontinentalExchange.

But Nielsen data also show that the popularity of dark chocolate could be stalling in the recession, with sales off by 2.2 percent through February 2009. Some even expect American tastes to swing back to milk chocolate. "It's a bubble that's going to burst," predicts Judith Ganes-Chase, a commodities analyst. "You have a combination of recession plus high prices. I just don't see how consumption can't drop sharply."

The contrast between the price of milk chocolate and dark chocolate is highlighted by stopping at a Walgreens on Michigan Avenue. A Hershey's milk chocolate bar and Nestle Crunch each cost 89 cents, while the 72 percent cocoa Ghirardelli Intense Dark Twilight Delight bar will set you back $2.99. Michelle Petrelli and Michael Tripp, project managers from Toronto, splurged on the Ghirardelli.

"You don't want to go anything lower than 70 percent," said Petrelli, whose interest in dark chocolate increased about a year ago. Work helped shape their tastes, Tripp explained: "The owner of our company is from France and is really picky about chocolate."

The European influence surfaces a few blocks north at Vosges Haut Chocolate, where Marilyn Geary, a Chicagoan who is originally from London, enjoys a free sample of the $7.50 Sugar-Free Red Fire Bar, which is made from chilies, Ceylon cinnamon and dark chocolate. "They've discovered dark chocolate, finally," Geary said of her adopted homeland. "Have you had the bacon chocolate? Everyone thinks it's wonderful."

Sitting at a table across from Geary is Catherine Brickell, a 23-year-old office worker who said she traded the artificial chemicals in milk chocolate for the natural ingredients in dark chocolate when she was in high school. She tries Vosges' Organic Enchanted Mushroom, a bar that mixed reishi mushrooms with walnuts and dark chocolate. "I went vegan recently, so dark chocolate is almost the only option," Brickell said.

Not everyone has conformed to the trend. The majority of chocolate continues to be the sugary milk variety instead of the semisweet, somewhat bitter dark. "I like milk but my wife likes dark [chocolate]," said David Canario, a sales consultant for AT&T in Chicago. "When we were dating at one point she got herself a dark chocolate bar. I was like, 'Ooo, really? I guess I'll have to forgive that.' "

One artisan chocolatier chose to marry the contrasting dark and milk tastes with the Pas de Deux truffle. "A bold liqueur sets the tempo for a dance for two in the mouth as a masculine dark chocolate coating lovingly partners with a feminine milk chocolate center," reads a description of the truffle by Daniel Nelson, who graduated from L'Ecole Du Grand Chocolat in France and lives in Rockford.

Last week, Nelson dreamed up a truffle called Nigella, which joins dark chocolate with black cumin seeds, an ancient spice discovered in the tomb of King Tut and mentioned in the book of Isaiah. "I'm figuring if it's good enough for the pharaoh's afterlife, it might be good in chocolate," Nelson said.

Before Juliana Schmitt discovered Nelson's confections near her home in Roscoe, Ill., the self-acknowledged aficionado ordered dark chocolate online and found the results to be uneven. When her family makes s'mores over the fire in the summer, she said her children use Hershey's bars. The adults choose dark chocolate and peanut butter. "So long as we can afford high-quality dark chocolate, we will stick with that," Schmitt said.

Estimates released in March by the International Cocoa Organization show that the world cocoa harvest will be short of demand, meaning that chocolate could become more expensive despite the bad economy. And European chocolate is typically purchased in euros, which means differences in the exchange rate can bite into the margins of gourmet chocolate stores.

At Baladoche in Chicago, which also sells waffles and gelato, the menu board lists prices in the European currency. The owner, Mootoo, adjusts the dollar price every three months to account for fluctuations in the euro. A tube of truffles from Baladoche costs $34.46, or 25 euros. "What has saved our store through this recession is chocolate sales," Mootoo said.On Wednesday, Mootoo left for Germany to buy more chocolate. The native of Trinidad and Tobago, who trained as a lawyer, will return with about 150 pounds of chocolate and 32 tubes of the hazelnut-almond ganache truffles, which has a combined street value of $4,000. He stores the truffles in the plane's overhead compartment, while putting the rest of the chocolate into three checked bags stuffed with packing peanuts. United Airlines and its transatlantic partner, Lufthansa, are his preferred carriers. "I've never had any of my bags mangled or destroyed," Mootoo said.

Each trip overseas costs $750 in travel, lodging and food, though Mootoo said his meals mostly revolve around one particular item.

"Usually when I'm there I'm eating chocolate, because I want to test other people's chocolate," he said.

A European jaunt might seem like an extravagance. But Mootoo said FedEx would charge about $2,000 to transport the chocolate. Commercial shipping can also be problematic because the chocolate needs to stay between 59 degrees and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. One order Mootoo attempted to import using a cargo plane sat on an airport tarmac during a snowstorm. The freezing weather ruined the nuanced chemistry and aroma of the chocolate.