When Riverfront Times visited the Askinosie Chocolate factory in Springfield last winter, founder and proprietor Shawn Askinosie promised he would take members of the Cocoa Honors program at the factory's Chocolate University to either Tanzania or Liberia to source beans for the newest bar in Askinosie's chocolate line -- provided they helped raise money for the trip.
Honors students are known to be overachievers, so it should be no surprise that the class of thirteen students from Springfield's Central High School raised $70,000. (They had help from Springfield businessman and philanthropist Doug Pitt, brother of Brad, who was recently appointed a goodwill ambassador to Tanzania.) And because Askinosie is a man of his word, he took the students along on a buying trip to the village of Tenende, Tanzania, which the students had decided -- after considerable research -- was the best source for cocoa beans in Africa. (Tanzania is also more politically stable than the cocoa-growing region of Liberia, which borders Ivory Coast, currently on the verge of civil war.)
In Tenende they tasted and tested beans and used some of the money they'd raised to build a well to provide fresh water for 2,000 residents. They also gave chocolate bars to the farmers and students at the local school, most of whom had never tasted actual chocolate.
The Tenende bar reached stores in November. Like all Askinosie bars, it has a wrapper that bears a photo of the farmer who grew the beans to make it -- in this case Mama Kyeja, leader of Tenende's 40-farmer cacao-growing collective.
Word of this adventure has traveled beyond Springfield, all the way up to Chicago and the rarefied realm of O: The Oprah Magazine, which features an article about Askinosie and Cocoa Honors in its February issue, currently on newsstands. Based on circulation figures, it looks like nearly 3 million readers will be learning about Askinosie chocolate.
Ari Weinzweig, founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a long-time seller of Askinosie chocolate, reports on the Tenende bar on The Atlantic's food blog:
I can't honestly say I'd ever tasted Tanzanian cacao before this, but I think the chocolate has a pretty different flavor profile than all the others we've got. It has a cacao content of 72 percent (plus 3 percent cocoa butter that they make themselves in Missouri). It's a bit lighter and less astringent than the other Askinosie bars. Don't get me wrong -- I like that astringency; it's like what you get with a nice big red wine. But this bar's a bit lighter, slightly softer in flavor than most of Shawn's other others. More like maybe a good Rioja.
I don't want to over-poeticize it, but after a brief survey of chocolate lovers around the Zingerman's Community of Businesses I've assembled a pretty fair list of adjectives. It's definitely more cocoa-y than most of the other dark chocolate bars, with a slight hint of cinnamon and less of some other specific spice that I can't put my finger on. Shawn says it has "hints of tobacco" but I quit smoking so long ago I can't really remember what that means. It's definitely kind of creamy on the tongue. Allen, the coffee man, is adamant that he tastes banana, and I agree.
The main thing is, it's complex and well balanced, with a nice finish and it really doesn't taste like any other chocolate I've had. All of which, I'd say, makes it well worth checking out.
Askinosie's trip had some unintended consequences; namely, disrupting the local cocoa market. There are two other cocoa buyers in southwest Tanzania, one Tanzanian, the other European. Both buy in far larger quantities than Askinosie and sell to commercial chocolate makers who are less concerned about quality.
"The farmers are under such an economic pinch that they don't dry and ferment properly because the big buyers don't care," Askinosie explained to Weinzweig.
But when word got out that Askinosie was paying the Tenende cooperative $1,000 per metric ton above the going rate, the other farmers got angry. First they complained to their buyers that they should be getting the same rate. The buyers, in turn, complained to the Tanzanian government that Askinosie was paying too much.
"I'd seen this sort of thing before," Askinosie tells Gut Check, "but not to this extent, not this overt. For a couple of months, we were not in contact with the cooperative. This was a crucial time, just before the harvest. It turned out that they were intimidated by the other buyers."
In the end, though, things turned out OK.
"The buyers recognized that we weren't going to hurt them," Askinosie says. "We're very small, a very tiny part of the people who buy cocoa in Tanzania. They ended up not seeing us as a threat. They even ended up helping us. We needed some extra beans to round out the final tonnage. They needed to be not too wet in order to make the voyage, which is 50 days by boat. [The buyers] gave us the extra beans. We took a potentially volatile situation and turned into something good."
Askinosie believes things would not have turned out so well in other parts of Africa. "In West Africa," he says, "we could have gotten killed."
What turned around the buyers' opinion, Askinosie believes, was their recognition of the good work Askinosie Chocolate and Chocolate University have been doing in Tenende. Earlier this month Askinosie sent $4,500 so the local secondary school could purchase textbooks; until yesterday, when the books arrived in Tenende, the school's 1,100 students had been going without. Some of the money will also be used to start an Empowered Girls club at the school to help build self-esteem among female students.
"This is a chance to change people's lives," Askinosie says. "Profit-sharing is one thing, but this is making a real difference."
Askinosie intends to buy beans again next summer. "We have to figure out what to do with the next crop of kids," he says. "This needs to be a sustainable venture."