Industry Voices - Curtis Vreeland

Artisan: A ‘worn out’ phrase in US bean-to-bar chocolate?

In 1997, Scharffen Bergen coined the phrase 'artisan' in chocolate, but its founder now says the term is now 'worn out'
In 1997, Scharffen Bergen coined the phrase 'artisan' in chocolate, but its founder now says the term is now 'worn out'

Related tags Chocolate

The term ‘artisan’ has lost its luster in the US bean-to-bar chocolate market, says confectionery consultant Curtis Vreeland.

In a recently penned article for the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA), Vreeland and Dr. Kristy Leissle of the University of Washington Bothell interviewed several premium chocolatiers, who have moved away from the phrase.

An edited version is printed below with permission. For the full article see HERE.

According to Leissle, Scharffen Berger was among the first to describe itself as an “artisan chocolate maker”​ when its brand hit store shelves in 1997.

Over 130 companies have since joined the American bean-to-bar movement – over half of whom use the term “artisan”,​ says Vreeland.

Vreeland Photo
Curtis Vreeland, president of Vreeland & Associates , specializes in US confectionery market research and trend analysis

‘Little meaning’

“Artisan’ has gotten a bit worn out,”​ says Scharffen Bergen founder John Scharffenberger, whose company was acquired by Hershey in 2005.

Leissle wrote there was no common training or third-party designation for the term “artisan”,​ so it carries “little meaning when affixed to chocolate”.

Amano owner and chocolate maker Art Pollard says the phrase has been “gobbled up”​ by big companies, much like the term gourmet.

Theo Chocolate stopped using the phrase in 2007 because it had “ceased to be meaningful”.

Its chief marketing officer Debra Music says:” It had morphed into more of a marketing trend than something that conveyed substantive depth that consumers would understand.”

Another way: Bean-to-bar

But what alternatives exist?

Vreeland says some premium US chocolate makers have explored the phrase "bean-to-bar".

He writes "bean-to-bar"​ implies a relationship with chocolate’s key ingredient cocoa, but warns consumers must trust cocoa beans have entered a company’s factory and chocolate bars have left it.

US fine chocolate companies average $200,000 annual revenue, finds survey

survey questions - NiroDesign
Photo: iStock/NiroDesign

The Fine Chocolate Industry Association recently surveyed its 250 members in collaboration with Vreeland & Associates. Eighty-six people completed the survey. It found the average 2014 revenue among respondents was $200,000. Channels of distribution were, on average, 43% retail, 31% wholesale, 15% internet and 12% private label. Two-thirds of respondents had fewer than four full-time employees.  For further details see HERE.

Last December, The Mast Brothers were accused​ of misusing the term bean-to-bar to describe its products when it experimented with couverture from Valrhona in some products during its inaugural year.

In an open letter,​ the company called the claims “misleading”​ and “unsubstantiated”​ and reiterated it was a “100% bean-to-bar chocolate maker”.

Chocolate industry consultant Clay Gordon says “by the strict definition, Barry Callebaut is bean to bar. So is Cadbury. It's not useful in making a small maker distinction”.

Craft: A credible phraseology?

Another option is "craft".​ Vreeland writes that "craft"​ carries connotations of small batch and artistry. There is also some regulation of the term in beverages as The Brewers Association has an official definition.

Patric Chocolate uses the variation “American Handcrafted Chocolate”​ on its products.

But some confectioners have moved away such phrases to convey premium status.

Theo Chocolate says it now uses “organic”​ and “fair trade”​ as on-pack communications as the terms are better understood by consumers and point to quality and the company’s brand values.

Fine chocolate & barsmiths

The Fine Chocolate Industry Association​ (FCIA), which represents manufacturers in this segment, borrowed its name from fine flavor cocoa – a term regulated by the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO)

FCIA Pam Williams says “fine chocolate”​ points to the origins of a great chocolate. The organization ruled out “premium”​ because it was already used by high-end big chocolate brands like Dove and Godiva.

Vreeland writes that “Barsmith”​ is also trending, coined by Mark Xian, the creator of C-Spot, a website for ratings of premium chocolate products.

But Xian says of artisan alternative phrases. “All these terms … are mainly just buzz-buttons pressed on unsuspecting customers, often appropriated by big players to poach on ripe territory.”

“Bottom line: It’s a function (or fiction as the case may be) of size, sensibility and degree of personalization.”

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