A just dessert

This holiday season, Bethany, PA-based Moka Origins and other bean-to-bar makers urge conscious chocolate consumption

By ELIZABETH LEPRO
Posted 11/24/21

BETHANY, PA — The Moka Origins chocolate factory is in a barn, but its namesake farm is about 6,000 miles away.

Photographs of lush green crops at the Moka Origins farm, located in northwest …

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A just dessert

This holiday season, Bethany, PA-based Moka Origins and other bean-to-bar makers urge conscious chocolate consumption

Posted

BETHANY, PA — The Moka Origins chocolate factory is in a barn, but its namesake farm is about 6,000 miles away.

Photographs of lush green crops at the Moka Origins farm, located in northwest Cameroon, Africa, line the walls inside the roastery and chocolate workshop on the Himalayan Institute’s campus in Bethany, PA. The photos are reminders of where the chocolate-making process begins.

When it comes to bean-to-bar chocolate—craft chocolate produced by one company from beginning to end—origins are important. Chocolate begins with cacao beans, which come from cacao pods that grow on trees and look like football-sized almonds in varying shades of purples, yellows or greens. Moka Origins co-founder and CEO Jeff Abella cradled a dry pod as he explained the importance of education in his business model on a recent Thursday afternoon.

“When people start to realize that chocolate—candy—is actually a fruit, start to think about the farming and the labor and the intensity that goes into it,” he said.

Moka Origins is one of roughly 150 craft chocolate companies that have cropped up across the country, all on a mission to dignify that labor by producing single-origin chocolate from cacao beans purchased at fair prices. The market relies on consumers’ consciences. Moka Origins asks buyers to pay more for more peace of mind—a message especially pertinent as chocolate sales ramp up for the holidays.

Abella and Ishan Tigunait founded the Moka Origins farm while working on humanitarian projects with the Himalayan Institute in the region in 2015. They opened the roastery in Bethany the following year.

The team aims to disrupt an unethical chocolate and coffee supply chain, wherein largely West African farmers—in countries including Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Cameroon—face pressure from large companies to grow beans as quickly and cheaply as possible. Human-rights issues nearly came to a head this summer when six Mali citizens brought a Supreme Court case against Nestle and Cargill, two giants in the industry, alleging that they benefit from child labor. The plaintiffs said they had been trafficked and enslaved to work on cacao farms. (The case was thrown out because the events took place overseas).

“We’re not here to give aid to farmers,” Abella said of his mission. “What we’re here to do is establish partnerships where we’re just paying fairly for their beans and ultimately sustainably growing their economic outcome, and the more people we can get aware of that the better.”

Slowly, more people are hearing the call. Despite five years of civil unrest in Cameroon—the result of government retaliation against a separatist movement—and supply chain issues caused by COVID-19, Moka Origins has more than doubled its chocolate output in the last year.

In 2020, Abella estimated that the company was producing about 2,000 to 4,000 bars of chocolate per month. This year, his team is making as many as 10,000 chocolate bars in a month, and roughly as many units of coffee. Moka chocolate bars and coffee beans can now be found in 200 locations across the U.S., including Whole Foods, and a fourth Moka cafe just opened at a health center in Iowa. The company plants one tree in Cameroon for every product sold, thus far that’s 215,466 trees.

Part of Moka’s growth may be due to a rise in both ethical entrepreneurship—a trend highlighted in a 2020 New York Times article that featured the company—and ethical consumption.

“I have seen the bean-to-bar chocolate evolve over the last eight years,” said Doreen Leong, founder of Cococlectic, a subscription service that promotes only ethically sourced bean-to-bar chocolate makers. “In the past we had just a handful of American bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Now there are so many more to choose from.”

Leong said education about the harmful effects of the mass-produced chocolate industry has compelled more people to buy ethically. But there’s still a hurdle for many American consumers: the price.

Moka Origins chocolate bars run between $7.95 and $14. Abella said he doesn’t see that changing.

“Exclusion isn’t the goal… but to make a chocolate bar that is a price point that the world is used to purchasing, we can’t even do that and we don’t have that intention,” Abella said. “We should start to realize that the true value of cocoa needs to take into consideration how much it costs farmers to grow and the income they need to earn to not live in poverty.”

He added that paying a higher price is not only the right thing to do, but is also a reflection of higher-quality beans — which should, like any crop, vary in taste and flavor notes depending on where they’re grown.

Cameroonian cacao farmers are typically paid 40 to 70 cents per pound of beans; sources estimate that farmers make less than $1 a day. Moka pays as much as several dollars per pound for cacao sourced from countries like Tanzania and Uganda.

Then there’s the cost of production, a lot of which is done by hand. Inside the white barn in Bethany, the entire process is transparent. Moka offers tours and tastings every Saturday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and those who stop in to grab coffee during business hours can see the process too.

If you follow the scent of roasting cocoa through the barn—and how could you not?— you’ll find a windowed production room with several stainless steel stone grinders whirling busily as cacao nibs are liquefied. Across the hall in the workshop, you might see chocolatier Elizabeth Dawson drizzling fresh chocolatey goop into molds, while other employees wrap bars—finished with sea salt or chunks of toffee—in gleaming gold foil.

There will not be Oompa Loompas. There will not even be a single elf. There will be friendly employees in white aprons, spiced Mexican sipping chocolate and festive peppermint white and dark chocolate bars awaiting stockings in which to be stuffed, all wrapped in Moka’s overarching message, put this way by Abella: “We, as consumers, can change the world.” This year, that seems like something to be merry about.

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