Raaka’s “virgin chocolate” tests the limits of where the confection can go

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Raaka’s “virgin chocolate” tests the limits of confection

Related tags: Cocoa beans, Cocoa bean, Taste, Flavor

Brooklyn start-up Raaka is carving out space in the crowded chocolate category by skipping the traditional step of roasting the cocoa bean to create “virgin chocolate” that highlights the “true flavors” of the beans, according to a company representative.

“In the culinary sense of the word ‘virgin’ communicates a higher level of purity and quality,”​ and intense “true”​ flavor that can be lost during the roasting process, explains William Mullan, marketing manager at Raaka.

He explained that cocoa beans have delicate flavors that are unique to the regions in which they grow, but that roasting the beans mellows out certain flavor notes and makes others disappear entirely.

“By not roasting our beans, we are allowing those bolder, more fruity flavors to stay intact,” ​which brings people “closer to bean” ​and sets our chocolate apart from the competition, he said.

Skipping the roasting process also preserves some of the antioxidants in the beans, which makes the final product more healthy, Mullan added. Although he was quick to point out that Raaka is not as interested in the additional health benefits of unroasted beans as it is in the “incredible flavors”​ innate in the beans.

Raaka further enhances these natural flavors by “pairing them”​ with other complimentary flavors such as vanilla rooibos tea, lapsang chai, coconut milk and maple.

The firm’s most popular bar is its bourbon cask aged 82% Belize chocolate, which created a bit by happy accident.

Mullan explained that one of the company founders discovered the potential for infusing beans when he was storing a bag of beans in his kitchen while slow-cooking barbeque sauce. The flavor of the sauce seeped into the beans, changing their profile. After he discovered the high fiber and fat content of beans allows them to absorb surrounding flavors, he tried storing them for several weeks in a cask. The result was a deeply oaked flavor that led to the creation of the award-winning chocolate bar, Mullan said.

An asset and challenge

Raaka’s virgin chocolate’s greatest asset – its unique processing and flavor profile – also proved to be one of its greatest marketing challenges, Mullan said.

He explained that because most people are more familiar with roasted chocolate, Raaka’s unroasted bars can “taste a little off”​ unless people have the necessary “mental reference points.”

Raaka tries to educate consumers about the different taste of unroasted chocolate by explaining the process on the bar packaging and through in-store demonstrations. It also gives tours and teaches classes at its factory to help get the word out about how its manufacturing process is different. It also is updating its website to include more videos about the manufacturing process, Mullan said.

A distribution plan as unique as its processing

Just like Raaka uses an untraditional manufacturing process, it has taken an unusual approach to distribution: a subscription service.

The company sells its bars at many major retailers across the country, including at Whole Foods Market and specialty stores, but it also allows consumers to subscribe to a mail order service called “First Nibs,”​ which is a play on the phrase “first dibs,”​ Mullan said.

The monthly subscription includes one retail SKU and two limited bars that might be made from rare beans or a special flavor pairing, such as porcini mushrooms.

The rapidly growing service, which expanded from 30 subscribers to 200 in a year, also allows the firm to test consumers’ response to potential new flavors and products without the cost or risk of a full batch production, Mullan said.

“First Nibs allows us to explore and see what works … where people are willing to go with their palates and where chocolate can go,”​ he said.

A socially conscious company

Like many start-ups now, Raaka also has a social mission that it is uses to appeal to progressive consumers and help set it apart from mass market chocolatiers.

“Our mission is to keep a more equitable distribution of wealth along the supply chain”​ by paying the cocoa farmers a minimum of $500 above the market price per metric ton of cocoa beans, which is equivalent to a 20% raise, Mullan said.

The firm also intentionally buys from economically distressed communities where farmers of small plots are underemployed in an attempt to help lift their business and quality of life.

“Our bars are for people who want to buy chocolate that isn’t promoting human rights abuses,”​ which “unfortunately is kind of the truth of the industry where almost 70% of beans are sourced from Africa”​ where farmers are paid “next to nothing,”​ Mullan said.

The higher price Raaka pays for its beans is reflected in the $7.99 price-tag of each bar of its premium chocolate, Mullan acknowledged, which means the firm is targeting consumers who do not want just a sweet treat, but rather a unique eating experience.

The young company also wants to help its local Brooklyn community and the Earth – which also appeals to modern consumers. It donates all its cocoa husks to the Edible Schoolyard NYC, which is an afterschool gardening program that uses the husks as mulch.

The company also intentionally uses 100% post-consumer recycled, chlorine-free paper processed with wind-generated energy to create its wrappers, which are printed with soy ink, according to the website.

“At the end of the day, we just want to provide people with a really delicious experience that gives them a closer relationship to their food,”​ which they can also feel good about, Mullan said.

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