A guide to packaging cacao nibs and specialty chocolate

Kahwei Yoong
September 16, 2021
specialty cacao nibs

The popularity of craft food and beverages has skyrocketed in recent years, and chocolate is certainly no exception. Taking cues from specialty coffee, craft beer, and natural wine, the chocolate sector is placing greater emphasis on quality and flavour than ever before. 

Specialty chocolate makers are increasingly conscious about their impact on the environment, producing communities, as well as consumers themselves, so it’s no surprise that specialty chocolate is, more often than not, sustainable and environmentally friendly. 

With growing demand for specialty chocolate products like cacao nibs, it’s only natural that packaging needs to adapt to meet new and changing requirements.

To understand more, I spoke with Luisa Abram, the founder of Amazonian specialty chocolate brand Luisa Abram Chocolates.

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cacao nibs
By 2027, it is estimated that the global market value of cocoa will have grown by around USD $3 billion

Understanding specialty cocoa

Chocolate is popular. The global market value of cocoa – obtained from the cacao tree and one of the main ingredients of chocolate products – is expected to grow to more than $15 billion by 2027.

According to the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO), cocoa is segmented into “fine or flavour” and “bulk” or “ordinary”, with the former making up the specialty market and the latter accounting for the commodity market. 

The ICCO asserts that the main difference between the two types of cocoa is flavour. Cocoa quality is usually assessed based on a set of criteria that includes the genetic origin of the cacao plant, flavour characteristics, and more.

Luisa is the founder of Luisa Abram Chocolates, a Brazilian bean-to-bar chocolate maker that produces treats made from wild Amazonian cacao. She tells me that Brazil is in the process of shifting from commodity cacao to specialty cacao.

Brazil was a major cacao producer until the late 1980s, when the country was hit by a disastrous “witch’s broom” pathogen that damaged cacao crops and virtually destroyed the industry.

In Bahia, one of the key producing regions, production fell from about 400,000 tonnes a year to a little more than 120,000 tonnes. Approximately 200,000 jobs were lost.

In response to the devastating situation, farmers introduced CCN-51, a cacao variety that is resistant to witch’s broom – but at the expense of quality.

“At that time, no one talked about flavour or aroma,” Luisa explains. “They only wanted quantity to solve the witch’s broom problem and had no idea that the future of chocolate is in specialty cacao.”

However, due to the recent growth of the specialty cacao scene in Brazil, many producers now prefer cacao varieties that offer flavour and quality, leading to a move away from the CCN51 variety.

“There are two scenarios in Brazil,” Luisa says. “We have Bahia recovering from witch’s broom, and at the same time, [we are] trying to achieve specialty cacao. And we also have Pará, a state in the Amazon who saw what specialty cacao can do for the community, and are making an effort to grow flavourful types of cacao.”

cacao farmer picking ripe fruit
Coffee and cacao share a number of similarities when it comes to production

Cacao vs coffee: Production and packaging

Chocolate and coffee are two incredibly different products, but they share plenty in common when it comes to production and processing methods.

Broadly speaking, cacao and coffee come from the fruit of a plant. The cacao fruit, also known as a cacao pod, carries 20 to 60 seeds (or beans) surrounded by a sugary pulp. Likewise, coffee is obtained from the coffee cherry, which usually contains just two seeds. 

Cacao, like coffee, can have distinguishable flavour qualities based on the plant species and variety. While plant variety impacts flavour characteristics, it is worth noting that other factors like origin, growing conditions, farming practices, fermentation, and roasting process also affect its sensory qualities.

Once cacao pods and coffee cherries are harvested, they undergo similar processes, namely fermentation, drying, and roasting. While roasting is considered the final step in the transformation of coffee into a consumable product, cacao still has some way to go before it becomes the chocolate we know and love. 

For example, roasted cacao beans undergo winnowing to remove the brittle outer shell. This leaves us with cacao nibs, which are grinded down to form chocolate bars. Sugar and other ingredients are usually added to contribute to sweetness and texture.

Cacao nibs can also be consumed as is. In fact, Million Insights reports that consumption of cacao nibs is gaining popularity, thanks to their rich, raw chocolate flavour and reported health benefits. 

In this sense, cacao is quite different from coffee. As such, packaging requirements need to be reassessed.

Once coffee is roasted, it becomes very sensitive to external factors like oxygen, light and moisture, which can degrade its flavour and quality. The roasted beans also gradually release carbon dioxide in a process known as degassing. For that reason, coffee packaging usually comes with the option of resealable zippers and degassing valves to preserve its freshness.

Conversely, chocolate needs to be totally protected against frost, heat, damage and loss of flavours. Chocolate bars are usually wrapped with a layer of aluminium foil or coated paper to preserve flavour, and covered by a sturdier outer layer typically made from cardboard or paper.

luisa abram chocolate cacao

Designing packaging for cacao products 

Packaging is undeniably one of the most important marketing tools that brands can use to attract customers and effectively increase sales. 

“Your packaging has to stand out on the shelf because you are not going to be there with your product,” Luisa explains. “When consumers are not aware of your brand, packaging will be the first thing that calls their attention.”

Your packaging also needs to tell your brand’s story. For example, the packaging of one of Luisa’s chocolate lines features designs related to the Amazon rainforest’s wildlife. This tells consumers that the cacao originated from communities in the Amazon forest. 

“We want our packaging to showcase more of our story and the uniqueness of having wild cacao,” she says. “We want to share stories of our producing communities and we want it to scream Brazil and the Amazon.”

Sustainability has become an increasingly vital aspect of packaging, both in the specialty chocolate industry and elsewhere.

Luisa tells me that she is currently testing out solutions for plastic free packaging, with the immediate goal of having compostable packaging for all her chocolate bars. 

“Consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious, so brands should really pay more attention to the use of plastic,” she explains.

packaging for cocoa nibs
Environmentally friendly packaging, whether for cacao nibs or coffee, is essential

Whether it’s for the chocolate or coffee industry, packaging sustainability and design are more important than ever.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable packaging options that can be fully customised to suit your business needs. 

Our team of experts can help you find the best material for your specialty chocolate – whether it needs to be compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable – while our creative team can work with you to design packaging that tells your unique story to the world.

For information about our sustainable packaging, contact our team.

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