The process to turn cacao into chocolate is long and complicated.
After workers harvest cacaofruit from trees, they cut the fruits open and scoop out the seeds, which undergo several days of fermentation. Then the seeds are sun-dried, shipped to processing facilities, roasted, shelled, ground into a paste, heated and stirred to bring out the flavor, tempered and molded.
WNWN, a UK-based company, is replicating the very beginning of the process, during which the freshly picked cacao beans are fermented, to make cacao-free chocolate. Starting on May 18, its boxes of dark chocolate thins that are primarily made from fermented barley and carob are available to buy online in its home country.
As several companies look to reinvent chocolate using food science, chemistry and cell-culturing techniques, WNWN's cacao-free chocolates are the first to go out on the market anywhere in the world.
"We basically echo what chocolate makers have been doing for hundreds of years," said WNWN Chief Technology Officer Johnny Drain, who has a Ph.D. in materials science and is known in Europe's food scene for his use of fermentation to transform food.
"What distinguishes us from other people either working in the alt-universe with alt-chocolate is we're not using synthetic biology or cellular agriculture or precision fermentation. We're leaning very much into very traditional fermentation techniques that humans have been using for hundreds and thousands of years to make most of our favorite foods like vinegar, coffee, booze, bread, etc."
Just over a year ago, Drain joined forces with CEO and Co-Founder Ahrum Pak, who left her career in the investment banking world to pursue something new with fermentation. She found Drain through Instagram and the two connected over a love of the taste of chocolate, a dislike for the way cacao is grown and farmed by some of the world's biggest food companies, and the belief that fermentation could be the key to the chocolate they want without the ethical issues that come with it. Pak said WNWN is an acronym for "waste not, want not," but is pronounced "win-win."
"What we're seeking to do is actually give consumers a choice, right?" Pak said. "We don't always have to say, 'This chocolate, we don't know where it comes from, we're not sure what's behind it.' But by giving an alternative, we are able to relieve some of the pressures from the environment, from the supply chain, and have a clean alternative."
The premium luxury dark chocolate box from WNWN costs £10 ($12.50), which the company said is roughly at parity with premium chocolates made from cacao. And with the company's R&D work and this launch, Pak and Drain say they have plans to expand to other chocolates and commodities such as coffee, tea and vanilla in the near future.
From boiling potatoes to fermented chocolate
Drain said he first thought about using other ingredients to make chocolate about five years ago. He was boiling potatoes and caught a whiff of the steam that rose from the pot. In that breath, he caught a chocolate-like odor, which sparked his curiosity. What else might be able to make chocolate? Could something humble, like the potato, become something loved and luxurious like chocolate?
WNWN doesn't use any potatoes in its formulation, but its ingredients are rather ordinary. Barley is a star ingredient in beer and baking, but is not used in sweets. And carob, which comes from trees that can grow in a wider variety of climate zones, can have a somewhat similar look and taste to chocolate.
Drain said the entire setup WNWN uses would seem familiar to a winemaker or someone in a profession that deals more with fermentation. The company says because its chocolates are made from ordinary ingredients and through traditional fermentation, there is no special regulatory approval needed to start selling them.
Currently, WNWN is operating at lab scale, Pak said. However, because it is using a traditional fermentation method and can employ off-the-shelf equipment, it's relatively easy for the company to scale up. She said WNWN currently can make 300 to 600 kilograms (661 to 1,323 pounds) of chocolate in a month.
The company started with dark chocolate, but it has been able to produce cocoa powder as well. It is working to make milk chocolate and will also try to figure out white chocolate, Pak and Drain said.
"Our vision is that you can use WNWN's product to replace chocolate in any place that chocolate is or cacao is currently used," Drain said.
So far, consumers have given positive reviews to WNWN's chocolate in taste tests, Drain and Pak say. "Often the response is like, 'Wow, I wouldn't recognize this as not chocolate if you didn't tell me,' " Drain said.
The company has worked hard to create a product that has the same look, feel, texture and snap of traditional chocolate, and Drain said it has made formula tweaks based on some of the tests.
Plans to be 'the most sustainable ingredients company out there'
While WNWN is launching a consumer product today, Pak said the long-term goal is to be an alternative ingredients powerhouse, using fermentation to make new versions of many of the products people use that have issues with climate change, ethics and scarcity.
Because WNWN uses fermentation, Pak said that it can not only recreate plentiful amounts of sought-after ingredients, but it will be "the most sustainable ingredients company out there."
Drain said they intend to turn WNWN's attention to coffee, tea and vanilla in the future because they are all beloved items, but when you go all the way back on the production chain, "there's somebody getting shafted" to produce them all. Pak said that these are also all commonly used commodities that can be reasonably copied through using fermentation.
For the chocolate launch, Pak said WNWN has the power of social media behind it. A direct-to-consumer brand can use images and videos to tell its story, both of what the chocolate products look like and why consumers should seek more ethical options.
Spreading the word through this launch about child labor and inhumane conditions for those who grow and harvest chocolate can also begin the larger process to force change in the industry, Pak said. She believes that in about a decade, alternative companies like WNWN will be providing a sizable portion of the world's chocolate. Climate change and ethical problems notwithstanding, the world needs more ways to get chocolate; both demand for it and populations continue to grow.
Drain said that while they want to be financially successful, there is a deeper reason WNWN is providing an alternative to cacao-made chocolate.
"We will have been successful if we can have impacted what those [big chocolate] companies sell and how they do their business," he said. "We don't want to put them out of business, and we know that we won't, but if we can change their mindset, then we will have been successful, I think."