In 2021 we entered our first ever chocolate contest and from that experience we became interested in hosting our own. No simple task, so months of thought going back and forth on if we could or if we even should before finally flipping the switch on the Craft Chocolat Challenge.
The experience we had from entering a contest wasn’t a negative one nor do we feel any contest out there is wrong for being in existence. I think people have different views on the importance of contests and how they are conducted and some contest hold more value than others. There are some that seemingly everyone wins something with endless amounts of categories and then some others more narrowly focused by ingredients use or some other factor. Standards are most likely going to be all over the place from contest to contest and the general public will more than likely be uneducated on all the above. Although a shiny sticker will help sell a chocolate bar that people feel is expensive, a reassurance that some need to purchase. I’ve had some rather uninteresting shiny sticker chocolate before so it’s no guarantee award winning chocolate equals chocolate I like to eat. So how does a chocolate maker benefit from a chocolate contest was the question that we played over and over in our head.
Before I dive in to more details about our contests I will tell you my experiences from the biggest contests out there. First up is the International Chocolate Salon, this one we entered in 2021 and costs about $70 an entry. This is the only contest I entered before starting the Craft Chocolat Challenge. They have a big selection of different contests you can enter that happen at different times of the year. They also have a lot of categories which increases your chances of winning something. We happened to win a few categories and later found out that the award certificates needed to be purchased. They weren’t expensive, but an added cost. This contest isn’t just for bean to bar chocolate makers either. Most when we entered seemed to be chocolatiers that made chocolate bars from someone else’s chocolate. The only feedback we were able to see was in the notes sections on the overall contests, just random reactions to certain bars. Ours just so happened to be mentioned in a couple.
The next contest we entered was the Academy of Chocolate, in 2022. This was more of what we were looking for in terms of chocolate making contests as it is for bean to bar makers. It is held in the UK and the organizers have a membership they offer. This affects the cost of entering the contest. We weren’t members so it was 50GBP per entry. They mentioned they gave feedback so we were delighted to enter. This contest entry was in early March and the winners were announced in the middle of July. We entered three bars and I will list them below with the feedback we received from three different teams of judges
Dark Chocolate with Ginger
Apparently well made, with dull surface but clean corners. There is pleasant ginger aroma. The mouthfeel is both sandy (due to coarse grinding as described) and fatty. The taste is a little flat and ginger dominates the chocolate rather than harmonising with it. There are some off notes of loam and wood.
Ghana 42% Classic Milk Chocolate
A light coloured bar with a coconut aroma. The flavour is off like old milk or stale beans (or an old bar). There is actual bloom or the like as evidenced by colour inconsistency on the back of the bar. Something has gone very wrong here.
75% Dark Chocolate - Dominican Republic
Texture and mouthfeel are initially good, but leave a very greasy feel. The taste is not inspiring - there are some pleasant vanilla, nutty, tropical fruit notes, but there are also off notes, hard to identify.
The next contest we entered was the International Chocolate Awards. We entered that in early April of 2022 for the Americas region. This seems like the biggest competition but I don’t have any numbers to compare the contests to confirm that. For this contest there is a registration fee as well as a $60 fee per entry. Shipping to NY was easier, so we entered 5 bars in this contest. 69% Haiti Dark Chocolate, 45% Philippines Coconut Milk Chocolate, 66% Dark Milk Chocolate with Lavender, Espresso Chocolate, 40% Uganda Milk Chocolate. Haiti was a finalist and the coconut milk won a bronze. I will post screen shots of the feedback below. Their feedback system is interesting and is the best of the ones I have entered. It doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, but you can take information from the data they provide to form your own thoughts about what you might need to think about. It is very systematic, but it has to be because of all the entries they get. They can’t ask judges to write sentences about every bar they taste. Everything can be accessed online through their website via your account. Prize logos can be downloaded from there as well.
We entered the Good Foods Awards next. The contest entry was at the start of June and they will announce the Finalist in January and Winners in February. This contest is a bit different than the others as it has different requirements and is only open to US entry. They have a wide variety of craft foods they judge and chocolate is just one of them, but it needs to be bean to bar and of a certain size of company. Also they are strict on what ingredients you can use. They also make you use a generic mold to submit your samples in. They don’t want any judges to be able to recognize a maker. This contest cost around $80 per entry and you can pay to get the feedback for an additional $15. I entered 3 bars, 75% Jeptha Creed Bourbon Dark Chocolate, 45% Philippines Coconut Milk Chocolate, and 66% Uganda Dark Chocolate. I only purchased feedback for one and it is below.
Jeptha Creed 75% Bourbon Dark Chocolate |
Texture is amazing, but the sweetness creates a weird aftertaste. || Has a finish of goji berries. || Bitter herbal flavor (goji berries), good texture.
Last, we entered the Northwest Chocolate Awards. We entered in September and the winners were announced in Mid November. I didn’t see anything about feedback being offered but I did see that they award packaging. The only one we entered that even mentioned what we sell our bars in. So that was interesting to me. We entered 75% Jeptha Creed Bourbon Dark Chocolate, 70% Madagascar Dark Chocolate, and 56% Ecuador Dark Milk Chocolate. The fee to enter was $75 per entry. They also have a festival that happens around the same time as the awards are announced.
After entering all of these it occurred to me that most chocolate contests are probably not being made or organized by people that work making chocolate on a daily basis. The timelines and requirements made it seem rather difficult to participate and fees made it a bit more challenging. Chocolate (our hard work), shipping (a cost) plus a fee to enter per bar (and in our case add-on fees later for obtaining the prize) all narrow the field to make participating less desirable or even not possible at all. Even more so if you aren’t in North America. So we decided to be as inclusive as possible. FREE, we can’t pay for shipping or for the work (chocolate) but we don’t have to charge you for playing. We decided to find other avenues of funding to accomplish our goals and through sponsorships and committing to the cost on our own if needed we pressed on.
So we had our plans for funding and a rough budget, we just needed to give it the purpose we wanted. Something we felt after the announcement came from the first contest we entered was “that’s it”? We were excited to learn the results. Being from a small town were your craft goes a bit unnoticed because people aren’t aware as much as somewhere else we thought, we could get some helpful feedback and we were so curious to know what these people thought of our chocolate. That unfortunately wasn’t the case. We searched and found little tidbits of someone mentioning one of our bars but it was mostly a mystery to us why we received what we did. (Even the contests in 2022 we entered that talked about feedback didn’t do it for us. We wanted more information and that information laid out in a way that we could easily comprehend.) So to us, that was it. That is what needed to be the focal point of our contest. Regardless of the standing each bar will get feedback from every judge. Chocolate makers will know why their bar was scored the way it was and who (not the identity but relevance) said what about that bar. We were also having some market research conducted from a local university at the time so we figured we would throw all of that info we were given into the deal. We didn’t know what to expect from that research but sharing it was an easy decision.
Next was format. We were honest with ourselves about the possibilities and perceptions of creating a “perfect” contest and that was never considered. We knew that even if we pulled off a miracle and had renown judges and a scoring system like never seen before with uniform bars and all the other impossible things needed because of our status in the industry and location it would never been seen that way anyway. We went more “practical”. Our goal was helping the chocolate maker, not putting them up on a pedestal for a day. Before we decided fully we reached out to some chocolate makers and others in the industry. We didn’t get much response back. In their defense, they really had no idea who we were and with their busy life I am sure we seemed like a waste of time. We had nothing to build from so I can’t fault them for the lack of response. We didn’t stop and decided to do it how we thought it would work best and if it needed tweaked we tweak it or learn and do it better the next time. Such is life. We decided on a big panel of judges. Since we were feedback driven it didn’t make sense to just have a few people comment and judge. We wanted a diverse panel, not just people in the chocolate industry. We wanted to get out of just the niche and we also wanted to spread awareness about craft chocolate. Food writers and influencers seemed to be a good fit combined with chocolate makers and qualified chocolate tasters. If a bar didn’t win our contest but all the scores from qualified chocolate tasters were high, you could determine that this might be a bar that could do well in a bigger contest. If the the results were opposite then it might be a bar that you target the general public with instead. Purpose needed to be given to what we were doing. This created what was the most difficult part of the contest for chocolate makers. We requested 11 bars, not just bits of a bar either. (Now reduced to 8 bars) The full mold of how they sold it. Bars around an oz to bars almost 3 oz were entered. This was important for a few reasons. We could easily tell what the chocolate was, we could provide feedback on packaging which has value, and it was a natural way to keep the number of entries down. We had a plan to cap entries in each category once reaching 20 or even sooner if all categories were treading that high but we also didn’t want to rush the chocolate maker into a decision. A contest like ours is also a good chance to test a product. We wanted chocolate makers to have time to consider making an experimental bar for the contest. Our format was similar to product testing so it seemed practical. We also didn’t want a narrow window of accepting shipments of chocolate. We accepted entries for months that could be shipped anytime until the Jan deadline.
The timeline for the contest was one of the challenges we had because of our schedule. We knew we had time in January to do it because we close our inn and cafe but sandwiching a contest in-between Christmas and Valentines is a tricky time. We knew we wanted it during the cooler months so we didn't have to worry with temperatures so much but Fall was never an option because our crazy schedule then. March was probably the best fit but after having our child the pandemic hit and we hadn't had a chance to get to Japan to visit family. March/April was our window for doing that but we didn't know when that would happen because of restrictions so we didn't want to have the contest then just incase we could get to Japan. In the future we do hope to move the contest to March but January has been working fine for now.
All of the planning and organizing turned out nicely. The inaugural Craft Chocolat Challenge was successful and we were able to help several chocolate makers in several different ways. We also learned quite a bit from the experience on how we should make and sell our products. We also learned how we could make the contest better in future years. (Digital feedback being a must) Participating in other contests after hosting our own was a good experience as well. It reassured that a contest focused on feedback is needed and can even support the other contests. We proudly watched makers that joined our contest win several awards from other contests throughout the year.
I will finish this with my advice for entering contests and our contest in particular. If you plan to enter the various contests I mentioned above then you need to budget for that. Also, if you want to win your chances will increase by the number of bars you enter. If you aren’t able to enter a lot of bars because of the budget but you feel winning an award would help your chocolate sales then use our contest to get a better idea of what bar might perform the best or what you might need to consider doing to your chocolate to get it there. We will always have chocolate makers and some certified chocolate tasters on the panel and its a free service so use it, that’s why we made it. If you want to go all in on one paid contest instead of trying them all then I would recommend the International Chocolate Awards. You will also have better results if you don’t enter “polarizing” bars in to those contest. As much as some loved our Espresso Chocolate Bar others thought it was too much coffee, you are going to see this trend with any strong flavor profile. It is a big risk to enter those in any contest but they could win gold, just depends on the preference of the judges you get. Lastly, if you are looking for more than just a contest then you really need to consider entering ours. We focus on providing feedback for all areas of your chocolate business and if there is something in particular you want feedback for we will address that. We are trying to build a small community of chocolate makers through this and we can learn so much from each other. We don’t accept endless amounts of bars. Once we reach so many bars per category we stop accepting entries. We want our judges to be able to provide the best feedback as possible and that won’t happen if they are overwhelmed with too many bars. We aren’t doing this for profit and we will accept any help we can get to keep this going and growing. We believe it can be a great value and assist with the ever growing craft chocolate movement!