How Chocoa Came to Be: An Interview with Caroline Lubbers

chocoa festival

The 19th of February saw the return of one of Europe’s largest chocolate festivals; Chocoa. This year is the 8th edition of bringing together stakeholders from the entire cacao supply chain from bean to bar. If you’re interested in attending; tickets are still available for purchase here.

We were interested in learning more about how this festival came to be and where it is heading. We were lucky enough to ask the co-founder Caroline Lubbers a few questions, such as where it all began and her most notable memories of the event so far – enjoy!

Please tell us a little bit about the background of Chocoa. When, why and how did it begin?

Once upon a time… wow. It feels like ages ago! Me and Jack Steijn started to work in 2012, together with the Chocolate Festival Foundation, to organise the first Chocoa. Building on their message of good quality chocolate and extending it to sustainable cocoa production. “Good Cocoa, Better chocolate” became our focus, addressing all stakeholders involved, from cocoa farmers to consumers.

In the following years, the event grew and we included a conference to facilitate the debate on sustainable cocoa production, often discussing mass-produced cocoa. Our vision is that market access is key for sustainably produced cocoa, also for smaller cocoa producers. And with that message, the event became bigger and bigger.

We launched the Chocolate Makers Forum a program for chocolate makers, the Masterclass for pastry chefs interested to start working from the beans, the Auction to praise high-quality beans and more. Building on production and consumption at the same time, while celebrating quality. This is what we have been working on.

I am proud to say that Chocoa is a 5-day event now, in which 12 sub-events are taking place, with overlap but all with the common goal: to grow the market for sustainable cocoa and chocolate.

Between 19-23 February we will be welcoming nearly 9.000 people – including 2.000 professionals. Professionals come to Chocoa to learn, grow their business and connect to their peers. I don’t know any other event that is so packed with knowledge, expertise and passion, like Chocoa.

You have a unique yearly snapshot of the chocolate industry coming together – what have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the years?

Something that has changed in the past years is that sustainability is now something that is on everyone’s mind. Big companies and small companies. Producers, buyers, chocolate makers. A few years ago when we started this was different. We really needed to engage people. But now it is a priority. For example, at our conference, we had to look for good speakers. Now so many people are asking us if they can speak about what they are doing on sustainability. It’s a real priority.

Since a few years ago we see the number of cocoa producers growing so fast. They are providing a rich variety of origins for chocolate. From small producing countries like Surinam to the bigger producing countries such as Ivory Coast and Ghana. Almost all cocoa countries are present at Chocoa during the Trade Fair on 20/21 February.

However, the amount of chocolate makers has not yet grown equivalently, so we hope to inspire people to take that step! And although consumer awareness has increased, it is not growing as fast as I would like to see. This is something we are tackling with the chocolate festival, where we are expecting 7.000 consumers. We educate them and show them all the great flavours and different qualities of chocolate that are out there.

The Chocoa program is filled with everything from conferences and forums to the academy and masterclasses – is there one event of Chocoa you look forward to the most?

1. The Trade Fair. From all over the world people join us in Amsterdam to grow the market for sustainable and quality cocoa. This brings an impressive variety of origins, cultures and opportunities together for collaboration in the impressive venue: Beurs van Berlage. Its always a surprise, this event. It is the biggest Trade Fair we have ever organised, more than 100 companies are there to showcase their beans, machines or services to the chocolate industry. There are pop up presentations happening and there is a matchmaking application that people can download before and schedule their meetings. So much buzz around this event.

2. The entire program of the Chocolate Makers’ Forum has a focus on sustainability and quality. It is where enthusiastic chocolate makers are coming together to sustainably grow their business. Personally, I don’t want to miss out on the topics ‘sourcing impact’ and ‘beyond the chocolate bar’. We are surfing on the wave of globally changing markets (including growing consumer awareness), just imagine the potential of these products!

3. A small event with a big message: the Auction. It is showing the importance to offer better prices for higher quality cocoa. Enough talking about farmer increasing incomes.. it is time to join the bidding for good cocoa varieties. Be the change you want to see!

4. The Cocoa Drink Awards at the Chocolate Festival are at the front league of a huge potential for cocoa consumption: that of quality cocoa drinks. When (not if) this is being picked up by a broader audience, we will improve the quality and consumer awareness so fast. I see this trend happening, so don’t be the last one to step on this train….

An event the size of Chocoa must come with a lifetime of memories; what’s been your best, worst and funniest moments so far?

Haha, yes I can write a book by now! Well, difficult to choose but the best moments are always when we see that things are coming together. We have a very small team with dedicated people, everyone works so hard to make it happen at Chocoa. So when I walk around at the Trade Fair and I see people mingling and doing business – I feel incredibly proud. Every event for the past 7 years – this has been a highlight. 

With good moments also comes bad moments, and it’s a good thing that people on the outside do not see what a challenge it is administrative wise to make this event happen. As well as the financial risks that the event brings. The back-office admin is my least favourite part, but it’s important to make this huge event possible.

The funniest moment… Well, looking back there are a few funny moments. Even when at the moment they may not be so funny. For example, two years ago it was the first time we organised an auction of several selected cocoa of excellence beans. We had set up the entire structure with a professional auctioneer, and the room was full, but no one was placing the bid. I think that everyone was a bit afraid. Everyone held their breath.

So I raised my hand up and this is how I purchased my first bag of cocoa beans for a couple of hundred euros! Haha. I think after that, others felt more inclined too and more bids came. Luckily! I didn’t think it through too much when I bought those beans, because who was going to make them? Eventually, we found a company and we now have beautiful bean to bar chocolate from Madagascar beans, bought at the first Auction of Chocoa. Precious moment.

What’s your vision with Chocoa; where do you see it in 5 years time?

I couldn’t have imagined we would get here, so who knows what will happen in 5 years from now? Every time we come up with new events to make Chocoa better and bigger. I hope that Chocoa will be a place where the cocoa and chocolate industry feels comfortable in coming together in Amsterdam.

I know that as an organisation we are not perfect, and sometimes we make mistakes, do too much, or we answer our emails too late because of the huge amount of emails we get per day. But we organise it with love and dedication, and we do it with the pure belief that together we can grow this industry that we are in for the better. Good things take time they say, and it’s true when we look at Chocoa. So in 5 years from now, we do not need to focus so much on sustainable practices in the industry, because this has become the norm. That is what we strive for.

Cacao Magazine

Cacao Magazine

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