Chocolate Wars By Deborah Cadbury

Posted by in Features on April 2 2011 | Leave A Comment

Cadbury, Rowntree, Fry, Hershey, Mars, Terry’s… half of these names have long been swallowed up by global corporations. Even here in the depths of the former British colonies, we had all but Terry’s. Hershey seems to be a US company with its occasional forays to Australia not leading to much. And Mars – you’d have to live on another planet (pardon the pun) if you’d never heard of them. In Australia the big local firms MacRobertson, Hoadleys and others have been acquired by the major players and the names are gone.

I first came across Deborah Cadbury, with Seven Wonders of the Industrial World – an exceptional work for a geek who likes the history of technology and its advances (me!). At the time I wondered if she was any relation to the chocolate family. Years later, my question has been answered.

I’d heard stories over the years of the Quakers and their involvement in commerce, food and chocolate. Until this book I had no idea of the values, scale or the huge influence of the Quakers. I likewise had not the faintest inkling of the way that the Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree families and companies operated through the late 1800’s and early 1900’s – and eventually through the war years. In the US, Milton Hershey had similar ideas and values. This book is a revelation, not only for the description of the times, the rivalries, the passion to succeed, but also for its description of the people involved, their beliefs, morals, courage and patience.

When we consider today that chocolate and cocoa are cheap mass produced items available to all it is hard to believe that companies began making and selling a basic cocoa drink primarily made from ground roasted cocoa beans. At the time a method of separating the fatty cocoa butter had not been discovered, so imagine a coarse chocolate drink with globs of fat floating on top, and you have a rough idea of drinking cocoa in the late 1800’s. It all sounds rather unappetising. Fillers like starches were used to absorb the fat, so further imaging drinking a heavy, floury, stodgy, fatty, chocolatey kind of porridge. If that seems unpleasant, then it gets worse with some other practices of the times: using other fillers such as red lead or brick dust.

The invention by Van Houten of the press for separating the fat led to an improved drinking chocolate with less fat, and so less need for binders or fillers. The conching process discovered by Lindt led to a smoother, less gritty chocolate into which the excess cocoa butter left over from cocoa manufacture could be used, producing a chocolate bar that was not dry or crumbly. Naturally, a little industrial espionage – or just plain buying the process saw these practices spread. Not everything came easily, or by mere buying of technique. Who today would have thought that for some, it took 15 years to find a method to make milk chocolate? In modern times, how many business owners, boards, or accountants would allow a research or product development phase of such duration?

Perhaps most astonishing though, is the use to which the profits of the Quaker chocolate businesses of England and the US were put. A fundamental belief that money should be used for the betterment of society saw companies like Cadbury and Hershey build model factories away from the middle of big cities; include subsidised housing for the workers; playing fields; health and dental services; meals; the list of social needs provided by the companies is jaw dropping in its breadth and scale.

The values that saw Cadburys, Rowntrees, Frys and Hershey give away most of their fortunes for the improvement of society found their way, especially in England, into the modern ideas of a minimum wage, unemployment benefits/insurance, state health systems, and so on; all with the objective of alleviating the suffering of the poorest of people. We have much to be thankful for – the people who made the chocolate we all know today had a huge influence on the social systems we now take for granted.

This book describes the desperation, tenacity and beliefs of the chocolate businesses, and the way businesses and values change. Now that Cadbury is owned by Kraft, who knows if the values of the past will be considered important, or even relevant.

Since the day I heard this book had been published, I’d been itching to get a copy. I’m glad I did. I have a new found respect and admiration for the people who spent their lives giving us the chocolate we enjoy at low prices, and who changed whole societies in doing so. By contrast I look in horror at the modern business that cares only of profit, obtained as quickly as possible and frequently irrespective of the human cost.

If you can beg, borrow, buy or steal this book, do so.

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Comments On This Post

  1. Sounds like a book I’d really enjoy, may have to hunt down a copy!

    If only businesses could be run now as they were then, using their success for the betterment of society rather than to further line the pockets of those at the top. Although the recent rise of social entrepreneurs may mean a shift back towards those socially motivated values.

    I love the Quakers though, I’ve always thought that if I were to ever find religion again it would have to be as a Quaker. As far as I’m concerned they represent what an organised religion should be.

  2. An inspiring story, and the Cadbury story is a model for aspiring entrepreneurs as the rising interest in artisan chocolates provides new opportunities for chocolate makers to grow their own businesses. Thank you for bringing our attention to this interesting and timely book.

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