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Local and visiting owners of craft chocolate shops talk about the sustainability of their suppliers David Guralnick / The Detroit News

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Craft chocolate is much like craft beer, in that nobody knows exactly what it is.

They are different, however, in that one can make you woozy and weak-kneed, and the other will only get you drunk.

Chocolate also can be compared to wine, four experts agreed Wednesday in Hamtramck, since it might have detectable notes of things like blueberries, honey or oak, and some people can be really pretentious about it. But much as cheap Champagne is just fine in a mimosa, there's a time and a place for a Hershey bar.

Most any time or place, says Carla Martin — and she teaches at Harvard.

An anthropologist by training, Martin also is the founder of the nonprofit Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute. She'll be on stage Thursday night at a sold-out chocolate panel at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, discussing things like sustainability, direct trade and how the Mayans and Aztecs were obsessed with developing new flavors and insulting other chocolate makers.

Martin was indulging in deep chocolate discussion and a candy or two at the Bon Bon Bon plant on Jos. Campau with the three other panelists — Bon Bon Bon owner Alexandra Clark,  Jody Hayden of Grocer's Daughter Chocolate in Empire and Jenny Samaniego, founder of a chocolate supplier in Ecuador called Conexion that counts Hayden as a devoted customer.

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The Mayans and Aztecs, Martin says, "were saying things like the Venezuelans didn't know what they were doing, and the Spanish were ruining it."

Even some of our wise Founding Fathers would write in their diaries about how they were enjoying a delicious cocoa from a specific part of Mexico.

Then big companies and mass production made blended milk chocolate the norm and points of origin meaningless. Which isn't all bad: We got Snickers and Milky Way out of it.

Still, people like Hayden and Clark want more. More innovation, more creativity, more ties to what goes into their truffles.

Hayden says she deals with local vendors for 30 of her ingredients. One of Clark's crew members was chopping the innards of a vivid pink dragon fruit into cubes, white with black dots; they looked like dice.

"We've all eaten chocolate since we were little," Hayden says. "But most of us don't know if it grows on a bush or a vine or a tree."

Just in case it comes up on "Jeopardy!," the answer is tree — Theobroma cacao, a small evergreen found within 20 degrees either side of the Equator.

The Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer, followed by Ghana. Hayden says a new documentary details how growers in Ghana were getting deceived by buyers who used rigged scales, just the first step in a long processing chain than can leave farmers holding the short end of the Theobroma cacao branch.

Even fair trade wasn't the answer, she says; it cost so much for some small growers to be certified that they were losing money on their product. The next step in kindly sourcing is direct trade, which links suppliers like Conexion with chocolatiers like Hayden and eliminates multiple levels of go-betweens.

"People come in and ask, 'Is that fair trade?'" Clark says. "No. But it's fairly traded."

And it's probably craft, however you define it.

The chocolate market "isn't quite as saturated yet as coffee and beer with craft products," says Emily Case. She's the chocolate buyer for Zingerman's, known around headquarters as simply the chocolate lady.

"What's different now is that there's more choice. More people getting into it," she says, "which is fun for me as a buyer."

For whatever reason, she says, most of the craft companies that turn beans into large chocolate rectangles are run by men. Smaller confections are produced by females.

In short: men are from bars, women are from Bon Bon Bon, where employee Margie Spakoff asked the panelists-to-be if they'd like a creme brulee bonbon so fresh that the filling was still warm.

No one declined. Come to think of it, Spakoff said, no one ever has.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

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