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Chocolate Wars: A Book Review

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This book presents a most enthralling history lesson that changes the way I view chocolate.

Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World’s Greatest Chocolate Makers is written by Deborah Cadbury, a descendant of the famous family that began Cadbury chocolate. Her book chronicles the story of the original chocolate pioneers and their Quaker beliefs which shaped their business decisions. The book begins in England focusing on the competition among Frys, which ran the largest chocolate factory in the world in the nineteenth century; Rowntree, who ran a grocery shop; and of course Cadbury, which began as a tea and chocolate shop.

In the nineteenth century, chocolate was consumed as a beverage and a rather gritty one at that. Chocolate manufacturers were racing to find a way to make cocoa more soluble in liquid. Though the author is a direct descendant of her book’s topic, she remains objective and able to give detailed accounts among all parties. Along the way, she moves her focus briefly to Switzerland where she narrates the invention of milk chocolate in 1878 by Daniel Peter and the discovery of conching by Rodolphe Lindt. Following a historical timeline, Cadbury then moves to the Americas where she discusses the early failures and ensuing successes of Milton Hershey.

The original Frys, Rowntree, and Cadbury businessmen were all Quakers, a religious sect begun in the 17th century that espoused charitable works and strict codes and practices that ironically, allowed businessmen such as them to generate remarkable wealth. Whole chapters are devoted to explaining Quakerism and its subsequent social welfare and reform – all necessary but which I feel was over-explained in the book. After a while, such traditional values come off as rather quaint. I’m almost tempted to put the book down a few pages later while struggling through accounts of philanthropy and the slave trade.

Cadbury has impressive grip on her research and is an adept writer, absorbing the present-day reader into an awareness of the business climate during the 19th and 20th centuries. Booms in global infrastructure translated into booms in trade and a new appreciation for chocolate is borne out of these businessmen’s travails.

What’s clear is that at the time, chocolate was multi-faceted, its development targeted as a multi-pronged approach by the invention and later, refinements of dutching, conching, and building a better bar. It’s astounding to read that so many staked their fortunes on chocolate (among them the English, Dutch, Swiss, and Americans) the competitiveness then certainly mirrors that of today.

The writing is more briskly-paced in the later part of the book. The advent of supermarkets and advertising has changed the playing fields, Cadbury becomes a publicly listed company, and Nestlé is mammoth. By this time, size was the only real protection against being taken over. The last few chapters are devoted to a very gripping, almost deal-by-deal account of Kraft’s acquisition of Cadbury in 2010. It’s very poignant, often times sad, an example of tradition buckling under (shareholder) capitalism.

Stripped of its excessively detailed history, Chocolate Wars is a business book at its core. It’s the story of many brave, bold businessmen who spotted opportunities and took risks, building innovative products and above all, working tirelessly. You might not look at a chocolate bar the same way again.

My rating: /5

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Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World’s Greatest Chocolate Makers
By Deborah Cadbury
Paperback: 384 pages
PublicAffairs
P720.00 at all Fully Booked Stores.

This book is part of my Lori’s Book Picks for January. Click image on the sidebar for a discount.

See my other book reviews here.

4 Responses to “Chocolate Wars: A Book Review”

  • Sounds like the chocolate version of “Sneaker Wars” by Barbara Smit, where I learnt that the founders of rival brands Puma & adidas were actually brothers. :)

    [Reply]

    Lori Reply:

    K-
    Now *that’s* interesting! But I prefer chocolates over sneakers. :p

    –lori

    [Reply]

  • Thanks for the review, Lori! Been considering this, but was hesitant to get it because the content looked so similar to “Emperors of Chocolate”. Thanks to your review, I see that it’s another story I can add to my chocolate story collections. These things do change the way we see chocolates, no? I mean, how can something that brings so much joy to people be made from such unusual (and some not so happy) stories?

    [Reply]

    Lori Reply:

    Pam-
    Aside from the food references of course, reading books like this makes me more aware of the other side of food – the business, the history, and of course, the intrigues and inspirations. All this knowledge makes me look at my favorite foods in new ways.

    PS: And Emperors of Chocolate is a great book!
    –lori

    [Reply]

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