WNWN announces world’s first consumer sale of cacao-free chocolate

The process to turn cacao into chocolate is long and complicated.

After workers harvest cacaofruit from trees, they cut the fruits open and scoop out the seeds, which undergo several days of fermentation. Then the seeds are sun-dried, shipped to processing facilities, roasted, shelled, ground into a paste, heated and stirred to bring out the flavor, tempered and molded. 

WNWN, a UK-based company, is replicating the very beginning of the process, during which the freshly picked cacao beans are fermented, to make cacao-free chocolate. Starting on May 18, its boxes of dark chocolate thins that are primarily made from fermented barley and carob are available to buy online in its home country.

As several companies look to reinvent chocolate using food science, chemistry and cell-culturing techniques, WNWN’s cacao-free chocolates are the first to go out on the market anywhere in the world.

“We basically echo what chocolate makers have been doing for hundreds of years,” said WNWN Chief Technology Officer Johnny Drain, who has a Ph.D. in materials science and is known in Europe’s food scene for his use of fermentation to transform food. 

“What distinguishes us from other people either working in the alt-universe with alt-chocolate is we’re not using synthetic biology or cellular agriculture or precision fermentation. We’re leaning very much into very traditional fermentation techniques that humans have been using for hundreds and thousands of years to make most of our favorite foods like vinegar, coffee, booze, bread, etc.”

Just over a year ago, Drain joined forces with CEO and Co-Founder Ahrum Pak, who left her career in the investment banking world to pursue something new with fermentation. She found Drain through Instagram and the two connected over a love of the taste of chocolate, a dislike for the way cacao is grown and farmed by some of the world’s biggest food companies, and the belief that fermentation could be the key to the chocolate they want without the ethical issues that come with it. Pak said WNWN is an acronym for “waste not, want not,” but is pronounced “win-win.”

“What we’re seeking to do is actually give consumers a choice, right?” Pak said. “We don’t always have to say, ‘This chocolate, we don’t know where it comes from, we’re not sure what’s behind it.’ But by giving an alternative, we are able to relieve some of the pressures from the environment, from the supply chain, and have a clean alternative.”

The premium luxury dark chocolate box from WNWN costs £10 ($12.50), which the company said is roughly at parity with premium chocolates made from cacao. And with the company’s R&D work and this launch, Pak and Drain say they have plans to expand to other chocolates and commodities such as coffee, tea and vanilla in the near future.

From boiling potatoes to fermented chocolate

Drain said he first thought about using other ingredients to make chocolate about five years ago. He was boiling potatoes and caught a whiff of the steam that rose from the pot. In that breath, he caught a chocolate-like odor, which sparked his curiosity. What else might be able to make chocolate? Could something humble, like the potato, become something loved and luxurious like chocolate?

WNWN doesn’t use any potatoes in its formulation, but its ingredients are rather ordinary. Barley is a star ingredient in beer and baking, but is not used in sweets. And carob, which comes from trees that can grow in a wider variety of climate zones, can have a somewhat similar look and taste to chocolate.

Johnny Drain and Ahrum Pak

Courtesy of WNWN


Drain said the entire setup WNWN uses would seem familiar to a winemaker or someone in a profession that deals more with fermentation. The company says because its chocolates are made from ordinary ingredients and through traditional fermentation, there is no special regulatory approval needed to start selling them.

Currently, WNWN is operating at lab scale, Pak said. However, because it is using a traditional fermentation method and can employ off-the-shelf equipment, it’s relatively easy for the company to scale up. She said WNWN currently can make 300 to 600 kilograms (661 to 1,323 pounds) of chocolate in a month.