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Photos courtesy of WNWN
“Chocolate is in the blood and the DNA of us as founders.” ~ WNWN Food Labs
Chocolate. It’s a food with universal appeal yet bitter global impact due to the deforestation and child labor linked to cacao farming. But now a London based startup wants to disrupt– and clean up–the industry with the world’s first cacao-free chocolate. Founded by Johnny Drain and Ahrum Pak, WNWN (pronounced “win win”) uses barley and carob to make an ethical and sustainable alternative to mass market chocolate that tastes like the real thing.
“Chocolate is one of our favorite foods,” says Drain, the chief technology officer of WNWN Food Labs. “I grew up near the Cadbury's chocolate factory in a little village called Bournville that's now a suburb of Birmingham, the city I grew up in. I went to art college there and every day when we would come out for lunch or breaks, you could sometimes, if the wind was blowing in the right direction, smell the chocolate roasting. Some of my aunts and uncles also worked for Cadbury's back in the day so we have this really strong emotional connection to chocolate.”
Drain continues, “When Ahrum and I started the company, we knew we wanted to work in food tech and sustainability, and using fermentation that already powers many of the world's favorite foods: chocolate, coffee, vinegar, cheese, bread. We knew we wanted to use these tools to solve problems in the world. And we realized if we made a chocolate company we would probably have to eat chocolate every day of our lives for the next 10 years!”
“From the business angle,” adds former financier Pak, “if you look at the history of chocolate, it's gone through one major transformation, which was that it came from the Americas to the European market and that's when they decided to add sugar and make it into the chocolate bar we know and love today. Beyond that, there hasn't really been a huge innovation in chocolate. We've just been consuming it exactly like that for hundreds of years. It's really boring when you're looking at it from an industry standpoint and that's where Johnny and I see room for us to disrupt these companies that have been around but, arguably, haven't innovated massively at the same time as overseeing some very damaging impact to parts of the planet.”
A very modern startup story, Drain and Pak first connected through Instagram DMs during lockdown. “We clicked straight away”, recalls Drain. “We only met over video calls and we actually incorporated the company before we'd ever met in person.” Between them, the pair discovered the perfect overlap of skills, fusing Drain’s material science and flavor wizardry with Pak’s business expertise, not to mention her knowledge of fermentation having grown up in a Korean American household.
Before they established WNWN and began to develop their “alt-choc”, Drain and Pak bonded over a shared “core principle” of wanting to have positive impact. “We want to create a whole new category of products that helps bring around changes to make the lives of the many people who currently produce cacao better,” Drain tells DLISH. This shared philosophy can be traced to the company name, which originally stood for "waste not want not". Pak explains, “It comes down to the premise that there are precious resources out there, so, it's a bit of a waste to waste them. It's always been the ethos of the company that whatever we do use, we use all of it when we can.”
Drain adds, “And also leaning into that idea of using whole ingredients. There are people in the alternative food landscape who are adding a pipette of this to a pipette of that. And that's okay, we don't have anything philosophically against that, but we're very much leaning into traditional food cultures and traditional fermentation techniques. It's all about using whole ingredients with very little about them being processed or taken away; harnessing all of that nutrition and all of that potential flavor and teasing it out using smart science.”
So how exactly does WNWN make it’s cacao-free chocolate? Much like the process of traditional chocolate using cacao beans, the barley and carob are fermented, roasted, and then melanged with sugar to create the final product. The chocolate alternative is dairy-free, palm oil-free, caffeine-free, gluten-free, and boasts less saturated fat due to the absence of cacao butter. It also contains similar antioxidant properties as cacao thanks to the carob.
WNWN plans to create a whole range of alt-choc products in the future and a “spectrum” of chocolate percentages, the bitterness or sweetness of which can be altered by varying the fermentation process and by adding different ingredients such as dates, raisins, or cherries. “We will have plain chocolate bars, chocolate bars with inclusions like hazelnuts and salted caramel, or some of our other favorite ingredients. We will also start developing things like enrobed chocolate bars with caramel centers. Everything that you could possibly imagine your favorite chocolate company making now is well within our purview. It’s just about creativity,” says Drain. And they’re not stopping at chocolate. The WNWN co-founders have also set their sights on developing a bean-free coffee alternative.
As the latest DLISH partner, WNWN has created an exclusive gianduja-style log made with Italian hazelnuts and cacao-free choc. You can find the indulgent and guilt-free chocolate paired with three new DLISH sets: the Nc'nean Whisky Gift Box, the Bourgoin Cognac Gift Box, and the Rare Tea Company Tea Gift Box, which is coming soon. Get them before they’re gone!
Click here to discover the innovative world of WNWN Food Labs.